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.

And who would you say are the most underrated writers—writers who you wish would get more attention?

Well that one is easier. Definitely there is an old book from the former Yugoslavia by Ivo Andrić, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and unless I am mistaken he was the only Yugoslav Nobel prizewinner for literature. He wrote a book called The Bridge on the Drina. I am originally from the former Yugoslavia as well, and I don’t know that he is known here, but that’s a wonderful book. I know that there are translations of it, but he is not very well known and it is a wonderful book.

I also like Raymond Chandler. He wrote hardboiled detective fiction, but it was really literary and he wrote amazing stuff. The Long Good-Bye, which is interesting. He does wonderful social commentary in the context of a detective mystery. And the mystery sort of fails, but the social commentary works.

And another book that I love that I think might be underrated is A Prayer for the Dying, by Stewart O’Nan. It’s a weird book, and sort of very heavy, but wonderful and wonderfully done. It is written in the second person, which is just so strange, and it works. I normally don’t like literature in the second person, but it really works in that book.

What children’s book would you still pick up?

Anything by Roald Dahl. Period. I love Roald Dahl. I grew up with Roald Dahl. And actually his short-story collection for adults, Tales of the Unexpected, I think is underrated, it’s loads of fun.

I actually have gone back to children’s books a lot because my baby brother is eight years old, so it’s my job to keep the books coming. And someone that I loved as a child and I find not a lot of people read in America is Dick King-Smith. He wrote Babe. But he also wrote a bunch of other children’s books that I don’t think get read. I guess he was a farmer forever, and I might be completely wrong about this, but at a relatively old age he started writing children’s books based on his experiences as a farmer. And they’re lovely.

What book is most essential to you? What book do you read over and over?

Love in the Time of Cholera. Also, I absolutely love—and I love them for different reasons, and continue to go back to them—The Old Man and the Sea. It is short and wonderful. But Love in the Time of Cholera is for me the perfect novel, it just does so much for me. I read it for the first time when I was 12, and I have read it basically every year since, in some way or other. And The Old Man and The Sea as a story just works brilliantly for me.

What is the first thing that you wrote that made you realize that you could be a writer?

I was eight years old, we were living in Cyprus, and my mom had this computer that was very old and just enormous and heavy and I was playing around with it and I ended up writing a two paragraph story about a goat. And I remember printing it out and going to my mother and saying, I want to be a writer. And my mother was fixing something in the kitchen and she turned around and said, That’s nice, you go ahead. And obviously it wasn’t really anything. But at the same time, that was the plan ever since then—to write. And then I wrote consistently over the years after that. It wasn’t a particularly good story about a goat by an eight year old. And actually I don’t even have a copy of it, or know what it was about except there was a goat in it. But that was the first thing I wrote.

What book is on your bedside table waiting to be read?

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. I for some reason had not gotten around to reading him before this, but I am loving it so far—everyone said that I would, and I am.

— Cotton Codinha
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