Writers & Company

The haunted landscapes of Téa Obreht — from the Balkans to the American West

The Serbian-American writer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how death, afterlife and American West mythology inspired her novel, Inland.
Inland is a new novel by award-winning author Téa Obreht. (Random House, Ilan Hare)
Listen to the full episode52:33

Téa Obreht made a striking debut in 2011 with The Tiger's Wife — a rich, imaginative story suffused with myth and fable, set in an unnamed, war-torn Balkan country. At 25, the Serbian-American writer became the youngest ever winner of England's Orange Prize for best fiction by a woman. The novel was also a National Book Award finalist and sold a million copies internationally.

Obreht's new novel, Inland, is set in the 19th century in a very different landscape with its own powerful mythology — the American West. A vivid reimagining of the period, it focuses on a real-life historical experiment that brought camels to the frontier. The 2019 novel has been a New York Times bestseller and appeared on many lists for best books of year.

Obreht spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York.

A haunted place

"With Inland, the presence of the dead had a lot to do with landscape and with setting in general. When I started spending time in the American West, it struck me as a really haunted place.

"There's a social contract that we've made about death and the afterlife. It's this notion of death being a state of transcendence, one that requires corporeal and spiritual rest. It's this idea of a life having come to some sort of conclusion in space and time. It struck me that the American West — a landscape that is steeped in violence, turmoil and political upheavals of every kind — isn't a place that affords corporeal rest to the living or to the dead. 

It struck me that the American West isn't a place that affords corporeal rest to the living or to the dead.- Téa Obreht

"The dead started wandering around pretty early in the novel. As the book progressed, I realized that their presence was a way for the living characters to contend with their own place in history. They have to contend with their own pasts and their place in a society that was changing so rapidly."

Officials in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Southwest Texas are trying to promote tourism by offering camel rides through a portion of the Chihuahuan desert explored by the U.S. Army Camel Corps more than a century ago. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Camel Corps

"I stumbled on this true story of the U.S. Army Camel Corps through an episode of a podcast called Stuff You Missed in History Class. It framed the story as a mix of fact and campfire myth. In the 1850s, the United States government bankrolled the importation of camels into the American Southwest from the Ottoman Empire.

I was so fascinated by this visually bizarre notion of camels moving through a landscape of cacti and horses and mesas.- Téa Obreht

"The animals were brought in to serve as pack animals for the exploration of newly acquired lands in New Mexico and Arizona. These are water scarce regions and and someone thought it would be a good idea to bring in these animals to do this job. The camels came over with their minders from various parts of the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. These young men built lives here and they disappeared into history and the deserts of America. Very little is known about them.

"I was so fascinated by this visually bizarre notion of camels moving through a landscape of cacti and horses and mesas. I wanted to know about these young men. I ended up doing a great deal of research — and then the story just sort of poured out of it."

History, myth and legacy

"Inland is set in the American West, a place where I don't have any family or cultural roots. I lived in California for a time but I never experienced it as the American West of history and lore. When I started going to the mountains in the Southwest, I was blown away by the landscapes. It's just an unearthly place. You feel this notion of afterlife and this notion of smallness in the face of the universe when you're there. 

To arrive in this place of incalculable beauty and feel a sense of home and identity... is a part of the mythology of the American West- Téa Obreht

"I felt at home, which was odd. To me, home was always about the household that was always moving. This time it was about landscape, place and the feeling of interiority. I initially thought this was wonderful. Then I thought about it some more and felt it was actually quite insidious.

"To be an immigrant, to arrive in this place of incalculable beauty and feel a sense of home and identity — both within and without — is very much rooted in that feeling and is a part of the mythology of the American West. As soon as I felt that, I knew that I'd have to wrestle around with it in writing in some way."

Téa Obreht's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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