Donna Tartt Shrine

Donna Tartt - on Writing
Tartt's friend Hanan al-Shaykh – the Lebanese-born novelist – tells of serious fashion-shopping trips with her in London and New York. "For me," Al-Shaykh has said, "Donna is a real novelist – she doesn't care about the time it takes to write another novel, she is just very true to herself and her art... She introduced me to a painter called Johnson Heade, who goes for the tiniest details – the dew on the orchid and so on – and she is like that."

Both books exhibit an "impeccably controlled" narrative and an artful use of language; both are populated with characters who love literature to the point that they behave like romantics in a modern world.

The Secret History: It is a huge, mesmerizing, galloping read, pleasurably devoured in a few evenings: a book which, unlike the vast preponderance of page-turners of first novels - is gorgeously written, relentlessly erudite, and persistently (and quite anachronistically) high-minded.

No wonder the adult Tartt fixates on death and is an insomniac terrified by falling asleep. However, she says brightly, "I get some of my best ideas in the middle of the night, and I'm always glad to go down to my desk and write them down." After an adult life spent away from the South, "I still don't feel like a mainstream American and probably never will ...

Memorably (if not altogether accurately) described by one critic as "Dead Poets Society meets Lord of the Flies, penned by F Scott Fitzgerald paying homage to Joseph Conrad", The Secret History was remarkable not only for its vivid characterization and narrative, but also for its style.

At a time when most young American writers were mimicking the minimalism of Raymond Carver, The Secret History was written in luxuriant prose, unapologetic in its richness and its erudition, yet at the same time compellingly readable. "It was Donna's confidence in her own writing, and the patience that she'd shown over the years to refine it, that was so extraordinary," says Gary Fisketjon, her editor at Knopf. "Twenty-eight isn't a prodigiously young age to write a first novel; but it seemed prodigiously young to have written a first novel that good."

"You did get this sense," one person remembers, "that if she was going to put pen to paper at that time it would be to write anything but a new novel. But it must have been tremendously difficult; every time she set foot in a literary party in London or New York the question would be, "How's the new book going, Donna?" "

She takes writing very seriously, it's studiedly anti-trivial - "It's like what Melville said: that it's a writer's job to dive deep. And I've been under a long time." This slow and serious approach to fiction may be unfashionable, but it is surely a reason for her success. Barry Hannah, the writer who taught her at university, said that Tartt stood out because most students "have got really bad ears and minds, completely messed over by MTV. There's this generic tone. They forget what language can do. They need to find their own personal music."

"A novel is an invention, an entertainment and an illusion," she says from the podium. "How do you talk about an illusion without destroying it?"

"I didn't give a damn about Frank Baum. What I wanted to be was Dorothy. I wanted to live in Oz."

"I am no closer to being Dorothy Gale than I was as a child. But I am closer to being the wizard himself. We authors don't want you to look at us. We want you to look at what we made."

on Barry Hannah's graduate writing class: "A rough game for a 17-year-old," she says. "He was like a knife thrower. He went right to the problem of a story."

"Working on something over a long period gives a sense of richness that you can't fake," she says. "I'm like a cabinetmaker who builds a cabinet every few years."

"Lots of people have encouraged me to speed up. But that makes me unhappy."

"But who am I to give lessons? There are no real messages in my fiction. The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone."

about all the fuss over The Secret History: "A piece of cataclysmic luck like this is a force of nature," she says. "There are plenty of extraordinary people who write books far better than this that don't get half this attention. It's like the lottery. I'm expecting a car to hit me to offset this."

"There really are no child prodigies in writing," she says. "You have to have been around the track. My best work is ahead of me. I'm young!"

I'd be quite limited as a novelist if I only wrote stories about young women who lived in Greenwich Village and smoked too many cigarettes, you know.

Literature today seems to be divided into two camps: extremely literary work, with lots of emphasis on technique and style and so forth and then these sort of popular blockbusters and I know at heart I'm a manic stylist. I love a beautiful sentence, a well-constructed paragraph, some gorgeous turn of phrase that'll just make you sit back in your chair and say oh-oh. But unfortunately I think a lot of books that are well-constructed are really very self-involved and don't take the reader very much into consideration.

She taps the coffee table near her knees. "Being a writer is a bit like being a carpenter," she says. The creation, she seems to be saying, should stand on its own.

"It's kind of like painting a mural," she says, like creating one large scene on a wall. "I write big books, but part of what I experience at my desk, what I do every day, is think and write about little things." She brings her hands closer together and moves them up and down as if she's measuring out canvas to paint a miniature.

"It's about writing sentences, the structure of paragraphs. A sentence has its own structure, too. It has to have flow and symmetry. It's about finding the right word, finding out exactly what you want to say.

"When you keep a book with you for years, it grows richer over time. You understand more about your characters."

Once the idea for the novel eventually took shape in her mind, Tartt began to write it, in her own grueling way—one sentence crafted until it is exactly as she wants it; then a pause to get her bearings; then on to the next. "Which is not to say that I don't go back to craft them again. The shape of paragraphs is very important to me too," Tartt says. This is a daunting revelation, considering that each of Tartt's novels runs more than 500 printed pages, meaning that a finished manuscript could run twice that. Suddenly, 10 years sounds about right.

"I really do work in solitude. It's hard for me to show work while I'm writing, because other people's comments will influence what happens. You have to be very, very careful. Conversation is seductive. It's easy to talk away an idea. It's great to be around people and it's thrilling and exciting, but it jangles me. To really be centered and to really work well and to think about the kinds of things that I need to think about, I need to spend large amounts of time alone. It's the reason I chose to be a writer instead of…an anchorwoman," she says with a moue, which morphs into a grin that retreats as fast as it formed.

And, of course, she speaks of her own books, but by no means exclusively, or even predominantly, because Tartt believes that talking too much about her fiction can be dangerous. "Death to an artist," Tartt says, "is to become a connoisseur of one's own work."

"In order for a long piece of work to engage a novelist over an extended period of time, it has to deal with questions that you find very important, that you're trying to work out," Tartt says. "I didn't want to get up on the high wire and do the same trick again."

"I believe, in a funny way, the job of the novelist is to be out there on the fringes and speaking for an experience that has not really been spoken for," Tartt says. The experience that has been registering on her "private frequency," the one she investigates in different ways over the course of these two novels, is not murder per se, but rather the aftermath of murder, and especially the aftermath of an unsolved murder.

My novels aren't really generated by a single conceptual spark; it's more a process of many different elements that come together unexpectedly over a long period of time. It's a rather dreamlike and unconscious process that's probably not wise to examine or analyze too closely.

Character, to me, is the life's blood of fiction. I love the tradition of Dickens, where even the most minor walk-on characters are twitching and particular and alive. For a novelist to create character, I think, takes a sharp objective eye but also an intuitive intelligence, a receptiveness, a wilingness to make oneself blank in order to percieve things as they actually are. People are endlessly different. The trick of creating character is to try to see all people, even unsympathetic ones, without projecting one's own personality and values on them.

The job of the novelist is to invent: to embroider, to color, to embellish, to make things up. If I've fooled people into thinking that a work of imagination is autobiographical or somehow "real," then I've done my job as an artist.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, there is the Dorothy Parker school that claims to "hate writing but love having written."

Donna Tartt: Well, there is that school and sometimes on bad days I feel like that. On good days I really enjoy being at my desk. The level at which I enjoy writing most is the sentence-to-sentence level. Even though I write big books, I really like constructing sentences and paragraphs and really thinking, "Is this exactly the right adjective I want? Is this exactly the right word?" If I have a paragraph in front of me that's when I am happiest. Not when I am trying to draft out the big picture.

It is just pebble by pebble by pebble by pebble. I write one sentence until I am happy with it until I go on to the next one and write that one until I am happy with it. And I look at my paragraph and if I am not happy with that I'll write the paragraph until I'm happy with it and then I go on this way. And, of course, even writing this very slow way, one does have to go back. One does start off on the wrong foot sometimes and a whole scene has to be chopped and you have to start over again. Generally, you know that pretty quickly though. You realize you have painted yourself into a corner and you think, "Okay I am just going to trace my footsteps back to the last solid bit of ground that I know. Look around start again and take a different tack." It's the way that William Styron writes and he said, when he was about my age, that he realized that he had maybe four or five books in him—the way that he worked—and he said he was fine with that. I'm fine with that too. It's okay by me.

I remember the first time I ever heard a recording of TS Eliot reading The Waste Land, which was a poem I knew very well. I was so enchanted by the stresses that he put on different lines and he made you see the poem in a completely different way. Much more in his way. I think it's wonderful to hear a writer read their own work. I love to read my work.

Robert Birnbaum: How much do you think about what you have already written when you are working on something new?

Donna Tartt: I'm like an athlete who's run a race. One race doesn't really bear on the next race except with the lessons that you have learned. Do you see what I am saying?

When I was young, I was deeply struck by a piece of advice that John Gardner gave to beginning writers: "Write as if you have all eternity," he says. This is the last thing a publisher or an agent or an accountant would tell you, but it's the best advice in the world if you want to write beautiful, well-made books. And that's what I want to do. I'd rather write one good book than ten mediocre ones.

When I'm writing, I am concentrating almost wholly on concrete detail: the color a room is painted, the way a drop of water rolls off a wet leaf after a rain. Then—once one captures the detail itself—there's the work of getting the sound right, the particular rhythm of a sentence or a paragraph or a line of dialogue. But almost never, in writing a novel, do I find myself thinking about themes or symbols or things of that nature. They either occur naturally within a story—which is to say, spontaneously and unconsciously, as they do in a dream—or else they seem a bit forced.

"Back then it was all minimalism, minimalism, minimalism, " says Tartt, whose lush style is anything but. "It's no fun being in workshops where the only thing that you're allowed to produce is sort of imitation Ray Carver stories."

on The Little Friend: "There were times when I thought this is the book I should write at the end of my life. I didn't feel there was as much distance as there should be. The worst advice is to write about what you know. It's hard to see things fresh."

"This is not a reminiscence. One reason it takes me so long to write a book is that I create my own country with its own natural laws and climate."





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