menu Language Is A Virus

Donna Tartt discusses her new book The Little Friend

John Ydstie, Morning Edition (NPR), 12-02-2002

Host: John Ydstie
Time: 11:00 AM-12:00 Noon

John Ydstie, host: Donna Tartt created a literary tidal wave 10 years ago with her first novel of murder, "The Secret History." The book was not a mystery. We knew whodunit almost immediately. Donna Tartt is back with "The Little Friend," another murder story. And this time the whodunit is more mysterious. Martha Woodroof of member station WMRA in Charlottesville, Virginia, reports that it's Tartt's writing style that keeps the book on the best-seller list.

Martha Woodroof reporting: Donna Tartt knew early on that she wanted to be a writer. As a little girl, she kept notebooks crammed with stories, drawings and pictures cut from magazines. But Tartt decided that, to be a real writer, her messy notebooks would have to go.

Ms. Donna Tartt (Author): I thought that I needed to learn how to type and then I would be a writer. And it was a bitter, bitter disappointment to me when I was in high school and I learned that I could not compose at a typewriter. So I am still like a six-year-old dragging around these messy notebooks and lying on the floor and every once in a while losing the notebook. And--well, just like Medea, just sort of, you know, raging through the house, `Where's my notebook? Where's my notebook?'

Woodroof: Ten years' worth of notebooks went into "The Little Friend," but a lot of Tartt's handwritten pages didn't make it into print.

Ms. Tartt: The case with "The Little Friend" was I would write a scene and work on it and polish it and it wouldn't be quite right, so I would polish it some more. And it would be perfect and then I would realize that what was wrong with it was not the writing style. I was telling the scene from the point of view of the wrong character, so out it goes. Start again.

Woodroof: "The Little Friend" details the South's rapidly changing social landscape. The book's setting mirrors Donna Tartt's own Mississippi childhood.

Ms. Tartt: The South in the '70s was an extremely interesting time because we were all looking around at each other and saying, `Well, what do we do now? The old rules don't apply anymore.'

Woodroof: Tartt drops her protagonist, 12-year-old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes into the same milieux. Like the author, Harriet was born alert, observant and opinionated.

Ms. Tartt: `Harriet, the baby, was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart. From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a slightly distressing presence in the Cleve household. Fierce on the playground, rude to company, she argued with Edie and checked out library books about Ghengis Khan and gave her mother headaches. She was 12 years old and in the seventh grade. Though she was an A student, the teachers had never known how to handle her. Sometimes they telephoned her mother or Edie, who, as anyone who knew anything about the Cleves was aware, was the one you wanted to talk to. She was both field marshall and autocrat, the person of greatest power in the family and the person most likely to act. But Edie herself was uncertain how to deal with Harriet. Harriet was not disobedient exactly or unruly, but she was haughty and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact.'

Woodroof: "The Little Friend's" prologue takes place when Harriet is an infant. It details a Mother's Day gathering at which her nine-year-old brother is found hung from a tree in the side yard. The novel then picks up 12 years later with Harriet's obsessive search to find out what happened to her brother. This brings her into contact with the local family of violent drug dealers who may or may not be responsible for her brother's death. It's a grim world to create for a 12-year-old, but by Harriet's age, Donna Tartt was already fascinated with criminal behavior.

Ms. Tartt: I loved Sherlock Holmes when I was little. And some of those Sherlock Holmes are very violent. I mean, I think of "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb," which has always been one of the scariest ones to me. But I was also interested in trials in the newspaper. I can remember reading about Winnie Ruth Judd, the trunk murderess, when I was, gosh, 10 or 11. On quite a different level, I remember very clearly the assassination of Martin Luther King, which happened when I was four.

Woodroof: Because "The Little Friend" begins with murder, it raises certain expectations but...

Mr. Daniel Mendelsohn (New Yorker): In a funny way, the murder of this boy, Robin Cleve, is a red herring.

Woodroof: Daniel Mendelsohn reviewed "The Little Friend" for the New Yorker.

Mr. Mendelsohn: I think she just uses the murder as a way to jump start her writing about what's really interesting to her, which I think is life in this Southern town. I certainly felt that there could have been more editing in this book, not in the sense of cutting stuff out, because every little bit of it was delicious, but in somebody saying, `Well, you need to do more in order to achieve the ending that you want to achieve,' or something. It feels directionless at points.

Woodroof: Still, Mendelsohn says, "The Little Friend" is stuffed with characters that pop off the page and sharply observe detail.

Mr. Mendelsohn: There's so many brilliant touches in this novel where you just sort of gasp, because you can't believe that people are still writing this way. And it's vivid and it's original and it's true. You felt that those people are out there someplace. And I don't know the last time that I read a novel that made me feel that way.

Woodroof: So what, Mendelsohn says, if "The Little Friend" doesn't wrap up its mystery all that well. It's still a staggeringly good read. As for the novel's themes of obsession, loss and coming of age, Donna Tartt says...

Ms. Tartt: As a novelist, I don't consciously sit down and think, `Well, I'm going to talk about the theme of lost innocence and I'm going to talk about the theme of betrayal and I'm going to talk about the theme of vengeance.' It doesn't really happen that way. A story is a story. It's a fairy tale. Once upon a time, there was a little girl whose brother was murdered and go from there.

Woodroof: Donna Tartt is currently at work at a novella based on the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Her next big book, she says, is still in the noodling phase. For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Ydstie: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

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