Donna Tartt - on CelebrityThe excitement surrounding Tartt's visit to Amsterdam in September was unprecedented for a writer. She still can't believe it. ''It was amazing! It was wonderful. Gosh! It was extraordinary.
''I'd be walking down the street and people would pop out in front of me and take my picture. College kids running out of pubs and shaking my hand. People coming up and giving me flowers. I was standing by a canal having my picture made by a photographer, and the people on the canal boat waved and yelled 'Donna! Waaaah!'''
Her photograph, blown billboard size, was ubiquitous. ''I was driving into Amsterdam from the airport, tired and a bit jetlagged, and I saw this face and thought 'Who's that? She looks kind of familiar.' Then 'That's me! That's me!' I mean, Go-lly. It was really something.'' She s*****s. ''It was actually like that picture of Ozzy Osbourne I'm seeing right now all over London.''
When Tartt laughs she leans back, shaking, nose in the air, hands crossed and held out in front of her, overlapping front teeth on display. She looks like a character from Wind In The Willows, hugely amused that Mr Toad has fallen in the river. One thinks of Harriet in The Little Friend: ''like a small badger, with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short, a thin, determined little mouth.''
A few days after our conversation and my return to London, Tartt and I had an exchange of emails in which I prompted her for more thoughts on the subject of success and the writer as celebrity. "Cicero," she replied, "has a great phrase for it: aura popularis, the popular breeze. It's all about which way the wind is blowing. But the point of the breeze is that it goes as quickly as it comes. I think that must be a fearful problem," she continued, "for people who care about celebrity and want attention, and want to hold on to it, but it's a deeply comforting thought for somebody like me who just wants to go home and shut the door and go back to my desk again."
Changing the subject, I ask her innocently about her unusual ring, a plaited silver band; she is clearly relieved to get back to where she's happy, reciting a story. "This is a replica of a Viking ring," she says. "I was in Finland on my book tour last time and I was literally leaving my hotel in Helsinki and this young man rushed up all out of breath and said that he was a Finnish poet and he really liked my work and he wanted to meet me. And he gave me a copy of his poems, in Finnish, and a present which I wasn't allowed to open until I got on the plane. Now, you couldn't do that. But once I was on the plane, I opened it - and it was this ring! It's very funny - I really don't take it off. I wear it to remind me that nice things can happen. You can meet nice people. It's about unexpected surprises happening when you're looking the other way." Donna Tartt: teller of tales.
"I'm not recognized," she says. "I go into a Barnes & Noble and pay with a credit card. It's usually when people see the name that they react."
"It's dangerous if you spend too much time in that world (the celebrity-author social scene -ed)," she says. "But it's wonderful to visit. My primary environment is in a chair at my desk with the door shut."
Tartt, who is five feet tall but talks taller, is not immune to the pleasures of a writer's celebrity, which tends to heat up around a new publication, but she believes it also poses serious threats to a writer's working life. "It can be just as damaging to be overpraised as it is to be unfairly criticized," Tartt says. "Overpraise tends to lead writers into overproduction. 'Well, I'm so great—why don't I turn out a book a year?'"
I don't read my reviews. I really try to stay away from reading things that are written about me. My business is to write the books, not to participate or review the criticism of them. Do you see what I am saying?
Robert Birnbaum: Do you find yourself interested in the adjunct activities of writing: teaching, reviewing, writer's conferences and so on?
Donna Tartt: No, none of those things... not something I do much of.
on booksignings: "It's like standing in my underwear," she confides to Knopf representatives.
Celebrity Guidance Counselors
Rolling Stone, March 18, 1993
(Celebrities asked to supply one book - one movie - one album that will complete an education)
Letters To His Son, Lord Chesterfield; The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli; and The Memoirs of Casanova. "For the enterprising youth who seeks not only to understand his new milieu but to ascend to Oriental power within it, these are three works which cannot be too strongly recommended."
Harvey. "Movies are an art form better suited to the malaise of the late 20s than the college years proper, but this film does present a number of facile but engaging excuses for chronic drunkenness."
Anything by R.E.M. "In the early Eighties, everyone I knew at school listened to them obsessively; now, in the early Nineties, my little sister and her college friends seem to be just as besotted by them as we were."