menu Language Is A Virus

Smartt writing

by Nancy Haught, The Oregonian, December 7, 2003

That Donna Tartt cut her teeth on great novels is no surprise to those who have read hers. The books she devoured as a child have marked her writing and are even reflected in the life of her latest heroine, Harriet.

But as important as reading has been to Tartt, being read to has been just as significant.

"My grandmother could read for eight hours straight," Tartt says. The older woman would nod off to sleep sometimes. "But we would say, 'Read, read,' and wake her up. She'd read well into the night."

Tartt reads her own work aloud, as she's writing and once she's finished. She has recorded audio versions of both of her novels. It took her 15 days to read the "The Secret History" out loud. "When I got to the end, people cheered," she says. She read aloud an abridged version of "The Little Friend."

She prefers to read her own work for audiotapes, to capture any inflections that her writing might have missed. But she's also a believer in reading out loud to children.

"To have been read to was a gift," she says. Nowadays, when she rereads "Treasure Island," she hears the prose in her grandmother's voice, even the boyish voice of Jim Hawkins.

"It's as if there is a tiny shadow of her voice pressed in between the pages of the book," Tartt says. "Tell your readers to read aloud to the children in their lives."

Donna Tartt writes big books but says what counts are the little things. Donna Tartt would fit in my pocket. Both of her best-selling books, "The Secret History" and "The Little Friend," are bigger than she is, weighing in at 524 and 624 pages, respectively.

A bundle of press clippings, provided by her publicist, indicates she's 5 feet tall, won't talk about her personal life and has, in the past year, been asked almost every conceivable question about "The Little Friend", the December selection of The Oregonian's book club.

In person, sharing a sofa in The Heathman Hotel lobby, Tartt is a reticent slip of a woman, dressed in sleek black slacks and a sweater. Her white collar and cuffs peek out at her neck and wrists, the same way her sense of humor peeks out of her answers. A hint of her native Mississippi softens her voice.

"There probably are questions I haven't been asked about 'The Little Friend,' but right now I can't think of any," she says. "Everything I have to say, I say in the book. That's truly, for a writer, where it begins and ends."

She taps the coffee table near her knees. "Being a writer is a bit like being a carpenter," she says. The creation, she seems to be saying, should stand on its own.

"The Little Friend" is doing fine in that regard. It begins, like "The Secret History," with a death, but it unfolds as a very different story. In a small Mississippi town, the Cleves family has Mother's Day dinner on the table. They call in 9-year-old Robin, who's been out back playing. When he doesn't come, they go looking for him and find him, hanging by the neck from a black tupelo tree.

Robin's youngest sister, Harriet, isn't quite 6 months old when he dies, but she insists that she remembers him.

Now, at the age of 12, she is neither pretty nor sweet, but smart, with a library card and an insatiable appetite for adventure stories. That summer, fueled by books about Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia and Captain Robert Scott's ill-fated trip to the Antarctic, she decides to learn how to hold her breath underwater like Harry Houdini and to find and punish whoever it was who killed her brother. Her sidekick is Hely Hull, an 11-year-old boy who divides his adoration between Harriet and his older brother. The villains to their good guys are the Ratliff brothers, a seedy set who deal in drugs, snakes and street-corner preaching.

Tartt says the Ratliffs were a stretch to write about but telling the story through Harriet's eyes wasn't so tough.

"A child is interesting to write about," she says. "They are little optic nerves. They see everything, but they don't understand everything. They don't interpret things correctly. They're all eyes and all ears, but they must depend on adults for everything.

"Children often misinterpret the things that go on around them. When their parents divorce, for example, they think it's their own fault."

Harriet is self-centered in that way, Tartt says. "She believes that she can right her family's wrong, that she can make things right again.

"In the stories she reads, that's the way it is," Tartt says. "Harriet is almost like a little Captain Ahab or a little Mr. Kurtz. This is a book about obsession and the places that it can take us."

Tartt shares her character's love of adventure stories, but she remembers being frustrated with how few girl heroines she read about. "There were heroic little girls in the real world," she says. "Little Joan (of Arc) was burned at the stake." But in novels, she remembers only Alice, the Wonderland tourist, and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz."

"Little girls are more calculating," she says now. "A girl plays her cards closer to her vest." Alice and Dorothy "were practical, they asked good questions, they were stubborn and wouldn't take no for an answer. And they also knew when to retreat and when to attack."

Harriet does, and so, apparently, does Tartt. In the midst of acclaim for "The Secret History," she disappeared, only to reappear, like Houdini, 10 years later. She'd been doing more than holding her breath, apparently. "The Little Friend" was finished. The secret, she says, to sustaining her writing for that long is in the details.

"It's kind of like painting a mural," she says, like creating one large scene on a wall. "I write big books, but part of what I experience at my desk, what I do every day, is think and write about little things." She brings her hands closer together and moves them up and down as if she's measuring out canvas to paint a miniature.

"It's about writing sentences, the structure of paragraphs. A sentence has its own structure, too. It has to have flow and symmetry. It's about finding the right word, finding out exactly what you want to say.

"When you keep a book with you for years, it grows richer over time. You understand more about your characters."

Well, what about the character of the snakes, which are such a slithering, venomous presence in the novel? Did that take special research?

Oh, no, she says. "I suppose for children who grew up in California, it would, but for children who grew up in Mississippi, snakes are very dangerous. It's not an infrequent experience to have an encounter with one. People from California tell horror stories about earthquakes. In Mississippi, they tell horror stories about snakes. It's part of the zeitgeist of the South. You pick it up."

In "The Little Friend," it's a cobra that captures Harriet's attention. "That's the snake she wants," Tartt says. "She is remembering Kipling and trying to bring fairy-tale moments into real life." The results are horrifying and hilarious, depending on the page. So, Tartt says, is childhood.

"Harriet herself is fearless. She really isn't afraid of any man . . . well, maybe the Ratliffs," Tartt says. "She doesn't realize how innocent she is."

Not even at the end of the book? Not even, Tartt says. "She is bloody but unbowed. Not shattered." She has learned a lesson from Captain Smith, a hero she shares with Tartt.

"He did not come back from his mission," the author says. "Harriet has come out on the other side. She's learned that there is some bleak comfort just in that."

Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625; nancyhaught A T

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