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“The Morningside” author Téa Obreht on the books that have shaped her life

The Orange Prize for Fiction winner lists some of her favorites.

The magical realism of Téa Obreht's novels have been capturing readers' imaginations since her 2011 debut, The Tiger's Wife, which won the coveted Orange Prize for Fiction.

It made her the youngest ever winner of the British writing award. Now, she returns with her third novel, The Morningside, out now, which follows a mother and daughter, Silvia, who must settle at the titular crumbling luxury tower apartments when they are expelled from their ancestral homeland. Silvia is entranced by the stories of her aunt Ena, who offers folktales of her home and their past, one that her mother has kept swathed in secrecy.

Enchanted by these stories, Silvia sees the world full of magical possibilities and becomes consumed by the mysterious older woman who lives in the penthouse, Bezi Duras, an enigma to all who live in The Morningside, who emerges only at night to walk her three hounds for hours on end.

This sense of home, identity, fantastical possibility, folklore, and uprooting from one's home threads throughout all of Obreht's work — and it colors some of her favorite reading experiences too. Here, the writer walks us through the books and authors that have shaped her, from Roald Dahl to Cormac McCarthy.

<p>Leonardo Cendamo/Getty; Random House</p> Tea Obreht; The Morningside

Leonardo Cendamo/Getty; Random House

Tea Obreht; The Morningside

My favorite book as a child

Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. I wanted to read it before I was old enough to, or before my mom thought I was old enough to, and she thought that Quentin Blake's illustrations were a little bit grotesque. There was something illicit about the book, and I remember waiting to read it, and then finally being able to and reading it over and over and over again. I love a childhood book with a big feast in it, and this is one of the great feasts of childhood literature at the end of Fantastic Mr. Fox. 

<p>Penguin Young Readers Group</p>

Penguin Young Readers Group

A book I read in secret as a teenager

The Valley of Horses, which was from the Earth's Children's series by Jean M. Auel. Her most famous is the Clan of the Cave Bear. But that wasn't the one that I got my hands on. I got my hands on the sequel to it, which had a lot of clearly sexually explicit scenes that I didn't understand, but I could tell they were wrong. That was what I read in secret.

The book I loved in school

To Kill a Mockingbird. That was my introduction to American literature. We read it toward the end of middle school. I knew nothing about American history, the history of American racism — not that they were teaching that so prolifically in public school in Georgia in the '90s. But I remember reading it and being very moved. We had just moved to the States, and it allowed me to begin to understand that I didn't know anything.

A book that changed my life

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Before that, I believed that elements of the surreal and the supernatural belonged to the fanciful realm of children's literature. I had believed that as I matured as a reader, things would become more realist. By the time I read it, that was certainly the case in school curriculums — everything was very realist. And then I read this unbelievable Russian classic, which featured a duck and cat and the Devil and this extravagant party. I realized that serious literature for adults could feature this, and that there were no rules.

<p>Grove Press</p>

Grove Press

A book that cemented me as a writer

Any book in which I suddenly understand some new aspect of craft, and I suddenly understand what it is the author is doing. A really important one for me recently was Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season, which is a family story that takes place in Montana. He does something really interesting with point of view and with situating the protagonist's point of view in body and consciousness. And I remember reading it and being like, "Oh, I can see what he's doing. And I don't see people do that very often and it really works." So, that's my most recent cementing.

A book I've read over and over

I've read The Bluest Eye over and over again. This is one of those books that I read it when I was too young to understand. I read The Bluest Eye and Beloved around the same time, and I was too young to understand, but was so struck by the prose that I kept coming back to it. A year would go by, two years would go by, and I'd return to it even before I had set off on a practical journey as a writer, just to see if I could understand it better.

<p>Vintage</p> 'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison

Vintage

'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison

A classic you're embarrassed to say you've never read

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.  There's many aspects of Oliver Twist and a lot of characters that become shorthand for certain occupations in society. I've definitely called people behind their backs like, "Well, he's an artful Dodger." Without having read this book.

A book people would be surprised to learn I loved

Even though it's bleak and even though it is not a vision of the apocalypse to which I subscribe, I really do love The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It's fantastically written.

The first book you read that defined the genre or style you have as a writer

It has to be Love in the Time of Cholera. It defined my style as the kind of writer I was back then. I was like, "Oh my God, these sentences are long, and they're exploding with detail," and I really wanted to do that. He's big on lists, and I was really big on lists for a long time, and I still kind of am. I have to cut myself off. "Here are three semicolons. We're good." That was defining for me.

A book I wish I'd written

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. That's an extraordinary book — what it does with time and the visualization of an interior without actually showing it is extraordinary.

The last book that made me laugh out loud

It's not a funny book, but there are parts of it that are extraordinarily funny — it has to be Jenny Offill's Weather.

<p>Picador</p> 'A Prayer for the Dying' by Stuart Nan

Picador

'A Prayer for the Dying' by Stuart Nan

The last book that made me cry

I actually don't cry when I read. I have never cried while reading a book. I have sort of teared up. The last book that made me tear up vaguely was Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, which is actually a horror story, but the point of view shields you from understanding the full horror of what's going on until you're already moved to sadness. And then that sadness slowly transforms into horror. So the sadness would draw tearsm and then it would change into this horrific realization of what's going on. It's about a diphtheria outbreak in a frontier town. It's horrific. Highly recommend, but also… be ready.

My literary hero

Vesna Goldsworthy. I had the opportunity to meet her in October for the first time, but I had steadily been reading her work. She's really a force of nature. She has this incredible, sharp, elegant forthrightness on the page. Then I met her, and she was exactly that way in real life, but also very generous, warm and supportive of up-and-coming writers. She's extraordinary in every way.

The last book I gave as a gift

White Fang by Jack London. I gave it to my godson who was visiting us here in Wyoming. Even though it's not set in Wyoming, he's into animals. And I thought, "Well, you're the right age for White Fang."

'White Fang' by Jack London
'White Fang' by Jack London

The first book I bought with my own money

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was obsessed with the cartoon. I wanted to read the book. It's a door stop, not as much of a door stop as Les Miserables, but it's still a door stop. My mother had read it as a young person, and this was another one of those things where she was like, "You are too young for this. This will horrify you, and there's a lot about architecture and you will be bored." She was right, but it's an extraordinary book nonetheless.

What I'm reading right now

I am reading several. I have a tendency to read book a couple of books at a time, but I'm reading Blackouts by Justin Torres.

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