Myth and the real converge in debut novelist Téa Obreht's stunning The Tiger's Wife, where a tiger and a deathless man stalk through history.

The Tiger's Wife depicts a country struggling with fallout from two wars not through violence but through the filters of myth and story. Why approach the material this way?

I'm interested in war stories in general, but I felt dwelling on the historical conflict would confine the human story I wanted to tell. Specifically, I wanted, not the reality but the actuality, which is why there are no actual fight scenes and the sequence of events has been reshuffled slightly. Textbook accounts move in this streamlined way, but my fascination is with narratives that delve into what happens to people while these events go on beneath their lives.

How about the similarities between Natalia's unnamed country and Yugoslavia, where you were born?

Certainly I meant it to represent the area, but didn't want to get bogged down in specifics because I didn't feel the story was about politics. My intention was to distill the essence of Yugoslavia without privileging one side over another.

What part does the traditional literature of Serbia and Croatia play in your work?

All literature from the area is influenced by oral storytelling; that's something I certainly aspire to. It's something I had the opportunity to experience firsthand when I went back two summers ago to write a vampire-hunting piece for Harper's magazine. I think it was the first time I fully understood how much this rich character portraiture is present in the way people speak and embellish their lives. That's the common thread that runs through the literature of the area—rich, spoken detail from the tradition of storytelling.

How did the three narratives of the book—Natalia's search for her grandfather's body, the story of the deathless man, and the tiger's wife—come together as a novel?

I was working on a short story called "The Tiger's Wife," which couldn't really cut it on its own, and was interested in the figure of the deathless man, which appears in Slavic and German myth, where he functions as an articulation of mortality. Then in 2006, my grandfather, to whom I was very close, passed away. So these three narratives came about in my life and around my grandfather's death, and I realized they were telling one story.

So the grandfather character was the anchor in fact as well as fiction?

Yes. Previous to this, I'd tried very hard to stay away from anything personal in my work, anything to do with my origins, but basing a character on my grandfather turned out to be the correct path to that story. I needed to focus on somebody besides Natalia, the narrator, and the more fantastic elements of the story were sort of welded together by his childhood and adult life, though my grandfather was not a doctor as the character is in the novel. In retrospect, I was trying to come to terms with the idea of death.

How have you found being included—as the youngest writer no less—in the New Yorker's 20 Under 40?

Really humbling, in the most positive way. It's surreal to be attached to this list of writers I admire. But I'm not going to let it go to my head.