Tea Obhreht at Bookshop Santa Cruz: Advice for young writers (and a few words about headaches, heartaches, pitchforks and false starts)

Tea Obreht on failing better and growing a novel

“Any advice for young writers?”

Tea Obreht handled that musty old question with grace at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Her response is good enough to clip and save.

“You’re writing for a reason: you love it,” she said. “It gives you something. Your family may not be pleased with you for doing it but you have a need to write so write. Don’t write anything just because it’s trendy.Write what you love to read. If it fails, who cares! If it fails, learn from it and write the next one. It’s a lonely process but continue doing it because you love it.”

During her talk, she spoke about the role of circumstance, having her early drafts shredded in a writer’s workshop, and the chance viewing of a television documentary. In her estimation, her book started out as a “very bad” short story that somehow took on weight and beauty when she stretched it out, pruned and reworked.

Born in Belgrade, Obreht, who did her undergraduate studies at USC, and earned her MFA at Cornell, began the book in graduate school. At first, she didn’t realize it was a book at all.

She stumbled upon one of the book’s main ingredients while watching TV.

It happened like this. Obreht had moved to upstate New York and was looking forward to locking herself in a room, drinking hot chocolate and getting to work on some writing. That cozy state of mind lasted a day or two.

“Then the snow fell and I dug up the wrong car because it was the same color as my car. The windowsill (of my room) was on the level of the street. When the snow started falling, it was as though you were in an hourglass.”

In just such a snowstorm, she was supposed to be writing. Instead she sat around biding time and watching a National Geographic special on Siberian tigers. The program mentioned a woman who raised tigers and used a soothing voice “to talk them out of the most horrible rages.”

Taking a cue from the program, Obreht began to write about a young deaf mute circus performer who arrives at a Balkan village in the middle of a snowstorm in search of a circus tiger. “I was very excited about the story. I wanted the little boy to be the eyes and ears of the story”

Then she took it to her Cornell MFA workshop — “and it got completely destroyed. It was a terrible short story. I was sweating, and a colleague of mine said, ‘there is pitchfork-wielding rabble but the story isn’t Frankenstein. There shouldn’t be pitchfork-wielding rabble in a story that isn’t Frankenstein!”

Chastened, she threw away the pitchforks and the torches, but something about the tale kept calling her back. “The story was 25 pages, and then it was 30 and still bad. Then it was 40 pages, and it was a little bit better, perhaps because the badness got dispersed.”

She pressed on. The moment that it became a novel was no cause for celebration, nor was it even a ‘moment.” “I didn’t go the workshop and say, ‘I’m writing my novel,’ and then my classmates carried me on their shoulders. That’s not how it happened. It just kept growing until it was 70 pages long– and at that point, I couldn’t really say it was a short story anymore.”

The final book was a long process, the result of “obsessive work habits, tics and antisocial tendencies” and a return to Belgrade, where she researched vampires for a magazine, had a few doors slammed in her face, and also joined the locals in a powerful fruit brandy that she compared to turpentine, “but more awesome.” She also made some brutal cuts. “I learned to lop off sections of my writing as if they were bad flowers in pruning.”

Her next project? “I don’t think I’m done with the Balkans just yet,” she said.

She couldn’t say much more. Stay tuned for my reflections on the Lucinda Williams concert, which has just sold out.


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