menu Language Is A Virus

A Talent to Tantalise

by Katharine Viner, The Guardian, October 19, 2002

There are myths and mysteries and misapprehensions about Donna Tartt. What else would you expect from the most writerly of writers? Katharine Viner finds out what's been happening in the decade between her first, remarkable novel and her second - so different and so ambitious.

Many people have a Donna Tartt story. I don't mean the people who've met her, although they definitely do, vivid and glorious and possibly not true; no, I mean readers. People remember where they were when they read The Secret History, Tartt's 1992 debut, mega-successful (multimillion sales, 23 languages, a combination of Dostoyevsky, Euripides, Easton Ellis and Waugh, according to the New York Times) novel. They remember who recommended it to them, and who they were going out with at the time, and how they held their breath on the bus in to work, finished chapters walking down the street. It was only a thriller, and you knew who did it from the first page. But it was gripping and clever and fantastically erudite, and people became a little obsessed. Tartt's persona fed this obsession: her name (glamorous), her size (pocket), her answerphone message (TS Eliot reading), her fascinating pronouncements ("My life is like Candide" or "I'm the exact same size as Lolita" ["ninety pounds is all she weighs/with a height of sixty inches"]), her chaste aura of another era ("Je ne vais jamais me marier," she once said, winsomely). She became one of the most mythologised novelists of modern times, weird and reclusive and very much a Writer. At the same time, the contradictions between hype, success and privacy were already clear: as Bret Easton Ellis said, "You can't be Salinger and be represented by ICM."

And after that: nothing. A hungry public waited for her second book, or perhaps a sighting: they never came. Years passed. There were rumours that she'd got devastating writer's block, had a nervous breakdown, bought an island near Tahiti ("the island of Dr Tartt") and become a hermit.

But here she is, 10 years later, sitting in a wonderful New York restaurant, fizzy and funny and talking about her new novel, The Little Friend, which shares with The Secret History the theme of a dark incident shaping a life but which in execution is southern and languorous and female and wholly different from its taut, masculine, east coast predecessor. It's a high-earner - she's rumoured to have received £1m from British publisher Bloomsbury alone - and fat - 555 pages - and, you know, "it just took a while to write".

In the course of our long lunch, in which she will pick at a tiny portion of calamari and say it's "spoilt her appetite", there will be some interesting revelations, some typically witty and self-reflective remarks, and - I think this is a first for Tartt in an interview - tears. She will reveal the "most horrible moment" of her life and what's on her answerphone these days and what she now thinks of The Secret History. But how much of what she tells me can I take seriously? And how much of it is simply part of the Donna Tartt myth?

Now 38, she really is tiny, startlingly so; she still has that famous shiny Louise Brooks bob, still wears boys' clothes from Gap Kids, would rather not say from where she bought the stern black jacket and plain white shirt with crocheted buttons. Her skin is white and clear. Her appearance is all neatness and cuteness, in fact, until she opens her mouth: there's a very un-American overcrowded clash of teeth inside her perfect lips. Her voice is perky, still bearing the twang of her Mississippi youth, and she is friendly on arrival, peering over her round sunglasses to say, "I'm so excited to meet you I can hardly speak!" I'm not sure if this was said with warmth or irony.

It took a full decade to write The Little Friend. "I can't think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year. It would be hell," she says. "Part of the problem with success is that it seduces people into overproduction. When my first book came out, I was very confused because I was thrown into a world that I knew nothing about. I just kind of lived like a student, worked like a student. And then all of a sudden - well, the metaphor that comes to mind is a shark tank. It wasn't quite that bad. But it was a shock. It was a bucket of cold water. People you'd meet and talk to and journalists would say, 'Oh, what are you going to do to top this one? If your name's not out there in two years, people will forget all about you.' I mean, jeez, what are they talking about? William Styron said, when he was about my age, that he realised he had about five books in him, and that was OK. I think I have about the same number. Five."

In fact, she says, there was no block or breakdown; she's just a slow writer. "People say that perfectionism is bad," she says. "But it's because of perfectionists that man walked on the moon and painted the Sistine Chapel, OK? Perfectionism is good. It's all about production and economy these days. I don't want to be the CEO of a corporation, of Donna Tartt Inc. I work the way I've always worked, and I don't want a big desk and fancy office and people answering the telephone."

The Little Friend is set in the south of the 1970s. It begins in 1964 (the year of Tartt's birth) with the shocking discovery of the hanging body of nine-year-old Robin, mysteriously murdered on Mother's Day. A decade later, Harriet, Robin's younger sister, who is old-fashioned and bookish and serious, becomes convinced that she knows the identity of the killer. It is, in Tartt's words, "a frightening, scary book about children coming into contact with the world of adults in a frightening way". It's also about a changing time for the south, the sweaty weirdness of Mississippi, the absence or uselessness of parents, solidity of love from the older generation, race, families, poverty, affection. It's a big and brilliant book. After The Secret History, when asked what was next, she told an interviewer, "I have my life to resort to. And all those subliminal southern stories I haven't begun to explore." So is this Tartt discovering the southern girl within?

"After The Secret History I wanted to write a different kind of book on every single level," she says. "I wanted to take on a completely different set of technical problems. The Secret History was all from the point of view of Richard, a single camera, but the new book is symphonic, like War And Peace. That's widely thought to be the most difficult form." She reiterates this throughout the interview - that what drives her novel-writing is purely technical, a labour for new writerly challenges, rather than particular concerns or fascinations, such as the return to the south of her childhood, or a search for truth.

For example, when asked if superiority over others is something that interests her - which it clearly does, as a throbbing theme throughout both novels (the elite students in The Secret History are always lauding it over everybody else, the Little Friend trailer-park whites feel superior to the poor blacks, because they're white; the poor blacks feel superior to the trailer-park whites, because they're cleaner, more moral) - she denies it. "Asserting superiority over others is just a sad theme of human life that you see on the news every day," she says. And when I say that race is a clear element in The Little Friend, she doesn't think there's much truth in this, either. So the fact that Ida, Harriet's maid (black, as was Tartt's own), is the person Harriet loves most but who is treated appallingly by her white employers, is "not so much to do with race as the horror of the child who's really attached to the nanny, and then the nanny's taken away".

Nevertheless, she has some interesting things to say about the American south, if more the south as a concept than the south of her home. "There's a horrible ethos in rural southern poverty that it's dumb to do well, it's stupid to succeed, and that people will laugh at you," she says. (This is superbly demonstrated in The Little Friend in the character of Gum, grandmother to the white, troubled, trailer-park family, the Ratliffs, and one of the most memorable monsters in recent literature. She stops her grandson from going to college and says things like, "My diddy said it was something wrong with any man that'll sit down in a chair and read a book." She also complains about having to do jury service because "***** stoled a tractor" and adds chillingly: "In my time, we didn't have all this nonsense about a big trial.") Tartt continues: "Unfortunately, there's a big anti-intellectual strain in the American south, and there always has been. We're not big on thought. And it's worse for women, because it's always worse for women, frankly."

Throughout the novel, you're struck by the grimness of the southern town: it's dark, sweaty, humid, gothic, a place where the "burned-out grocery store" was "struck by lightning, never rebuilt", where brothers hang and cats die and blackbirds' wings get ripped off. "Mississippi is an interesting place," says Tartt, "because before the civil war there were more millionaires in Mississippi than there were in New York. So it has a dark history, because they got their money through slavery. When there was no more slavery, the big houses rotted and were abandoned, and incredibly beautiful painted gardens became all jungly. Then in the 1950s it was all about drive-in culture: drive-in dry-cleaners, movies, hamburger stands. That, too, is abandoned. And then somehow in the 1970s [when Tartt was growing up], they figured people wanted to go to malls instead. So it's all built-up. That's kind of happening in my book - you can hear the bulldozers, things are changing. In America, they build something, and it goes out of style, and then rather than knock it down they just build something else a little further out. So you end up with these wasteland areas in town. It's very creepy." Grenada, the town in which she grew up, is, she says, "almost unrecognisable now. There's still the town square, but they've kind of messed it up. And there's the 'historic district', but that's just phoney heritage. Ye Olde Pewter Pot and Mamie's Kitchen."

It must have been a fascinating time to grow up in Mississippi - Tartt was born in 1964, so lived through the dramatic shift in the racial and economic landscape of the south. Does she remember much of the civil rights era? "Oh gosh, yes," she says. "I remember when Martin Luther King was shot [in 1968, in nearby Memphis]. Even though I was very small, you were very aware - everyone was talking about it. Also, if you look at the footage of Martin Luther King's death, it doesn't look like it was taken in the 1960s. People are wearing suits, the cars are older-looking. Because people were poorer, they stayed more formal, pop culture didn't really make it - the 1960s didn't really happen in Mississippi. It's like in Easy Rider, when they arrive into town and get beaten up and killed because they look different."

But how did these changes affect her and her family? "My mother's family has been in the town for a long time. For ever. It's very much the Daughters of the American Revolution [a society to which you can belong only if your ancestors fought in the American war of independence]. They were involved in kind of hateful, clubby things and had some sad connotations [mostly about racism]. By the time I came along it wasn't that bad, it was more of a silly tea-party thing. So when I was growing up there was this kind of tea-party culture, not so different from my grandmother's time, and then all of a sudden the 1970s came along and it was strip malls, McDonald's, rock music. So you get this kind of intense rock and roll energy going on, with this kind of very frozen, formal, ritualised kind of life. It was a very interesting juncture in time to grow up, because you're aware of both of these things, and bits from each would intrude upon you."

This is the sort of response Tartt gives often; she manages to be personally evasive by giving you an interesting, if convoluted, answer - but not really to your question. (She has a slightly disconcerting habit of keeping her eyes closed when she's talking to you, especially when she's struggling to make a point.) This evasiveness about her childhood is a surprise, because in 1992 - perhaps before she realised how big her celebrity would become - she wrote a beautiful, and very intimate, memoir of the time for Harper's magazine. It presents the story of a bizarre childhood. She was, she wrote, "too small to wear regular baby clothes", so was instead dressed in doll's clothes. "There exists a hilarious photograph of me lying in a crib and wearing, for an infant, an oddly sophisticated career-girl outfit," she writes. She describes how her great-grandfather, the great patriarch of her family, "had a nearly unlimited faith in the magic of pharmacy" and has spent the last years of his life constantly dosed up with antibiotics, "believing them to be a kind of healthful preventative, or nerve tonic".

This influential great-grandfather also insisted that the five-year-old Donna, although only afflicted with what she calls "bad tonsils" (which nevertheless forced her to stay in bed "an average of about three days a week"), be dosed up with molasses, vitamin syrup, whiskey at bedtime and, most dangerously, "regular and massive doses of some red stuff which I now know to have been codeine cough syrup". Codeine is a derivative of opium, and as a result of taking it, the young Donna spent "nearly two years of my childhood submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness". She describes the "long drugged afternoons" which made up her "languorous undersea existence", when she would stare for hours and hours at a View-Master reel of Peter Pan flying over London, fantasising that she was with him. However, her "long sabbatical in the Land of the Poppy was by no means all pleasant". She writes that she often woke after terrifying dreams, "screaming for Mother or Cleo [their black maid]". The worst dream, she says, still terrifies her to think of it. "In it, a set of country-club types - smartly dressed, around what would have been my parents' age - are gathered, cocktails in hand, around a barbecue grill. They are snickering with jaded amusement as one of their number - a handsome, caddish-looking fellow - holds a howling Persian cat over the barbecue, pushing its feet into the flames."

She seems a little annoyed when I mention the memoir and how much I like it, however. "I'll tell you one big difference between the family in the book and my actual family," she says. (I hadn't asked!) "There are lots of differences. It's basically not my family. I never had a brother who died or anything like that." (I hadn't asked!) "But one of the very big differences is that my mother and I are extremely close." (In The Little Friend, Harriet's depressed mother, desperate with grief from the murder of her son, cares little for her remaining children; the house is filthy, with piles of yellow newspapers stacked high, and they have to feed themselves. Harriet's father, needless to say, is away in Memphis with another woman.) Tartt's mother, by contrast, was described to me by someone who's met her as "a Blanche DuBois figure who said things like 'the south is a defeated nation'." Tartt says about her: "She's funny as hell and I talk to her on the phone every day. She's a big ole southern belle - very over-the-top, in a funny and good way. She's very campy." Her mother loved the new book, she says, but her older relatives back in Mississippi are too old, their eyes too bad to read it. "It's funny - because I'm not tall, they kind of forget how old I am. They think I'm still at college - so the fact that I've written another book seems so much more marvellous to them." They think she's a child prodigy; and, in fact, many people remark on how child-like Tartt is; one friend told me that she's obsessed with childhood, and her mentor Willie Morris said of when he met her: "On the one hand she was immensely grown-up; on the other hand she was a child. It was a very attractive combination."

Nevertheless, there are undoubted similarities between Harriet's family in The Little Friend and Tartt's family in Mississippi. In her memoir, she writes about her "skittish, immature mother" and how her parents were "neither able nor inclined to take much interest in my early upbringing" - it is "a bevy of great-aunts and grandparents" which steps into the breach, sharing their huge southern home (like the aptly-named mansion Tribulation in the novel).

One of these relatives even said about Tartt's mother: "That Baby isn't any better mother than a cat." (Donna Tartt's real mother sounds, perhaps, like the sort of mother who's better the older you are.) Harriet herself worships Captain Scott and Houdini, just as Tartt worshipped Peter Pan and Robert Louis Stevenson - no Beatles or Elvis for them. And in her memoir, Tartt describes her father as "dashing but feckless" and a "black-haired, bad tempered stranger" with whom she eats at an Italian restaurant in Memphis - he was a local politician called Don Tartt, pointing to some narcissism in calling his daughter Donna - sounding similar to the absent, and therefore longed-for, Memphis-based father in The Little Friend.

This is the kind of analysis Tartt hates. "When The Secret History came out, people did not understand it was fiction, and they went off pretty much trying to track down Francis and Henry [characters in the novel]," she says. "They really didn't understand that - you know... " and here she pauses for dramatic effect, and sounds very southern, "... Ah. Mayed. That. Earp." But, once again, it wasn't really surprising that people drew the conclusion that much of The Secret History echoed some truth: it is set at Hampden college, a small, elite, artsy place in Vermont - Tartt went to Bennington, a small, elite, artsy place in Vermont. She had a tutor who, like Julian Morrow in The Secret History, was eccentric and elitist. She was a member of a high-minded, Greek-quoting clique. Her classmate was novelist Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote in The Rules Of Attraction about "that weird Classics group... probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals," precisely echoing (or, more likely, parodying) Tartt's first novel. There doesn't have to be a murder in real life for the novel to say something about the author; novels are not just feats of technicality, like mending a car, they are works of art, which come from the mind and soul and energy of their authors. Why wouldn't they be influenced by the author's experiences? That is not the same as saying they are the whole truth or the full story. (As Tartt herself says, apropos of something else, "Everything went into The Little Friend for a decade. It's all there.")

Tartt also, famously, detests any mention of her home life. Ever since the "Je ne vais jamais me marier" quote, journalists and fans have been trying to discover if Tartt really is celibate. Is the quote still true? She turns inarticulate for the only time during our meeting. "Um. I don't know. Now we're getting into kind of - I don't know." She laughs a woodpecker laugh. "Now I'm a little embarrassed. Basically I have nothing to talk about. I - I - I -" She gives a coy smile. Conversation closed. She isn't celibate, by the way - even I know of three men she's been out with, and there was even a rumoured engagement. They were all sworn to secrecy. There might be a boyfriend at the moment - at one point she says "we", quickly changing it to "I", although that could mean her dogs. But her silence creates mystery and inquiry; it brings to mind the gossips in The Great Gatsby, sitting around, making suppositions: "Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once," says one. "It's more that he was a German spy during the war," says another. "He's a bootlegger," says a third. Who knows what's true?

Mind you, it's difficult to imagine anyone taking the place of the real loves of her life, her dogs. She now has three - an old pug called Pongo ("he's kind of like Henry James, very stately and stiff and cranky in a good way"), a Boston terrier called Baron ("very radiant, very brave, absolutely fearless") and a baby pug called Cecil ("very roly-poly and cute"). She once said, in a typically Tarttish way, witty and self-creating: "My dog has a number of acquaintances of his own species - as do I - but it is abundantly clear to both of us that there is little company in all the world which we enjoy so much as each other's." She even has a personal affinity with pets: writing in 1992 about attending cheerleading camp, she described how the big, wholesome cheerleaders treated tiny Donna like a pet of their own. (And just in case you are baffled by the disjuncture - Donna Tartt? Cheerleading? - she wrote, "The year I was a freshman cheerleader, I was reading 1984.")

There's another story, too - that of the Tartt answering machine, which allegedly played a recording of TS Eliot reading - although, interestingly, whoever told the story couldn't decide which lines of The Waste Land he read (there are two different stories). She tells me that there is no longer any Eliot. "I have a horrible, Kraftwerk-sounding robot man. It's totally mechanically generated and quite unreal and totally frightening and often people hang up. Now you've given away my secret!"

And booze. I tell her that I've heard that, despite her size, she takes a drink better than any man (and it's pretty disappointing that she won't drink with me). "That's kind of funny," she says. "I don't know if that's true or not. I don't know if that's necessarily a compliment." (She knows it is.) Then she says - and you get the feeling she can already see this in big type, a modern-day Dorothy Parker - "I like a glass of whiskey in the winter, I like a gin and tonic in the summer, I like a glass of champagne anytime." Always telling new stories about herself, she reminds you of F Scott Fitzgerald, who let it be known that, as a great social climber, his first word was "up" and that he admired James Joyce so much that he once said he would jump out of a window to prove it: the writer as personal myth-maker.

Tartt is happiest of all when talking about stories: books, words, reading, writing. The great thing about earning so much money from The Secret History was that she could buy any book she wanted. "When I had no money I used to grieve, just stand in a very Dickensian way outside bookshops," she says. "I would always prefer to go get another Dickens off the shelf than pick up a new book by someone I've not read yet. I'm a hard reader. I'm bitterly disappointed by books. Sometimes I pick up a book and I'm like - please God, please let this be what it looks like it is." When asked her favourite contemporary authors, she is maddening: "I don't really like to talk about living writers because in saying who you like, you're also saying very plainly who you don't like." Really? "I know so. And who am I to pass judgment on someone else?" (Later, in a moment of weakness, she confesses to loving Ian McEwan's Atonement: "I was crushed, I couldn't sleep." And she's very happy to talk about her favourite living bands - Pulp, Clinic, Cornershop, why the White Stripes are better than the Strokes; I suppose because they're in a different industry.)

She had been a voracious reader, however, for a long time: The Wind In The Willows, Winnie The Pooh, Peter Pan, when she was younger. "And Stevenson. I would lay down my life for Robert Louis Stevenson. Borges said that he loved Stevenson so much that he would not allow another book even to touch Stevenson's on his bookshelf, such was his reverence." She also loved Kipling - "he gives you a great sense of language, the rhythm, tick, tock, tick, tock" - but didn't read any southern writers until she left home. Of these, her favourite is the wonderful short story-writer Flannery O'Connor. "It is a grief to me that Flannery O'Connor is dead - she died of lupus so young [aged 39, close to Tartt's age], she could have been alive today and still writing. She's horrifyingly funny, we share a sense of humour. She had a much better ear for dialogue than I'll ever have, but her prose is very Johnsonian, very formal. It's that cool, removed style combined with the very black stories."

She takes writing very seriously, it's studiedly anti-trivial - "It's like what Melville said: that it's a writer's job to dive deep. And I've been under a long time." This slow and serious approach to fiction may be unfashionable, but it is surely a reason for her success. Barry Hannah, the writer who taught her at university, said that Tartt stood out because most students "have got really bad ears and minds, completely messed over by MTV. There's this generic tone. They forget what language can do. They need to find their own personal music."

(Although, as she says, an untrivial approach to work doesn't mean she doesn't like trivia in her personal life. Shoes, for example; twice during the lunch she exclaims, "I'm just spying your shoe! What a great shoe!" Or clothes; she is famously perpetually well-dressed. One former classmate said, in a much quoted line: "If you went to her room at 4am, you'd find her [Donna] sitting at her desk, smoking a cigarette, wearing a perfectly pressed white shirt buttoned to the top, collar studs, trousers with a knife crease.")

Tartt adores writers, and is very enamoured of the idea of the writer as an identity - the writers she loves, she idolises, and she is clearly trying to live up to her idea of a writer and what a writer is, which is not being a media person, not getting sidestepped by fripperies, not letting you in on how she does what she does. There is a story she tells that shows this very clearly, concerning her first meeting with the late Willie Morris, the former editor of Harper's magazine, writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi and the man who introduced himself to Tartt with the words, "My name is Willie Morris, and I think you're a genius." Tartt said that Morris had offered her a Coca-Cola. "No, sir, I believe I'll have what you're drinking," was her reply. (It was bourbon.) She continued: "Terrific roar of laughter. 'Why,' he shouted, staggering back as if dazed by my prodigy, rolling his rich old eye around the assembled company, 'this girl is a writer!'"

One wonders what Tartt thinks of The Secret History now; it's such a different, more populist, book. "I hadn't read it for 10 years, and just recently I read it aloud, unabridged, the whole thing for a recording - it took 14 days, a marathon," she says. "It seemed quite alien, like something I didn't quite write. But what I remembered very clearly was where I was when I was writing this particular part - staying at a friend's house, the view out the window. It caught me very vividly." Did she like the novel? "There are some good things about it. But there are some things about it too when I just think: oh no! Some parts were really hard to read aloud, that bothered me terribly. One wasn't as good technically then, in terms of constructing things. I see loose ends that I would never have allowed in the new book. It's natural. In 10 years you learn to be better at working."

She is very funny on the trend, more pronounced in Britain, for novelists to weigh in on the big issues of the day. "I think politics is deadly to write about, frankly. If you have a political agenda and you set out to write a novel to prove that, say, capitalism should crumble, then it's going to be a really bad novel. Very few people have been able to deal with political fiction - Dickens, Dostoyevsky. But even Tolstoy got really tiresome when he was talking about the serfs. You have to let characters be characters, not [gruff voice] Mr Capitalism or [girlie voice] Miss Anti-Fur." She cackles with laughter.

This lack of interest in politics is confusing, because one of her friends had described her as a "very political person". And yet, when pressed, she will only declare an interest in - I'm not making this up - the Puppy Protection League. ("Well, somebody's got to look after puppies, because they certainly can't look after themselves.") Meanwhile, one person tells me she's "quite rightwing"; another that she's "definitely a liberal". How can we be sure which of them is right? "She said that she used to support herself with a foolproof system for betting on horses - but then that could be myth-making," says one friend. "I suspect her love life is pretty complicated, while she likes to give the impression of being chaste," says another.

Was she making fun of me? (One thinks of Carraway of Gatsby: "For a moment I suspected that he was pulling my leg... My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines." And Vanity Fair called her "a character of her own fictive creation".) Does she see herself like Henry in The Secret History, "a propagandist, routinely withholding information, leaking it only when it served his purpose"? Another (former) friend says that "she seems to have a natural love of intrigue", and you wonder if this myth-making and mysterious self-creation are to protect the creative process, or are just her being a storyteller. Self-consciously writerly.

There is an extraordinary moment in our meeting, when perhaps I see the Donna Tartt beyond the myth, beyond the construct, a little unadorned. It happens when I ask, as you do of New Yorkers, what it's been like living in the city since September 11. "I was actually finishing up my book in Virginia [where she has a snake-infested house] when it happened," says Tartt. "I came back up a week after; it was a week to the day, and it was one of the scariest drives of my life. The roads were absolutely empty and it felt like the world had ended. There were big American flags hanging off bridges and when you'd stop at one of the rest-side stops, cops would come up to you and they'd talk to you and ask you, 'Where are you going?' They'd be like, be careful, God bless you. There was nobody travelling whatsoever. And you just had no idea what you were heading into. And even though you tried to reassure yourself that you knew what to expect, it was the most horrible moment of my life. Really. I thought I was looking out at New Jersey. I didn't recognise it as New York. The towers were just how you recognised the city, they were the city, you could see them from miles afar. There was just this kind of smoking - you thought you were looking at some kind of factory in New Jersey and you were just like - what has happened to Manhattan? It was just awful, awful, awful." At this point, I notice that the tip of Tartt's nose is turning pink, a clear contrast to her porcelain skin, and I think she's going to sneeze. I suddenly realise she's about to cry. The whites of her eyes redden and clear tears drip delicately down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry, it was terrible, terrible," she says. "I'm so embarrassed." She reaches into her big leather bag (half the size she is, and packed with stuff - fancy patterned sunglasses case, little containers) and pulls out a compact with which she powders her nose. "I'm so embarrassed," she repeats, and I believe her.

Changing the subject, I ask her innocently about her unusual ring, a plaited silver band; she is clearly relieved to get back to where she's happy, reciting a story. "This is a replica of a Viking ring," she says. "I was in Finland on my book tour last time and I was literally leaving my hotel in Helsinki and this young man rushed up all out of breath and said that he was a Finnish poet and he really liked my work and he wanted to meet me. And he gave me a copy of his poems, in Finnish, and a present which I wasn't allowed to open until I got on the plane. Now, you couldn't do that. But once I was on the plane, I opened it - and it was this ring! It's very funny - I really don't take it off. I wear it to remind me that nice things can happen. You can meet nice people. It's about unexpected surprises happening when you're looking the other way." Donna Tartt: teller of tales.

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