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Her Own Twist - Donna Tartt Interview - The Little Friend

Newsday, November 3, 2002

Donna Tartt says she writes the kind of old-fashioned novels that suit her taste. Luckily, other people seem to like them, too.
By Dan Cryer.

She looks small only until she opens her mouth. That's when Donna Tartt, all 5 feet of her, grows very large, indeed.

Never mind the elfin look. What she says reveals a woman made of equal parts blistering intelligence, artistic fastidiousness and no-nonsense determination.

Ask her about books, and you're soon discussing Brahms, Byzantine mosaics and Hitchcock movies. Ask her a why question, and you're likely to get a why-not answer.

She's opinionated and forthright, all right, unless the query concerns her personal life. Then she clams up.

It comes as no surprise to learn that some of these same qualities turn up in Harriet Cleve Dufresne, the heroine of Tartt's latest novel, "The Little Friend" (Knopf, $26).

The book opens with a murder in a small Mississippi town in what appears to be the 1960s. When Harriet is just a baby, her 9-year-old brother is found dead, hanging from a tree in the backyard. Twelve years later, she's grown into a precocious, inquisitive tomboy, eager to track down her brother's killer.

Under Tartt's deft direction, the book begins as a hair-raising mystery-adventure tale with Harriet as detective before morphing into a subtle novel of manners exploring family and class in a South not yet homogenized into American generic. That Harriet may have fingered the wrong suspect is a measure of the author's nuanced take on the nature of evil.

Tartt's debut a decade ago, when she was 28, was a splashy hyper-success. Photos of the slender, green-eyed author with the bob hairdo straight out of the '20s appeared everywhere. So did word of her $450,000 advance. So did the quote from her onetime mentor, former Harper's magazine editor Willie Morris, that she was "a genius."

Reviews of "The Secret History," a stylishly written novel about murder among a circle of snobbish classics students at an artsy college much like Tartt's alma mater, Bennington, were hugely admiring. Hardcover and paperback sales of the book eventually reached more than 1 million copies in the United States and many more in 21 other countries.

>From a writer's solitude, she was yanked into a media feeding frenzy. "My phone never used to ring, unless it was my mother," Tartt recalls. "Then one morning at 8 it started ringing, and it never stopped. It became my job to answer the phone."

So much attention can be a boon for a newcomer, miraculously jump-starting a career. Alice Sebold, whose first novel, "The Lovely Bones," sits atop bestseller lists, is but the most recent example.

But Tartt also is wary of publicity overkill, where gossipy tidbits and the aura of myth get in the way of seeing the books for what they are. Hemingway, she notes, became a writer so associated in the public mind with macho pursuits like hunting and bullfighting that many people think they know his work without actually reading it.

However distasteful it may have been to meet the press the first time around, now that her new book is out, Tartt is back for more. In fact, her publisher is pulling out all the stops, even providing her with a makeup artist for photo sessions - an almost unheard of rarity on the book promotion circuit.

We meet not far from her Upper East Side apartment (she also owns a country place in Virginia). The setting, in a quiet Japanese teahouse, is an atrium-like room where light streams down from three stories above. She wears a black suit and eats green-tea ice cream.

Her personal life, if not exactly off-limits to outsiders, is dispensed with in as few words as possible.

Is she still single? "I don't like to talk about that sort of thing," she says, acknowledging a moment later that, yes, it's true, she's not wearing a wedding band.

Her early years? The older of Don and Taylor Tartt's two daughters, she grew up in Grenada, a county seat in northern Mississippi. Don served on the county board of supervisors, and Taylor was a secretary at the state employment commission.

Tartt's relationships with her parents could not be more different.

"My father and I don't get along," she says. "We don't have any contact. We haven't had any contact for 20 years."

She and her mother, on the other hand, are very close. "We talk on the phone very day," she says.

What she does not say, but has been reported elsewhere, is that Don and Taylor did not live together much even during their marriage, which ended in divorce.

When I turn to questions of literature and the craft of fiction, however, Tartt becomes expansive.

Why has it been so long between books? Chalk it up to perfectionism, she says, and the desire not to repeat herself.

The short answer, she replies before invoking an artist of another sort by way of explanation, is that the project was just plain difficult. "Brahms said - I think it was Brahms - that composing is easy. What's hard is having to throw away most of what you write.

"And it's true. I love to move words around, even commas. I can debate for half an hour should I use this word or that word.

"I would write a scene. It would be very well polished. It would be lovely. And then I would realize that I shouldn't be telling the scene from this character's point of view.

"Chuck it out. Start again. You have to be really ruthless."

Writing from a child's point of view presented a special set of challenges. "On one hand," she says, "you don't want children to seem too grown up or too sophisticated. On the other hand, you don't want to sentimentalize them, to make them seem too cute."

The trick is to create a sense of their being part of a separate tribe. "They want to have that secret hiding place, that secret box under the bed. They want to write in code.

"The only way children can do what they want to do is by secrecy, by deception. All children lie. They have to. They have no power. Adults are sort of the natural enemy."

Tartt, like her heroine, grew up delighting in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales and the novels of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. Boys' adventure books struck a chord, but as she read them she imagined giving them a slightly different twist.

"Jim Hawkins would do something in 'Treasure Island,' and I would think I would not have done it that way.

"Little boys, when they're mad, they strike out in anger or dash off impulsively. Little girls are much quieter and crafty. They will hold grudges and think a long time about how to get revenge."

For the crafty Harriet Cleve Dufresne, poisonous snakes are one solution to the revenge question.

Having written a mega-bestseller, of course, gave Tartt the leeway to take her time. And the freedom to strike out in a different direction from "The Secret History."

Instead of a first-person narrator narrowly focused on a cloistered student community, this time she opted for third-person narration and a broad social canvas. She wanted to open up the story to a chorus of viewpoints, from the faded aristocracy of Harriet's elderly great-aunts to a clan of hard-luck trailer trash who drift in and out of prison.

Tartt likens her first novel to "a concerto for solo instrument," while "The Little Friend" is more on the order of "a symphony for full orchestra" with "lots of voices, lots of themes."

"You might as well do something difficult," she adds. "That's how you grow at what you do."

Reviewers note that the book combines elements of adventure tale and novel of manners, if not always seamlessly. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, for instance, called the hybrid "ungainly," its various parts not adding up to "a persuasive whole." Despite reservations, Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker gave the book a thumb's up. "As a novel of Southern manners," he concluded, "it succeeds remarkably well. ... It's also psychologically astute."

Tartt's aim, she says, was to meld the two forms into something new:

"I like novels that aren't monotone. I like novels that change pace. Again, it's very like music, you know? You have fast movements, then slow ones."

Then she shifts the analogy to film. "This is a great lesson in Hitchcock." And she cites the quiet, seemingly slow-moving scenes in "Psycho" that, nonetheless, stir up enormous feelings of unease just beneath the surface. "You know that something is terribly wrong, and you can't quite figure out what it is....

"I have to say that novels of manners, unless they are written by a very great genius, greater than any we have today, I find them boring."

Call Tartt an old-fashioned storyteller, and she won't mind at all. She believes that "the traditional story is something that can be made infinitely rich. My favorite writers marry beautiful style and beautiful storytelling."

When the future novelist was a third-grader, her maternal grandmother would read to her every afternoon after school. A chapter of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" would be followed by a chapter from a Nancy Drew mystery.

"The reward was supposed to be Nancy Drew," Tartt says. But the adventures of the girl detective were "interesting in a mild way, like a television show."

The real excitement lay in Dickens. "I mean, horrible things were happening to Oliver! Horrible! I would lie awake at night and worry about him. I would be just devastated if my grandmother had some afternoon engagement and couldn't read to me."

And then she mentions another early pleasure, Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde." Unlike Nancy Drew's contrived entanglements, here the suspense was real, an integral part of a fully imagined world.

"Dr. Jekyl is just sitting around with Mr. Utterson, drinking brandy by the fire," she recalls. "It's very slow in parts, which makes it so horrifying when you see the shadow of Mr. Hyde coming down the street.

"It's a sense of pacing that I really enjoy, something very present in 19th century novels. Not so much in 20th century novels, but it's what I do."

After all the hoopla surrounding her first novel, was Tartt worried that this time critics would have their knives out?

"I don't read reviews, actually," she insists. "Stephen King said this, and I think it's a very good rule: 'Don't give the people what they want. Give them what you want.'

"I think you can drive yourself crazy worrying about the critics. I don't think you can try to please other people. If someone told me to write a crowd-pleasing novel, I would have no idea how to do that."

©2002, Newsday Inc.

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