menu Language Is A Virus

Worth Waiting For

The Daily Telegraph, October 19, 2002

Donna Tartt 'It pleases me much more if someone says,
"I love this sentence"
than if someone says,
"I loved your book."'
Donna Tartt caused a literary sensation with the publication of her debut novel, "The Secret History", in 1992. Then she vanished, leaving her fans gasping for more. Now, 10 years on, the reclusive author has finally broken her silence and published her long-awaited second novel. Mick Brown meets her

Shortly before his death in 1999, the author Joseph Heller sent word through a mutual friend asking Donna Tartt to get in touch with him. "I was told, Joe wants to meet you, that you two have a lot to talk about," Tartt remembers.

"I slightly got the sense that he might have some secret message to impart to me. But I was too shy to call him, and I missed it. And that's too bad." One can well imagine what Heller might have had to say. For almost 40 years he had struggled to escape from the shadow of his monumental first work, Catch-22, a succès d'estime which he was never quite able to equal.

It took him 13 years to write his second book, Something Happened, and when it was published the critics crucified him. At the time of Heller's message, Donna Tartt was some six years into writing her own second novel, and to all outward appearances facing a not dissimilar problem.

Tartt's first book, The Secret History, was published in 1992, when she was 28. Set on the campus of a Vermont university, the book tells the story of a cabal of precocious classics students who inadvertently murder a farmer while partaking in a Dionysian rite, and then turn on one of their own when he threatens to reveal their guilt.

A page-turning thriller, which skillfully weaves together themes of youthful affectation and intellectual arrogance, guilt and moral retribution, The Secret History was hailed as a glittering literary debut, and went on to sell millions of copies around the world.

Almost from the moment the royalties started to come in, the expectations were high for Tartt to deliver a second, equally spectacular, work. As the years passed and no book was forthcoming so the rumors multiplied: she was suffering from acute writer's block; she had started one book, abandoned it, and started another of which huge swathes needed to be rewritten. Tartt maintained a stoic silence; no interviews, no public pronouncements, nothing.

Finally, last year, she delivered the manuscript of her new book, The Little Friend. When Tartt's British agent put it up for auction in Britain, rumor has it that publishers were invited to start their bids in the region of £1 million.

The auction was won by Bloomsbury. Alexandra Pringle, the company's editor in chief, declines to say exactly how much they paid for The Little Friend, but is confident that she is presiding over the publishing success of the year. "When I read the manuscript at my kitchen table the hairs stood up on my arms. It is a masterpiece." If Donna Tartt has read anything that has been written about her in recent months (and she insists she hasn't) she will have noticed all these rumors and factoids and more.

She will have noticed the comparisons being drawn with Joseph Heller; noticed the recurring mentions of F Scott Fitzgerald's famous aphorism about there being no second acts in American lives; and noticed too, perhaps, that the expectations surrounding The Little Friend have been accompanied by an uncharitable relish in the possibility of failure.

"Actually, I have noticed that," she says. "There have been very confident predictions being made about me being a one-hit wonder. But really, I couldn't care less about all that. It's not a competition. It's not a sporting event. It's not about better or worse." She pauses. "It's really not."

When The Secret History was published journalists seemed as enraptured by Tartt as they were by her book. She was born and raised in Mississippi, and much was made of her Southern upbringing and antecedents (the heiress to the legacy of Faulkner, Capote and Welty), her erudition and her style.

Profiles told of her expertise in classical studies; her enthusiasm for Plato and Dante; her distinctive appearance ("gamine", "elfin"); how she chain-smoked cigarettes plucked from an ostrich-skin case, and drank like a fish.

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".

"She's exhilarating," one person told me, "but you've got to be up for it. If you're not, it's like going to a heavy play on the wrong evening. You don't talk about the weather."

With New York sweltering in a record-breaking heat wave, I make my way to a small French restaurant on the Upper East Side to meet her. Tartt has an apartment nearby (having moved from Greenwich Village), but actually spends most of her time writing at her house "in the country". Persistent questioning narrows this down to the state of Virginia.

She is petite and very chic: barely 5ft tall, dressed in a blue silk shirt, black trousers and black loafers. She loves clothes. A saving grace of being small, she says, is that she can't go into really expensive shops and buy clothes off the rack.

"But vintage clothes work well on me. People used to be smaller. In vintage shops they always say, "Gosh we're glad someone's come along who fits this jacket.""

Tartt is pretty in an unorthodox way - pale-faced and sharp-featured, her hair styled in a severe Louise Brooks bob, penetrating grey-green eyes which she screws tightly closed in concentration when talking.

Her voice is high, breathy, with the merest hint of a Southern drawl; and she has a habit of punctuating her sentences with "Do you know?" and "Do you see what I'm saying?", which can make her seem pedagogic but, I suspect, is actually a sign of nerves.

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.

The hard-drinking and chain-smoking author of The Secret History has apparently vanished. She quit smoking some years ago following a bout of bronchitis, and drinks only mineral water during our lunch. But the Wise Child is still very much in evidence.

Tartt is formidably well read, startlingly erudite; in the course of our conversation she quotes from Thomas Aquinas, Oscar Wilde, St Augustine and Henry James - not to mention the blues singer Mississippi John Hurt - all the while achieving the commendable feat of not appearing to be a show-off at all. And she doesn't mention the weather.

Set in the small Mississippi town of Alexandria, The Little Friend - like The Secret History - begins with a murder, although this is about the only thing the two books have in common. The victim is a nine-year-old boy, Robin Cleve Dusfrenes, whose body has been found hanging from a tree in his own back yard.

Twelve years later, his sister Harriet, who was less than a year old when the murder occurred, sets out to avenge Robin's death. Drawing on whispers of rumor and gossip and her own vivid imaginings, Harriet leaps to the conclusion that the killer was none other than one of Robin's schoolmates Danny.

The son of a family of habitual criminals and unscrubbed losers, Danny still lives in town, inhabiting a squalid trailer with his brother Farish, who manufactures and deals methamphetamine sulphate. With her solitary and adoring friend Healy (a 12-year-old boy obsessed with James Bond films) trailing in her wake, Harriet sets out to bring Danny to justice.

Notionally a story about one little girl's adventure, The Little Friend is a compelling study of the abrasion between the world of childhood and the mysterious and often frightening world of adulthood.

Dense and richly textured, it is a beautifully observed study of class, race and family in a small Southern town with a sprawling cast of characters - the maiden aunts, an oleaginous Baptist deacon and car salesman, cheapshot pool-hall hustlers, the black help who alternately function as surrogate family or ghost invisibly around houses and yards.

Above all, it is a mesmerizing portrait of the singular and complex character of its 12-year-old heroine. "Sturdily built, like a small badger, with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short, a thin, determined little mouth", Harriet is a strange and rarefied creature.

"Harriet, the baby, was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart"; and Harriet, the 12-year-old, "could forge handwriting - teacher handwriting - and compose adult-sounding excuse notes like a pro. She could make bombs from vinegar and baking soda, mimic voices over the telephone. Fierce on the playground, rude to company... she checked out library books about Genghis Khan and gave her mother headaches."

She is enamored of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped; the story of Scott of the Antarctic and the life of Harry Houdini. A sort of female version of Peter Pan, a story she adores, Harriet is plucky and impetuous and brave - as it happens, too plucky and too impetuous for her own good, for one of the book's central themes is how children might dangerously misinterpret and misunderstand the world of adults, and the perils that may befall them when they do.

The solitary, clever, unusual child, in love with books, living in a world of the imagination? Every author plumbs their own experience and turns it to fiction, but all of this sounds, as near as dammit, like an autobiographical sketch of Tartt and her own childhood.

She was born in Greenwood, Mississippi - the same town, she tells me with the pride of the true fan, where the great blues singer Robert Johnson died by poisoning; the crossroads where he reputedly encountered the devil is near the small town of Grenada where she grew up.

The elder of two daughters, Tartt was brought up in "shabby gentility", in a big house "filled with beautiful things and lots of books". Her family on her mother's side, the Boushés, were "old South", which is to say they had lived in Grenada for about as long as the town had existed.

Her mother Taylor worked as an executive with the State Employment Commission. Her father Don was a wild card, an erstwhile rockabilly musician who somehow metamorphosed into a local politician of some substance, and was seldom seen at home.

Much of Tartt's childhood was spent surrounded by an extended family of sundry aunts, grandparents and great-grandparents. Her parents are now divorced, and she has not spoken to her father in years.

Something of the same pattern is visible in Harriet's story. Her father is a businessman who has all but abandoned the family for his work in distant Nashville - a figure of contempt; her mother, traumatized by Robin's death, is neurasthenic and self-obsessed, forever taking to her bed, leaving Harriet and her sister to be raised largely by their black maid Ida, their grandmother and a gaggle of great-aunts.

But one should not go too far down this route. Tartt talks lovingly of her own mother as pretty and vivacious, "not at all like the mother in the book. I don't know any mothers and daughters that have a closer relationship than we do. We talk on the phone every day." Tartt says that one of the things she wanted to do in The Little Friend was to depict a South "on the cusp of change" - social, economic and cultural. And Alexandria, the setting of The Little Friend, serves, one senses, as an accurate surrogate of the Grenada in which Tartt grew up; its air of timeless somnolence - the streets lined with mimosa trees, the crumbling antebellum mansions - being eddied by the rumble of bulldozers building freeways and strip-malls on its outskirts, the old South and the old order being irreversibly overturned.

"I remember when I was a little girl," says Tartt, "the clinic in our town had two doors on different sides of the building with the words "white" and "colored" set above them in cement, although by then it wasn't operative, of course. I remember very well when Martin Luther King was shot. I was four. He came to our town shortly before that. And Joan Baez came to our town at around the same time, too. My grandfather was very irritated with her. I think they had some kind of minor car accident." She laughs. "Joan Baez was not regarding the laws of traffic, according to my grandfather."

These stirrings of the future were not quite enough to erase the sense of a place frozen in time. Tartt says she was brought up "in very much the same way as my grandmother had been brought up. There really was a sense of continuity. I read a lot of the same books, the same editions, that my grandmother had read when she was a little girl."

Books were "the great escape". Books were about "being somewhere else". Above all, she was "a girl who loved books for boys". Ivanhoe, Jules Verne, James Fennimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson. A favorite childhood game was enlisting her less literary-minded friends to enact scenes from Kidnapped. (Harriett, by the by, does much the same thing.) "And," adds Tartt, "I loved, LOVED Peter Pan." By the age of 12 she was working her way through Dickens and Kipling. This enamoration with 19th-century literature and its tradition of storytelling - the almost total absence of any influence that might be described as "modern" - seems essential to understanding Donna Tartt.

In 1992 she wrote a story for the American magazine Harper's, entitled A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine. In this she describes how at the age of five she became "sickly", and for two years was dosed with whiskey and codeine cough syrup, administered by a great-grandfather with "a nearly unlimited faith in the magic of pharmacy".

She writes vividly of drifting through childhood in a semi- hallucinatory state, enjoying "a languorous undersea existence", staring for hours at a "particular View-Master reel: Peter Pan, soaring high over London, his thin moon-shadow skimming over the cobblestones below", dreaming of "Neverland and Disneyland and Oz and other lands that had no name at all", convinced all the while that she would soon die. "This conviction did not cause me much alarm. I was less concerned about separation from my family - a separation that, after all, would only be temporary - than I was about leaving books and my toys and most of all my dog."

Tartt, who veers between a politely dogged reticence and sudden outbursts of candor when discussing her childhood, bridles when I raise the subject of A Southern Gothic Childhood. It was written as a short story, she insists, not a memoir "and I was shocked when it came out in that way" - although, she adds, "it's true about the codeine".

But these same currents of vivid self-absorption, of a child lost in the world of the imagination, bumping abruptly and confusingly into the world of reality, course through The Little Friend, not least in its preoccupation with the mystery of death - in Harriet's case, of a favorite pet, a much-loved great-aunt and, of course, her murdered brother, Robin, as present in death, it seems, as ever he was in life.

"Death - they all said - was a happy shore. In the old seaside photographs, her family was young again, and Robin stood among them; boats and white handkerchiefs, sea-birds lifting into light. It was a dream where everybody was saved."

Or as Peter Pan put it, "To die will be an awfully big adventure." This idea obviously exercises a powerful hold on Tartt. For Harriet's obsession with Peter Pan, and with the story of Scott of the Antarctic, is, of course, Tartt's own. "JM Barrie was a great friend of Captain Scott," says Tartt, warming to the subject. "In fact, I kind of found my way to Captain Scott, who I just love, through Barrie.

"One of the last letters that Scott wrote as he was dying was to Barrie. And when the news of Scott's death arrived in England, Barrie wrote an amazing piece telling a story about a mountain-climbing expedition in which one of the young climbers had fallen into a crevasse. Many years later, members of the team decided to go back (they were old men by now) and there was their comrade, still 20 years old, beautifully preserved. And Barrie wrote, "So Scott and his companions emerged from the white immensities, forever young.""

This vision of childhood as a state of grace corrupted by the onset of adulthood possesses Harriet. "She did not care for children's books," Tartt writes, "in which the children grew up, as what "growing up" entailed, in life as in books, was a swift and inexplicable dwindling out of character. Out of a clear blue sky the heroes and heroines abandoned their adventures for some dull sweetheart, got married and had families, and generally started acting like a bunch of cows."

Here we are truly in danger of confusing the creator with the creation, but talking with Tartt, one senses strongly that she, too, was a child who shared the same suspicion of the compromises entailed in "growing up", who shaped her own world in the play of her imagination, and who has never quite left it.

She says that her obsessions and interests "have not changed very much since I was six or seven years old". She was a tomboy (and says she still is) who had no interest in conforming to others' expectations of how a girl should behave.

The most unlikely fact of Tartt's adolescence is that she was pressed into the role of a cheerleader for her high-school football team - "the most uncheerful cheerleader you can imagine"; while the prospect of attending the cotillion, or debutante ball - a time- honored Southern ritual in which young ladies were expected to dress up like Scarlett O'Hara in order to flirt with would-be Rhett Butlers - would reduce her to tears.

"Even now I feel a real funniness about women's costume," she says. "To really put on high heels and a frilly dress, do you know what I'm saying? It seems kind of... comical."

The old joke in Mississippi is that there are more writers than there are people who know how to read. At 13 Tartt was publishing poetry in the Mississippi Literary Review. She would compete for any literary prize to hand, and invariably win it. In 1981 she arrived at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, which is known as "Ole Miss".

Like most students, she was enrolled in a sorority, "Kappa, Kappa, Gamma", but she would later confess that her commitment to the mood of breezy camaraderie was less than total. In the "sunshine box", in which her fellow members would deposit messages of hope and joy - hello trees, hello sky - Tartt would throw literary grenades from Nietzsche and Sartre: "God is dead... and we killed him" and "Hell is other people".

She came under the wing of the campus writer-in-residence, who approached her after reading some work which she had submitted (unsuccessfully) to the college paper. He introduced himself with the words "My name is Willie Morris and I think you're a genius." A former editor of Harper's magazine, Morris had helped to nurture the careers of William Styron and Joan Didion and another Mississippi writer, John Grisham.

"An amazing, amazing man," says Tartt. When Morris died in 1999, she wrote an affectionate memoir in the literary journal the Oxford American, describing him as "a bodhisattva" who "would have kept the doors of heaven open until all creation was safe inside".

At Morris's suggestion, Tartt left Ole Miss after a year and enrolled at Bennington, a liberal arts college in Vermont. There she fell in with a group of apprentice writers which included the novelist Bret Easton Ellis. Among the dope-smoking, boho-clad student body of Bennington, Tartt appears to have cut a perversely exotic and mannered figure.

Easton Ellis would later recall seeing her at a "fling into spring" party, where everybody else was in black, dressed in a seersucker suit, cigarette in one hand, gin and tonic in the other. Alone among her contemporaries, she had studied Greek and Latin, and read all of Proust. If all this sounds too precious for words, she was also a big fan of Joy Division and REM.

It was at Bennington that she began writing The Secret History. It would take her nine years to finish, while supporting herself by working as a sales assistant at a bookshop in Boston, and assisting a painter who taught at the Parsons School of Design in New York, for which she received free tuition in painting as well as a salary.

Her old college friend Easton Ellis had already published his first novel, Less Than Zero, and recommended Tartt to his agent, Amanda Urban, who put The Secret History up for auction. Knopf bought it for $450,000 - despite the fact that the novel was still not completed. Memorably (if not altogether accurately) described by one critic as "Dead Poets Society meets Lord of the Flies, penned by F Scott Fitzgerald paying homage to Joseph Conrad", The Secret History was remarkable not only for its vivid characterization and narrative, but also for its style.

At a time when most young American writers were mimicking the minimalism of Raymond Carver, The Secret History was written in luxuriant prose, unapologetic in its richness and its erudition, yet at the same time compellingly readable. "It was Donna's confidence in her own writing, and the patience that she'd shown over the years to refine it, that was so extraordinary," says Gary Fisketjon, her editor at Knopf. "Twenty-eight isn't a prodigiously young age to write a first novel; but it seemed prodigiously young to have written a first novel that good."

More than just a bestseller, The Secret History quickly became a cult, spawning fan pages and websites dedicated to celebrating and deconstructing the book - and, in turn, fostering the cult of Donna Tartt.

One English critic recently suggested that the book had been instrumental in ushering in the "doomy self-absorption" manifest in such goth icons as Marilyn Manson and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tartt looks completely mystified when I tell her this. "I don't know what Buffy the Vampire Slayer is. I do know what Marilyn Manson looks like. But I don't think that's true." Her grasp of popular culture, she says, is shaky at best. She had a passion for rock music at college, "and I still think Brian Eno is a genius", she drawls. "But, like, who is J.Lo? Do you see what I'm saying?"

She says that, truly, she has no sense of why The Secret History caught on as it did - "I was absolutely dumbfounded by it in a very profound way, and I still am. But the most delightful thing about it by far is the letters I get from young people who have decided to learn Greek or Latin after reading the book. That makes me happier than anything."

For the best part of two years after delivering The Secret History, Tartt was engaged in an endless tour to promote it. She was obliged to take a secretary to field the telephone calls and correspondence. She got burned in press interviews - a fact, one suspects, which has contributed to curbing what appeared to be an early tendency to be frank with people she didn't know.

"This is not what I would choose to do," she now says, "this" encompassing the prospect of more promotion, more interviews to come, and, more immediately, the conversation we are now in the middle of. "I mean, I'm a writer, not a TV personality, do you know what I'm saying?

"I'm used to spending a lot of time by myself. It's the difference between being an introvert and an extrovert. Extroverts draw energy from being around people; and introverts draw energy from being on their own." So, she enjoys solitude. "Yes. Not to the extent of shunning all human companionship, but it's nice to come home at the end of the day and have your book and your little glass of whiskey." The suggestion that Tartt retreated into some sort of Salingeresque reclusive existence, however, is somewhat wide of the mark. She gave up her Greenwich Village apartment and lived for a while in the Gramercy Park Hotel before moving to a mews apartment on the Upper East Side. With the proceeds of The Secret History she also bought the house in Virginia, where she spends most of her time. She traveled extensively in India, Nepal, Africa and Japan, and published short stories, essays and criticism.

In the mid-Nineties she spent time in London while going out with the English writer Nicholas Shakespeare. Acquaintances in London literary circles remember her as "unpretentious, funny and interested - the complete opposite of the picture of the self-obsessed writer", anxious to talk about anything other than what her next novel might be, or to address the enormous expectations, both critical and commercial, fostered by The Secret History.

"You did get this sense," one person remembers, "that if she was going to put pen to paper at that time it would be to write anything but a new novel. But it must have been tremendously difficult; every time she set foot in a literary party in London or New York the question would be, "How's the new book going, Donna?" "

"It was interesting," says Tartt carefully, "because all of a sudden it became a different set of rules that weren't of my making. "When I was working on The Secret History no one was interested, no one called, I was completely on my own. And then all of a sudden, people were saying, "Oh, now you've written a bestseller, and you have to keep your name out in front of the public, and you haven't written anything for five years and people are starting to talk?" But I don't care, you know?" She shrugs.

"I had very lowly goals when I wrote The Secret History; I just wanted to be published, and it had happened once - OK, that's great; and if it never happened again, that's fine. So there were all these expectations for something that I didn't necessarily want to do. I just want to do my own work at my own pace, do you see what I'm saying?" In fact, she says, she had started writing The Little Friend even before she had finished writing The Secret History. "It was my great secret consoler for many years. And I really didn't talk about it with anyone."

One assumes that any writer embarks on a novel with at least a vague idea of some of its expected ports of call, if not of where the journey will actually end. One might assume, for example, that Tartt sat down to write The Little Friend intending it as an exploration of Harriet's mind; an evocation of the South; an adventure story in the tradition of her beloved Stevenson (whose picture she had on the wall of her room the entire time she was writing the book).

"All of that sounds good," she says, "and I'm tempted to say yes, even though it's not true. But really it's much more hazy than that." Just how much more hazy can be divined when Tartt actually attempts to describe the gestation of the book. "Well..." She pauses to draw breath, and scrunches her eyes tightly closed. "You know... It sort of came in images and, um, various things. You don't know how they're connected but they're... and, yes... exactly. Words, images and, um, sort of, um, and you don't know what they mean, you don't understand how they make a story, you don't understand how they fit together in time, but they're just very vivid things. The metaphor that I think of is when you read about psychics - they have very vivid pictures but they often don't know where geographically this thing is happening, whether it's something that happened in the past or is happening in the future. And it was like that?' She pauses to take a sip of mineral water, and apologizes for the fact that this might not seem very clear.

"It's like a sculptor with a bit of marble, I would think. As you go on, the form begins to come to you more clearly. I go by feel, I go by ear. And when I don't know what to do I don't try to aggressively reason it out. As Kipling said, drift, wait, obey. And the sense of drifting is listen. If you aggressively plough ahead, you end up making mistakes."

So a lot of drifting then, a lot of waiting. The enormous commercial success of The Secret History helped, of course, affording her the luxury - "the great luxury" - of being able to work at her own pace without financial worries, "for which I am really enormously grateful".

Gary Fisketjon describes Tartt as "a total perfectionist, harder on herself than anyone else could be. She always said about The Secret History that she didn't believe she'd succeeded wholly, but she'd got it as good as she could. I told her, if you keep writing books that don't succeed like that one we'll all be very happy. With this new book, she said that she'd like to write faster, but if she did she wouldn't write anything that anybody would want to read. She really, really bears down on it."

Tartt says that after The Secret History she was determined to write "a completely different kind of book about a completely different world. If you're to get better as a writer you have to take on more difficult tasks as you go. And this book is different in structure, it's different in technique, it's different in narrative style; the cast of characters is much broader? The Secret History is a very hermetic little world. The characters here are much different in age, socio-economic background, all kinds of things. And I had a lot of real problems with that. There were a lot of things I didn't know how to do, that writing The Secret History had not prepared me for.

"It's particularly difficult to write from the point of view of a child - fantastically difficult. And this is not something that one got right on the first try - and I have two children in the book, and to distinguish between the boy and the girl? The deepest satisfaction I get out of writing is on the smallest, humblest, most intimate level - working hard on a particularly tricky sentence, getting it exactly right, no matter how long it takes. I can move a comma around very happily for hours. It pleases me much more if someone says, "I love this sentence" than if someone says, "I loved your book." " She checks herself with a laugh. "So this is how you keep yourself amused writing something for 10 years. But I would be bored stiff with writing if it was, OK, I'm just going to turn the same old somersault one more time."

Some of the most vivid writing in The Little Friend describes the lives and minds of Danny and Farish, jagged and baffled on methamphetamine, time snapping back and forth like a rubber band, driven crazy by the scratching of phantom bugs under the skin. "... except [Danny's] thank Heavens weren't burrowing bugs, crawling bugs, maggots and termites of the soul - but fireflies. Even now in broad daylight, they flickered at the corner of his vision. Dust flecks, experienced as electronic pops; twinkle, twinkle everywhere. The chemicals had possessed him, they had the upper hand now; it was chemicals - pure, metallic, precise - that boiled up vaporous to the surface and did the thinking and talking and even the seeing now." What is, perhaps, curious about both The Secret History and The Little Friend is that romantic or sexual love is conspicuously absent from both books. The students in The Secret History - possibly uniquely among students the world over - seem almost totally devoid of a sexual life (Tartt has actually described it as a novel about repressed sexuality) and she avoids any romantic themes in The Little Friend, although she says that some people have detected a romantic undercurrent between Harriet and her little friend Healy, "although they're not drinking glasses of wine in a French restaurant and going to hotel rooms," she adds dryly.

But no, love is not a subject that she is interested in writing about. "I've noticed that I don't write about it, and I don't like books about it either," she says crisply. But if you're going to write about life, aren't you at some point going to bump into love and sexual desire? Tartt raises an eyebrow.

"I don't know. Jules Verne never came up against them. Melville - it doesn't seem to have interested him at all. Flannery O'Connor, a writer I very much admire, doesn't seem to have been engaged by this question?" I'm not sure how significant all this is, but it does seem that the things an author chooses not to write about can often be as revealing as the things they do write about.

When I tell Tartt that she strikes me as someone who is governed by ideas rather than emotions - self-contained, exacting, intellectually rigorous - she laughs and says "Sort of?" but adds that she can be "a wild romantic too", citing a love of poetry and Beethoven's symphonies. Tartt will not talk about her personal life, and perhaps the most revealing detail to be found in her own writing on this subject is contained in, of all things, a review of a book The Hidden Life of Dogs, written for The Daily Telegraph in 1994.

"My dog," she wrote, "has a number of acquaintances of his own species - as do I - but it is abundantly clear to both of us that there is little company in all the world which we enjoy so much as each other's." Tartt was the proud owner of a pug when she wrote that, and her canine family has since been enlarged by the addition of another pug and a Boston terrier.

A few days after our conversation and my return to London, Tartt and I had an exchange of emails in which I prompted her for more thoughts on the subject of success and the writer as celebrity. "Cicero," she replied, "has a great phrase for it: aura popularis, the popular breeze. It's all about which way the wind is blowing. But the point of the breeze is that it goes as quickly as it comes. I think that must be a fearful problem," she continued, "for people who care about celebrity and want attention, and want to hold on to it, but it's a deeply comforting thought for somebody like me who just wants to go home and shut the door and go back to my desk again."

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."

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