When writer Téa Obreht’s first book came out in 2011, it got the kind of reaction that most debut novelists only dream of: The Tiger’s Wife was both critically acclaimed and a best seller. It was nominated for the National Book Award and won the Orange Prize.
When it came time to write her second novel, Inland, she says the situation was a little different. “The things I had learned writing the first book didn’t necessarily really apply to the second one, because there’s a purity of feeling, I think, when you’re writing for the first time, where you don’t really consider that there’s going to be a human audience outside of like, your mom.”
The Tiger’s Wife was set in the Balkans — Obreht was born in Belgrade — and steeped in the local culture. But Inland is set in the American West; Obreht says she drew on the myths of the Old West for her story. “I think that my understanding of it was rooted in this notion of the cowboy Western, right?” she says. “Very white hat, black hat stories that framed this very, very narrow lens, a narrow but incredibly powerful narrative of the West.”
To broaden her understanding, Obreht began doing research — which led her to a history podcast, and a little-known episode in American history: the time the military tried using camels as pack animals in the Southwest Territories.
“And then the podcast went on to talk about who came over, and how the camels were brought over from the Ottoman empire with drovers. And I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it before — and especially considering I’d been doing all this other research and had never even brushed up against this story. And it really, really seized me.”
The book unfolds in two alternating stories. In one, an outlaw named Lurie comes across the U.S. Camel Corps while on the run from a deputy sheriff who’s determined to see him hang. Lurie, who was brought to the U.S. from the Mideast as a child, finds it easy to hide among the camel drovers. He grows attached to them, and to the camel he rides as he makes his way across the Southwest.
Lurie’s tale alternates with that of Nora, who lives on a farm in the Arizona Territory. A drought threatens the family’s livelihood. Her husband has been gone too long in search of water. And she’s been left alone with a young son and her husband’s niece, both of whom believe that the property is being stalked by a demon animal.
All of this, says Obreht, is leading Nora to question her decision to throw her fate in with her husband’s many years ago. “As I wrote her, through my research, I became more and more conscious of the unbelievable difficulty of homesteading life,” Obreht says, “particularly for women who were dragged on these misadventures by husbands who often decided to, you know, stake up in the West on a whim.”
Nora and Lurie seem fated to meet, though through much of the book their paths never cross. But they do share something in common: They both commune with the dead. Lurie can see them wandering around towns sometimes, making him do things against his will. Nora talks regularly with her daughter who died in infancy, imagining her all grown up.
As a writer, Obreht says, she is drawn to that which cannot be explained. “The fantastical and the supernatural have held such an important role in human narrative since the beginning of stories. And I think that fundamentally, we are always asking ourselves the same questions: Is the world made up of only what we see? Or is it made up of the things we believe? And I think to explore that on the page is a great pleasure and a great need for me.”
Obreht grounds the supernatural in the hard reality of pioneer life, and packs her story with secrets and surprises. But perhaps nothing in Inland is more astonishing that the fact that camels once really did roam the American West.
This story was produced for radio by Tom Cole and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.