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US Camel Corps Captured Téa Obreht’s Imagination And Her Novel Take On The American West

Photo credit: Ilan Harel

Writer Téa Obreht in an undated photo.

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Obreht's new novel, “Inland,” takes place in the American West of the 1800s, which is perhaps a surprising location given the author was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and lived in Egypt before settling in the U.S.

Aired: August 21, 2019 | Transcript

When writer Téa Obreht's remarkable debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife” was published in 2011, it was a sensation. The book won accolades including the Orange Prize for Fiction, now known as the Women's Prize for Fiction, and 1 million copies sold around the world. The young author also joined the ranks of The New Yorker's top 20 fiction writers under 40.

Now Obreht has a new novel called “Inland,” set in the wild American West of the 1800s, which is perhaps a surprising location given the author was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and lived in Egypt before settling in the United States.

Obreht spoke to Midday Edition co-host Jade Hindmon about her new book. The interview transcribed below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Obreht will be speaking at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at Warwick’s in La Jolla.

Q: As an immigrant to the U.S., it struck me that your new book is about the American West in the 1890s, how did you come to be interested in that subject?

A: As you say, I'm an immigrant. I came here at the age of 12. We left the former Yugoslavia during the war. And I grew up all over the place in Cyprus and Egypt and various parts of the states, once we moved here, so home for me has never really been anchored to place as much as it has been to people. But when I first visited the mountain West I was completely blown away by it and very overwhelmed by this sense of having arrived at some sort of centrality, you know having arrived home, which is weird because I don't have any cultural or familial connections there. No one I know has ever lived or or been there really.

I really wanted to explore that feeling and during the course of my research I stumbled onto this incredible story about these two women who were trapped on their homestead by a creature of possibly supernatural origins. And the podcast that outlined this story related this campfire yarn from Arizona to the history of the (U.S. Army) Camel Corps which is a little known episode of American history wherein the military brought camels over from the Ottoman Empire to stake out what is now Route 66.

I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard of this. And the story was all about people from a part of the world with which I share many cultural connections. Much of where I come from was under Ottoman rule at the same time that where these people came from was. And I was just drawn in by all kinds of questions about the real characters and the imagined characters in the landscape. And here we are.

Photo credit: Random House

The cover of the novel, "Inland," by Téa Obreht.

Q: Can you talk about the research you did to write this book?

A: There wasn't a lot of information about the project, the camel corps project, because it was considered a failure here at the time that was very short lived. And so very few primary sources exist of the period. The two main ones are the diaries of military men Edward Fitzgerald Beale and his assistant May Humphreys Stacy. And they wrote about the crossing that the animals undertook from New Mexico to California. And it was fascinating to read but they also didn't quite get down to the bones of what it was I wanted to write about which was the experience that these men who had come over from the Ottoman Empire, Hajj Ali and Greek George.

And so I really immersed myself in the in the newspapers of the time, in homesteading diaries and journals that people wrote, trying to get access to what people had to say about their lives when they weren't saying it in an official capacity — if that makes sense. And then I went on the camel route. I drove along Route 66, along the campsites that the camel corps established, and yeah it was pretty immersive.

Q: Last week "Inland" was included in President Barack Obama’s summer reading list, do you know if he’s read your book?

A: I hope so. I really hope so. I was absolutely floored when I found out. It's just the greatest honor I can imagine and to have the book listed with so many other writers whom I so admire and whose work I love. It's just staggering.

(Editor's note: In the Facebook post for his 2019 summer reading list Obama wrote, "Those of you who’ve been waiting for Obreht’s next novel won’t be disappointed.")

Q: I want to talk a little bit about your inspiration as a writer. I read that Toni Morrison, who died this month, was one of your favorite writers. What inspires you as a reader?

A: Yeah, she was she was an inspiration in so many ways. I think what inspires me as a reader is certainly something that Toni Morrison always exercised, is this incredible, incredible complexity and depth of language. And I think that that really shows a tremendous amount of trust in the reader and belief in the willingness of the reader to come along with you on this journey. The relationship between a writer and a reader, I think, is a packed one in which the reader accepts kind of on faith that the writer will give them all the information that they need in order to make sense of and appreciate the story they're being told at the highest possible level, at the level of emotional and psychological engagement.

And I mean that's something that that Toni Morrison did in every single one of her works. But it's also something that you know you can tell really early on whether that hand is reached out to you as a reader. And and it's a wonderful experience to be invited in that way.

Q: When you were just 24 you were named by The New Yorker as one of the top fiction writers under 40. So I’m wondering whether now, with two novels published, what advice you might have for other young writers or aspiring writers that you’ve learned about working in this field?

A: I have so much advice — but I think that the the most crucial one that I've learned over the last eight years is that there are no wasted drafts. I think so much of the pressure of writing is to show your work. You know, to prove that you're working to maybe publish everything you write. And that's not necessary. The drafts that you write that only you see and that may lead nowhere, are actually there. They're building your knowledge base and they're making you more aware of how you write and what you want of yourself as a writer and what your overall project is.

And so there are no wasted drafts at all — no matter how terrible it feels to throw something away or put it away. Or how disconnected you end up feeling from a project. At the end of it — it's taught you something and you should take that lesson. You know, you've earned it.

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