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Ryan Chapman | Longreads | August 2019 | 15 minutes (4,042 words)

Téa Obreht’s debut The Tiger’s Wife casts quite the shadow. It was a National Book Awards Finalist, won the Orange Prize, and landed its 25-year-old author on the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list. We’d understand if Obreht let the acclaim go to her head. We’d even forgive a sophomore slump. Fortunately for us, her novel Inland bears the same storytelling rigor and frictionless prose of its predecessor.

While Tiger’s Wife drew from Obreht’s childhood in the former Yugoslavia, Inland is set a world apart and a century earlier. Namely: the American West, spanning the second half of the 1800s. Parallel narratives follow Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona territories, and Lurie, an outlaw wanderer and conscripted “cameleer” in the U.S. Camel Corps. (An actual troop, and the novel’s genesis.)

As you’d expect, life is punishing and violence ever-present. The well at Nora’s farm has run dry, and her husband Emmett, the local newspaperman, has left to find water; her two grown sons soon follow. Nora is left to protect and watch over an invalid mother, her youngest son, and an annoying teen ward who conducts séances in town. Lurie also communes with the dead, absorbing the posthumous “want” of his partners-in-crime as he traverses the territories. An immigrant Muslim from the Ottoman Empire, Lurie is also a wanted man, pursued by a dogged marshal on a charge for manslaughter. For much of the book Lurie takes cover in the camel corps — led by a charming Turk named Hadji Ali — and bonds with his trusty camel Burke.

Lurie’s and Nora’s stories will intersect, a meeting which elevates Inland to something spectacular and timeless. It’s cliché to say a book has “reinvented” a genre. But Obreht’s achievement feels that way: like a full reset of the American Western. Its characters are those often ignored in cowboy tales, and the Camel Corps spotlights a little-known piece of history while exemplifying the Why not? spirit of possibility — possibly the oldest American tradition. I asked Obreht about her novel over caffeinated cocktails in Manhattan.


Ryan Chapman: When The Tiger’s Wife was first published you said in an interview, “You have to write the right book at the right time.” Your first novel braided your grandfather’s stories with these other narrative threads — the deathless man, the tiger’s wife, Natalia’s grieving. Was that true for Inland?

Téa Obreht: In the time between The Tiger’s Wife and when I started writing Inland I was trying to figure out what that right thing might be. I kept starting new projects, and they were dead-ending, or they weren’t holding my interest, or I didn’t feel an emotional connection to them, and I knew they were “wrong,” or at least that they didn’t have legs. So life was going by, years were going by (laughter).

Then I took my first real trip to the Rocky Mountains and the southwest. And it staggered me. It really did. The beauty of the landscape, but also this powerful feeling of homecoming. Which felt odd. I came here as an immigrant from Yugoslavia when I was twelve years old, you know. I’ve traveled a lot all my life, and the idea of home has never, for me, been anchored to place. It’s been tied to my family, or to my husband Dan. So to feel it in response to space, and to keep dwelling on a point of solace and return, that was odd and new.

Obviously I’m not the first person to feel that way. The West calls a lot of people “home,” and that call is probably at the root of the way we mythologize its landscape and its narratives.

But it was such an overwhelming feeling. I knew the next book would have to contend with it somehow.

So I tried writing a few different stories, but they weren’t really latching onto anything. In the course of doing other research I came across the podcast “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” An episode told the story of the Camel Corps and framed it in the campfire legend of these two women who are trapped on their homestead by something called The Red Ghost. I remember running on a treadmill when I was listening to this, and falling backwards off the track.

I couldn’t believe this story wasn’t more prominent, that I hadn’t heard it. I went down a rabbit hole with it. My questions became anchor points for the book. Who are these women? What do they do during the day? What’s this town they’re living in? What’s the creature? How did it get there? What’s its condition?

Were the real-life women in the Arizona territories?

They were. The original incident took place near Eagle Creek, which is not quite the setting of the book. But the wild thing about the story is it’s all true, even some of the major details revealed at the end.

[Here we veered into a spoiler-filled digression where Ms. Obreht noted the real-world basis for some of the more incredible aspects of the story, with a fair bit of gasping and “Oh wow” from your interviewer.]

You have your story, you have your setting. You’ve been to Wyoming and Arizona. And you’re off.

Yeah. I knew it had to be in the vicinity we’ll call the “Great Cattle Trails.” That region between Texas and California, and Texas and Montana.

Lonesome Dove territory.

It felt like a blessing at the time: the structure of the book was utterly defined by history. I knew I was going to stick with the Camel Corps, and I knew I was going to stick with the literal bones of this campfire story. And my contribution, what and whoever my characters became, had to brew within that framework.

People came to the territories from all over, places totally unaffiliated with what we romanticize or mythologize… There was a lot of language mixing, a lot of culinary and cultural mixing.

You knew early on you’d have a character like Nora. Was Lurie there too at that point?

He was. I waffled somewhat on whether the narrator of those sections could be Hadji Ali. But inherently, owing to the confines of the historical narrative, it had to be somebody else. Hadji Ali is buried under a pyramid in Quartzsite, Arizona. He died in 1902.

He’s real too?

He’s real.

So you’ve discovered this little-known story about the American West, plus you’re also finding this way into the narrative through underrepresented people. Hadji Ali and Lurie are both Turkish, Nora is Slovenian-American, her neighbors Desma and Rey Ruiz are Mexican… It’s an incredibly expansive book in those terms, and in the terms of bringing in voices normally excluded from the Western.

Certainly the cowboy western.

It’s considered innovative if the protagonist is a boy, like in Blood Meridian. He’s still a straight white boy.

The characters were born of the research. My view of the genre, like so many other people’s, had been pretty limited by cowboy westerns, which I grew up watching because my grandparents were fans.

I read your grandfather liked the Zane Grey books, right?

And Louis L’Amour, all that stuff. Also spaghetti westerns, the Sergio Leone films. What’s interesting, though, is that in the Balkans, a lot more attention was paid to Native American histories. Maybe because, given Balkan history, there’s an inherent desire to recognize resistance for what it is. Then I arrived here and really saw the contrast between that learning, and what’s more fundamental here. I’ve said it before in interviews and it’s a little glib, but I really mean it: historically speaking, I knew way more about Crazy Horse than I did about General Custer. It’s true.

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So in many ways I grew up with the idea of the Western as just “men at war.” With Inland, the characters grew organically from the research. My lens opened up completely. People came to the territories from all over, places totally unaffiliated with what we romanticize or mythologize. The way the communities grew and combined was really interesting to me. There was a lot of language mixing, a lot of culinary and cultural mixing. You know, if you staked out in an isolated place, it was just you and your neighbors. It was all or nothing.

You better be friends.

And people were and they weren’t. One of the things I found really satisfying was being able to focus on the small, petty annoyances of people who’ve suffered together for a really long time. These smalltown grievances and tensions in this super-pressurized environment.

You feel it when Nora has to go into town to check on her sons. Great, now I have to interact with all these people.

Without spoiling anything, there is a debate between Lurie and Hadji Ali about chasing adventure (and probable death), or maintaining stability with your loving wife and daughter. It spoke to the novel itself, which balances the adventure of the Western with the more “literary” story. There’s a fun tension at work.

That pull with Lurie felt really strong from the beginning. This idea between choice and necessity kept coming up; is he choosing to run, or does he have to run to survive? Can he ever really choose to stay? One of the difficulties for Nora in her dynamic with her husband Emmett is that he adventures by choice. Lurie, to some degree, adventures by necessity. Whenever he’s given the opportunity to rest he kind of passes. Until it’s too late: by the time he starts to want to rest, he can’t.

That tension is a gambler’s tension. This notion between what could be versus what is. And I don’t think Nora has the opportunity to choose. Her whole life is about Emmett’s choices, Emmett’s whims. Her life just “is.”

Nora’s disempowered, and her stubbornness is amazing.

I really wanted her to be immovable. I wanted her to be confident enough to be wrong all the time. (laughter) It was super fun to do. But tough to throw a character under the bus like that.

I’m curious how you arrived at the prose style. I didn’t feel the author’s thumbprint at all, it just read as the work. And those great phrases and verbs, like “barmed up” and “stiff-starched fellow.” I just kept shaking my head: this must have taken so much research.

That is the highest order of compliment I could ever ask for. I’m just going to leave the interview right now. (laughter) I didn’t want to be entirely divorced from the great, sweeping, epic language used to describe the West. It’s prevalence is entirely understandable. The place defies language, defies description.

I didn’t want to lean too heavily into that precedent, but I still wanted to embrace it in a way. As the characters developed, I kept coming back not only to my language, or the language of the period, but their language, too: fluency or lack thereof, being isolated by language, and being embraced by language. For Lurie it’s a really important part of what he unearths in his connection to the men in the Camel Corps. He hears them speaking Turkish, and certain words trigger memories of his native tongue. And then there’s Nora, who’s not especially good at languages — she’s resistant to learning Spanish, for instance, and it becomes something her sons are able to use to hide themselves from her.

I really wanted to develop specific dialects for the respective narratives that correspond with their regionality. I wanted the people from Amargo to sound not all that different from each other. And for the Cameleers to have developed this sort of threshold lilt they use to switch between languages, since they’re always switching between Arabic and English and French. That became the project. Trying to find idioms that belonged to these respective enclaves.

And it was great fun. I did a lot of research. I read this book, The Dictionary of Americanisms, which is a 1870s/1880s glossary of regional terms, and was struck by how the definitions in it were always inadequate to describe proper usage, proper context and humor. And how idioms are used to mark people: you’re an insider if you use this expression, and an outsider if you don’t. Which, frankly, I’ve often felt as an immigrant. You arrive in a new place and feel like you’re always one step behind, even if you’re not. There’s some innate part to really belonging to this community, and you’ll never be able to access it. You can get almost all the way down, but never quite to that final layer.

And I wanted to replicate that feeling in the book’s relationship with the reader. The characters are all the way down to the bottom layer of the language; it’s innate. And then what happens, hopefully, is that the reader is one layer up from there, and can’t quite get all the way down to the bottom of all the idioms and expressions.

It reads easily if you don’t know the terms and expressions. But it is fun to google “blenched” while reading.

I love that verb. (laughter)

Death is so pervasive in the novel that its characters’ grief is never-ending. They live with it. Lurie carries the ghost of his departed partners-in-crime in these supernatural and touching ways that take on greater resonances in the final pages of the book. Nora engages in dialogue with the spirit of her long-deceased child Evelyn, which is rendered on the page and carried through Inland in a more experimental fashion. How did you arrive at that?

The notion of both characters’ hauntings was established pretty early. The mechanism of it took time to figure out. The history of the West is a deeply turbulent, unstable, and violent one. Bloodshed and colonialism and repurposing and renaming. Everything about that kept the living population, from various walks of life, in a constant state of unrest. I thought this constant state of unrest must be true for the dead as well. That was baked in from the beginning: nobody in this book is going to catch a break for a long time, or at all. It’s a cauldron of increasing instability run by malicious, impervious powers. That’s just empire, right?

The way Nora and Lurie carry their grief arose in strange ways. In early drafts, Nora was talking to herself and answering back. I dug a little deeper there: why is she talking to herself? Who is this manifestation of the other self, talking back? I realized it must be her dead daughter, or at least how she imagines her daughter would be, if she had survived. This is the only relationship in which Nora feels most like herself, and the only one in which she’s actually able to give voice to her doubts and secrets.

One of the things that interests me most is, what do you do when you’re isolated? What do you do when no one’s watching? When you’re only accountable to your own conscience or beliefs? I think Evelyn became this volleying partner for Nora to hash out so many of her own terrible decisions. Even when Nora is questioning her own perception, even when she arrives at the wrong answer — and sticks to the wrong answer — talking to Evelyn allows her to alleviate her grief but also interact with the penance she’s carrying.

For both Nora and Lurie their interactions with the dead are constant attempts to repay this debt to their own past.

For me, a narrative works when it matters to somebody… And I’m not talking about the writer or the reader: it has to matter to somebody in the book.

I was curious about your thoughts on the themes of spiritualism and empiricist skepticism in the novel, which we also saw in The Tiger’s Wife. With Inland these supernatural elements also inform myth and legend, positively and negatively. I can imagine readers debating this spiritual-empirical question, and debating what you believe, since it’s very balanced in the book.

It’s something that keeps cropping up in my work. I don’t mean it to, this tension between the real world and the supernatural, the empirical and the fanciful. It’s something I find myself interrogating personally, so it emerges in the work. The central question, I suppose, is: Does having a reverence of something inexplicable erode your ability to see the world for what it is? Or is it a necessary delusion to get through life? That’s the fundamental binary in all my work: The person who lives with awe, and the person who does not. I don’t know what that’s about.

But in this book, I wanted to avoid the notion that people who are hardened by life are hardened against the possibility of some sort of belief.

It’s similar to your first novel: you can see how, if we pull back, this belief is necessary for stitching a nation together. You can’t be a total rationalist and create a national feeling — good or bad. Patriotism or nationalism.

That’s so apt. And it’s a fine line between one and the other, possibly governed by the nuances of belief. That emerged in this book too, inadvertently.

Humility is often rewarded in this novel, which you don’t often see in books about the American West. The character who calls himself a king is an utter blowhard. The people in the book we’re most sympathetic to the ones who resist that aspiration.

Like Desma and Rey Ruiz.

Desma and Rey, certainly. And Lurie, too. His ambitions aren’t grand. He’s not trying to strike it rich or amass power. (For most of the book he’s just trying to stay alive.) He loves his camel, and he experiences a bit of conventional domestic happiness in the book. Nora, for her part, knows the shape of her happiness, even if she can’t get to it. It’s as if Deadwood just followed Charlie Utter around, you know?

I like that idea. For me, as the author, to give a read on this may be too pointed. But I do think to some degree that every character with any kind of ambition, if they bear down on it too hard, will find it blowing up in their face. (laughter) Which isn’t me moralizing, it just ended up that way on the page.

A lot of writers say writing each novel is like writing their first. It doesn’t get easier. You also know my personal theory that the 250-page novel and the 1,000-page novel are easy in terms of narrative structure — and everything in between is incredibly difficult. (laughter) I’m wondering how you came to this structure and shape.

I definitely had to feel my way through the book. I knew there was concrete history to adhere to. And I knew these two strands would have to come together at the end, and how. So history set the plot and narrators from the beginning.

But what that meant, and the tone of that eventual juncture, and what psychological and emotional state the characters would arrive in at the end — that was all a mystery. The map was set, I had point A and point B. But the route, how you’re going to get there, what your condition will be when you arrive? No clue.

And I fell into a couple sand traps, you know? I’m a very trial-and-error writer. I tried it a couple different ways, but I was constantly coming back to the questions: Why was I so taken with this meeting of worlds when I first heard about it? Why do these people need each other at the end? What will they come away with?

For me, a narrative works when it matters to somebody. It has to matter to somebody. And I’m not talking about the writer or the reader: it has to matter to somebody in the book. That the whole story is told, and told properly, is somehow always the most high-stakes thing in the universe of the novel. I don’t know where that comes from. It may be from this notion I keep trying to drill into my students: that every story is actually a mystery. Every story has all these underpinnings that amount to an eventual big picture, and if you understand this and this, all these minor points, then you understand the whole thing. You get the key and you unlock it all. I’m really hooked by that principle, even though it’s really basic. (laughter)

But it works! The distance between the text and the character is so minimal. In other novels the writer may be more present, moving characters like chess pieces.

Trying for that perspective required a lot of constant adjustment, particularly in Nora’s section. If there were any more distance between the character and the author in the text, you’d see what she’s heading toward a mile away. She’s told things that seem like they might be true, and the whole route to refuting them is her belief that she’s right. Any more room there and the reader might go, “I don’t know about this…”

The mystery element. Keeping the tabula rasa in mind for the reader’s progress through the book.

One of my methods for keeping track of all this is to make a knowledge board. I draw a line down the middle of a blank page. That line represents the plot points — let’s say, Nora’s whole day. When her story starts, we’re in the gulch looking for tracks. That’s a plot point on the line. Then we come back up and see her ask, Where are the dogs? Another plot point. You go through the whole book like this, and then above each plot point you write what the character knows, and below you write what they don’t. This is important, of course, because as the writer you know everything, and you can’t let your knowledge muddy the character’s progression through the story. The character can’t react to what they don’t know yet.

Once you finish the book, you look back to Nora’s story in the first half and there’s plenty of “Ohhh, I get it now!”

The beginning of the book, the very first page, there are keys hidden in there as well.

Since your last novel you’ve moved to New York and now teach at CUNY Hunter. Did either of those things influence the writing?

Teaching certainly did. I work with really brilliant young people who take writing really seriously. They come to the roundtable every week with probing questions and a desire to become better at what they do. You can’t help but feel challenged to do better yourself, all the time. Often somebody would ask me for advice in class and I’d tell them something I felt was sincere — then I’d think to myself, You’re not doing that yourself, though, are you? You’re not using that technique to better your writing practice. You’re not asking yourself these questions. It was a constant sort of bullshit check for myself. It’s really helpful. It keeps you honest.

Can I ask about your writing process and the writerly tonic known as Frasier?

When I write I listen to Frasier in the background. And also, more recently, to Parks and Recreation. One or the other is always on when I’m writing, because I can’t listen to music. I get too into it, bouncing around and dancing. But I can’t write in total silence, either. It’s such a lonely game, you know, escaping into this world you’ve created. So I like writing with my back to the TV and feeling like there’s this nice group of benign people somewhere nearby who are having a conversation I’m absolutely uninvested in — because I’ve heard it a thousand times already — and the energy of it makes me feel like time is passing, but in a really cheerful way. Productive things are happening. Niles Crane or Ron Swanson is over here, doing their thing, having a laugh, and maybe when I go get a snack I’ll check in with them.

I wish there was a more erudite answer, but the truth is it makes me feel less lonely (laughter).

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Ryan Chapman’s novel Riots I Have Known was recently published by Simon & Schuster. His writing has appeared online at The New Yorker, McSweeneys, GQ, Bookforum, The Believer, Frieze, BOMB, and elsewhere. He lives in Kingston, New York.

Editor: Dana Snitzky