"I must have been drunk when I said that,"
Ellis now tells this magazine. "Once she moved out of New York, we didn't stay in such close contact. I don't have a clue what the book's about."
Other rumors include:
- She had bought an island off Tahiti and was living as a recluse;
- she accidentally deleted an entire novel from her computer;
- she didn't even write The Secret History, it was Bret Easton Ellis in disguise;
- she was blocked,
- she was ill,
- she was dead.
Donna Tartt doesn't have time to talk. She's too busy writing. But where's the evidence? It's been seven years since her first novel, The Secret History, became one of those rare best-sellers that actually has literary merit - and naught but a couple of flaccid short stories have dribbled out since. Her cautionary tale of highbrow murder set in the dead of winter against the thinly disguised backdrop of Vermont's exclusive Bennington College (where Tartt is an alum), charmed crusty book critics, while drawing in the John Grisham set. Since then, though, the author seems to have fallen off the literary map.
There were rumors of exorbitant payouts ($450,000 for the book itself, and another $500,000 for paperback rights), and even more money from the sale of the movie rights to the late Alan J. Pakula, with Shine director Scott Hicks now signed on to direct (the project's in indefinite development). There are tales of Tartt holed up on a tropical island (she bought it with the proceeds, the story goes), secluding herself to bang the next one out.
The thirty-something author made the news in October of 1997, when 16-year-old Luke Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi, opened fire on his classmates with a hunting rifle, killing two and wounding seven. When police arrested six of Woodman's friends and fellow Latin and philosophy enthusiasts on murder conspiracy charges, Time magazine reported that they may have been influenced by The Secret History. Smartly, Tartt declined comment.
Meanwhile, the months were turning into years, her fans waited, and her agent, the legendary Amanda "Binky" Urban, deflected inquiries -- and is, in fact, still deflecting. "Donna Tartt is finishing her novel now -- she's thick into it, and I don't think this is the time to stop and give an interview," Urban chided.
In a recent interview, Tartt's old schoolmate, Bret Easton Ellis, told the Tacoma (Washington) News Tribune that his colleague has been living, as he put it, "on a plantation in Virginia" with goats, sheep, and "a very young boyfriend." "I must have been drunk when I said that," Ellis now tells this magazine. "Once she moved out of New York, we didn't stay in such close contact. I don't have a clue what the book's about."
Next stop: Chip Kidd, the tweedy graphic designer who created The Secret History's enticing book jacket. "I really haven't been in touch with her that much," Kidd says. "I've seen her out at the occasional publishing party. I think the last place was at one of Bret's Christmas bashes. I don't know what she's up to, and I don't know what the book's about. But I'd love to be able to design it."
The case of the missing Tartt was falling to pieces.
"I understand Donna's not really interested in your story," Gary Fisketjon, who edited The Secret History for Knopf, brusquely informed us by telephone, suggesting that agent Urban had set off alarms to all inquiries. "She's busy working on her book." When pressed he gruffly added, "I can't tell you anything about it yet. We're not publishing anything right now, and we haven't scheduled it. I hate to speculate on things this far in advance."
Finally, we got a tip from one reliable intimate of Tartt's. The gist of the double-secret next novel? Set in the South, where the author originally hails from, it's the story of a young girl whose older brother commits suicide. When the girl grows up, she investigates the circumstances, and discovers there is more to his tragic death than meets the eye. Or so we're told. Cautioned our source: "I heard that years ago, though. It may have changed completely since then." Perhaps we, like so many other fans, are just being impatient. After all, it took Tartt eight years to write The Secret History. Which means that she could be right on schedule.