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A Most Complex Lolita

Susan Wyndham, The Sydney Morning Herald, November 2, 2002

Reclusive and averse to gossip, Donna Tartt is grist to the literary rumour mill. Her new novel, and the decade it took to write, has everybody talking, writes Susan Wyndham.
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.

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. "The main point of the essay," she says now, "is about being an outsider, a distinct individual in a group (the main parallel I draw is to the pep rallies in Orwell's 1984, where all citizens are forced to shout patriotic slogans whether they mean them or not). That particular sort of alienation is something that children experience all too often, especially in high school."

People who meet the tiny Tartt (1.52 metres, "same size as Lolita") get a different impression, of a lively, mannered woman who eats expensive food and dresses with androgynous chic. It's true that for almost 10 years she avoided meeting anyone but friends, hiding away to recover from the attention whipped up by her first novel, The Secret History, and labouring on the second. Her invisibility led to rumours that she had chronic writer's block, that she had bought a Pacific island, that she was completely batty...

She has emerged at 38, briefly and under tight security, to talk about the long-awaited new novel. Set in 1970s Mississippi, The Little Friend stars an engagingly cranky 12-year-old girl who is like a caricature of her creator's gloomy, bookish youth. Before receiving a proof copy of the book, I had to sign a document, promising "unconditionally and irrevocably" not to write or speak about it before publication.

My interview would be via email. Having spoken to two British and four American journalists, the publicist said, "Donna realized that her mind goes blank, she gets flustered and starts talking rubbish. She thinks in writing and therefore answers much more fluently and articulately on email." I sent my questions to the publicist in London, who sent them to Tartt, presumably in New York. Days passed. Donna was in transit. Donna's schedule was filling up. Donna had a cold.

I felt I'd got closer to Tartt a decade ago when The Secret History was published and I was living in New York. It was difficult to ignore her arrival as a literary celebrity. Raised in Grenada, Mississippi; spotted by a writer who introduced himself, "My name is Willie Morris and I think you're a genius"; mentored at Vermont's Bennington College by fellow student Bret Easton Ellis, later the author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho; first novel sold by his agent Amanda Urban for $US450,000, another $US500,000 for foreign rights, more for film rights; millions of copies sold in 23 languages. Everyone wanted to talk to her and in those days she was talking. She even attended Adelaide Writers' Week in 1994 as last-minute replacement for a moody Gore Vidal.

My journalist husband interviewed her in New York. Not only interviewed, but lunched with her (she suggested $120 Chateau d'Yquem but settled for $60 Meursault), shoe-shopped with her (she wrote later telling him she'd bought a pair of brown Robert Clergerie shoes), strolled back to her Greenwich Village apartment and helped walk her pug, Pongo, waiting while the famous author picked up the dog's little turd. He also got her to sign my copy of The Secret History in careful schoolgirl handwriting. Although I hadn't met her, I had a vicarious intimacy with a writer I admired.

There were two reactions to The Secret History. After the initial excitement over the money and Tartt's Southern exoticism, some reviewers panned the novel as a pretentious letdown. Some readers agreed. The rest of us were enthralled by her smart, knowingly pretentious, psychological drama about a group of college students who, between Greek classes and soirees, commit two murders. Dancing between the worlds of style, scholarship and bacchanalian evil, the book's mystique rubbed off on its author - or perhaps it was the other way around. Then she disappeared. For a decade fans have consoled themselves with rumours and websites such as the Donna Tartt Shrine.

Now, having waited all this time, I get an email interview. Her answers finally arrive, with apologies. They are beautifully constructed, with no spelling mistakes, and intensely serious. Compared with the overseas interviews that have since appeared ("I'm so excited to meet you I can hardly speak!" she told The Guardian), they lack a little Southern fizz.

"I've always been shy about publicity," she swears. "But as a first-time novelist I didn't have much say in the publicity campaigns that were planned for me. It's different with the second book. I think most writers are natural introverts ... [publicity] is much harder work than writing because it goes against my innate temperament."

The Secret History experience taught her "not to read what is written about one. To stay out of the public eye as much as possible." Presumably then, Tartt hasn't seen the Newsweek poll that treats her as a news event, asking amid questions about US national security and smallpox, "Do you intend to buy Donna Tartt's long-awaited second novel?" For the unscientific record, 22 per cent said yes, 42 per cent said no and 35 per cent said they'd wait for reviews.

If they read The New York Times's stern assessment - the first major review out - those "maybes" might become "nos": Michiko Kakutani calls the novel "ungainly", "a far more emotionally resonant novel than its predecessor, and a much less satisfying thriller" and finally "a poor showcase for this writer's rich and variegated gifts".

Tartt says she was more ambitious this time, writing two intertwined storylines, and expanding from first-person narration to authorial omniscience over a wide range of characters. "I wanted to start again at the beginning, and write an entirely different sort of novel, as if I'd never written a novel before.
"By taking on a different set of technical problems - asking myself a different set of questions than the first book - and working them out as I went along, I kept myself engaged with the process of writing. It was extremely difficult work, but as a young writer one wants to undertake difficult and challenging projects. The last thing I wanted to do was to hurry out something I wasn't pleased with."

Her craft-focused answer gives no hint of the lush, suspenseful and - though she denies it - personal story that Tartt tells. Like her first novel, The Little Friend opens with a corpse and explores the ramifications of its death. This time the body belongs to a nine-year-old Mississippi boy, found hanging from a tree by his once-wealthy family during Mother's Day celebrations.

The central character is the boy's little sister, now 12, determined to avenge her brother's murder. Harriet Cleve Dufresnes is a fabulously awful character - neither pretty nor sweet but smart, constantly interrogating adults, head buried in books about Genghis Khan and Houdini. She is not Donna Tartt, but the earnest loner with pale eyes and a black bob comes from some part of her maker's past.

In her sharply observed social portrait, with its cast of genteel Baptists, proud servants, trailer-park drug dealers and snake handlers, Tartt insists the main similarity to her own childhood is in the decaying small-town setting. "Mississippi in the '70s was an interesting place - after the violent upheavals of the 1960s the old social order had been overthrown.

"Before the Civil War, Mississippi had more millionaires per capita than New York, but ever since, it's been one of the poorest states in America. Most of the delta (old-fashioned filling stations; desolate landscapes) was like an Edward Hopper painting. Parts of it still are. When I was in Australia - particularly the more rural areas - I saw a lot of places that reminded me of the place where I grew up."

Tartt easily imagined herself back into a pre-pubescent mind with the help of childhood notebooks in which she kept diaries, fiction, drawings and collages. In a 1992 essay, she wrote about her "skittish, immature mother" and "dashing but feckless father" and the bevy of great-aunts and grandfathers who brought her up. From a baby so small she wore doll clothes, she grew into a sickly child dosed on whiskey and cough syrup by her great-grandfather. "I spent nearly two years of my childhood submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness ... I was convinced that I would die soon."
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 ... Artists from the South, whether they choose to leave, or to stay (like Eudora Welty or William Faulkner) are always spiritual exiles - always standing apart, always observing, never quite part of the culture that produced them. Southerners prize sociability and community life above all else and the solitude required by an artist seems to them suspicious."

As with many parts of her life, she relates her fascination with murder to her early reading - Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, true crime. "I'm less interested in the 'mystery' aspect of murder - detection and sleuthing and so forth - than in the repercussions of murder through time, among both the survivors and the murderers themselves."

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.

But she's happy to discuss her dogs: Pongo, now 16, another pug, Cecil, and a Boston terrier called Baron. They share her Upper East Side apartment and the Virginia farm bought with her book earnings. Most of her writing is done at home, in longhand, and she denies ever having writer's block. "I write nearly every day. But not everything I write goes into the finished work ... I was lucky, because I'd started The Little Friend before I'd finished The Secret History."

She took "vacations" from the novel to write essays, stories and criticism, and to read the audiobook of The Secret History; she has also recorded The Little Friend. But having money made no difference to her agenda. "I took my time on The Secret History, too - with no money in advance, no contract, no agent, no guarantee at the end of 10 years that the book would even be published. I think I would have taken my time no matter what."

Whatever we choose to see in her carefully contrived, enigmatic image, there's a level-headed writer behind the screen. Tartt is working on a novella based on the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus - young writer shoots to fame and melts her wings? - for the Scottish publisher Canongate. She has also started another novel. Let the rumours begin.

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