Of the many attractions Jackson, Wyo., has to offer—world-class skiing, stunning national parks, grown men and women in cowboy hats—recent visitors to the Teton County Library may have experienced the rarest: the chance to see a New York Times–bestselling novelist at work.
Speaking over Zoom from one of the library’s study rooms, Téa Obreht jokes that her regular presence over the past months may have actually been more useful for staffers as a deterrent. “That woman is looking at you and observing the things you do,” she imagines one of them warning a patron. “And if you answer your phone during quiet time, she’s going to put it in the book.”
The book in question is Obreht’s third novel, The Morningside (Random House, Mar.). The dystopian tale first took shape as a short story for a July 2020 anthology of Covid-19-era fiction commissioned by the New York Times Magazine, and was completed at the Teton County Library after Obreht and her husband, Irish writer Dan Sheehan, turned their home office into a nursery for their daughter, who was conceived and born in between the manuscript’s first and final drafts.
Somewhere along the way were moves from New York City to Jackson to San Marcos, Tex., where Obreht taught creative writing at Texas State University, and back to Jackson. “It was a very strange novel in terms of both mental and physical space,” she says. “I’ve never undergone so many changes in the process of one project.”
Such upheaval may be new to Obreht’s writing life, but not her personal one. Born into an ethnically mixed family in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia), in 1985, she left home with her mother and maternal grandparents in 1992, during the early years of the Yugoslav Wars, moving first to Cyprus and then to Egypt. From Cairo, she and her mother immigrated to the U.S. in 1997, which she describes as a “huge” culture shock. “I was such a shy loner,” she says, chuckling at the memory. “Twelve to 16 was a rough time.”
For readers who know what happened next, the image of Obreht—who has the expressive features of a silent-film star and the self-deprecating good humor of the Ivy League cousin you want to hate but can’t—as an awkward ESL kid hiding out in the library during lunch breaks and writing the word ejaculated in place of said “for a really long time” (thanks, Jane Eyre) may seem hard to believe. But all those disturbances at such a young age didn’t just leave her feeling lost—they also taught her how to find a map.
As a girl with “terrible eyesight that went undiagnosed for way too long” and a morbid fear of the dark, Obreht was obsessed with eerie stories “of youthful, vulnerable entities surviving the odds,” like Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey and Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. “This is the kind of scrappy young person I’d like to be,” she recalls thinking. Writing itself served as “a way into the English language,” and when it came time for college—at 16, in a jump Obreht attributes to confusion caused by switching school systems so often—she set out on a “step-by-step advancement toward the idea of a formal training in writing.”
The first stop was USC, where she double majored in creative writing and art history and took classes with T.C. Boyle and Percival Everett. Two days before she graduated—with a spot in Cornell’s MFA program in hand—Obreht’s grandfather, the only father figure in her life, died suddenly.
Deeply shaken, she eventually wrote a story at Cornell that evolved into The Tiger’s Wife, a dazzling, folkloric novel of a young physician in a war-torn region of the Balkans searching for answers about her recently deceased grandfather. Published in 2011, when she was just 25, Obreht’s debut launched her into a stratosphere unknown to most writers twice her age: National Book Award finalist, youngest-ever winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction (“I don’t feel I’ve earned it karmically,” she told the Guardian).
Eight years and two abandoned novels later came Inland, a startlingly original western that traces the parallel narratives of a frontierswoman in 1893 Arizona Territory and a cameleer on an expedition across the American Southwest. Though she still misses the historical research she did for that one, Obreht took nearly the opposite tack for The Morningside, setting her latest in a water-logged near future wracked by global warming. That she would push each of her three novels into uncharted territory befits the role she ascribes to writing in her life.
“I write a book because I’m trying—not deliberately, but essentially—to articulate something to myself,” Obreht says. “And the act of that articulation makes me a different person. It helps to push me to that next phase of life.”
With The Morningside, the question Obreht was trying to articulate had to do with why she wasn’t as shaken up by the pandemic as other people seemed to be. “It came to me over time, that it was probably to do with my mother, who had gone through this enormous upheaval in her life, and who, along with my grandparents, had raised me with this idea of, somewhere down the road, some other great upheaval is coming,” she says. “You can’t avoid them—you can just move through your life from one to the next.”
The novel’s 11-year-old protagonist, Silvia, has only a dim awareness of the war that forced her and her mother to leave Back Home years ago. Now, they’re headed for Island City (think New York, with bits and pieces of Belgrade thrown in), where whole neighborhoods have been lost to flood waters and the tide regularly makes much of the remaining grid unnavigable. At the Morningside, a half-empty, formerly luxurious apartment tower, they move in with Sil’s aunt Ena, whose stories of Sarobor, the hometown her mother has kept shrouded in secrecy, spark Sil’s determination to know more, a quest that entangles her with an enigmatic artist who lives in the building’s penthouse with her three giant hounds and a new neighbor girl who appears to be from Back Home but refuses to admit it.
“In the prelude to the novel’s opening,” Obreht says, “bureaucratic snarls, incompetencies, and corruptions have led to a slow slide into a kind of mashed together society of rules for some and non-rules for others—which is not so very different from our own situation. Sil is trying to see what the reality is versus what they’re being told the reality is.”
The idea of a hidden, shifting reality took on deeper meaning for Obreht as she developed the novel over months and years marked by pandemic, pregnancy, and new motherhood. “My mother was born in Yugoslavia,” she says. “It seemed like a very stable system. I was born in Yugoslavia; at the time, it seemed still like a pretty stable system. The rules were small, and they were applicable. Be good, go to school, have a life. Those are parameters by which so many of us function in Western societies, and yet, those are not systems by which so many societies in our world have been able to function due to so many levels of injustice. Now, climate change—among so many other things—is closing that gap. Apocalypses happen all the time, all over the world, on scales large and small. I think there’s a great fascination with the apocalypse, whatever that may be, in Western fiction, partly as a response against the reality that it’s all around us all the time now.”
Asked if fiction has the power to help solve a problem like climate change, Obreht, nearing the end of her allotted hour in the library’s study room, demurs. “I think art can unite us more as a society, but the levers of power are so far removed from us. The thought of bridging that gap is so daunting.”
Like the novels she devoured as a girl, The Morningside offers something more intimate but no less profound—the story of a vulnerable young person surviving against impossible odds. From a writer and a mother who’s turned catastrophe into triumph time and time again, there may be no greater gift.