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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

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

 August 21, 2019 at 11:04 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 When writer Taya all breads remarkable debut novel. The Tiger's wife was published in 2011. It was a sensation, the book one accolades, including the orange prize for fiction and a million copies were sold around the world. The young author also joined the ranks of the New Yorkers, top 20 fiction writers under 40. Now our bread has a new novel, it's called inland. It takes place in the American wild west of the 18 hundreds, which is perhaps a surprising location given. She was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and lived in Egypt before settling in the U s [inaudible]. Talked by Skype to midday edition cohost jade Hindman about her new book. And here's that interview, Jay. A welcome. Speaker 2: 00:46 Thanks for having me. So 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 Speaker 1: 00:57 subject? Speaker 2: 00:59 So I, uh, as as as you say, I'm, I'm an immigrant. I came here at the age of 12. Um, we left the former Yugoslavia during the war. Um, and I grew up all over the place and Cypress and Egypt and various parts of the states once we moved here. Um, so home for me has never really been anchored to place, uh, as much as it has been to people. Um, but when I first visited the mountain west, I was completely blown away by it, uh, and very overwhelmed by this sense of having arrived at some sort of central city, you know, having arrived home. Um, which is weird because I don't have any cultural or familial connections there, you know, no one I know has ever lived or, or, or been there. Um, really. Um, and 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 are trapped on their homestead by a creature of possibly supernatural origins. Speaker 2: 01:59 Um, and the podcast that, uh, outline this story related the, this campfire yarn from Arizona to the history of the Camel Corp, uh, which is a little known episode of American history where in the military brought camels over from the Ottoman Empire to stake out what is now route 66. Um, and I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of this. Um, and the story was all about people from a part of the world, uh, with which I share many, 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, and I was just drawn in by all kinds of questions about the real characters and the imagined characters and the landscape. And here we are. Yeah, no, all of that sounds fascinating and something that just really captures the imagination. You mentioned your research. Can you talk to me about the research that you did to write this book? Speaker 2: 02:54 Yeah, absolutely. I, um, I, there wasn't a lot of information the, the project, the Camel Corp project because, um, it was considered a failure here at the time. It was very short lived. And so very little, uh, very few primary sources exist of the period. Um, the, the two main ones are the diaries of, uh, military men. Uh, Edward Fitzgerald Beal and his assistant, uh, may Humphrey Stacey. Um, and they wrote about, uh, the crossing that the animals undertook from, uh, New Mexico to California. Um, and it was fascinating to read, um, 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, uh, the Ottoman empire, Haji Ali and Greek George. Um, and so I really immersed myself in the, in the newspapers at the time in homesteading diaries and journals that people wrote, um, 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. Um, and then I, I went on the camel route. I, I drove along route 66, uh, along the campsites that the camel corps established and, and yeah, it was pretty immersive. Speaker 1: 04:14 Hmm. And just last week, inland was included in President Barack Obama's summer reading list. Uh, do you know if he's reading your book? Speaker 2: 04:23 Aye. Aye. Aye. Aye. Aye. Aye. I hope so. I really hope so. I was absolutely floored when, when, when I found out, um, it's just the greatest honor I can imagine. And to have the book listed with so many other writers who am I so admire and, and whose work I love. It's just, uh, it's just staggering. Speaker 1: 04:41 Right. You know, and I want to talk a little bit about your inspiration as a writer. I read that Tony Morrison who died this month was one of your favorite writers. A what, what inspires you as a reader? Speaker 2: 04:54 Um, yeah, she was, she was an inspiration, um, in so many ways. Um, I think what inspires me as a reader, um, certainly something that Tony Morrison always exercised is, um, you know, this incredible, incredible complexity and depth of language. Um, and I think that that really shows a tremendous amount of trust in the reader. Uh, and, and, and, and, and belief in the willingness of the reader to come along with you. On this journey. Um, the relationship between a writer and a reader, I, I think is a, is a packed, um, 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, uh, at the highest possible level at the, at the level of, of emotional and psychological engagement. Um, and, and I mean that's something that, that Tony Morrison did in every single one of her works. Um, but, but it's also something that I, you know, you can tell really early on whether that, um, whether that hand is reached out to you as a reader, uh, and, and, and it's a wonderful, wonderful experience to be invited in that way, I think. Speaker 1: 06:16 And when you were just 24, you, you were named by the New Yorker as one of the top fiction writers under 40. So I'm wondering whether now, uh, 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. Speaker 2: 06:34 Oh, wow. Absolutely. I have so much, you have so much advice, but I think that the most crucial one that, that I've learned, uh, over the last eight years is that there are no wasted drafts. Um, 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 quote unquote nowhere are actually, um, they're, they're building your knowledge base and they're making you more aware of, of how you write and what you want, uh, of yourself as a writer and, and, um, what your overall project is. And so there are no waste the drafts at all, no matter how terrible it feels to throw something away or put it away or, uh, how disconnected you end up feeling from a project at the end of it. It's taught you something and, and you should take that lesson. Uh, you know, you've earned it. There's a lesson in all things. Speaker 1: 07:34 I've been speaking to [inaudible] author of the new book inland. Taya, thank you so much. Thank you so much. And Taya Obert will be speaking at Warrick's books in La Jolla on Thursday night at seven 30. Teo was speaking to midday edition co-host jade Heideman. Speaker 3: 07:54 Uh.

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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.
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