Language Is A Virus

The Secret History of Donna Tartt

by Mark Coles, Arts Correspondent, BBC, April 2001

Compiling one of those inevitable end-of-millennium lists of favourite authors and books, someone mentioned Donna Tartt's - The Secret History - only to met with a chorus of "What on earth's happened to her".

Every one of us there had read her debut novel - a murder mystery about a group of Greek Classics students in Vermont who kill one of their classmates and try to cover it up.

It had been a publishing phenomenon when it came out back in 1992 - sitting at the top of the best sellers list for months.

Then silence. Nothing more was heard from her. No second novel - not even a hint of one in the offing.

There is nothing new in writers who struggle to follow up early success. Remember Joseph Heller, (Catch 22) , Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) or Henry Roth (Call It Sleep).

The writer Arundhati Roy says she might never follow up her Booker Prize winning debut "The God Of Small Things".

The British novelist Martin Amis thinks the pressure on writers today is far greater than it was in the past.

"In my day" he says, "when literature was a minority interest, there was no pressure from outside. I didn't give an interview until my fourth novel. For first time novelists these days who make a splash the pressure is considerable".

"The press have their knives out for anything successful".

So had Donna Tartt fallen victim to what is known in the publishing world as "difficult second novel syndrome"?

A year ago, I rang her publishers Random House in the States. "There's nothing scheduled for her until 2010," said a publicist.

Email requests for an interview went unanswered.

On the internet things were even more bizarre - websites devoted to her were full of rumours about what might have happened. Some talked of a nervous breakdown, writers block - one even suggested she had bought an island with the money from her first book and turned into a recluse.

Nine years was a long time to wait for the follow-up. In around a third of that time the British writer Magnus Mills has already written three novels - despite holding down day jobs, first as a London bus driver and now driving a van for BT.

"I just like to get on with them" he says, "I've already started my fourth - I work on them during my lunch breaks".

Back in 1992 when Donna Tartt was top of the book best-sellers lists, the British group Stereo MC's were in the pop charts. It has taken them nine years to record their follow up album.

And coincidentally Donna Tartt is preparing her comeback too.

She was in London recently and finally agreed to an interview.
All the rumours are untrue. She's not elusive "just shy" she says.

She can't understand what all the fuss is about. She has finished her second novel - well almost - "I'm editing it down at the moment," she says.

"It's a book about children - but not for children - its a frightening scary book about children coming into contact with the world of adults in a very frightening way".

So why had it taken so long to write? "I can't write quickly. If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality I'd be happy. I'd love to write a book a year but I don't think I'd have any fans".

Donna Tartt's new novel - with the provisional title "Tribulation" is scheduled for publication early next year.