The Waterstones Interview: Téa Obreht on Inland
In an exclusive interview, author Téa Obreht discusses Inland - her first novel since her internationally bestselling, Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife - America’s foundation folklore and the dangerous pull of the American Southwest’s wild unknown.
Inland is rooted in the beautiful and unforgiving landscape of the American West, particularly late nineteenth-century Arizona. What drew you to this place and period?
Growing up an immigrant and moving as often as I did means that you’re always a bit of an outsider, regardless of where you land or for how long. There’s always a feeling of not being quite one with a place or its history, and I have always felt a little bit held-at-bay by my adoptive homeland until I started spending time in the West. In addition to being awed to the point of religious experience by the landscape of Wyoming and Arizona and Texas, I was enthralled by the complex history and regional lore, the tension between history and myth. All of this was rolled up in a deep, strange feeling of homecoming - of having finally arrived, particularly in Wyoming, at a place that served as some kind of centrality. The feeling itself was overpowering and unsettling and unfamiliar, and stood in sharp contrast to conversations I was beginning to have with family members about knowledge and belonging. So I knew that my next project would have to rummage around in it.
Environment seems to be integral to this novel and the narrative is permeated with a visceral, intensely evocative sense of the territory’s power to both beguile and bewitch those who encounter it. How important was the relationship between character and landscape to you in writing Inland?
It was certainly crucial. One of the most incredible things about life on earth is its ability to persevere in incredibly harsh environments; and one of the ways humans do that, I think, for better or worse, is by forming deep, emotional bonds to landscape, even when it seems likely to kill them. Everything about Nora and Lurie is rooted in their respective responses to environmental pressures. This includes their differing psychological relationships to “home” - Nora is stuck on the homestead, and is by turns agitated by and invested in that constriction, in preserving what she deems to be her place in the world. Lurie’s relationship to landscape is one of openness and fascination, but “home” is Burke, whose protection and preservation ranks above anything else in this world.
Inland intersperses invention with events and people drawn from history, including Lieutenant Beale’s extraordinary Camel Corps experiment. How did you come across this fascinating piece of pioneering history? What stood out for you when researching the book?
I stumbled onto the story of the Camel Corps courtesy of one of my favourite podcasts, which explored not only the use of camels in the American Southwest but also the campfire legends that sprang up in the wake of their release into the wild after the Civil War. That I’d never heard anything about it before staggered me and touched on an aspect of narrative culture by which I’ve always been fascinated: namely, what does it take for a story to survive the passage of time? What gets privileged in the foundational lore of a particular place or period, and why?
How influenced were you by the traditions of the Western as a genre when writing Inland?
Having both grown up with westerns and relished the twists and turns of the genre in literature and film over the past decade, I was very keen to get a chance to play with some of its tropes - chiefly the idea of the hardened wanderer and the woman waiting by the hearth, both of which, funnily enough, were elements baked into the historical framework on which Inland is based.
The novel is split between the perspectives of Lurie, an outlaw on the run, and Nora, a frontierswoman awaiting news of her missing husband and eldest sons. Both seem, by turns, to be driven by fragile hope and unquiet memory. To what extent, do you think, are characters in this novel torn and propelled by the promise of what might lie ahead and the fear at their back?
One of the most wonderful aspects of interviews like this is the gift of being able to hear an outside take on one’s work; so thank you for this beautifully concise way of putting it. I’m hesitant to disturb this question at all, so I won’t, except to add that the tension, for these characters, sometimes seems to arise when they glimpse the possibility that, if the act of storytelling has illusorily brightened up the past, it may well have brightened up the future, too - and that may be dangerously unstable.
The novel seems to be driven by undercurrents of unspoken, unfulfilled desire; voiced by the living characters and also in Lurie’s accounts of the perpetually wanting dead. It’s a feeling that’s echoed by Nora’s continuous unquenched thirst. How important is that driving need to the mood of Inland and to understanding its central characters?
That desire ended up being an enormously important survival mechanism for both Nora and Lurie. But I also think its anchored to the myth of individual reinvigoration and reinvention, this sweeping self-fulfilment that epitomizes why the West, at least as we have allowed ourselves to imagine it, continues to cast such a pervasive, powerful spell to this day.
From Nora and Lurie, each telling their stories to a listener who can only answer them in their own imagining, to the mournful dead ‘unaware of each other’s presence’, this novel seems to explore both loneliness and the unexpected places we draw comfort. Why did you choose to have both Nora and Lurie tell their stories in this way?
One of the great gifts of writing a novel with a historical framework like Inland’s was the knowledge that its structure would have to remain unadulterated, leaving me free to rummage mostly in the inner lives of the characters. From the get-go, loneliness took a seat at the head of the table; not just Nora’s or Lurie’s, but Hadji Ali’s and Desma’s and Doc Almenara’s, too. What must it have been like to wait for weeks or months without hearing from loved ones? What must it have been like to be a convert to Islam arriving in America in the 1850s, isolated not only from your past, but from the community through which you came to faith? Isolation - physical, psychological, emotional, cultural - turned out to underlie pretty much every character. I wanted to explore how very different people, on very different journeys, might try to cope with it.
It’s a novel of hauntings too. When you were researching and thinking about the lives of the people living in this precarious and treacherous near-wilderness, did you find yourself thinking about how much closer their lives were to death and to the stories of the dead?
As you say, it was impossible to research the period and not consider the precariousness of life. Just about anything could carry you off with absolutely zero warning. But I found myself thinking about the precariousness of death, too. If humans consider death a state of transcendence or un-being, often dependent upon the condition of ritualized, corporeal “rest” in spaces understood to be sacred and eternal - how is the essence of an afterlife, as we believe or imagine it to be, affected by violent upheaval? How do the dead “rest” if their resting places are continuously repurposed and abandoned and fought over and reclaimed and renamed and built up and torn down? I find it impossible to believe that the turbulence of the American west of that period would not have affected the dead.
It struck me too that this is a novel about a different kinds of myth-making; from the chinese-whisper legends of outlaw bandits, to the potent myths of self-creation - or re-creation - that the landscape seems to offer. Would you agree?
Yes; and the need, too, to cling so absolutely to the carefully wrought myths we believe about ourselves and our loved ones.