Murder in Mind: A Profile of Donna Tartt
by Therese Eiben, Poets & Writers Magazine, November/December 2002, page 22
Therese Eiben describes Tartt's books: "Murder instigates the narratives of both The Secret History and The Little Friend, but neither book can be characterized as genre fiction." What is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction? Why are some books about murder characterized as suspense thrillers or mysteries, while others are not? What are some examples of books that are considered genre fiction? Eiben also describes how "Tartt believes that the more a writer stays in the public eye, the harder it becomes to tune into 'that private frequency' a writer needs to hear to work well...From [Tartt's] perspective, novelists are like spies listening for the true voice, and they can't hear it if there's too much static." What does Tartt mean by 'that private frequency'? Why would a writer being in the public eye affect his or her ability to hear it?
Hear the rasp of sharpening knives? That's the sound critics make in anticipation of their ritual sophomore hazing of an author's second book. The reason it's unusually loud right now (a Benihana samurai chef convention comes to mind) is that Donna Tartt, whose second novel is about to be published by Knopf, has made her critics wait not the standard two, or even the occasional five, but ten whole years to slice into her magnum (truly; it's 555 pages) opus.
Ten years ago (George Bush père was prez) 28-year-old Tartt defied all reasonable expectations when The Secret History, her first novel, about a clique of culty classics majors who murder one of their own, sojourned for more than three months on the New York Times best-seller list. (The Times's Michiko Kakutani, who has the power of Emperor Commodus over first novelist—gladiators, called it "ferociously well-paced entertainment...forceful, cerebral, and impeccably controlled.") Tartt's publisher, Knopf, primed the publicity pump, sending the author on a 20-city junket. In interviews, she displayed a literary erudition that never failed to draw comment but kept mum about her personal life, which only made it all the more subject to speculation. Articles in Elle, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and other publications divulged mythmaking detail: Tartt was soignée; she drank; she smoked; she quoted T.S. Eliot; her advance was $450,000; her agent, ICM powerhouse Amanda Urban; her friend, Bennington bad-boy Bret Easton Ellis. The Secret History went on to sell a million copies in the United States. Foreign rights sales amounted to another half-million dollars. The book was translated into 23 languages. In the Netherlands alone, a country with a population just twice that of New York City, the book sold 600,000 copies. Alan J. Pakula bought the film rights. And then...
The Clintons moved into the White House, Monica moved onto the front pages, the Internet came of age, and along with the Starr Report arrived unofficial Donna Tartt chat rooms and Web sites. Around the world fans communed electronically to laud The Secret History. Smitten classics professors and teenagers alike admitted to multiple readings of the text and asked each other who among the Plato-quoting, Bacchus-worshiping, murder-plotting characters they most identified with and had anyone heard when her next book was going to be published. Someone posted a working title (it was "Tribulation"; it was wrong). Pakula died. Film rights changed hands. Fans debated who should play which role. (Not Gwyneth Paltrow!) And still...
Gossipy articles began to appear in print and online speculating whether Tartt was destined to follow the career paths of certain first-time high flyers who became daunted by it all (the usual suspects—Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Ralph Ellison—were trotted out for comparison). Tartt's editor, Gary Fisketjon, assured the interested press that "the author was writing her second novel." There were occasional sightings: Tartt published a few stories in Harper's and The New Yorker, and a few essays in the Oxford American. She bought a 120-acre plantation in Virginia with an original 1820s farmhouse to get away from the summer heat of her Manhattan apartment. She joined other mourners at a memorial for her beloved friend Willie Morris. But as for the questions that clamoring fans and the literary chattering class repeatedly asked—What the hell has she been doing all this time? What's her new book about? Will it be as successful as her first?—only rumor and silence. Until now.
I think many writers who churn novels out at a fast rate are getting bad advice," says Tartt, on the eve of the November release of her second novel, The Little Friend (Knopf). Of course, there are exceptions: "P.G. Wodehouse. And Joyce Carol Oates, God bless her, to name two." Tartt, who is five feet tall but talks taller, is not immune to the pleasures of a writer's celebrity, which tends to heat up around a new publication, but she believes it also poses serious threats to a writer's working life. "It can be just as damaging to be overpraised as it is to be unfairly criticized," Tartt says. "Overpraise tends to lead writers into overproduction. 'Well, I'm so great—why don't I turn out a book a year?'"
As one who takes the long view, Tartt believes that the more a writer stays in the public eye, the harder it becomes to tune into "that private frequency" a writer needs to hear to work well. And novelists, if only by the scope of their canvas, or potential for large readership, seem to have even more reason to develop acute hearing. From her perspective, novelists are like spies listening for the true voice, and they can't hear it if there's too much static.
"It's interesting when a book comes to you. It comes to you in sort of flashes and you don't quite understand how they connect," Tartt says, likening it (while hoping she doesn't sound too mystical) to something she read about psychics—that they simply receive information in the form of image or sound, but can't interpret what they see or hear.
"The beginning stage of the novel is the same way," she says. "It's like what Faulkner said about the time before he started to write The Sound and the Fury. He said he just kept seeing a little girl with muddy underpants climbing up a tree and looking in a window. That was the image." The image that first came to Tartt (even before The Secret History was published) was this: the sweep of headlights across a neglected yard, immobilizing two trespassing 12-year-olds with fear.
Once the idea for the novel eventually took shape in her mind, Tartt began to write it, in her own grueling way—one sentence crafted until it is exactly as she wants it; then a pause to get her bearings; then on to the next. "Which is not to say that I don't go back to craft them again. The shape of paragraphs is very important to me too," Tartt says. This is a daunting revelation, considering that each of Tartt's novels runs more than 500 printed pages, meaning that a finished manuscript could run twice that. Suddenly, 10 years sounds about right.
"I really do work in solitude. It's hard for me to show work while I'm writing, because other people's comments will influence what happens. You have to be very, very careful. Conversation is seductive. It's easy to talk away an idea. It's great to be around people and it's thrilling and exciting, but it jangles me. To really be centered and to really work well and to think about the kinds of things that I need to think about, I need to spend large amounts of time alone. It's the reason I chose to be a writer instead of...an anchorwoman," she says with a moue, which morphs into a grin that retreats as fast as it formed.
Her ice-green eyes—tourmaline is sometimes that color—convey conviction. She has a vocation, and with it come responsibilities that she fully intends to fulfill. In a black pants suit and white dress shirt, and with her sleek bob (fresh from a stylist's care) and audience- beckoning, polite, born-Southern, educated-Northern voice, Donna Tartt could easily come from a different era, one in which manners were minded and adherence to a code of behavior was the norm. Her conversation is shot through with quotations that over the course of a few hours range from Winnie-the-Pooh to St. Augustine, from Basho to Sterne, Flannery, Flaubert, and Fitzgerald; with curious facts (the Dutch are, on average, the largest people in the world; Keats could curl up like a cat and take a nap while people were in the room); and with instructive asides (on why the Gospels don't make mention of what Jesus ate for breakfast; on how the German obsession for cleanliness led to the bloodbaths in the camps; on the doomed heroism of the explorer Lawrence Oates at the South Pole). And, of course, she speaks of her own books, but by no means exclusively, or even predominantly, because Tartt believes that talking too much about her fiction can be dangerous. "Death to an artist," Tartt says, "is to become a connoisseur of one's own work." Murder instigates the narratives of both The Secret History and The Little Friend, but neither book can be characterized as genre fiction. The Secret History does travel ground that Patricia Highsmith furrowed when she introduced her readers to Ripley (not the Matt Damon version; read the books), her charming sociopath who commits murders early in her narratives and spends the rest of the story line covering them up and moving on (usually) to a much nicer life. Tartt's first novel opens with a matter-of-fact admission of guilt:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.
It is difficult to believe that Henry's modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found. In fact, we hadn't hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing.
But The Secret History's antiheroes, unlike Ripley, are affected by their actions, despite the fact that they are never caught. The drama of Tartt's narrative lies in how the individual lives of the guilty (her ensemble cast of six classics majors at a Northeastern liberal arts college not unlike Bennington) unspool as a result of their "most violent moral transgression," while all around them their coked-up fellow coeds (the "normal" students on campus) carry on. Even the charismatic professor who has brought his six students to the summit of classical knowledge from which they leap abandons them to the entombment of their futures. In the end, they don't even have each other. The act of murder has cleaved them, together and apart, for the rest of their natural lives.
Tartt's new novel begins in an equally arresting manner: On a humid Mississippi Mother's Day, Charlotte Cleve Dufresnes discovers the body of her only son, nine-year-old Robin, hanging by the neck from a rope tied to a low branch of the black tupelo tree in the shadowy reaches of the family's backyard. This event, which is related in the novel's prologue, happens 12 years before the novel begins. It is, however, the central image around which twin narratives spiral. One tracks the entropy that has encroached upon the three living generations of the dead boy's family; the other chases after a jacked-up methamphetamine addict, Farrish Ratliffe, who plots to dupe a poisonous-snake-handling preacher and one of his no-account brothers into helping him move a large quantity of dope.
These two family lines—the Dufresneses and the Ratliffes—might have extended indefinitely on parallel courses were it not for the intervention of one Harriet Cleve Dufresnes. All but suffocating amidst her somnolent family, which treats the past like a treasured snow globe, Harriet embarks in her 12th summer upon solving the murder of her brother Robin, who was killed while infant Harriet fidgeted on a blanket on the same lawn, but closer to the kitchen window and therefore under the watchful gaze of the Dufresneses's maid, Ida Rhew. Finding a pattern in several unrelated, casual remarks, Harriet decides that one of the Ratliffe brothers killed Robin, and, armed with the moral courage she has gleaned from her great-grandfather's libraryful of romantic, heroic texts (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Jungle Book), sets off to exact vengeance. She is assisted, and somewhat impeded, by her school chum Hely Hull, whose literary tastes run more along the lines of "Satan's Roommate," "Come Share My Coffin," and other comic books, but who does own a red wagon, which plays a harrowing role when these two heedless children cross over into the world of adults.
No novelist as invested in the development of her art as Tartt is would spend 10 years replicating her first success. "In order for a long piece of work to engage a novelist over an extended period of time, it has to deal with questions that you find very important, that you're trying to work out," Tartt says. "I didn't want to get up on the high wire and do the same trick again."
Some of the questions Tartt investigated over the course of writing The Little Friend address new artistic, structural, and technical challenges that are part of a master storyteller's learning curve. The two novels evoke different places and times. Her first novel captures the frigid winters and wan, reluctant springs of Vermont; the new book is set well south of the Mason-Dixon line in a sleepy Mississippi town. The Little Friend's story line takes place during the 1970s, a more genteel era (at least for middle-class white folks) than The Secret History's morally blighted 1980s. The Little Friend unfolds from multiple viewpoints, whereas Tartt's first novel is written from only one character's point of view. And while that character, Richard Papen, is the only outsider on an otherwise rich-kid campus, a varied cast of characters in terms of socioeconomic background, race, gender, and age populates the landscape of The Little Friend.
There is another, more dramatic difference between the two novels, however, and that is the intellectual timbre of their main characters. While it isn't necessary to have studied Greek or Latin to follow the plotline of The Secret History, readers can't emerge from the depths of its story without a smidgen of scholarship's patina rubbing off on them, so steeped are its characters in all things classical. Not so for The Little Friend. Harriet and Hely, the new novel's 12-year-old protagonists, are not even precocious. From the beginning to the end of the novel, they act their age.
It's a tricky narrative task to write about children for an adult audience. Tartt knows she was risking some of her fan base by writing such a different kind of novel—"I was worried while I was writing it, because it's a book about children. Are people going to like that?"—but the two novels do share traits that make them distinctively "Tartt." Both books exhibit an "impeccably controlled" narrative and an artful use of language; both are populated with characters who love literature to the point that they behave like romantics in a modern world.
"If there's anything similar between The Secret History and The Little Friend," Tartt says, "it is that the characters are children who have been openly influenced by books." In the realm of her novels, the characters are following a code of honor—whether inspired by Plato or Captain Scott's journals—and trying to make it operate in a flawed but functioning 20th-century reality. They are trying to do something that's hardly feasible. "In a certain sense, it's the problem of romanticism. The world as we want to see it isn't always as it is. Marvelous achievements have been made by romanticists by refusing to accept in a very utopian sense the end of man," Tartt says. "But romantic vision can also lead one away from certain very hard, ugly truths about life that are important to know. Sometimes you can do all the right things and not succeed. And that's a hard lesson of reality."
Perhaps most significantly, The Little Friend shares the same authorial intent as The Secret History, and that is to address artistically a circumstance of contemporary life that warrants investigation. "I believe, in a funny way, the job of the novelist is to be out there on the fringes and speaking for an experience that has not really been spoken for," Tartt says. The experience that has been registering on her "private frequency," the one she investigates in different ways over the course of these two novels, is not murder per se, but rather the aftermath of murder, and especially the aftermath of an unsolved murder.
"Often what leads up to murder is nothing. It vanishes instantly. It's like, 'Why did I do this? God, here I am with this knife in my hand.' This is a story you hear over and over again from murderers," Tartt says.
In addition to her relative lack of interest in the act of murder, Tartt believes that the standard feel-good-about-murder story line promulgated ad nauseam on television—murder committed, murderer caught, murderer punished, murderer's evil deed explained away in flashback, viewer satisfied that he understands why murderer did it—has very little to do with narrative reality in today's world. Portraying murder in this way, according to Tartt, "is not a novelist's job anymore." Better, she thinks, for a novelist to investigate an experience that is rarely represented, and so Tartt has explored the ramifications of unsolved murders.
It's refreshing to hear a novelist contemplating the role of her profession in the 21st century. Bestsellerdom may have made it financially easier for her to have the courage of her convictions, but it was the artistic success of The Secret History that truly emboldened her novelist's prerogative.
As for predictions regarding the success of her new novel...the initial print run for the U.S. edition of The Little Friend is 300,000 copies. Bloomsbury, U.K., which paid £1 million for the book, published The Little Friend last month. Robert Ammerlaan, her Dutch publisher, brought the book out in September. The Netherlands got to go first because so many of its citizens speak English that sales of its Dutch-language edition might have been diluted by eager readers acquiring British or American editions had they not published the book in the Dutch language first.
Given the maneuvering involved in determining The Little Friend's release dates, plus the size of its print runs and Tartt's advance, it seems the author's host of publishers aren't concerned that the public has forgotten about her because she stayed out of sight for so long, or worried that the new landscape in which she is demonstrating her talents will drive them away. And as for those critics and their cutlery? Donna Tartt is ready for them. En garde!
Therese Eiben is the editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.
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