Language Is A Virus

Donna Tartt - Wise Child

Identitytheory.com, Robert Birnbaum

She is a born storyteller and within seconds of our meeting in the London office of her publisher, having established that I'm Scottish, launches into a tale. ''My great-grandmother, who I was very close to, who was, you know, just the great love of my life, she died when I was quite young. I suppose it happens when someone dies in your childhood, they remain the untarnished love of your life. She still remains completely beautiful in my mind. She was wonderful, and her father was Scottish. His last name was Kimbrough. When I was a little girl she used to recite Burns poems in dialect. And just the songs she would sing to me.''

Leaning forward, she closes her eyes and sings quietly: ''The bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.''

The love of Scotland is genuine, by the way. She isn't just playing to the gallery.

Now, having waited all this time, I get an email interview. Her answers finally arrive, with apologies. They are beautifully constructed, with no spelling mistakes, and intensely serious. Compared with the overseas interviews that have since appeared ("I'm so excited to meet you I can hardly speak!" she told The Guardian), they lack a little Southern fizz.

A Vanity Fair profile noted how the answerphone in her Greenwich Village apartment greeted callers with the voice of TS Eliot reading The Waste Land, and described her as "a precocious sprite from a Cunard Line cruise ship, circa 1920-something. A Wise Child out of Salinger".

Before I met Tartt, acquaintances fleshed out this picture. She was described to me as "completely brilliant", "the cleverest woman I know" and, more ambiguously, "like an alien - this tiny, tiny person, just buzzing with enthusiasm and ideas".

I have been told that she dislikes being interviewed - a fact that she will later confirm herself. And there is the hint of something fierce and unbending - a defensiveness - beneath the porcelain exterior and the sardonic asides.

In my email, I had also invited her to participate in a small, strictly non-obligatory exercise. In 1948, the photographer Herman Leonard took a portrait of the jazz musician Lester Young. This shows Young's traveling case, open to reveal sheet music spilling over its sides; his distinctive pork-pie hat hangs from its lid. An empty Coke bottle stands in front of the case, with a burning cigarette resting along its top. It is as if Young himself has been snatched from the picture in the second before the shutter clicked, leaving behind the essential trappings of his life.

What, I asked Tartt, would be in her portrait? She replied, "A litter of papers, an open notebook, a pencil. A cup of tea. The same armchair I've had since college, with a sweater slung over the arm. Open books face down on the floor all around. My dogs - who sit around all day as I work - barking furiously at whatever invisible force has just snatched me from the picture."

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.)

Donna Tartt has her own secret history. Her childhood in Grenada should not, must not, be talked about. Bennington places, but no Bennington people, may be associated with her book. McGloin may not be spoken to. The novel itself is a thicket of literary references and inside jokes: the narrator's surname is the same as that of the Weimar Republic chancellor who knuckled under to the Nazis: Bunny, whose real name is Edmund, has the same nickname as literary critic Edmund Wilson. The hotel where Henry and Camilla go off together, the Albemarle, has the same name as the English Channel hotel where T.S. Eliot, recuperating from a nervous breakdown, revised "The Waste Land." What does this mean? Perhaps we shouldn't over interpret - but then, maybe we shouldn't under interpret, either. When, pleased with my discovery, I point out the Albemarle correspondence to Tartt, she grows chilly. "I have nothing to say about that," she says.

I could start with an anecdote, a revealing vignette, say, set in a Japanese teahouse in Manhattan where I met Donna Tartt for an interview (it tickles her that in this teahouse you can get green tea, the beverage at the heart of Japan's ritualistic tea ceremony, in a go cup).

I have to think about that. My favorite color is different for different things. Depends on what it is.

For flowers, it's one thing, for clothes, it's another.

There is just a heavenly shade of pink. There's a rose called "Maiden's Blush." It's an old rose and it's kind of a silvery pink.

I don't look at the newspaper. I never look at the newspaper. I don't. I just don't. I come from a family that never looked at the newspaper. We just never did.

(Interviewer: But you have a mother in this story that collects newspapers in her house?) I know. But that's not my mother. That's very different from my mother. My mother is exactly the opposite. We don't have any newspaper in the house at all.

Donna Tartt: Red is a favorite color. I love red. If I had to pick a favorite color I'd pick red.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you wear red often?

Donna Tartt: (Points to her scarf)

Robert Birnbaum: Oh my! I missed the accented accessory (DT is wearing a black suit and white shirt and black tie)

Donna Tartt: It's like Corot in his paintings, he always had a tiny [make her voice very small] little dash of red. Little caps that fishermen are wearing or something... just a tiny little dash...

If she were a character in a novel, who would it be? "If you're talking about my life in terms of right now," she replies, "I suppose I'd be some character in Dickens. There's always some poor downtrodden person that everybody's mean to" - here she laughs - "they have all these difficulties, but they're good. And then one day out of the blue they just come into an amazing piece of good fortune."

"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."

"It's not pleasant to be lumped into a group of black writers or women writers or gay writers. Why be part of a group simply because of the circumstances of your birth?"