Language Is A Virus

Donna Tartt - Bibliophile

She talks about Robert Louis Stevenson like Luke Skywalker talks about Yoda, at one point even referring to him as ''my master''. She would, she says, die for Stevenson, and kept a picture of him on the wall the whole time she was writing The Little Friend.

When I ask about her famous love of food and shoes, she corrects me. "Actually, my very favourite things are books. Certainly I didn't give a hoot about shoes when I was a child, or about food either - would have lived off olive sandwiches, if I'd been allowed." Listing her literary influences as Dickens, Stevenson, Wodehouse and, later, Melville, Dostoevski, Conrad, James, Woolf and Nabokov, she says, "Generally I prefer 19th-century novels to 20th." She refuses to comment on which contemporary writers she likes to read - "too gossipy" - and skips over my question about whether she lives with a man. Although the former Baptist has become a communicant in the Catholic Church and claimed she would never marry (rather, "Je ne vais jamais me marier"), tidbits appear about her romances and the English writer Nicholas Shakespeare confirms that for two years they were "very close" and even engaged.

Tartt is happiest of all when talking about stories: books, words, reading, writing. The great thing about earning so much money from The Secret History was that she could buy any book she wanted. "When I had no money I used to grieve, just stand in a very Dickensian way outside bookshops," she says. "I would always prefer to go get another Dickens off the shelf than pick up a new book by someone I've not read yet. I'm a hard reader. I'm bitterly disappointed by books. Sometimes I pick up a book and I'm like - please God, please let this be what it looks like it is." When asked her favourite contemporary authors, she is maddening: "I don't really like to talk about living writers because in saying who you like, you're also saying very plainly who you don't like." Really? "I know so. And who am I to pass judgment on someone else?" (Later, in a moment of weakness, she confesses to loving Ian McEwan's Atonement: "I was crushed, I couldn't sleep." And she's very happy to talk about her favourite living bands - Pulp, Clinic, Cornershop, why the White Stripes are better than the Strokes; I suppose because they're in a different industry.)

She had been a voracious reader, however, for a long time: The Wind In The Willows, Winnie The Pooh, Peter Pan, when she was younger. "And Stevenson. I would lay down my life for Robert Louis Stevenson. Borges said that he loved Stevenson so much that he would not allow another book even to touch Stevenson's on his bookshelf, such was his reverence." She also loved Kipling - "he gives you a great sense of language, the rhythm, tick, tock, tick, tock" - but didn't read any southern writers until she left home. Of these, her favourite is the wonderful short story-writer Flannery O'Connor. "It is a grief to me that Flannery O'Connor is dead - she died of lupus so young [aged 39, close to Tartt's age], she could have been alive today and still writing. She's horrifyingly funny, we share a sense of humour. She had a much better ear for dialogue than I'll ever have, but her prose is very Johnsonian, very formal. It's that cool, removed style combined with the very black stories."

Right now I'm reading The Dalkey Archives by Flann O'Brien (aka Sir Myles na Gopaleen). He's an Irish writer who's very learned and bitter and satirical. James Joyce and St. Augustine appear as characters. It's wild -- there's a man who's afraid he'll turn into a bicycle. I'm also reading Look at the Harlequins by Vladimir Nabokov and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, which is very violent and beautiful. For my difficult book (because if you don't have one, you become intellectually lazy), I'm reading Spengler's Decline of the West. I'm also reading a book about people who handle snakes, Serpent-Handling Believers by Thomas Burton, as research for the book I'm writing.

one book - one movie - one album that will complete an education

Book: 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."

Movie: 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."

Record: 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."

I like to return to the same books again and again. It's what I tend to do if I have a choice.

I love Dickens. I love Henry James. I love Conrad. I love PG Wodehouse. I love Evelyn Waugh. I didn't like Virginia Wolf when I was a teenager but I love her now. There are some writers that one doesn't like as a child that one gets to like as one gets older. I tried to read her as a teenager and I just couldn't stand her. Now, I think she is incredible. I love Melville. I love Poe. I loved Poe from the time I was little. I really love Robert Louis Stevenson.

I find that it's a slippery game. I know that other writers don't feel the same way that I do. There are definitely contemporary writers that I admire. There are definitely contemporary writers that I don't understand why they are published. But it just becomes a very gossipy game. I don't like to talk about my peers in public. I really don't. I don't think it's fair.

''There's a great calling out across time from writer to writer, and Stevenson was definitely someone who called out to me,'' she explains. ''There are writers I love and admire but one doesn't feel as emotionally connected with them as I do with Stevenson.

''It's a personal connection, and probably has mostly to do with the fact that I read him when I was so young, and it has to do with the fact that I was read him by beloved people, who had read him themselves when they were children, who loved him as much as I did.

''You know, when I was read Treasure Island, it was the copy my grandmother had received when she was 12 years old. And it said: Happy birthday, Louise, 1925.''

"Evelyn Waugh is very comforting to read right now because it' s so analogous to incidents in my own life," laughs Donna Tartt, with surprising robustness for someone so petite and well-tailored. Patting the paperback on the Village cafe table between us, she says, "I love 'Decline and Fall.' It's very funny - just about a lot of fuss very quickly."

"I know a ton of poetry by heart," Tartt says, when I comment on her recital of the Nabokov rhyme. It's true. She has an alarming ability to simply break into passages, short or long, from her favorite writing. She quotes, freely and naturally, from Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, Buddha, and Plato - as well as David Byrne of Talking Heads and Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers. And many others.

"When I was a little kid, first thing I memorized were really long poems by A.A. Milne," she says. "Then I went through a Kipling phase. I could say 'Gunga Din' for you. Then I went into sort of a Shakespeare phase, when I was about in sixth grade. In high school, I loved loved loved Edgar Allan Poe. Still love him. I could say 'Annabel Lee' for you now. I used to know even some of the shorter stories by heart. 'The Tell-Tale Heart' - I used to be able to say that.

"I still memorize poems," she says. "I know 'The Waste Land' by heart. 'Prufrock.' Yeats is good. I know a lot of poems in French by heart. A lot of Dante. That's just something that has always come easily to me. I also know all these things that I was made to learn. I'm sort of this horrible repository of doggerel verse."