I’m very excited about teaching a fiction workshop with Téa Obreht during the Sierra Nevada College MFA residency this summer. We’ve known each other since 2006, when we started graduate school together, and I remember reading Téa’s first submission for workshop. I finished the story and turned to my wife and said, “you’ve got to read this.” That story, in a different form, ended up in The New Yorker when Téa was named to the “20 Under 40” list. We took a few minutes recently to talk about the workshop for this summer.
Alexi: “We’ve both taught a lot, but we’ve never taught a class together. Do you think you can make it through a week without killing me?”
Téa: “A whole week is going to be tough.”
Alexi: “But you’ll try? So what are you most excited about?”
Téa: “One of the things we bonded about at Cornell was how much we enjoyed teaching. Since Cornell, you’ve gotten to teach formal classes a lot more than I have, and I miss being around that energy, the energy of the classroom, especially with you, since your enthusiasm is contagious.”
Alexi: “You haven’t been in a formal classroom that much the last couple of years, but you’ve been out on the road and doing a ton of events with The Tiger’s Wife. What do you think will be the biggest difference?”
Téa: “Obviously, there is a teaching element to the events. I talk about the process of writing a lot, and there’s a certain amount of reflection that comes with having to dissect how you’ve arrived at a particular project. But one of the things that I’m most looking forward to is getting to nerd out on craft for an extended period of time and having a chance to talk with younger writers.”
Alexi: “So what are we going to do if we disagree on the direction of a student’s story in workshop?”
Téa: “Grammar slam? Best three out of five.”
Alexi: “On a serious note, do you have a text that you most like teaching?”
Téa: “Hemingway’s short story, “A Natural History of the Dead.” It’s very different from the rest of his short stories. Also the voice and the perspective change partway, and it’s a good story to workshop from a craft perspective.”
Alexi: “Last but absolutely not least, have you been practicing for the big whiffleball game?”
Téa: “That’s when you sit on a horse and swing a stick, right?”
Alexi: “Something like that.”
[Editor’s note: While Téa has not actually been practicing, she does know what whiffleball is.]
Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in New York.
Alexi Zentner is the author of the novels The Lobster Kings (forthcoming, 2013) and Touch. He is published in the United States by W. W. Norton & Company, and in Canada by Knopf Canada. Touch has been published or is forthcoming in a dozen countries and ten languages. The CBC has named Alexi as one of 12 Writers to Watch – “the future of this country’s literature” – and one of six “fresh voices” for 2011. Touch was named one of the “best books” of 2011 from The National Post, Kobo, and Amazon.ca, and singled out for year-end praise by The Globe & Mail. Touch was shortlisted for The 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award, The Center for Fiction’s 2011 Flahery-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and the 2011 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Alexi’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic Monthly, Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Glimmer Train, The Walrus, The Southern Review, and many other publications. He is the winner of both the O. Henry Prize (jury favorite) and the Narrative Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize. Alexi is a faculty member in the Sierra Nevada College low residency MFA program. Alexi has taught creative writing at Cornell University, where he received his MFA, and has taught at the Brooklyn College MFA program, the Rutgers-Camden Writers’ Conference, and the Lighthouse Writing Workshop, and has been a teaching fellow at the Bread Loaf and Wesleyan University writing conferences. Alexi Zentner was born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, and currently lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two daughters. He holds both Canadian and American citizenship.