For someone convinced that nothing lies beyond the grave, Téa Obreht brings a lot of stuff back from the dead. The living and the unliving mingle in her books like uneasy teens at a party, half recognizing each other, uncertain of what they have in common. She’s fascinated by history, particularly that which has been forgotten. And more literally, her latest book, Inland, contains some of the undead remains of the almost two whole books she wrote, but never finished, after her 2011 smash best seller The Tiger’s Wife.
“I threw 1,400 pages in the trash,” says Obreht, 33, sitting on an unreliable chair in the windowless room she shares with two other adjunct professors at Hunter College in New York City. For a novelist about whom TIME critic Mary Pols wrote, “Not since Zadie Smith has a young writer arrived with such power and grace,” it’s a remarkably modest office, just the place to talk about those discarded drafts with struggling students. “It felt like failure a lot,” she says. “But then I realized it was just a different way of measuring progress, that I was opening doors and realizing there was nothing in the room and then closing those doors and continuing down the hallway.”
She’s phlegmatic about it now, but it must have been a little terrifying watching those years of searching tick by since she won a slew of accolades, including the prestigious Orange Prize—now known as the Women’s Prize for -Fiction—at the criminally young age of 25.
The book in which she eventually found a reason to tarry weaves together two narratives in Arizona at the end of the 1800s. In one, Nora Lark, a wife and mother, spends a day trying to restore order to her homestead, which is currently missing one husband, two sons and most of its water supply. It also seems to have lost its mind, since the remaining inhabitants insist that the house is being menaced by a terrifying beast. Nora believes that she alone is behaving rationally—and the dead daughter with whom she steadily converses agrees with her.
The other story, which intersects with Nora’s, is told by Lurie, a wandering miscreant immigrant from Yugoslavia who’s recounting his life to a friend. Perhaps because of his early childhood years spent as a grave robber, he can talk to the dead, though if he does, they deposit their deepest desires within him and he begins to want what they wanted. This may be why the friend he chooses to talk to is a particularly good listener, and also a camel.
A novel based in the American West is not an obvious choice for an author born in Belgrade and raised in Cyprus, Cairo, Georgia (the American one, not the European one) and California. Nor is it an obvious follow-up to Obreht’s first book, although that also wove together strands of folklore, family and fantastical bonds between the animal and human kingdoms. The Tiger’s Wife was inspired by the death of Obreht’s grandfather, the dominant male figure in her upbringing. (Her mother’s marriage to her father was very brief.) Inland, meanwhile, was sparked by a history podcast about the Camel Corps, a short-lived experiment to introduce camels into America.
Yet the books are similar in many ways, most obviously in the fascination with death and with communion between humans and non-humans. “I remember talking to David Mitchell at a dinner many years ago, because I was in a crisis about what I was supposed to write next,” says Obreht. The Cloud Atlas author told her that all books do three things. “There are the themes that every book is about: love, death, loyalty,” she says. “Then there are the things that this book is about, like the American West or the Balkans. And then there are the things that every book you write is about. That is what he called your Whac-A-Mole themes.”
Obreht is beginning to believe that humans’ relationship to fauna is her chief Whac-A-Mole theme: no matter how often she hits it, it’s going to pop back up. She has long been a David Attenborough megafan, after all. And she’s toying with studying zoology in her downtime from writing and teaching. One of the characters in her book divides the world into “two kinds of folk: those who name their horses and those who don’t.” Obreht is firmly in the former category.
When she started the novel, Obreht probably had some notion that the ideas she wanted to pursue were going to be relevant for a while. The newspaper published by Nora’s missing husband, which is in dire financial circumstances, is engaged in a political dustup with a rival newspaper. Each paper’s publisher accuses the other of simply making up facts to fit its opinion as to where the county seat should reside. (Obreht, an enthusiastic researcher, explored the newspaper wars of the era for one of her failed drafts.) The novel is also shot through with the unexpected collateral effects of that game-changing technology, the telegraph. And over it all hovers the specter of scarce natural resources, and the looming battle of who should get first dibs on them.
But Obreht couldn’t have known that Inland would be released into a nation where immigration, and the question of who has a right to settle where, had become a scalding political potato. Even though, having seen much of her Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) family flee the former Yugoslavia, she’s familiar with the global forces that propel people to leave home and the kind of reception with which they are often greeted.
She, her mother and her grandparents left Belgrade when she was 7, before the war had reached her city, but after the discrimination and slights directed toward her mother, whose married name was Bajraktareviec, and grandmother, who was a Bosniak married to a Slovene, began to become commonplace.
She never lived for seven years in one place again until moving to New York City as an adult. It created a resilience in her, a sense that she knew she could just stand up, stretch into a new shape and start again. She doesn’t even really have a mother tongue. English is her best language, but not her first. She could quote entire English-language movies before she understood what they meant, just by learning the sounds. “Home for me has never really been tied to a sense of physical place,” she says. Thus, she’s fascinated by the sense of agreement her Irish husband, writer Dan Sheehan, and his old friends and family have about certain places or events, a shared wealth of fixed points from which to navigate life. “Certainty is home,” she says. “This notion of feeling at home in a place, or feeling at home in a situation; it’s anchored to certainty.”
Although Obreht (whose grandfather asked her to use her mother’s maiden name for her writing before he died) never saw the effects of war at close quarters, the traumas her homeland endured during the Bosnian War have certainly left their mark. “I fear there is no afterlife, but I really do believe in ghosts,” she says. To her, it’s a matter of physics; catastrophic events leave their signature. “I think places can be haunted. When horrific things happen in certain places, they are just always happening in those places in perpetuity, and you can feel the impression of it pressing down on you.”
In the afterlife ecosystem she creates for Inland, the unfortunates who die during travesties do not get to rest, because their send-offs are all wrong. Worse, they’re isolated. “Nameless and unburied, turned out suddenly in the bewildering dark,” she writes of some slaughtered Native Americans, “they rose to find themselves entirely alone.” The dead can see the living, but not their fellow dead. And (most of) the living can’t see them.
It’s a terrifying idea that reflects the feelings of its creator. “I’m very afraid of death,” says Obreht. “I think I started writing seriously after my grandfather died, in part because it was the first time it hit me that actually maybe I didn’t believe in an afterlife.” Perhaps Obreht’s belief that there is no final resting place is connected to a childhood spent on the move “from vagueness to vagueness,” as she puts it. “A lot of this book ended up being about the cost of preserving our illusion of home,” she says.
But every book an author writes changes her, and Obreht has been altered by her time spent in the American West. Like many of the immigrants who traveled the region before her, she felt a sense of belonging when she first visited Wyoming, “which has these incredible vast plains abutted by unbelievable jagged mountains—just like out of a postcard. I really felt a very strong draw of home, whatever that meant,” she says. “I felt homesick for it when I left. That was new for me.” She and Sheehan recently bought a place in Wyoming, near Jackson. Obreht may never find her resting place, but for now, she at least has a place to rest.