Donna Tartt The Secret History Interview Assignment

Jill Owens: How did you choose the painting, Fabritius’s The Goldfinch? What about that particular image resonated with you, and what’s your history with the painting?

Donna Tartt: Actually, I did consider a couple of other paintings, briefly, though I always knew it was the one. I first saw it as a copy at Christie’s Amsterdam — I loved the painting the instant I saw it, and the more I found out about it, the more enthralled I became. The Goldfinch is a tiny painting — not much bigger than a child’s school notebook — and a greatly beloved and unique little work; in all the Golden Age of Dutch art, there’s nothing quite like it, and it also has a fascinating history that plays into the plot of the novel. The painter who made it, Carel Fabritius — who was the pupil of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer, and who was greatly celebrated in his own day — died very young in a tragic accident, the explosion of a gunpowder factory in Delft that destroyed most of the town. This little painting is one of Fabritius’s very few works that survive.

Jill: Place seems to be an extremely important part of all your novels — the Northeast in A Secret History, the South in The Little Friend, and now Amsterdam, New York City, and Las Vegas in The Goldfinch. How do you think about place in your work, and why did you want to focus on these cities this time?

Tartt: My books have all really started with a sense of place. Amsterdam’s a city I’ve spent a good deal of time with, and the germ of this book really began almost 20 years ago with a sort of dark Amsterdam mood. And, I’ve been in and out of New York most of my adult life.

Jill: Theo is in such varying states of grief throughout most of the book, and he also — understandably — is frequently on drugs of one sort or another in order to try and deal with it. How did you approach having a voice and perspective that were filtered through those lenses?

Tartt: This is something that the novel does better than any other art form: reproducing the inner life and the inner experience of another person, particularly extreme forms of consciousness like grief, dreams, drunkenness, spiritual revelations, even insanity. Unlike movies, where we’re always onlookers, in novels we have the experience of being someone else: knowing another person’s soul from the inside. No other art form does that. And I like dealing with particularly intense inner experiences because I think that in many ways, this is what the novel does best.

Jill: Reading your work is incredibly immersive; while I was reading The Goldfinch, I was jumpy, edgy, feverish, worried as one crisis or another was happening in the book. Do you think about how your readers will inhabit your characters? Does that affect the voice or the perspective?

Tartt: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I never really thought about it in quite that way before. I would have to say no. But I do inhabit my characters myself as I write.

Jill: Each character, too, leaps off the page; Theo’s friend Boris, for example, is such a fantastic creation, but even smaller characters like Platt Barbour or Xandra are fully developed and memorable. Can you talk a bit about how you approach character, and if there were any in particular that you enjoyed writing in this book and your earlier work?

Tartt: I started out wanting to be a poet rather than a novelist, but character, and my fascination with character, is primarily why I’m a fiction writer instead. And I think that part of the reason I write such long novels is that I like to spend a long time with my characters and get to know them really well — I especially enjoy writing characters who are unruly and unpredictable, who have their own energy and who carry scenes by themselves. Bunny and Henry in The Secret History were like that for me, as were Hely and Edie in The Little Friend. In Goldfinch, I loved all my characters, but I especially loved writing Theo’s scenes with Boris and Andy — I enjoyed writing Andy so much that there were a lot of scenes with him that got cut and didn’t end up in the finished novel.

Jill: In all your novels, the main character or narrator has been a child or an adolescent. While Theo is a bit older than that by the end of this novel, he’s arguably not fully adult yet. What interests you about writing from the perspective of young people?

Tartt: For me, writing from the point of view of young people brings me back to the great pleasure I first had when reading as a child — when I galloped breathlessly through books, when I would come home loaded down with library books and really become lost and entranced in them. Writing about young people is a way back into that readerly excitement. It’s also fun to write about young people because they are introspective and still trying to make sense of the world, and their own place in it.

Jill: You have such a gift for metaphor and simile, in even the smallest moments in your work — I could almost have picked them off any page, but two examples that I loved were early in the book. About Mrs. Barbour:

“Her voice, like Andy’s, was hollow and infinitely far away; even when she was standing right next to you she sounded as if she was relaying transmissions from Alpha Centauri.”

And Mr. Barbour:

“His ruddy cheeks and his long, old fashioned nose, in combination with the prematurely white hair, gave him the amiable look of a lesser founding father, some minor member of the Continental Congress teleported to the 21st century.”

How do you think about metaphor, particularly in relation to describing or defining character?

Tartt: Metaphor, to quote an old teacher of mine, is a kind of elegant confusion. But the metaphors a narrator chooses are just as revelatory of the narrator as they are of the character described. So there’s a kind of double characterization. In the two examples you mentioned, you’re not just getting a description of Mr. and Mrs. Barbour but also getting a peek into Theo’s mind: a boy who is interested in stargazing, who has stars pasted on his bedroom ceiling (Mrs. Barbour and Alpha Centauri) but who also likes American History (Mr. Barbour and the Continental Congress). So these are the metaphors that occur to Theo — you learn a little about him, and the way he sees the world, from the metaphors he uses here. If a different character had been speaking of the Barbours, I would have chosen different metaphors.

Jill: Your prose is also almost forceful in its clarity — even though I have a terrible visual imagination, I could see every moment of The Goldfinch, as well as your earlier work.

Tartt: Oh, that’s great! As a writer, I think I’m more an eye than an ear — the world comes mainly in for me at the eye. So I’m glad the visuals came through for you. As I’m writing my books, I really do see them almost literally — I experience scenes almost as an onlooker, watching from the outside.As I’m writing my books, I really do see them almost literally — I experience scenes almost as an onlooker, watching from the outside.

Jill: How do you think about your language and your prose?

Tartt: I think a lot about them in terms of sensory detail. Tactile, olfactory. And I’m very preoccupied with my work on a word-to-word, sentence-to-sentence level. The mechanics of language, and the writing of individual sentences, are what keep me entertained and engaged with my work on a day-to-day basis for so many years.

Jill: Did you have to do much research, either in art history or antique restoration? Or, for that matter, for the locations? I love the descriptions of both cities, but the Las Vegas scenes felt particularly haunting and oppressive.

Tartt: I spent a lot of time in all three cities in the book. I’ve lived in New York for years, I made several trips to Las Vegas, and Amsterdam is a city that I know fairly well.

So, yes, I did travel. But I also read a great deal about art history, antique restoration, casino gambling — all sorts of things. I did a lot of the research for this book at the New York Public Library. But since I was really only reading about things I was interested in, it never felt like research, more like reading for pleasure.

Jill: How do you think your writing has changed (or not) over the years?

Tartt: From my perspective, it’s really changed remarkably little from when I was a teenager — at least it doesn’t really feel very different while I’m doing it.

Jill: What’s your editing process like, and what was it like working with a new editor for this new novel?

Tartt: I’m very lucky to have worked with two of the most celebrated American editors of the 20th (and 21st) century: Gary Fisketjon and Michael Pietsch. I try to have everything as polished, and finished, as possible before I show it to an editor. Michael and Gary, both brilliant, are very different editors: Gary is a hands-on-line editor; Michael, while he’ll also make line suggestions on the page, also writes letters to the author with more general thoughts and comments, or at least he did with me.

Jill: What are you reading and enjoying lately?

Tartt: When people ask me this, I feel like I keep repeating the same old books since things are unusually busy for me at the moment, with publication. But I loved Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape, and I would really love to be able to spend some time with Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, which was what I was reading before everything got so frantic. A bookstore owner in Amsterdam gave me a copy of The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig that I really want to read. And I just received a galley of Willy Vlautin’s new book, The Free, that I’m really looking forward to reading as well — I’m a great Willy Vlautin fan.

Jill: Is there anything you’d like to talk about or expand upon that I haven’t brought up?

Tartt: I’d like to point out that all the books I signed for Powell’s are signed in purple ink, which is not the usual color of ink I use in my fountain pen. Usually I sign in brown — only Powell’s got purple.


by Jackie McGlone, scotsman.com, October 2, 2003


Donna Tartt is squirming with delight, kicking her legs in the air and noiselessly clapping her hands as if they were small paws. With her astonishing green eyes closed and her sharp little nose pointed upwards, she resembles one of her favourite characters from literature - Winnie the Pooh, perhaps, on discovering a pot of honey, or Mowgli the Man Club after tumbling with wolves.

The reason for the fêted America novelist's ecstatic behaviour is the thought of her impending first visit to Edinburgh today and the fact that I've just tapped the back of her hand with my index finger. In Edinburgh, I live in the house that was the home of Robert Louis Stevenson's uncle, George Balfour. On our drawing room window, a generation of Balfours -- including their famous cousin - gouged and dated their initials. Before meeting Tartt in Manchester, I traced RLS's signature for her.

"Oh, oh, oh! That's so lovely!" exclaims the 39-year-old teller of dark tales, who is obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson (and every other dead Scottish writer, from Walter Scott to Conan Doyle and JM Barrie) and whose shade hovers over her latest book, The Little Friend, a mesmerising slice of Southern Gothic that is unputdownable. It's one of the most eagerly anticipated second novels in the history of modern literature. Advance sales topped an estimated £4 million and when it was published in hardback last autumn, magazine editors reached for the nearest cliché, dubbing it "the second coming".

Ten years in gestation, it's 555 pages of pure pleasure and worth every moment of the wait after Tartt's glittering 1992 debut novel, The Secret History, which has been translated into 23 languages. The film rights were sold and the protracted project passed most recently to Warner-Miramax, with Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother Jake slated as producer and director respectively. Tartt doesn't think the film will ever be made, so she's withheld the movie rights on The Little Friend, which like The Secret History, also begins with a death - the murdered body of a ten-year-old boy is found hanging from the black-tupelo tree in his parents' yard like a piece of strange fruit.

There the resemblance ends. While The Little Friend enthrallingly deals with the blighting nature of grief, the loss of innocence and the death of a way of life, The Secret History is a spellbinding, edgy tale of Greek orgies, Gothic romance and artful campus comedy - Brideshead Revisited meets Euripides' The Bacchae. It spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold millions of copies. Tartt's face was on the cover of every magazine. Her phone never stopped ringing.

"It was crazy, my life was just spinning out of control. I thought it would never end. That's why it took me so long to write The Little Friend. Also, I'm a perfectionist. I can spend hours changing one word, a comma even. But a writer needs solitude and for a long time I didn't have that. It made me realise what it must be like to be really famous, like, say, Nicole Kidman." She shudders delicately at the thought.

For a decade, the rumour mill was in overdrive, grinding out sensational stories about the Mississippi-born author's disappearance from the literary scene. Over the years she became almost more famous for the vanishing than the writing, although she was not silent, continuing to produce essays, reviews and short stories. Allegedly, though, the reclusive Tartt was paralysed with writer's block. She had had a breakdown. She was having love affairs (everyone from Brett Easton Ellis to the scribbling Shakespeare brothers, Nicholas and Sebastian). She was chaste. She was drinking. She had become a female JD Salinger. She was living the life of a hermit on an island she had bought near Tahiti. "Ten years of mysterious silence," Vanity Fair marvelled last year.

In Manchester, Tartt keeps me waiting again - according to the cuttings she's often a little late for interviews. It emerges that she and her publicist got hopelessly lost in the maze of corridors in the madly modish Malmaison where they're staying. Which is oddly appropriate - Tartt is writing a 2004 novella for Canongate, based on the myth of Daedalus, the mythical creator of the Cretan labyrinth, who constructed wings for his son Icarus. ("It's timely. You know, things dropping out of the sky, people falling to earth.")

Tartt has just flown in from Munich and she's still laughing about the terribly serious German who asked her if she read her reviews. When she said no, he told her she was wise, since critics literally destroyed Thomas Mann. "I don't want to end up like Mann, do I?" she grins. Despite a streaming cold, she's friendly and full of fun, admiring everything from my haircut to my "designery" coat so enthusiastically that I leave thinking that we might have done some serious shopping together instead of discussing her puzzling secret history.

An elfin 60 inches tall, weighing in at 90 lbs - "the same size as Lolita" - her gamine appearance is as fastidious as her prose. She's a dead ringer for Harriet Cleve Dufresne, the smart, bookish, 12-year-old heroine of The Little Friend, who is in thrall to Robert Louis Stevenson, Captain Scott and Houdini. An infant at the time of her brother's murder, she determinedly sets out to find his killer. "She was sturdily built, like a small badger, with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short, a thin determined little mouth. She spoke briskly, in a reedy, high-pitched voice that for a Mississippi child was oddly clipped, so that strangers often asked where on earth she has picked up that Yankee accent. Her gaze was pale, penetrating..." writes Tartt, who is all of the above.

As befits a woman who owns an apartment on New York's Upper East Side (and a snake-infested house in Virginia), the lady of letters is in inky, Manhattan black - trousers and long jacket, with a crisp black-and-white striped shirt. The laces of her boots are thickly looped around her ankles like piratical manacles. Every button is neatly done up, which it's tempting to see as a metaphor for the reticent writer. For Donna Tartt irresistibly reminds me of Winston Churchill's famous remark about the Soviet Union being a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Well, he hadn't met the sphinx-like Southern belle who has a talent to tantalise, as one headline writer so succinctly put it.

So has she done a Flaubert, who immortally revealed: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"? Harriet Cleve Dufresne, c'est vous? "Look," replies Tartt, well, tartly: "I think a writer's life is very unimportant. Talking about my private life (I hadn't asked) draws attention from the books and it's the books that matter. If people think my books are autobiographical, I'm pleased. It means I've succeeded in what I set out to do - I've fooled them into believing that something I made up is true.

"I'm not Harriet, although I was a tomboy, a little pagan thing. And she certainly shares my love of books. Harriet would, however, despise some that I adored, such as Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. But no one else in the book is based on anyone I know. I could never write about people dear to me, I wouldn't want to hurt them. Anyway you can't be objective about those you love, so it's fiction, even if people don't credit me with the fact that it's all the work of my imagination," adding that she remembers everything about her childhood, on which she obviously looks back in languour.

Yet it's hard not to imagine that Tartt's own image is as carefully crafted as her novels. She tells me her background and private life are only too well documented and not that interesting, and that talking about yourself too much is actually injurious for a writer. Neverthless, last year she lounged, "like a rather stern-looking odalisque" in riding boots, holding her beloved dog, Pongo, for Newsweek. Her American publishers send a make-up artist with her when she does publicity back home.

Last year Vanity Fair profiled Tartt by taking her back to Grenada, the town where she grew up in a fading mansion, with her younger sister and mother, Taylor, who sounds like a latter day Blanche DuBois, and to whom she's very close. They talk virtually every day. Before her parents divorced, her father, Don, a service station owner-turned-politician with whom she does not get along, was frequently absent - like Harriet's father in The Little Friend.

The three women were surrounded by Tartt's mother's family, the Bouches, a bevy of aged aunts, grandparents and great grandparents, all of whom read with greed and enormous relish. Her maternal great-grandmother's grandparents, the Kimbroughs, had emigrated from Scotland to the deep South. "She was the greatest love of my life," Tartt sighs.

Every afternoon her great-grandmother read to her - Dickens, Stevenson, Sherlock Holmes stories, and books about the girl detective Nancy Drew, a reward for the heavier stuff, although it made Tartt inpatient. Sipping a cup of "English brekker's tea", she recalls their reading Peter Pan together, acknowledging that Peter's troublesome shadow looms large over The Secret History.

Her great-grandmother was in her eighties when they read Barrie's classic about the boy who never grew up. "It was, of course, profoundly moving to be reading a book in which we're told, 'To die, would be an awfully big adventure,' with someone for whom death was close. I think even I knew that, although I was tiny. I remember looking at pictures of my great-grandmother, who was born in 1890 and would have been exactly the same age as Wendy Darling, as a child in what looked like white nightgowns, and plaintively asking her when we would both be the same age, and if we would ever be children together."

Barely five when she started writing, she says: "I dashed off all these stories, absolutely desperate for my mother to read them and give me her approval. They all ended quickly, 'Then she woke up and it was all a dream...' So perhaps my being a pretty slow writer now is a reaction against that, although I still like to know what my mother thinks of my work - she loves The Little Friend."

The good news for Tartt fans is that, as well as the Canongate novella, she embarked on her next big novel, about which her lips naturally remain sealed, a year ago. It's all-consuming, she reveals. Despite her excitement at finally making it to Edinburgh and perhaps fulfilling her dream of standing at the window of RLS's Heriot Row home, watching for the ghost of Leerie the lamplighter, she can't wait to return to a room of her own. "I have my notebooks with me," she says, "but I'm desperate to write." She sounds as if she's in a hurry.

• Donna Tartt will be reading from and talking about The Little Friend (Bloomsbury, £7.99) at an Edinburgh International Book Festival event this evening in the Queen's Hall, Clerk Street, Edinburgh, at 7.30pm.





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