Tea Obreht became the youngest ever Orange Prize winner earlier this month when The Tiger’s Wife scooped the literary world’s top prize.
You’d forgive Tea Obreht for being a touch smug. After all, at 25, she’s the youngest person ever to win the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction. A prize that’s been won previously by Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Lionel Shriver. And she did it with her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. But the Serbian-American author is surprisingly, and sweetly, shy about her triumph. ‘It’s just been incredible but I have this feeling that something’s going to get me, that this isn’t right,’ she says of her literary accolade. ‘It’s not real. I don’t feel I’ve earned it karmically. I haven’t been good enough!’
She worries too much. In fact, Obreht, who was raised in Belgrade until war broke out when she was 7 and her family fled to Cyprus, has been hailed worldwide as one of the most exciting new literary talents thanks to The Tiger’s Wife. The novel tells the story of a young doctor in a Balkan country trying to seek out the truth about her grandfather’s mysterious death. As she goes on her journey, Obreht comes along fable and folklore, one of which is about a deaf-mute rural child bride and her relationship with a tiger.
Obreht started working on the book five years ago when her dying grandfather made her promise to write a story. Then a student at Cornell university, it was inspired by Ruyard Kipling stories she read as a kid – also featuring mystical animals – and her own childhood experiences. ‘There’s a certain amount of autobiographical element that ends up in any work of art. I think that I draw on my emotional state more than any particular episode in my own life. It’s very important to access the right emotional place when writing.’
So how does Tea write? ‘My working day starts at five in the afternoon when I wake up. Then I have a walk, some breakfast which is actually dinner and I write from 8pm to midnight. Then I go to the 24 hour grocery store, buy some wilted lettuce for dinner and then go back and write until 6am when I go tobed. It’s excruciating but that’s the only way I’ve been able to work so far!’ Well it seems to be working so far, Tea!
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