Interview Fiction 2009

I Dreamed of Africa

Téa Obreht, author of the short story “The Laugh” in the 2009 Fiction Issue, describes how National Geographic shaped her writing career.

Tea Obreht
Téa Obreht

Who are your biggest personal influences?

In terms of writers, I definitely have to say I am greatly influenced by writing that I love. Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), Gabriel García Márquez, and Hemingway. In terms of people that I know, my grandmother and my mother are huge influences on my writing life because they are both massively supportive and always have been of my career.

What do you want to explore with your writing? What themes do you find yourself coming back to?

I am very interested in place, and the influences of place on characters. What inspires me most to write is the act of traveling. I like to explore the idea of common conflict in perhaps a more amplified environment in my writing. Human conflict is human conflict I guess anywhere, but I like to explore the interactions of people with place and how place influences characters’ decisions, and their conflicts with one another, and also with the place itself—that’s something that I enjoy exploring.

What is your relationship to Africa in particular? Had you ever been there before writing “The Laugh”?

I grew up in Egypt, but I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa. It was a huge dream of mine, and continues to be a huge dream of mine, to actually go to Kenya and to Tanzania. But I guess the way the story came about was I had moved to Ithaca, New York, and I had this long-standing, very distant love affair with the African wilderness and it was winter and it was a very cold, horrible winter and I was inundated with National Geographics, both the magazine and the channel. They did a series on the great migration and I was sitting in the snow thinking about Africa and that’s how it came about. I did a lot of research to make sure it was as reasonably authentic as possible, but I had never actually been to Tanzania, or to Ngorongoro, where it takes place.

Do you have any rituals related to your writing? Superstitions you fall back on?

When I hit a block, regardless of what I am writing, what the subject matter is, or what’s going on in the plot, I go back and I read Pablo Neruda’s poetry. I don’t actually speak Spanish, so I read it translation. But I always go back to Neruda. I don’t know why, but it calms me, calms my brain.

I also have Dali’s print The Ghost of Vermeer. It’s on the wall in front of my desk, and it acts like this little window, so instead of looking out of an actual window I look through the window of the picture—the picture is framed like a window as well. It’s this little figure who is looking off into the distance, so I tend to look at that to center myself. And then I feel like the plot will even out once I stare at the picture for long enough.

If you were not a writer, what would you do?

I would definitely teach. I came out of the Cornell MFA program, and I had the tremendous fortune to be able to teach creative writing for a year, and it was really spectacular, wonderful. It was an undergraduate class, introduction to creative writing, so it was a combination of poetry and fiction. It was amazing. Both semesters I taught it the kids were all very enthusiastic about it. They were just thrilled to be doing it. At Cornell especially, the college tends more toward engineering and pre-med and pre-law, and there were a lot of students who had not had the experience of writing creatively before, and they were just jazzed about it. Which made it really wonderful to teach.

What would you say are the most overrated books?

I will say two writers. I have never been able to appreciate their styles fully, and I have been told before that they're wonderful and they are very celebrated writers, but at the same time I have never been able to quite get into them. I don’t have enough experience with them to answer the question, but Thomas Pynchon and Samuel Delaney. But I don’t think it’s a matter of them being overrated as much as I don’t enjoy the styles as much. I didn’t connect with them.

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