The Adventure of the Vanishing Lady Writer - Interview with Donna Tartt
Book Magazine, November/December 2002
In which Donna Tartt, ten years after the phenomenal success of The Secret History, makes a welcome return with one of the
biggest books of the year
by Liz Seymour
If a phrenologist made a map of the head of Donna Tartt—and she is both complicated and Victorian enough that a skull-measuring pseudoscientist might have an interest in analyzing her—here's what it would show: a good-sized segment marked "Dogs" (the author behind the 1992 blockbuster The Secret History has three, and they go almost everywhere with her); another one marked "Travel" (she has a particular fondness for France); a tiny one marked "Fame" (this is something she tolerates); and a slightly larger one marked "Fortune" (the publishing rights for her latest book, in the United Kingdom alone, went for approximately $1.5 million). The rest of the chart—at least one entire hemisphere—would be stamped simply "Words," because they—written and read—are what take up the biggest part of Donna Tartt's brain.
"Donna is awfully smart," says Gary Fisketjon, who has been working with her since 1991, when he began editing The Secret History, Tartt's debut; he also edited her long-awaited follow-up, The Little Friend, which is scheduled to arrive on bookshelves November 1. "She has that kind of ambient intelligence and good memory that is always picking up something," he says. Tartt's new book—a dense, satisfying thriller about a twelve-year-old girl investigating her brother's murder that took place when she was a baby—is in many ways a paean to bibliophilia: Not only does it feature a winning and fiercely bookish protagonist, but it echoes the work of authors ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Robert Louis Stevenson to Harper Lee to William Faulkner to Flannery O'Connor. "She's such a dedicated reader and has been reading so long it's almost in her marrow," says Fisketjon. "More than even most writers, her reading informs her writing."
"I'd probably write more if I didn't read so much," Tartt, thirty-eight, admits on a late-summer Sunday afternoon at a New York City café, where she is eating dessert in precise, tiny forkfuls. She speaks constantly in allusion, tending to use the words of other writers (Vladimir Nabokov, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Mann, Herman Melville, Rudyard Kipling) to illustrate her points.
But for the past ten years, there's been an audience waiting impatiently for her to get back to writing herself. After all, The Secret History—a campus-set murder mystery that reveals whodunit on the first page—rode the bestseller list for thirteen weeks, spawning fan clubs, movie rumors and book group discussions. The book's huge success, Tartt says, was a great surprise: "I was just not used to other people being at all interested in what I was doing and what I was thinking."
As it turned out, she wasn't that fond of the attention, and almost as suddenly as she had arrived, she deliberately faded away, politely but determinedly disappearing back into the deep cover of words. Flatly rejecting the conventional wisdom that demands a first-time author with a huge bestseller quickly crank out a follow-up, Tartt spent ten years with books not her own, walking her dogs, writing a few lower-profile pieces here and there, moving to France, where she lived for a while and, yes, returning to a novel that she had begun before The Secret History was published. That book would be finished when it was ready to be. "Kipling said, 'Watch, wait and obey,' " Tartt says, referring to the writer's muse. "The voice comes and you just listen and just do what it said."
Dressed with the kind of elegant simplicity that requires both confidence and money, the tiny, green-eyed Tartt seems not to be someone who spends much time worrying whether fans have waited around since the days when she was the It Girl of authors. Ten years ago, her elfin stature—Tartt pointed out to Vanity Fair that she was, at sixty inches and ninety pounds, exactly the size of Lolita's Dolores Haze—her severely tailored clothes, her capacity for drink, her impatience with questions she didn't want to answer, her college friendships with novelists Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt—all were dissected at length. Today, talking and listening with the patient politeness of someone who is used to being the smartest person in the room, she chooses words as though they were melons, thumping each one to make sure it's good and checking in periodically with her audience—"You know what I'm saying?"—to make sure, absolutely sure, that she is understood. Her opinions are sharp and unhesitating. She loves the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and hates nearly all others. She loves Charles Dickens and H. Rider Haggard but can't be bothered with contemporary novels in which "nothing happens," she says. "It just doesn't seem as though people try anymore. Why can't you have really well-crafted prose with adventure stories? What are novels for if not entertainment? If they're not entertaining, they're no good."
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