LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When writer Tea Obreht's first book, "The Tiger's Wife," came out in 2011, it was both critically adored and a book club favorite. Obreht's new novel, "Inland," is inspired by a little-known piece of history of the American West and tinged with the supernatural. NPR's Lynn Neary has more.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: It's different writing a second novel, says Tea Obreht. For one thing, there were no expectations the first time around.
TEA OBREHT: The things that I had learned writing the first book didn't necessarily really apply to the second one, kind of 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 (laughter) you know?
NEARY: Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia. Her first book, "The Tiger's Wife," was set in the Balkans and steeped in its culture. But for her second novel, Obreht drew on the myths of the Old West.
OBREHT: I think that my understanding of it was - you know, it was rooted in this notion of the cowboy Western - right? - very white hat, black hat stories that framed this very, very narrow lens - a narrow but nevertheless incredibly powerful narrative of the West.
NEARY: To broaden her understanding, Obreht began doing research, which led her to a history podcast and a story about camels that the military used as pack animals in the Southwest Territories.
OBREHT: 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.
NEARY: The book unfolds in two alternating stories. In one, an outlaw named Lurie comes across the Camel Corps while he's on the run from a deputy 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. In this excerpt, Lurie sees the camels for the first time as they leave the ship that brought them to America.
OBREHT: (Reading) That's a horse, I told the old-timer, but no, not a horse after all. As those oarsmen pulled for the beach, a strange silhouette began to firm up - a snake neck and frowzy mane, a huge periscope head turning slowly this way and that, a tent peg underbite, a drumlin back from which the morning wind raised a constant and ethereal fog, the dust of six months at sea.
NEARY: Lurie's tale alternates with Nora's, 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.
OBREHT: As I wrote her, through my research, I became more and more conscious of the unbelievable difficulty of homesteading life, 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.
NEARY: 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. Nora imagines her all grown up. As a writer, Obreht says, she's drawn to that which cannot be explained.
OBREHT: 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're always asking ourselves the same questions. You know, is the world made up only of what we see, or is it made up of the things that we believe? And I think to explore that on the page is a great pleasure and a great need for me.
NEARY: Obreht grounds the supernatural and the hard reality of pioneer life and packs her story with secrets and surprises. But perhaps nothing in it is more astonishing than the fact that camels once really did roam the American West. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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