menu Language Is A Virus

Talking With Donna Tartt, Cinderella Story

by Pat Lambert, Newsday, October 4, 1992

"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."

Not unlike the position in which a certain 28-year-old Mississippian finds herself. Weeks before her first novel, "The Secret History" (Knopf, $23), hit the stores, Tartt was as much of a secret as the travails of Woody and Mia. The $450,000 advance, the more than half-a-million-dollar bid for paperback rights, foreign sales to 11 countries, the film option snapped up by Alan J. ("Presumed Innocent" ) Pakula - you'd have thought the press was panting over Madonna.

Nobody professes greater amazement at this phenomenon than the author herself. "I really would have bet my life that this was not a commercial book," says Tartt, her green-gold eyes solemn as a cat's. She'd chuckled at friend and Bennington classmate Bret Easton Ellis ("Less Than Zero") when he insisted that it was. When Tartt was ready, Ellis introduced her to his own high-powered agent, Amanda Urban, who stage-managed the subsequent feeding frenzy. "The book's long," Tartt continues, explaining her surprise, "it's got Greek phrases, and it's not written in a style that's popular." It is also - as even the sprinkling of negative reviews generally concede - the kind of page-turner that keeps you riveted way past bedtime.

During the eight years she honed this story of a clique at an elite Vermont college whose study of classics has murderous consequences, Tartt claims her goals were much more modest. First, to get the book published. Then to parlay that into "a job teaching at some appealing little school." Which she still might do. Tartt sees herself lecturing on literature - "if you teach literature, basically you are teaching creative writing" - sharing her own favorites with fledgling novelists. She'd include Conrad - "good in terms of seeing how books are put together," and Dickens, "a very benevolent presence," whom she read for encouragement when the going got rough. Not Joyce. "There are some writers that are beautiful but no help at all for the young writer," she says. "Basically Joyce makes you never want to write again."

Tartt got her own start in sleepy Grenada, Mississippi, where her adored mother worked as an executive with the State Employment Commission, and her father was a local politician. Back then Tartt, the elder of two daughters, pictured herself as a writer - or "an archeologist with a big hat tromping around the Pyramids." Or a painter, or a dancer.

"I don't think it ever entered my mother's head that we would earn livings," the novelist laughs. "She's perfectly happy for us to do whatever we like and stay at home." Tartt ended up writing much of "The Secret History" there, the rest while shuttling among "country houses belonging to a variety of people," and the modest Greenwich Village apartment she shares with a cockatiel, Horace, and a pug named Pongo.

With the same narrative ease evident in her novel, Tartt serves up quirkily endearing glimpses of her life. Each is so polished - a regular short story in miniature - that it's hard to begrudge her the few places where she insists on keeping the curtains drawn. Her love life, for instance.

Here's Donna at Kirk Academy: "I was in high school no more than three days a week and usually I didn't stay the whole day," she begins. "I would go into the office and say to the receptionist," - here the drawl thickens dramatically - "'Miss Betty, I don't feel well, I'd like to call my mother to come pick me up.' . . . At home I'd make some lunch, get in bed with it and read. That's still my greatest luxury - to stay at home in bed and read. . . . I'd rather spend the rest of my life reading," she says, "than ever write another book."

Before Bennington, Tartt spent a miserable year at Ole Miss where, at her mother's urging, she joined a sorority. "They were always trying to make you build some kind of damn float or other," she says. But it wasn't a total loss. After reading some stories Tartt had submitted to the school paper, a distinguished faculty member introduced himself with these memorable words: "My name is Willie Morris and I think you're a genius."

The writer, who remains a good friend, encouraged Tartt to transfer to Bennington, which she found far more congenial - with one exception. "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." Instead, Tartt began "The Secret History," inspired by, among other things, "Crime and Punishment" and the Greek tragedy "The Bacchae" where, as in her novel, a murder occurs during a Dionysian frenzy.

After graduating in 1986, Tartt continued to wrestle with the ultimately 524-page book. With money from two brief jobs, her mother and the kindness of friends, Tartt scraped by. "I was too poor to have the manuscript xeroxed," she says. "I kept it hidden in my apartment in several piles so that if there was a fire it wouldn't all go up." Even now Tartt confesses to wanting to "take the book off the shelves in stores and scratch out words." Instead she's started a second novel, "a much more elliptical and ambiguous book in some ways; it's really about how do we know what's true and what's false." After her current publicity tour, she hopes to resume work "at some quiet place in decent surroundings." "Maybe" - she flashes a smile - "a farm in Provence with a herd of about ten little pugs."

One last question for this voracious reader: If she were a character in a novel, who would it be? "If you're talking about my life in terms of right now," she replies, "I suppose I'd be some character in Dickens. There's always some poor downtrodden person that everybody's mean to" - here she laughs - "they have all these difficulties, but they're good. And then one day out of the blue they just come into an amazing piece of good fortune."
Talking With Donna Tartt, Cinderella Story interview by Pat Lambert in Newsday, October 4, 1992

Tartt's Sweet Deal - Esquire, September 1992
by Anita LeClerc and Joseph Hooper
When Donna Tartt arrived at Bennington College, she soon realized that her native Mississippi had failed to prepare her for certain facts of northern undergraduate life. "I had never heard of minimalism," she says. On the evidence of her first I novel (eight years in I the making), she's resisted any new tricks. The fleshy, well-formed sentences in The Secret History are closer in feel to the Victorian novelists she grew up on than to present-day mentor Bret Easton Ellis. Lucky for her. Tartt received a $450,000 advance from Knopf, movie deals are steeping, and all of a sudden it seems that no star treatment is too much for an unknown writer who can really write. Without the art, The Secret History might be a little hard to swallow, this five hundred-page tale about a bunch of Benningtonesque classics majors who get mixed up in a homegrown Dionysian ecstasy cult that turns inadvertently murderous. Twice. Passion, then cover-up. "I've been interested in murder ever since I was a girl," the Twenty-eight-year-old Tartt says sweetly. It's no small achievement on Tartt's part that the reader feels, for a guilty second or two, the utter reasonableness of the transgression. "I think everyone has a moment when they could do it," she says.

+ + + Comments + + +