Student Artist Spotlight: Tea Bajraktarevic

March 25, 2009
By Ted Hamilton

Would-be writers are a dime a dozen: every other English major, it seems, wants to be the next Faulkner. Those with talent may find themselves in an MFA program, and the lucky few will have a story published here and there in a small journal. But success like that enjoyed by Tea Bajraktarevic grad, who recently sold the rights to her first novel The Tiger’s Daughter to Dial Press (to be published next year), is rare indeed. Tea, who writes under the name Tea Obreht and whose first publication will be a story in The Atlantic Monthly’s summer fiction issue, sat down with The Sun to discuss death in the Balkans, the merits of MFAs and being stoked about success.

The Sun: When did you start writing?

Tea Bajraktarevic: When I was eight. We were living in Cyprus at the time, and I started writing weird little skits or vignettes — totally not serious or anything. I had told my mom, “I want to be a writer!” And my mom, oddly enough, was like, “Sure, go ahead.” She always encouraged creative expression and my writing.

Sun: Were you born in Cyprus?

T.B.: No, I was born in Yugoslavia, when it was still Yugoslavia, in Belgrade. We left in ’92 when the war started.

Sun: When did you come to the States?

T.B.: Early ’96, late ’97.

Sun: What drew you to the Cornell MFA program?

T.B.: The fact that it was a long-running program. It was a program that afforded you the opportunity to get your Master of Fine Arts degree and then also to continue teaching for two years after — I’m doing that right now. Also, the fact that it’s a very small community [that’s] very dedicated to nurturing writers. And there’s a long list of really good writers attached to Cornell.

Sun: How has the MFA helped your writing?

T.B.: I write really well in an environment with deadlines — that’s been a great motivating factor. In workshop, by learning how to read other people’s work critically but seriously at the same time, you learn what to do and what not to do in your own work. It’s great to be nurtured by other people who are as serious about writing as you are. And teaching’s been really, really helpful in developing my writing too, because it’s great to see the kinds of things people are developing, what people are working on, and by learning how to talk about writing, you learn how to think about your own — which is also an advantage of the workshop.

Sun: When did you start your novel?

T.B.: Technically I started it in the spring of 2007, but the material for it has been building over the past five years. I have storylines that come up in the novel that have been I’ve been thinking about for years and years and years and never realized it until I actually thought about it.

Sun: Can you give us a synopsis of the book?

T.B.: It’s a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.

Sun: Did you do a lot of research for the book?

T.B.: I did a fair amount. I spent a summer in Croatia while I was working on the novel as my thesis, and over the years I’ve been going back to visit my grandmother who still lives there, so the cultural experience has been building and ongoing. But I also did research in books and talked to a doctor who lives there.

Sun: Is there a significant amount of personal experience involved?

T.B.: Yeah, I’d say so. I wouldn’t necessarily call it autobiographical, but there is personal experienced involved with it.

Sun: Had you been published before you sold your novel?

T.B.: [Contacting my agent] was my first real try.

Sun: And the story in The Atlantic …

T.B.: Will be my first publication.

Sun: Wow, congratulations.

T.B.: [Laughs] Thanks. I’m pretty stoked about it.

Sun: What were the main things you read as you were beginning to write?

T.B.: I read a lot of Garcia Marquez and T.C. Boyle before I came here. I worked with T.C. Boyle actually at USC, which was my first real introduction to short story writing and the idea of how to formulate it. After I got here, I got really into Hemingway — I don’t know why. Hemingway and Raymond Carver, and recently I’ve been reading Isaac Denison, who wrote Out of Africa and Shadows in the Grass.

Sun: How has the terse style of those writers influenced you?

T.B.: It’s influenced the way I compose my paragraphs … it’s influenced the way I write about place.

Sun: Do you like to write on a computer or on paper?

T.B.: Computer. Always. I can’t do it on paper, I don’t know why. I’ve tried to a couple of times, and it feels very contrived … Your thoughts are supposed to flow at the same speed as the pen or something, but when I’m sitting down to write and the computer it’s like, “Alright, I’ve sat down and somehow this happened,” whereas the couple of times I’ve tried to write on paper, it’s been like, “I’m sitting down for a project and writing on paper.” It’s not going to happen.

Sun: Some writers question whether the institutionalization of writers is a good thing. What do you think are the benefits or the problems of having writers becoming more and more a part of the academy?

T.B.: Well the benefit, of course, is the time to write and the community to write, which is really important. I think that having someone say to you, “This time is only for writing now” is a great thing. Although I know some people for whom writing time is a private thing that’s just absent from any academic point of view. If you’re writing at home and you have a job, the writing’s your own and the only expectations that exist are your own.

Sun: What are your plans for the future?

T.B.: This will be the final year [at Cornell]. Next year, I’m transitioning to the novel — waiting for that stuff to start happening, so I’m going to stay in Ithaca. But I’m writing an article on Serbian vampire lore for Harper’s Magazine this summer, so I have a research trip for that. But I don’t know. I feel like, for me, writing is a lot about place and place influences it tremendously and going to new places very much inspires me to write, so I’m looking to do some volunteering trips abroad.

Sun: Do you have any more projects in mind?

T.B.: I do. I’ve started thinking about another novel. But I have no idea. Considering my not knowing how long I was working on the old novel, the years and the years beforehand, I have no idea.