menu Language Is A Virus

A decade later, another 'illusion' crafted

by Dennis Moore, USA Today, October 14, 2002

Donna Tartt denies the 325 audience members the very thing they crave. She does so with such self-effacing charm and adroit reasoning, however, that they spend the rest of the evening and much of the next day thanking her.

The bookstore owners, critics and publishers' representatives who have assembled 10 to a table at the Southeast Booksellers' Association banquet push aside their chicken-and-potatoes rations to devour any tasty morsels Tartt serves up about a novel they have been waiting 10 years to read: The Little Friend (Knopf, $26), which arrives Oct. 22. (Related item: An excerpt from 'The Little Friend')

Her fans' curiosity goes unsated, however. "A novel is an invention, an entertainment and an illusion," she says from the podium. "How do you talk about an illusion without destroying it?"

The Secret History, which she began writing while a student at Vermont's Bennington College, introduced Tartt in 1992 as one of the most vibrant new voices in serious literature. The epic tale — classics students at a New England college turn on one of their own when they fear he will reveal their earlier murder of a farmer while they were re-creating an ancient Greek bacchanal — sold a breathtaking 1 million copies in the USA. More than 20 foreign editions were printed. Publications from Vanity Fair to Time hailed Tartt's talent. The publicity tour lasted a year.

Then a lengthy interlude. Some essays from Tartt here, a few short stories and book reviews there. But no novel.

Rumors circulated, expectations rose. And when news leaked that Tartt, now 38 and a native of the state that begat William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, was setting her second novel in Mississippi's recent past, images of Southern gothic greatness rose in her fans' imaginations.

Despite her return, in setting at least, to her home state, Tartt declines the "Southern writer" mantle. "It's not pleasant to be lumped into a group of black writers or women writers or gay writers. Why be part of a group simply because of the circumstances of your birth?"

Oohs and Oz

As a child, Tartt says, she had no sense that books were invented. "I didn't give a damn about Frank Baum. What I wanted to be was Dorothy. I wanted to live in Oz."

After writing two novels, "I am no closer to being Dorothy Gale than I was as a child. But I am closer to being the wizard himself. We authors don't want you to look at us. We want you to look at what we made."

Though it is difficult not to look at Tartt — she's a captivating combination of New York elegance and Southern grace — readers are easily swept up in what she has made: a darkly comic novel that begins with the death of 9-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes, found hanging from a black tupelo tree in his own yard on Mother's Day.

The plot is propelled by Harriet, Robin's sister, who decides more than a decade later to solve the mystery of his death. She is only 12, and no adult takes her seriously, but she is headstrong — her mission inspired in part by the tales of Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

The story broadens to examine Southern racial and social strata, religious and generational eccentricities, and the passion of youth that gives way to the ambivalence of age. At times humorous, at times heartbreaking, The Little Friend is most surprising when it is edge-of-your-seat scary.

Tartt, who peppers casual conversation with references to authors and books she reveres, says, "This book is really about other books that I loved in childhood." That childhood was spent mostly in Grenada, a town on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta.

"We read to find out about the world ... to know what it's like to be on a ship at sea in the 19th century or in the jungle with Mr. Kurtz. I felt that I read the right books. They led me into places I needed to go," she says the day after the banquet.

They first led her to the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The story of her discovery there rivals the legend of Lana Turner being spotted by a talent agent at Schwab's soda fountain in Hollywood — only Tartt's is true.

One night in the Holiday Inn bar, a stranger put his hands on Tartt's shoulders, turned her around and said, "My name is Willie Morris, and I think you're a genius." Morris, former editor of Harper's magazine, author of North Toward Home and My Dog Skip and writer in residence at the university, had read stories Tartt had written in high school and submitted to the Ole Miss student newspaper when applying for a job.

Soon thereafter, she enrolled in Barry Hannah's (Geronimo Rex) graduate writing class.

"A rough game for a 17-year-old," she says. "He was like a knife thrower. He went right to the problem of a story."

The next year, following Morris' suggestion that she see another part of the world, she enrolled in Bennington. There, she made friends with the likes of Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), and she started The Secret History.

Tartt no longer is a secret herself, but fame has not imprisoned her.

"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."

She is not a player in the celebrity-author social scene, nor does she make regular rounds on the lecture circuit.

"It's dangerous if you spend too much time in that world," she says. "But it's wonderful to visit. My primary environment is in a chair at my desk with the door shut."

Life with Pongo

She shares a Manhattan apartment with 15-year-old Pongo, a pug. And after History's success, she bought a house near Charlottesville, Va.

But she wrote of Mississippi in The Little Friend. "There were times when I thought this is the book I should write at the end of my life. I didn't feel there was as much distance as there should be. The worst advice is to write about what you know. It's hard to see things fresh."

The Little Friend's setting, Alexandria, is not unlike Grenada in the 1970s, seemingly stuck in the past but simmering with change under the surface. Anyone who grew up in the South will recognize the genteel grandmothers and great aunts, the unctuous church deacon, the loyal but disgruntled housekeepers, the rednecks who live on the outskirts of both the town and the law.

But Tartt cautions: "This is not a reminiscence. One reason it takes me so long to write a book is that I create my own country with its own natural laws and climate."

She mapped out the imaginary Alexandria and drew blueprints of houses where the action takes place. "Working on something over a long period gives a sense of richness that you can't fake," she says. "I'm like a cabinetmaker who builds a cabinet every few years."

Or every 10. "Lots of people have encouraged me to speed up. But that makes me unhappy."

Her next work is a novella based on the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, part of a collection of modern interpretations commissioned by Scottish publisher Canongate.

And then? "A novel I don't want to talk about."

Fans surmise it will involve someone's untimely demise. Death propels both The Little Friend and The Secret History.

"Death drives everything," Tartt says with conviction. "One of my Greek teachers said we have one true task, and that is learning how to die."

Then she throws up her hands in disavowal.

"But who am I to give lessons? There are no real messages in my fiction. The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone."

Tartt herself isn't alone for the next few weeks. She leaves Fort Lauderdale for Amsterdam, where she is a literary superstar, then back to New York and later this fall to bookstores across the country to meet, greet and sign. She won't sneak up on readers this time: Whereas The Secret History's initial printing was only 75,000 books, 300,000 copies of The Little Friend enter bookstores next week.

The publicity whirlwind can be disorienting. After working on the manuscript in solitude for a decade, she faces dozens of fans at the banquet lining up, presenting books for inscription and offering effusive compliments. "It's like standing in my underwear," she confides to Knopf representatives.

But her graciousness guides her. When one fan notes that she is a librarian, Tartt offers, "My aunt and great-aunt were librarians, and I understand the special love you all have for books." When a bookseller identifies her hometown as Atlanta, Tartt responds, "Oh, my sister lives in Atlanta."

As she talks, more Southern inflection slips into her voice. But she never gives away much about herself or her novel. Those who read The Little Friend will have to figure out how much it tells them about Tartt and her talent.

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