Ghosts Are Always There: An Interview with Téa Obreht on “Inland”




TÉA OBREHT’S MESMERIZING DEBUT, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a National Book Award finalist. Her writing has been called spectacular and astonishing, and I couldn’t say it better myself. When I had the opportunity to read an early copy of her latest, I jumped on it and the novel did not disappoint. Inland, set in 1893, is a stunning rendering of the drought-ravaged Arizona Territory and the people, and camel cavaliers, who braved that land in search of a new, better life. On the surface, it is the tale of Lurie, an orphan and murderer, and Nora, a lonely and desperate frontierswoman, but their actions have consequences that break through to far more interesting undercurrents — themes of loneliness, family, and what it means to be sated. Water, in particular, floods every chapter. It is a lifeforce but also a killer. It drowns, boils, and simmers. Its presence is as strong as its absence, stripping Obreht’s characters down so they are revealed in their weakest states, which is what makes them so utterly gripping.

These themes are highlighted by Obreht’s masterful use of magical realism, which she employs to blur the so-called real world with visions that slither from the heat and dehydration: ghosts line the roads and trails, Nora has a running conversation with her deceased daughter, and Lurie narrates exclusively to his camel. These beautiful quirks are what I love most about Obreht’s writing. She does not draw a stark line to separate imagination, and this forces us to ask if there is a difference, and if it matters. This book will throw you into a new world, and you won’t want to leave.

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RACHEL BARENBAUM: Téa, I have to start by asking you about water. One of the most impressive parts of this book was the sheer number of ways in which you showed it can sustain and destroy life. You even juxtapose humans, who need water every day, every few hours, with camels, who can go a week without drinking. Why? Why water?

TÉA OBREHT: One of the things that became clear early on in the writing process was that this was going to be a book about isolation, one in which the characters felt remote in the world. I think that their response to environmental pressures was the fundamental way that began to build. The landscape of the American West, the Southwest in particular, is something we focus on culturally and historically as this overwhelmingly beautiful thing — as a spiritual force — but I was so struck from the get-go by what it would be like to not know where your next drink was coming from. So water, and the absence thereof, became the fundamental thread running through everything. It’s a way to access the spirit world, this thing that is fundamental to selfhood in a way that modernity doesn’t allow us to appreciate. It picked up from there.

This brings us, of course, to the camels. The US Army’s camel cavaliers play a large part in Inland. Camels are the vessels of water. They carry water, can endure longer than humans without it, but they are not something usually associated with the myth of the American West. How did you decide to include them in this fundamental thread?

I first came across the story of the camel cavaliers in a podcast I love called Stuff You Missed in History Class. It examined the Camel Corps, its history, and the consequences of the camels’ release into the wilds of Arizona, where they went on to have encounters with locals and settlers. What struck me aside from how bizarre it all was — why haven’t I heard of these cavaliers before? It’s a true story. It’s incredibly fascinating, yet it has no pride of place in the mythology of the Old West. I began researching it. There are very few primary resources, and one of the things I found fascinating was the idea of endurance. Camels have unbelievable longevity. They also have a really long lifespan for a mammal. It struck me how strange and interesting it was that a living creature could be in the background of all this social and technological change — and be an unknown constant, just hiding out in the wilderness. And that idea seized me. I couldn’t shake it.

At the time, it felt strange to write a Western, but the more I wrote, the more the characters who were defined by this structure seemed to touch on questions that I’d been asking myself for a long time: questions about home, and belonging, and what it means to lose one culture for another. What it means to be a woman filled with rage — how that operates or doesn’t operate in a society. These are questions that are personal to my family, something I was exploring with my grandmother while she was dying. The lens was tightening and tightening until these characters, including the camels, were the ones telling the story.

I love that you were talking to your grandmother about this. Did you talk to her about the book?

I didn’t really. The starting point of this book and her death were close together. She was born in Yugoslavia in the ’30s, into a poor family. She was a Bosniak Muslim who married into a Christian household before things became ethnically precarious. Toward the end of her life, it became apparent that she had a tremendous amount of bottled-up rage — about what it had been like to grow up a woman with a congenital heart defect. She was pulled out of school early on because her parents figured she wouldn’t make it. She lost two children when she was quite young. She had a lot of rage. As she got toward the end of her life she couldn’t contain it anymore, and it became apparent that she’d been tamping it down all this time. It was something very much on my mind and I really started to understand it more and more when Nora, my character, came along. That rage flowed into my character as she landed on the page.

Yes, it was clear Nora was filled with rage. Rage that she was alone, that she’d lost her child, that she felt abandoned and hopeless. Can you talk more about why you thought it was so important to funnel that rage into the book?

I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but it felt true to the period. Nora is a homesteading woman. And there are two ways to find out about homesteading women: diaries/letters and male narratives. The more dominant narratives largely sideswipe women, mention them on the side. But in the correspondence, in a lot of letters and diaries written by women themselves, I was struck by the consistent strong subtext. They focus on decisions made by their husbands to move the family from one town to another, here or there, decisions that seem largely arbitrary and with which the woman is obliged to just go along. The outer shell of the correspondence is always cheerful and socially appropriate, but under that you can see the seething, the fear, and the loneliness. It was something I thought would be inherent in the character, something that made its way into Nora.

And I don’t think it was so different until recently.

That’s beautiful. I love that feminist reading, that side to Nora her rage. And of course we see her rage taken out on Josie.

Yes. [Laughs.] Poor Josie. 

Poor Josie, but that’s your point, right? Nora didn’t have anyone else to take out her rage on, to express all that anger.

That’s true. Exactly.

Okay. I want to go back to the camels one more time. One of my favorite passages in the book came during a scene when the Mojaves are watching the camel cavaliers. One cameleer says to the other, “It’s the same thing to them: ship, camel. What’s the difference? There’s no miracle in it. It’s just another sign of their end.” That sentence stuck out for me. Can you tell me what you were thinking about as you wrote that?

While I was writing the book, it kept striking me that that while I was getting to explore a relatively untold story, an obscure history, it was nevertheless only a single tendril of a larger untold history of America, and the camels would mean different things to different people. To the soldiers and settlers, they were a sign of progress, of a bright future to come. To the young men driving them, to the young men who came over from the Ottoman Empire, they were a piece of home. To Native people, there might have been some curiosity, but really they were another trapping of invasion. Lurie himself doesn’t have any reference for that, but Jolly (another cameleer) does have a reference for what this caravan following a line of soldiers actually means to the land they’re traversing. It seemed very clear that Jolly would see himself as part of a crime, as part of a struggle. He’s been on the receiving end, on the opposite side of occupation, so it made sense that he’d point out that whenever you’re part of something, you’re part of one aspect and another. That other aspect in this case was devastating.

I was very glad to see you showing your readers these many sides to what was happening in the American West. And just as you showed there were many sides, you also showed there were many different kinds of people converging on that territory all at once. Your cast of characters pushing into/invading the desert hail from disparate corners of the earth: the Middle East, Asia, Europe, South America. Tell us why you chose to bring together this disparate group and put them in your melting pot? And why Arizona?

It felt necessary to work within the confines of the true history behind the narrative — the true history of homesteading women and the Camel Corps. The way I first heard the story that went on to become the novel was framed within the context of a campfire narrative. There were two homesteading women. One was trapped inside a house, another was trapped outside, both cornered by a beast they thought must have supernatural origins.

And I knew I wanted to work within the framework of both the campfire tale and the history of the Camel Corps. That put me in Arizona. One of the most amazing things my research opened my eyes to about this period was how culturally varied the settlements really were. Small villages in the middle of nowhere would have five or six families from all different parts of the world, all speaking different languages in the home — Spanish and English together. One thing this book kept asking while I wrote was: Why don’t I know this? That, in addition to the camels, was an interesting omission from the myth of the American West. We have a powerful, enduring mythology about the American West that highlights very specific people, and that’s it. That’s all we hear about, but the truth is a lot more varied and complex. It felt vital to keep the lens close to what was a new realization for me, a community filled with immigrants from all over.

Moving along to themes of friendship and family, Lurie and Nora are both lonely. I was struck by the fact that Lurie lost his family as a child. He was an orphan who lost the family he was born into. Nora was a grown woman who lost her family because her boys grew up, her husband left, et cetera. She lost the family she made. Why did you juxtapose these two losses? Why did you mute their families, leave them with ghosts? 

Losing family in general matters a great deal. From a craft perspective, I am interested in who people are when no one else is around. The novel form gives us access to a character’s interiority. And it was a delight to get really close to these characters, to really see who they were in isolation. One thing they both shared was that they are both powerless against the larger tides of history around them. The way they both respond is how they form a sense of self. They are trying to be a part of the whole, but they are alone. It felt necessary to isolate them on the page to get to that, but family is family, born or made, and losing family creates a huge sense of panic that I wanted to explore.

This brings me to the question that haunted the book. Is there a difference between real companionship and ghosts? You seem the wrestle with that. Can you share your thoughts?

I think imagination is as good as real because it ties back to the sense of self. Self is always searching for home. We derive so much of our personhood from what we perceive home to be, and companionship is such a large part of that.

Our past gets mixed up with that in an interesting, fragile way — ghosts are always there. What you imagine, or how you remember someone, makes up who you are, how you interact and frame your life. The life of our imagined folk is real life.

At one point, Hector, the doctor, offers to buy the family newspaper. There’s a line that reads, “Most tabs, I believe, seek to draw on money you don’t have rather than give you more. Not so with me.” This struck me because the idea of tabs, of debts, is another dominant theme. Can you tell us about this? 

I think that the doctor is quite glib about a lot of things, but underneath he hits on truths people are anxious about. And I think you’re right, both Nora and Lurie are in a state of constant penance. They both feel they owe a debt to the universe for what they’ve done or are trying to do. Jolly does, too. George might. That is the delineation between the different types of characters in this book. There are some who feel they owe a debt. And then there are characters who feel they are square. Their approach to life is governed by that: are you in debt, or do you feel you walk this world free of everything?

I think that applies to real-world people, too.

Yes. Absolutely. And I really, really appreciate this question because this notion applies to everything from the way you occupy space, to the way you feel entitled to other people’s space. What you demand of life is governed by that, and I feel, personally, that we all owe a debt. To live in this world inherently means that you are at all times causing harm somewhere. It’s a struggle of life to know that, and if you’re not thinking about it once in a while, you’re walking in a delusion — the delusion of no debt.

Okay, switching gears, I’d love to hear a little bit about the craft of writing this gorgeous novel. Téa, how did Inland come together? Did you work with an outline?

I did work with an outline. One of the interesting things about the process of writing this book was I knew the bones of everything that was going to happen because it was rooted in the true incidents of the homesteading women and the Camel Corps. So from day one, I knew the structure: one day in the lives of these two women at the end of which there was an encounter; all interspersed with 30 or so years in the life of another character. That constriction was deeply freeing. It allowed me to ask the questions that the whole book was born of: Who are the women? What is the day? What is the town? Who is the other narrator? Instead of working in a linear way, the book wrote out and toward me (I’m gesturing with my hands, like I’m pulling a noodle). The outline was more about piecing together these small aspects of how their lives would dovetail, what pieces of Nora’s day would lead to her psychological condition by the time we get to the final third of the book.

I’m a big believer in lots and lots of drafts. I believe in writing something and throwing it out. I went through five whole rehashes by the time the book arrived in the final form.

I miss working on it. Is that wrong to say?

No. When you write a book, those characters become your best friends. They are real to you, so when you’re done, you’re leaving them and you feel real loneliness.

That is so true. And then you go to work on another project and you don’t want these strangers — not at first. You have to ask: Who are you? [Both laugh.]

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

I just started Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. Also I just got a copy of Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout. Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse is a quiet masterpiece about what it means to be a woman in science. I highly recommend it.

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Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars.

 

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