menu Language Is A Virus

Author Donna Tartt discusses her literary career and her latest novel, The Little Friend

Talk of the Nation (NPR), November 5, 2002

Host: Lynn Neary
Time: 3:00-4:00 PM

Lynn Neary, host:This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment in Los Angeles.

Donna Tartt's new novel, "The Little Friend," is one of the most publicized books of the year. It's been a long time coming, 10 years, and has been eagerly awaited by her fans. Tartt's debut novel, "The Secrety History," won critical acclaim and sold over a million copies. Both of Tartt's novels have a murder as the starting point and centerpiece of the story. "A Little Friend" begins with the mysterious death of a young boy by hanging. Fast forward 12 years. The murdered boy's younger sister, Harriet, now age 12, becomes obsessed with her brother's death. Intelligent, well-read and intense, Harriet decides to track down and punish the man she believes is responsible for the murder.

The novel is set in Tartt's childhood home of Mississippi, and is filled with evocative and detailed descriptions of a Southern town and the people who live there. Donna Tartt joins us now from our New York bureau.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Donna.

Ms. Donna Tartt (Author): Thank you.

Neary: Welcome.

Ms. Tartt: Thank you.

Neary: This, as I said, has been a long-awaited novel. Did it take you longer than you expected?

Ms. Tartt: Everything takes me longer than I expect. It's the sad truth about life. I wish it had taken three or four years less, but it takes as long as it takes.

Neary: I read that you like, actually, taking time with your writing. I think you compared it to gardening at one point, that you sort of like to watch things sort of evolve slowly.

Ms. Tartt: Well, a novel does acquire a certain kind of richness when you work on it for a long time that can't really be faked. You're building layer upon layer; it's like a Chinese lacquer box. You are--everything goes into it. You are--all your experience just kind of accumulates, and the novel takes a richness of its own simply because it has the weight of all those years that one's put into it.

Neary: We're talking with author Donna Tartt about her new novel, "The Little Friend." And if you'd like to ask her any questions or join our discussion, the number's (800) 989-TALK; that's (800) 989-8255.

I wondered, as you were writing this and taking your time with it and enjoying it--were you enjoying it?

Ms. Tartt: Well, I was mostly enjoying it, but there's, you know--not all work is fun all the time. I mean, there were some hard parts, too.

Neary: And I wondered how the outside pressure--there must have been some outside pressure to get this done. I mean, does that distract you? Are you able to sort of put that aside, block it out and just do what you need to do?

Ms. Tartt: Well, you know, there actually wasn't a lot of outside pressure. My publishers were very good about it. They didn't really bother me. You know, the idea that one has to turn out a novel every two or three years is great, if that's what you want to do, but I just sort of thought, `Hang on, you know? That's not the way that I wrote my first novel. My first novel took a long time to write, too. And then there seemed to be some sort of expectation that there would--well, now there's going to be one every two or three years and that one's way of writing would completely change. And it just--it wasn't the way I wanted to work, wasn't the way I knew how to work.

Neary: Now your last novel was set in New England. Here you take on your home state of Mississippi. Why did you want to set a story in the South, first of all?

Ms. Tartt: Well, I wanted to write a novel with a broader social canvas, really, than "Secret History," which took place in a very cloistered, claustrophobic, academic world, a male world mostly, college students. This is an intergenerational novel. There are many different kinds of people and there's a lot of interplay of class and diction, different kinds of diction. In the South there are so many different ways of talking, and there's the, you know, educated Southern speech; there is midlevel, sort of salesman Southern speech; there is, you know, uneducated, very colloquial speech. There are tons of different dialects and idioms that I was familiar with, that I knew from childhood.

Neary: I was going to ask you--because this book is so filled with characters that I think probably could only be found in the South. You've got the maiden aunts, you've got the scary rednecks, you've got snake-handling ministers. Did you know people like this growing up?

Ms. Tartt: Well, I didn't know any snake-handling ministers. I have to be quite frank with you. I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Neary: How about those aunts? The aunts are very affecting and effective characters, I think.

Ms. Tartt: Well, I do have some maiden aunts that are not quite like the aunts in the book, but I definitely do have a couple of them, and a couple of old aunties. And...

Neary: But this is territory that you're very familiar with. I mean, this town that you create in this book, is it similar to the one that you grew up in?

Ms. Tartt: Well, you know, it really is a composite town. It's similar in a lot of ways. A friend of mine read the book and she was instantly able to spot the different features of various Mississippi towns that had been, you know--the town square is from, you know, Oxford, Mississippi, you know, but there's not the two-lane iron bridge, which is in another town. And the abandoned overpass is in another town, and the way that the river cuts in--it really was a composite town, because in order to write this book, I needed really to make up my own town. I drew a map of it. I had to work from it. Because for fictional purposes it's not very good to write about a real town. If you make some tiny, tiny mistake you'll be getting letters for the rest of your life.

Neary: Right.

Ms. Tartt: `Obviously, Madam, you've never visited Petal, Mississippi, you know, as you have placed the city hall 500 feet from where it actually stands,' or, you know, something like that. I much prefer to make up my towns. It's a lot easier to--that's one of the great things about being a novelist instead...

Neary: Did you go back to Mississippi while you were writing?

Ms. Tartt: Well, I only went back for visits, you know. My mother still lives there and I, you know, have gone back for visits. But I didn't go back to do research as such.

Neary: Now before I ask you to read--you did bring your book with you, didn't you?

Ms. Tartt: I sure did, yeah.

Neary: OK, because there is a description of Harriet that I was hoping you could read to us. You've created this young character who has been compared to some other young Southern heroines. A number of reviewers have compared her, for instance, to Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird." And she's a rather strange child, and there's a wonderful description of her, which on my copy is on page 26. And it begins `Harriet, the baby, was neither pretty nor sweet.'

Ms. Tartt: Yeah, I'll be happy to read that.

Neary: And it goes down to `with whom she came in contact.'

Ms. Tartt: Sure.

Neary: Go ahead.

Ms. Tartt: (Reading) Harriet, the baby, was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart. From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a slightly distressing presence in the Cleve household. Fierce on the playground, rude to company, she argued with Edie(ph) and checked out library books about Genghis Khan and gave her mother headaches. She was 12 years old and in seventh grade. Though she was an A student, the teachers had never known how to handle her. Sometimes they telephoned her mother or Edie, who, as anyone who knew anything about the Cleves was aware, was the one you wanted to talk to. She was both field marshal and autocrat, the person of greatest power in the family and the person most likely to act. But Edie herself was uncertain how to deal with Harriet. Harriet was not disobedient exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact.

Neary: Now it goes on to describe Harriet as like a small badger with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short and a thin, determined little mouth. And I have to say, having seen a picture of you, I can imagine that you might have looked a little like that as a child yourself. How much of you is in this character, or is any of you in this character?

Ms. Tartt: There's a little of me in this character. There's also a bit of family echo in the character of Harriet. Harriet is kind of a recurring state of mind in my mother's side of the family. You'll notice that in the novel, Harriet and her grandmother are very much alike, and it's commented upon several times by people in the novel; she's so much like her very bossy grandmother that she makes her aunts a tiny bit uncomfortable. They know that she's not going to be quite so cute once she grows up, because Harriet's grandmother is really quite domineering.

Neary: And you have a grandmother like that?

Ms. Tartt: I have a grand--I wouldn't call my grandmother domineering, no, but this novel is about the way that family traits echo and reverberate through generations and often skip generations. And so that is part of the character of Harriet. Harriet is far more single-minded and determined than I am. When I was younger, I liked to read. We have--Harriet and I have some of the same literary tastes, but when I was younger I liked to read some of the gentler children's books like "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "The Wizard of Oz." But Harriet likes 19th-century tales of adventure, boys' stories of adventure. She likes Robert Louis Stevenson. She likes "Kim" by Kipling. Throughout the book she's reading Robert Falcon Scott's journals of his expedition to the Antarctic, the doomed expedition, which is kind of a parallel to Harriet's own journey throughout the book.

Neary: We're talking...

Ms. Tartt: She's trying to--go ahead. Sorry.

Neary: I was just going to tell our listeners that we're talking with Donna Tartt about her new book, "The Little Friend," and the number's (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And I'd like to take a call from Summer in Burlington, Wisconsin. Hi.

Summer (Caller): Yes. Hello. I just wanted to call and say I loved your first book. Hello?

Ms. Tartt: Oh, thank you. Hi.

Summer: I was in high school and I had really gotten away from reading, and my boyfriend introduced it to me and I read it very quickly, and I've very excited about your second book coming out. And I had a question when it was coming out.

Neary: Well, it's out now.

Ms. Tartt: It's out now. Yeah.

Summer: I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Summer: I didn't hear the very...

Ms. Tartt: Run down to the store. Yeah.

Summer: Oh. I didn't hear the very first part, and my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, will be very excited, also.

Neary: All right. Thanks so much for your call.

Summer: Thank you.

Ms. Tartt: Thank you.

Neary: See, I told you people were waiting with bated breath for this book. I have an e-mail here, too, from a Marilyn Vogel(ph). She says, `Would your new book, "The Little Friend," be appropriate for a 13-year-old girl to read?' What do you think? I've read some reviews that have sort of said in a way, it is a young adult book, but a young adult book for adults. It's the story of a young adult, a 12-year-old.

Ms. Tartt: I don't know. It's hard for me to say. I'm not sure that when I was 13 I would have enjoyed this book, to be quite frank. This is a fairly dark book of childhood. You know, a lot of children's classics--"Huck Finn," for instance--I read "Huck Finn" when I was a child, but it was a very, very disturbing book. And I didn't really grow to enjoy it and to love it until I was in high school. So yeah, I think it's definitely a book that a smart 13-year-old could read. I certainly read a lot of things that were much more unsuitable for me than this book when I was 13 years old.

Neary: And then went back to them later as you got older, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. Tartt: Yes.

Neary: That was a--now one of the comments that Harriet makes about books is that she doesn't--I may not get it exactly right, but she doesn't like books where the child grows up or becomes a sort of boring adult. Something like that was her comment about those kinds of young-adult journeys into adulthood.

Ms. Tartt: Yeah. They grow up, they get married, they have some dull sweetheart and then generally start acting like a bunch of cows, you know?

Neary: She's a tough little girl, this Harriet, isn't she?

Ms. Tartt: She is. She's tough, she's stubborn, she's very willful. She is not very nice. She's sort of a mean little girl. She's a little bit of a bully. And this sort of--and she takes it really upon herself, this 19th-century code of honor and bravery, which she learned from Robert Louis Stevenson and Captain Scott and from the books in her grandfather's library. She's trying to apply this to her own dilemma, her family's dilemma.

Neary: We're talking with author Donna Tartt. Her long-awaited second novel is out. And we're taking your calls at (800) 989-TALK. You can e-mail us at [email protected].

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Neary: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

We're talking with writer Donna Tartt about her new novel, "The Little Friend." Her first book was set at a posh New England university. This one takes place in her native Mississippi, a place rich with atmosphere and laden with complicated issues of class and race. Give us a call at 1 (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is [email protected].

Donna, I wanted to ask you--both of your novels--you've written two now. Both are about murder, but neither could be called murder mysteries. How do you characterize them?

Ms. Tartt: Well, I'm not interested in murder so much in the aspects of, you know, sleuthing and detection and that sort of thing. I'm much more interested in the echoes and repercussions of the act through time.

Neary: And so why do you find murder sort of such a fascinating device for exploring a character and telling a story? Why is murder the pull?

Ms. Tartt: Well, I think storytellers have always found murder a fascinating device. I mean, if you go back to the Bible and Greek tragedy--it's very hard to think of a Greek tragedy that doesn't center around a murder. Shakespeare. It is--again, unless one is writing romantic comedies, which is not what I do, you know, it's something that seemed quite natural to me. Again, I started writing "The Secret History" because I was interested in Greek tragedy, and it was really being interested in how the idioms of Greek tragedy and the stylistic features would come forward in a more modern retelling.

Neary: What's interesting in this story, because, as we were talking before the break, Harriet is this strange little girl who decides that she's really going to avenge her brother's death, and she has a sidekick and his name is--is it Healy? Am I pronouncing that right?

Ms. Tartt: It's Healy, yeah.

Neary: Yeah. And he's more like a--well, this is a big adventure, and it is sort of like The Hardy Boys...

Ms. Tartt: Well, he's sort of the Tom Sawyer to Harriet's Huck Finn. He thinks it's just all fun. It's a spy game for him. And he's just bored over the summer and wants something to do, whereas Harriet is grimly determined. She is on a death march. She is going to avenge her brother's killer. And yes, for him it's fun and games, but, you know, very soon this leads them into some fairly dangerous situations.

Neary: And it provides you with an opportunity to really explore sort of the dark side of childhood. I mean, when Harriet first declares--and she does it pretty early in the book when she says, `I'm going to kill him,' meaning the man that she thinks has killed her own brother--at first, as a reader, I was kind of startled by that, to hear that coming out of a 12-year-old, and thought, `Well, that can't be serious.' And yet, indeed, she was serious.

Ms. Tartt: Well, you know, St. Augustine said that if one has--he was making an argument about original sin, but he said, `One has only to look at a two-year-old who has been denied something by its mother, who is crying, who is enraged--one has only to look at the face of that two-year-old to realize if that two-year-old was big enough to kill its mother, it would.' The--you know, I think that by the time we're six years old we've really experienced the gamut of human emotions. We understand pride, we understand joy, we understand shame. We really know those feelings by the time we're small.

Neary: Donna Tartt is our guest today on TALK OF THE NATION. The number's (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Jack in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Jack.

JACK (Caller): Hi, Lynn. I have a quick question for Donna, and that is to ask her, when she was doing her first book, "The Secret History," how did the Mississippi writer Willie Morris help her or how did he influence her?

Ms. Tartt: Willie was a great help before I started to write "The Secret History," before I'd even begun it. I left Mississippi and transferred to Bennington College, actually, at his advice, and also before I left went into a writing workshop with Barry Hannah, who was just a wonderful, wonderful teacher. But he was also--I wasn't really in contact with Willie during the years that I was actually writing "The Secret History," but after I wrote it, he was very helpful, because Willie had been a magazine editor, and Willie lived in New York and Willie really understood the world of publishing and he knew what New York was like. And that was something that I didn't know at all, was about the world of publishing and how it worked, and he was actually very, very helpful in the aftermath of publishing the book, you know, really.

Neary: You really had a lot of help early on, I think--Didn't you?--in terms of wending your way through that complicated world of publishing.

Ms. Tartt: I had--I was very lucky. My friend who I'd gone to Bennington with, Brett Easton Ellis, published a novel when we were both still in college, and Brett, God bless him, had published three novels by the time I published my first. But he--you know, we had worked in tutorials together when we were in college and he knew I was working on this book, and he kept telling me that when I finished it he wanted me to show it to his agent, and I did. But yes, I was very tardy compared to Brett, who published so young. I was nearly a decade after he was.

Neary: Which was in your late 20s, not so tardy, really, but let's take Richard in Nebraska. Hi, Richard.

Richard (Caller): Hi. First of all, Ms. Tartt, I also found your first book a wonderfully rich and delightful read.

Ms. Tartt: Oh, thank you.

Richard: Its multi--various levels, you know, were just wonderful in terms of, you know, just the reflection, you know, coming off each page. So thank you very much for your commitment to the craft. And, you know, I'm anxiously looking forward to reading your second novel.

Ms. Tartt: Thank you.

Richard: The question is really kind of a follow-up to what you were just talking about. Because of all the mergers and, you know, foreign ownership of the publishing industry in this country, a lot of writers, you know, have remarked on the difficulty of being able to stay true to their craft and their sense of, you know, writing with respect to just--you know, Amy Tan has talked about it; Piers Anthony has talked about it. And I was just kind of curious as to what--your views with respect to the present tense and future tense of publishing.

Neary: Thanks for your call, Richard.

Ms. Tartt: I think that one just has to do what one knows how to do in the way that one knows how to do it. I think that there are a lot of pressures on the author to speed things up and to--and certainly, yes, it's a different world out publishing this time than it was the last time I published "The Secret History." A lot of things have changed. There's the Internet, there's--it's very different this time around. On the other hand, I mean, that is what writers have always been supposed to do, was to rely on their own devices and to--I mean, writing is a lonely business. It's not--I don't think that you can look for--I don't think you've ever been able to look--any writer's been really able to look for primary support from that end of the business. It really has to come from you. It has to come from the individual writer, I believe.

Neary: I have an e-mail here from a Sarah Schmidt(ph) in St. Louis, and she asks, `When you start a book do you know how it's going to end, or does it take on a life of its own?'

Ms. Tartt: I know how it's going to end.

Neary: You do? 'Cause I've heard so many...

Ms. Tartt: I know how it's going to end.

Neary: ...writers say it takes on a life of its own and `My characters control me,' but you know, huh?

Ms. Tartt: No. I'm like Nabokov. Someone asked Nabokov the same question--Vladimir Nabokov, and he said, `My characters are galley slaves.' Mine are, too.

Neary: Well, do you outline the plot beforehand, or...

Ms. Tartt: I just know it. It's just in my head. It's just there.

Neary: Huh. Do you have all the characters--I mean, this book is, I have to say, just filled with characters and all these strange different kinds of people at different layers of society in this very small town. Are they all in your head when you begin?

Ms. Tartt: Not all there when I begin. I mean, they're there, but they definitely become richer as they go along and more alive as they go along. One has the idea of the character, but it's a bit like Frankenstein. They're going along and they're not quite alive yet; they're not quite there. And then all of a sudden, they will sort of yawn and breathe and stretch and come to life. And it's something that I've learned actually in writing novels that if you have a character that's not quite coming to life, the way to bring him to live is to bring him into contact with one of the living characters, one of the characters who's already--you've gotten there. And something about the contact between the living character and the character that's still a little flat and wooden will strangely animate the character that is not yet breathing.

Neary: Let's take another call. Carta(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Carta.

Carta (Caller): Hi.

Neary: Go ahead.

Ms. Tartt: Hi.

Carta: I've got a quick comment and a question. I read your first novel when I had recently graduated from college and it had kind of been passed around a couple of friends that had gone to school with me, and--because we went to a very similar school, to Hampden, and even though it's on the West Coast and--so the similarities were striking and eerie and made it that much more of a successful read. So--but what I wanted to ask--obviously, I haven't had a chance to read your new book, but it seems as though you were just talking about how murder kind of became a subject or a vehicle for exploring the repercussions on someone's life--a character's life, and it almost sounds like in both novels it was sort of intrinsically involved with kind of like a coming of age--almost like a much darker coming of age or a crucial turning point in a young character's life. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that as well.

Neary: Using murder as a vehicle for a coming of age story?

Carta: Yeah.

Neary: OK. Go ahead. Donna.

Ms. Tartt: Well, I never really thought of it in exactly that way. You know, I suppose--both of my novels are about children and about children who are a little too overly influenced by their reading material; they take it a little bit too seriously. It's funny. It's never occurred to me while I was writing "The Secret History" or while I was writing this book that I was writing a coming of age novel exactly. I don't think Harriet does come of age in this book really. Harriet, when we leave her--not to reveal too much of the end of the book--has not really come of age. She's much the same character. She's quite unchanged.

Carta: OK. Well, that's very interesting.

Neary: Thanks for the call.

Carta: Thank you for taking my call.

Neary: Well, of course, now we won't go into the end of the book, but she's changed somewhat because she does go through quite a traumatic experience through the course of this book.

Ms. Tartt: Oh, yes, she does go through a traumatic experience, but whether one would call that coming of age, I don't know. I think she's still very much who she is at the beginning and the end of the book.

Neary: Is this--if not a coming of age novel, is it at all, do you think, a novel about loss of innocence or is Harriet ever an innocent kind of character?

Ms. Tartt: Well, you know, I don't know. For someone who doesn't really--I don't really believe in innocence actually. I don't believe there is such a thing. So...

Neary: So we can't say that Harriet was ever a little innocent who...

Ms. Tartt: No. I think it's hard to write about children and to have an idea of innocence. I think innocence is something that adults project upon children that's not really there. Children--if you think back really what it was like to be a child and what it was like to know other children--children lie all the time. They have to lie. It's the only way they can do what they want to. They have no financial control. They have no control whatsoever. In order to go where they want to, do what they want to--`Oh, I'm just running down to Joshua's house.' Children do it all the time. And I think when adults become parents that a veil of forgetfulness sort of drips gently over them and I think they just forget how much children depend on lying and secrecy. Children love secret club houses. They love secrecy even when there's no need for secrecy.

Certainly when I was a child, I didn't know--innocence was not really how I thought of the other children I knew, if you see what I'm saying.

Neary: Yeah.

Ms. Tartt: I think it's kind of a construct. I think it's sort of a way that we think about children rather than a way that children actually are--kind of a--really a very 19th century Victorian way of thinking about children. Children weren't thought of as innocent--it's sort of an invention of the Victorian age.

Neary: Donna Tartt is the author of "The Little Friend." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call from Judith in Berkeley, California. Hi, Judith.

Judith (Caller): Hi. I had a question about the genre but you cleared that up pretty well. I have a question about your first novel. Did you encounter someone who was like the professor in your life, and at what point did the character decide that what he was teaching them was correct and he could absolutely do anything?

Neary: Maybe, Donna, for those who haven't read the novel, you could fill us in a little bit about the professor and the role he played.

Judith: Thank you very much.

Neary: OK. Thanks, Judith.

Ms. Tartt: Thank you. The novel is about five students of classics who are studying with a classics professor, and they take the ideas of the things that they're learning from him a bit too seriously, with terrible consequences. They end up killing someone quite by mistake, and the--but I don't think that--it never seemed to me that the professor in the book was, you know, corrupting them in any way. I mean, good heavens, he was teaching them Greek literature. He was teaching them, you know, Plato and Aeschylus. Is that corrupting? Is that corrupting the youth of Athens, too? I don't think that it can be said that the professor was corrupting the children in that book in any way. I think that it was--I think it's dangerous to say that knowledge itself is the corruptor.

Neary: And in this latest book, knowledge itself--you're saying it's dangerous to say knowledge itself is the corruptor. Is that what you just said?

Ms. Tartt: Yeah.

Neary: Yeah. OK. In this latest book with the role of murder, I'm wondering if you feel like you've sort of explored this subject now and want to move on to other things, or do you think this will always be something of a centerpiece in your writing, that it's a rich enough area to explore, that you can always use it to explore lots and lots of themes?

Ms. Tartt: Well, to me it--again I think back to Greek tragedy. I mean, it's certainly something that has been used to explore lots and lots of themes. I think that it's a fairly endless subject as long as one chooses to follow it and, you know, to throw the dice and see how the story comes up in different ways.

Neary: All right. Thanks so much, Donna Tartt.

Ms. Tartt: Thank you.

Neary: Donna Tartt is the author of "The Little Friend" and "The Secret History." She joined us from our New York bureau. Coming up next on TALK OF THE NATION, the smallpox threat.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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