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My Secret History - Interview with Donna Tartt

by Jackie McGlone,, October 2, 2003

Donna Tartt is squirming with delight, kicking her legs in the air and noiselessly clapping her hands as if they were small paws. With her astonishing green eyes closed and her sharp little nose pointed upwards, she resembles one of her favourite characters from literature - Winnie the Pooh, perhaps, on discovering a pot of honey, or Mowgli the Man Club after tumbling with wolves.

The reason for the fêted America novelist's ecstatic behaviour is the thought of her impending first visit to Edinburgh today and the fact that I've just tapped the back of her hand with my index finger. In Edinburgh, I live in the house that was the home of Robert Louis Stevenson's uncle, George Balfour. On our drawing room window, a generation of Balfours -- including their famous cousin - gouged and dated their initials. Before meeting Tartt in Manchester, I traced RLS's signature for her.

"Oh, oh, oh! That's so lovely!" exclaims the 39-year-old teller of dark tales, who is obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson (and every other dead Scottish writer, from Walter Scott to Conan Doyle and JM Barrie) and whose shade hovers over her latest book, The Little Friend, a mesmerising slice of Southern Gothic that is unputdownable. It's one of the most eagerly anticipated second novels in the history of modern literature. Advance sales topped an estimated £4 million and when it was published in hardback last autumn, magazine editors reached for the nearest cliché, dubbing it "the second coming".

Ten years in gestation, it's 555 pages of pure pleasure and worth every moment of the wait after Tartt's glittering 1992 debut novel, The Secret History, which has been translated into 23 languages. The film rights were sold and the protracted project passed most recently to Warner-Miramax, with Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother Jake slated as producer and director respectively. Tartt doesn't think the film will ever be made, so she's withheld the movie rights on The Little Friend, which like The Secret History, also begins with a death - the murdered body of a ten-year-old boy is found hanging from the black-tupelo tree in his parents' yard like a piece of strange fruit.

There the resemblance ends. While The Little Friend enthrallingly deals with the blighting nature of grief, the loss of innocence and the death of a way of life, The Secret History is a spellbinding, edgy tale of Greek orgies, Gothic romance and artful campus comedy - Brideshead Revisited meets Euripides' The Bacchae. It spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold millions of copies. Tartt's face was on the cover of every magazine. Her phone never stopped ringing.

"It was crazy, my life was just spinning out of control. I thought it would never end. That's why it took me so long to write The Little Friend. Also, I'm a perfectionist. I can spend hours changing one word, a comma even. But a writer needs solitude and for a long time I didn't have that. It made me realise what it must be like to be really famous, like, say, Nicole Kidman." She shudders delicately at the thought.

For a decade, the rumour mill was in overdrive, grinding out sensational stories about the Mississippi-born author's disappearance from the literary scene. Over the years she became almost more famous for the vanishing than the writing, although she was not silent, continuing to produce essays, reviews and short stories. Allegedly, though, the reclusive Tartt was paralysed with writer's block. She had had a breakdown. She was having love affairs (everyone from Brett Easton Ellis to the scribbling Shakespeare brothers, Nicholas and Sebastian). She was chaste. She was drinking. She had become a female JD Salinger. She was living the life of a hermit on an island she had bought near Tahiti. "Ten years of mysterious silence," Vanity Fair marvelled last year.

In Manchester, Tartt keeps me waiting again - according to the cuttings she's often a little late for interviews. It emerges that she and her publicist got hopelessly lost in the maze of corridors in the madly modish Malmaison where they're staying. Which is oddly appropriate - Tartt is writing a 2004 novella for Canongate, based on the myth of Daedalus, the mythical creator of the Cretan labyrinth, who constructed wings for his son Icarus. ("It's timely. You know, things dropping out of the sky, people falling to earth.")

Tartt has just flown in from Munich and she's still laughing about the terribly serious German who asked her if she read her reviews. When she said no, he told her she was wise, since critics literally destroyed Thomas Mann. "I don't want to end up like Mann, do I?" she grins. Despite a streaming cold, she's friendly and full of fun, admiring everything from my haircut to my "designery" coat so enthusiastically that I leave thinking that we might have done some serious shopping together instead of discussing her puzzling secret history.

An elfin 60 inches tall, weighing in at 90 lbs - "the same size as Lolita" - her gamine appearance is as fastidious as her prose. She's a dead ringer for Harriet Cleve Dufresne, the smart, bookish, 12-year-old heroine of The Little Friend, who is in thrall to Robert Louis Stevenson, Captain Scott and Houdini. An infant at the time of her brother's murder, she determinedly sets out to find his killer. "She was sturdily built, like a small badger, with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short, a thin determined little mouth. She spoke briskly, in a reedy, high-pitched voice that for a Mississippi child was oddly clipped, so that strangers often asked where on earth she has picked up that Yankee accent. Her gaze was pale, penetrating..." writes Tartt, who is all of the above.

As befits a woman who owns an apartment on New York's Upper East Side (and a snake-infested house in Virginia), the lady of letters is in inky, Manhattan black - trousers and long jacket, with a crisp black-and-white striped shirt. The laces of her boots are thickly looped around her ankles like piratical manacles. Every button is neatly done up, which it's tempting to see as a metaphor for the reticent writer. For Donna Tartt irresistibly reminds me of Winston Churchill's famous remark about the Soviet Union being a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Well, he hadn't met the sphinx-like Southern belle who has a talent to tantalise, as one headline writer so succinctly put it.

So has she done a Flaubert, who immortally revealed: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"? Harriet Cleve Dufresne, c'est vous? "Look," replies Tartt, well, tartly: "I think a writer's life is very unimportant. Talking about my private life (I hadn't asked) draws attention from the books and it's the books that matter. If people think my books are autobiographical, I'm pleased. It means I've succeeded in what I set out to do - I've fooled them into believing that something I made up is true.

"I'm not Harriet, although I was a tomboy, a little pagan thing. And she certainly shares my love of books. Harriet would, however, despise some that I adored, such as Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. But no one else in the book is based on anyone I know. I could never write about people dear to me, I wouldn't want to hurt them. Anyway you can't be objective about those you love, so it's fiction, even if people don't credit me with the fact that it's all the work of my imagination," adding that she remembers everything about her childhood, on which she obviously looks back in languour.

Yet it's hard not to imagine that Tartt's own image is as carefully crafted as her novels. She tells me her background and private life are only too well documented and not that interesting, and that talking about yourself too much is actually injurious for a writer. Neverthless, last year she lounged, "like a rather stern-looking odalisque" in riding boots, holding her beloved dog, Pongo, for Newsweek. Her American publishers send a make-up artist with her when she does publicity back home.

Last year Vanity Fair profiled Tartt by taking her back to Grenada, the town where she grew up in a fading mansion, with her younger sister and mother, Taylor, who sounds like a latter day Blanche DuBois, and to whom she's very close. They talk virtually every day. Before her parents divorced, her father, Don, a service station owner-turned-politician with whom she does not get along, was frequently absent - like Harriet's father in The Little Friend.

The three women were surrounded by Tartt's mother's family, the Bouches, a bevy of aged aunts, grandparents and great grandparents, all of whom read with greed and enormous relish. Her maternal great-grandmother's grandparents, the Kimbroughs, had emigrated from Scotland to the deep South. "She was the greatest love of my life," Tartt sighs.

Every afternoon her great-grandmother read to her - Dickens, Stevenson, Sherlock Holmes stories, and books about the girl detective Nancy Drew, a reward for the heavier stuff, although it made Tartt inpatient. Sipping a cup of "English brekker's tea", she recalls their reading Peter Pan together, acknowledging that Peter's troublesome shadow looms large over The Secret History.

Her great-grandmother was in her eighties when they read Barrie's classic about the boy who never grew up. "It was, of course, profoundly moving to be reading a book in which we're told, 'To die, would be an awfully big adventure,' with someone for whom death was close. I think even I knew that, although I was tiny. I remember looking at pictures of my great-grandmother, who was born in 1890 and would have been exactly the same age as Wendy Darling, as a child in what looked like white nightgowns, and plaintively asking her when we would both be the same age, and if we would ever be children together."

Barely five when she started writing, she says: "I dashed off all these stories, absolutely desperate for my mother to read them and give me her approval. They all ended quickly, 'Then she woke up and it was all a dream...' So perhaps my being a pretty slow writer now is a reaction against that, although I still like to know what my mother thinks of my work - she loves The Little Friend."

The good news for Tartt fans is that, as well as the Canongate novella, she embarked on her next big novel, about which her lips naturally remain sealed, a year ago. It's all-consuming, she reveals. Despite her excitement at finally making it to Edinburgh and perhaps fulfilling her dream of standing at the window of RLS's Heriot Row home, watching for the ghost of Leerie the lamplighter, she can't wait to return to a room of her own. "I have my notebooks with me," she says, "but I'm desperate to write." She sounds as if she's in a hurry.

•Donna Tartt will be reading from and talking about The Little Friend (Bloomsbury, £7.99) at an Edinburgh International Book Festival event this evening in the Queen's Hall, Clerk Street, Edinburgh, at 7.30pm.

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