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The secret history of Donna Tartt's new novel

by Vanessa Thorpe, The Observer, July 28, 2002

Fans plot to be the first readers of a reclusive writer's long-awaited new blockbuster
On Mother's Day in 1964 a boy of nine is found hanging from a tree. This mysterious killing changes everything for his family. It is also the mysterious killing at the heart of the most jealously guarded second novel in publishing history: Donna Tartt's The Little Friend.

Tartt's first book, published 10 years ago when she was 28, was a literary sensation. The Secret History told the suspenseful story of a privileged band of classics scholars who attended an elite American college. A potent mix of murder, adolescent sexual tension and ancient Greek ritual, it sold more than a million copies in the United States alone, and has been translated into 23 languages.

Now the long wait for Tartt's next book is almost over. Simultaneous publication of The Little Friend in the United States and in Britain is set for the end of October. For the enigmatic author's devoted fans, however, a few more weeks of patience is proving hard to muster. Some are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to be first to buy a copy.

The haunting 800-page saga, sold to the British publisher Bloomsbury for just under £1 million, is due to appear first in bookshops in the Netherlands in September.

As word of this filters out to fans over the internet, secret plans are being laid to ship out early Dutch copies as collectors' items, and to arrange for high-speed translations into English. The level of interest may even lead to a short-lived black market.

'Her writing is so strange and so memorable, and she is such a beautiful person, that we know the book will be worth the trouble,' said one breathless chatroom fan, also calling herself Donna.

Tartt's American agent, the influential Amanda 'Binky' Urban, has arranged for early publication of The Little Friend in the mainly multilingual Netherlands so that sales there are not immediately undermined by English-language imports. It is a lucrative market where The Secret History sold well.

'If English readers start buying up Dutch copies, it wouldn't be the first time,' said Gill Coleridge, Tartt's British agent, 'though it doesn't seem too long for them to wait.'

Set in the sleepy Mississippi of Tartt's childhood, The Little Friend is the story of a claustrophobic family, steeped in generations of secrets. The death of the boy, Kevin, is the key to the story, and the novel is written from the viewpoint of his 12-year-old sister, Harriet, who sets out to avenge his murder.

It is, in Tartt's words, 'a scary book about children coming into contact with the world of adults in a very frightening way'.

Demand for the book, which has not yet been reviewed, has already outstripped expectations. Orders are now close to rivalling those for such popular children's books as Bloomsbury's great banker, the Harry Potter series.

The long gestation period of Tartt's new work has sent out mixed signals, however. The author argues that she simply writes slowly. 'If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality, I'd be happy,' she has said. 'I'd love to write a book a year, but I don't think I'd have any fans.'

All the same, rumours that she has suffered severe writer's block have persisted. Tellingly, the book's title as a work in progress was Tribulation. When copies of the first two-thirds of the book were eventually sent to prospective publishers in Britain, they were accompanied by an unusually strongly worded confidentiality clause, confirming the rumours in the minds of sceptics.

Those who have read the book agree that the first 100 pages are superb, though with a slower pace than The Secret History. But there are suggestions that the novel suffers from narrative drift.

Websites dedicated to the reclusive author, who wrote her first sonnet at the age of 13, are packed with speculation about the new novel and with wistful hopes that it will live up to the high quality of The Secret History. This moody thriller, published by Penguin, has entered the cult literary canon, alongside JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

'Its true status is emerging over the years,' said Coleridge. 'It goes on and on. It is now being read by a new generation of students.'

Like Salinger and Heller before her, Tartt has became a cult figure. Her quiet lifestyle, gamine looks and infrequent personal appearances have fuelled her reputation as a misanthropic genius.

Although Tartt, who started eight years of work on The Secret History while she was still a student at Bennington College in Vermont, has been romantically linked in the past to the writers Bret Easton Ellis and Nicholas Shakespeare, in public she has only ever expressed affection for her dog. 'I will never marry,' she once declared (in French).

Coleridge, for one, believes that Tartt's self-possessed poise is not a gimmick. 'She is a delightful woman with a wonderful sense of humour,' she said. 'She just likes a certain amount of privacy.'

British fans will have a rare chance to see their heroine in the flesh when Tartt arrives in this country in October to promote the book. She will stay for three days, and is due to speak at the Oxford Union, as well as appearing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and at London's Logan Hall before flying on to Dublin.

    Authors paralysed by an early success include:
  • 1934 Henry Roth. A gap of 45 years came after Call It Sleep.
  • 1936 Margaret Mitchell wrote nothing after Gone With The Wind, the fastest-selling book in publishing history.
  • 1952 Ralph Ellison. Following his exposure of racism in Invisible Man, a sequel, Juneteenth, was left uncompleted at his death in 1994.
  • 1960 Harper Lee produced the classic To Kill a Mockingbird but wrote nothing more.
  • 1961 Joseph Heller left it 13 years after Catch-22 before Something Happened in 1974.
  • 1997 Alex Garland, after the popular hit The Beach, managed to write The Tesseract but then hit a period of writer's block.
  • 2000 Zadie Smith. Speculation grows after the success of her debut, White Teeth.
by Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

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