Donna Tartt - Ole MissShe's not uncomfortable feeling weird. At Mississippi University, affectionately known as Ole Miss, she reveled in it. ''If you didn't dress up like Scarlett O'Hara to go to biology class, you were a total oddball,'' she told Vanity Fair. Instead, she sat around in the rain, reading Ezra Pound, blissfully happy, her body in 1981, her head and heart in 1948.
In a 1994 essay about cheerleading, she described herself as a misfit with both her peer groups, the snobs and the sluts, a 14-year-old nerd hunched over Orwell's 1984 on the way to wintry games.
Like most students, she was enrolled in a sorority, "Kappa, Kappa, Gamma", but she would later confess that her commitment to the mood of breezy camaraderie was less than total. In the "sunshine box", in which her fellow members would deposit messages of hope and joy - hello trees, hello sky - Tartt would throw literary grenades from Nietzsche and Sartre: "God is dead... and we killed him" and "Hell is other people".
This is where Donna Tartt once stuffed the Sunshine Box - which her fellow Kappas would fill with sayings on scraps of paper, epigrams dear to their hopeful hearts, apothegms of uplift, treasured mots about life and lemons and lemonade - with vile sayings by Nietzsche and Sartre. "God is dead. . . . And we have killed him." "Hell is other people."
"Everybody knew it was me," Tartt says as we sneak up from the Kappa basement. "There was this dire meeting - they told me I had to confess, 'on your honor as a woman.'" (Did she? "Of course not," she replies indignantly.)
She laughs. "Here I was, this small, dark, thoughtful person among all these towering happy blondes. I mean, if you didn't dress up like Scarlett O'Hara to go to biology class, you were a total oddball. And I was. They were embarrassed by me. Their boyfriends would see me sitting around reading Ezra Pound cantos in the rain, and ask who this person was. And they'd have to grit their teeth and say, 'Oh, she's a pledge.'
"I remember my first couple of weeks, eating in the Union by myself, reading Nietzsche. I was so happy. Not lonely. There were forty people in my graduating class in high school, and I had known them since kindergarten. You never saw anybody that you hadn't known your whole life - didn't know their whole family history. So it was very exhilarating to come here - you'd see people you didn't know, and they didn't know you.
"It seemed like it would be a good thing to work on The Daily Mississippian. I didn't really have very much in the way of newspaper articles to submit, so I gave in some short stories. And the fellow called me back into his office and said, 'These are great! These are wonderful!' And 'How old are you? Did you write these by yourself?' It was raining. And I reached in my pocket and got out this pack of Lucky Strikes. It was like, 'Oh my God - where did you come from?'
"On the one hand she was immensely grown-up; on the other hand she was a child," says Morris, then writer-in-residence at Ole Miss. "It was a very attractive combination. She was very elfin. Kind of a sufferer - I had the impression she wasn't very happy back at home in Grenada. And just riven with sensibility. An amazing writer. I was always so impressed by her powerful and evocative use of language - it got to me right off."
"It was pretty grim," she says. "There were about five people around who were into music that wasn't Hall and Oates."
"Do you want to know what the most comforting thing about Oxford is?" Donna Tartt asks. "When you walk into town, it's like walking onto the set of a television show -- everybody's your friend. You just run into loved ones everywhere."
Even though she was a cheerleader for her high school basketball team back in Mississippi in the '70s, Donna Tartt is adamant that she never had a cheerleader's personality. "I was much the same person as I am now: gloomy, thoughtful, unhappy in groups, always reading in the back seat of cars," she says.
Wish You Were Here: Oxford, Mississippi: New Music, new hangouts, and writers, writers everywhere
Elle Magazine, October 1994Frat boys and girls with bows in their hair. When you ask Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History, about her days at the University of Mississippi in the early '80s, those are the first two images that pop into her head. "It was pretty grim," she says. "There were about five people around who were into music that wasn't Hall and Oates."
A decade later, Ole Miss hasn't changed that much. Football is huge, and the Greeks run amok during "Red-Blue Week," in the spring. Amid these traditional trappings, however, leafy downtown Oxford has become the South's coolest young literary scene. The hub of all this activity is, appropriately enough, a bookstore. Square Books is a bookshop and cafe that overlooks Oxford's small town square. Tartt, who lives in nearby Grenada, calls Square Books "the first place I go when I'm in town." The area's other writers -- John Grisham, Larry Brown and Barry Hannah -- can often be found there. And you might find Marc Smirnoff, a lanky and laconic former employee who also edits The Oxford American, a rambunctious southern-fried magazine that's got the region's literati buzzing.
Bookishness is nothing new in Oxford. But Smirnoff's Oxford American, in only its third year, has infused the town with a younger, funkier literary sensibility. His idiosyncratic journal attracts work from the South's best writers, as well as from further-flung talents such as John Updike -- who published a poem called "The Beautiful Bowel Movement". Larry Brown contributed an essay about his days as a volunteer fireman. Tartt submitted one on cheerleading.
If Oxford is quickly becoming a happening place, it hasn't lost a shred of its laid-back charm and old-fashioned southern hospitality. "Do you want to know what the most comforting thing about Oxford is?" Donna Tartt asks. "When you walk into town, it's like walking onto the set of a television show -- everybody's your friend. You just run into loved ones everywhere."|Square Books, Donna Tartt, The Oxford American Magazine, University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi, Ole Miss, John Grisham, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah.