Award-winning and bestselling authors Tea Obreht and Gary Shteyngart read from their latest novels Monday at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater as part of the 2011/2012 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.
Obreht read first, picking two excerpts from her highly praised debut “The Tiger’s Wife,” which received the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. The novel is set in an unnamed Balkan country and follows Natalia, a doctor who attempts to unravel the mysterious circumstances of her grandfather’s sudden death.
Many were caught off guard by Obreht’s lighter reading that showcased humor hidden among the darker themes of death and war. Her consistent but animated tone sparked several laughs from the audience at seemingly unlikely points in the narrative.
“In the Balkans, that’s also a motive of coping,” Obreht said. “It’s not exactly a cheerful history there so I think you have to get as much cheer out of it as you can.”
“The Tiger’s Wife” originated in the form of a 25-page short story written by Obreht while she was working towards her Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing at Columbia University. After the story was torn apart in workshops, Obreht realized that as she added on more, the story got better.
Eventually it turned into a full-length novel that centered on a grandfather-granddaughter relationship based loosely on the one in Obreht’s life.
“It was its own relationship before I realized that my relationship with my grandfather was at the base,” Obreht said.
“That was one of those things where the book runs away with itself. It just sort of crawled onto the page when I wasn’t looking.”
Following Obreht was Shteyngart, recipient of the 2011 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Literature as well as the 2010 Salon Book Award for Fiction.
He read from his third novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” which is set in dystopian New York and follows middle-aged Leonard Abramov as he falls in love with the beautiful and young Eunice Park; it tackles the issues of materialism and technological dependence in the face of a national economic crisis.
Shteyngart is someone who could easily be your quirky, sarcastic and witty friend that you rely on for comic relief. He elicited much laughter from the crowd throughout his reading of a scene where Leonard brings Eunice to meet his parents.
“When I started writing this book, there was a lot of science fiction in it and I realized that I didn’t know anything about science,” Shteyngart said. “So my editor said, ‘Less science more love.’”
He was inspired focus on the love story by one of his favorite dystopian novels, “1984” by George Orwell.
“Super Sad True Love Story,” like his previous two works, touches on a much deeper issue while finding a way to incorporate a humorous writing style.
“I definitely feel like writing literary fiction that’s humorous is almost an oxymoron and there’s often a pressure not to do it,” Shteyngart said.
“I come from a Russian Jewish tradition, where the whole serious stuff is the stuff that’s supposed to be funny.”
Both authors’ works are based in a time other then the present. They agreed that setting a story in the present time could be difficult because it’s so fleeting.
“There’s no present left. We’re all living in the future,” Shteyngart said. “And that’s the big problem that makes it almost impossible to write about the present — because it’s gone. Just like that, it’s history.”
The final reading in this series will feature former U.S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin and will be held at 7:30 p.m. April 23 at the Hubbard Stage of the Alley Theater.