Donna Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi and attended The University of Mississippi and Bennington College in Vermont. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's and The Oxford American. Tartt has published two novels, The Secret History and recently The Little Friend. She lives with her two pugs and a Boston Terrier and divides her time between Manhattan and Virginia. Donna Tartt is at work on a novella and her third novel.
Robert Birnbaum: What's your favorite color?
Donna Tartt: (Long pause)
RB: I'm kidding, I'm kidding.
DT: (laughs) I have to think about that. My favorite color is different for different things. Depends on what it is.
DT: Oh yeah. For flowers, it's one thing, for clothes, it's another.
RB: What is it for flowers?
DT: 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.
RB: There was a rose that the two sisters [Harriet's aunts] quibbled about in Little Friend?
DT: "Pink Rain."
RB: There was another name?
DT: Zephyr lily. "Pink Rain" is the colloquial name for them.
RB: Okay. There is a conventional wisdom that suggests that early success can be damaging to writers and artists. In your case, your success was attended by much media attention. Again, with the publication of your second novel you are getting a lot of attention. Is the success a problem and is the media scrutiny a burden?
DT: Well, about media attention and the whole idea of early success being detrimental to a writer, I think that it can be true. It doesn't have to be true. The reason that early success can be so disorienting to writers is that for one [thing] it leads them into overproduction. That's a great danger. There is suddenly an expectation that once one has had a success—the way the machine works is—more success. They [novels] should just be coming down the conveyor belt at a regular rate. It's a question of if you want to play by those rules or you don't. Some people play by those rules. They play by them brilliantly. I never wanted to. It's not what I ever wanted to do. Also, about media attention, it's very funny because it comes and it goes. It's very concentrated while it lasts and then it goes away very quickly. It must be horrifying if you wanted that or you liked it or wanted to hold on to it. But it's actually hard to—it's not even hard—it's impossible to get any work done in terms of writing. I can't get my real life's work done when I am traveling around. I just got back from Dublin. I've been all over the place. This time it's much less intense because I am traveling for only a month. I've given a month to do the publicity for this book.
RB: So, you learned something.
DT: It's not even a question of learning something. With a first novel you really don't have any choice. They [the publishers] have made an investment with you and you must go out and therefore publicize the book. It's different the second time. One has a little more say. This time it's a month. Last time I traveled for nearly a year.
DT: I know. I lost a year of my working life.
RB: I remember we met in 1992 at the tail end of one leg of your long march and Mr. Paul Bogaards was accompanying you and I think I asked him if we had time for photos. And I think he said, "She's really exhausted…why don't we leave her alone."
DT: I didn't even know what "tired" was at that point because I continued to travel well into 1993 including European travel…it was a lot.
RB: Is there a difference in the way you are treated as an author on tour in Europe and Britain and here in the US?
DT: Yes, I think all authors would tell you that.
RB: What's the difference?
DT: It's slightly different in every country. But generally there is not so much the celebrity aspect of it that there is in America. Even the format is different. Tonight I'll be going to the Harvard Bookstore and I'll be doing a reading. I'll read and then take questions and answers and then I'll sit at a table and sign books. What happens in the UK and Holland is that it is much more of a stage show. There is a moderator. You read from the book and then you and the moderator have a discussion about the book and he questions you, he interviews you in front of the audience and then based on that the audience asks questions. And you don't have readings in bookstores, you have them in auditoriums and in big places.
RB: Is that based on the fact that audiences are bigger?
DT: Yeah, they are quite large audiences. I had 900 people in London.
RB: Which format do you like more?
DT: They are all different. It changes from place to place. In Amsterdam, I basically sat in a big room in the hotel all day long and people came and went. I joked about it with my publisher, but I was the prisoner of the Ambassade Hotel. In Britain, we traveled on trains. My publisher and my publicist and there was a big jolly group of people. Here they have the escort system and it's a different one for every town. In Europe you get to know your people much better. Here it's impractical to have the same person going with you to Boston and San Francisco and Denver and so you meet different people wherever you go.
RB: Am right to assume that you spend more time in Virginia than in New York City?
DT: I have lately. Because it's where I work—although I do work some in New York. I wrote about half of The Little Friend when I was in New York.
RB: I assume that in Manhattan you are more likely to attract attention and find yourself on Page Six or some other gossip column.
DT: You know something, I don't look at the newspaper. I never look at the newspaper. I don't.
RB: Why not?
DT: I just don't. I come from a family that never looked at the newspaper. We just never did.
RB: But you have a mother in this story that collects newspapers in her house?
DT: 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.
RB: Well you know that tendency for people to think that if you write a domestic story that it's autobiographical.
DT: I know, but honestly, I think that if you held a gun to my mother's head and said, "Bring me a piece of newsprint," she wouldn't be able to do it. We are a family of readers (books, not newspapers and magazines). Every once in a while somebody would get my mother a subscription to Reader's Digest or some magazine and they'll just stack up unread. And then she'll just toss them out.
RB: Part of my interest in pursuing the subsidiary activities of being a writer is that I wonder if there is some relationship with fame and success and whether when you leave your life's work to go out and talk to the world that you spend so very little time talking about what is actually on the pages, which is of course, your life's work?
DT: Unfortunately that has always been my experience in interviews. I don't know it any other way. The circumstances of my first book were such that much more attention was paid to the fact that I was 28 years old and all this sort of stuff.
RB: Well as stories go, it's a good story. I guess.
DT: It's one reason I have a very gloomy attitude about publicity in general, because it's too often about that…
RB: Do people tend to ask you things like what's your favorite color or that level of superficiality?
DT: I don't actually think that is a superficial question. (laughs)
RB: All right. Way to go. (laughs) But it can be posed superficially.
RB: Okay. Let's get back to color. You told me about flowers, what about other categories?
DT: Red is a favorite color. I love red. If I had to pick a favorite color I'd pick red.
RB: Do you wear red often?
DT: (Points to her scarf)
RB: Oh my! I missed the accented accessory. (DT is wearing a black suit and white shirt and black tie.)
DT: 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…
RB: I never noticed. I like red too. Well, okay, let's talk about your book. One thing that struck me as I finished The Little Friend is how you [the writer] knew it was finished? How did you know when you wanted to end the book?
DT: I knew it from the very beginning. This is very much the book I set out to write when I set out ten years ago. This is how I envisioned it. I wanted it to end in a fairly uncertain place. I didn't want to tie things up too neatly. I don't think it's really the business of a writer today, to tie up narrative too neatly and deliver it in a box. And to lead the killer away in handcuffs. Do you know what I am saying? It's too much about television and movies and it's too much a kind of narrative that we are inundated with. It's a writer's business now, to work at the edges of narrative and different kinds of experience, which is just as legitimate but not as stylized and ritualized as the kinds of things we all have been used to for many, many years.
RB: Are you suggesting that many novels have become more like visual media than like old-fashioned stories?
DT: No, not quite. It's impossible to be a novelist in the 21st century and not be influenced by media—by film—we are creatures with enormous visual cortexes. For us, seeing is believing. We have become so visually sophisticated. Everyone is visually sophisticated because of television; because of advertising we are inundated with images. This has been going on since the early part of the 20th century. There is no one alive today in this culture that really hasn't been inundated by images. That necessarily colors writing, not necessarily in a bad way. A writer like Vladimir Nabokov is influenced by film and he talks about it. He uses visual puns in his work very often. And then you have a writer like Jane Austen, who very seldom describes what a character looks like. We don't really know what they look like. "A nice well formed gentleman of twenty-four…", the descriptions are very vague. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a different thing. Our enormous visual sophistication as a people and as a culture has infiltrated us in every way, not just in the writing of novels and the reading of novels. So, no, I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing.
RB: So, you started out this novel with a complete sense of the story and a very certain sense of the mission?
DT: Oh yes. The mission of Harriet (the young protagonist) is very unambiguous. It's a straight arrow. There's not much deviation.
RB: Tell me about the title?
DT: It has to do with the ending. [So as not to disclose anything that might give away significant parts of the book, I have edited out the rest of this answer.]
RB: Genius Chip Kidd designed the cover.
DT: Genius Chip Kidd done it again. Yeah.
RB: It struck me as a little eerie. A doll's head…
DT: Uh huh. (long pause)
RB: Tell me what it means to you? I assume you had a lot to say about the cover.
DT: To be frank, I didn't have anything to say about it. Chip showed it to me. And I thought it was terrific, and I thought it was beautiful from the second I saw it.
RB: It's compelling.
DT: I think it's very compelling. Also something I like about it is there is a slight family resemblance between The Little Friend and Secret History.
RB: The books are the same dimensions.
DT: Exactly. They look well together on the shelf.
RB: So in the next 50 years there might be three or four of these books on the shelf. (laughs) Just kidding.
DT: Chip and I are about the same age, so who knows? Chip didn't want to tell me what the cover was. He just said, "I'm going to send it down for you. I just want you to see it." I said, "Well, kinda give me an idea of what…" "No, no, no, no. I want you to see it. I want you to see it." I opened the box and I thought, "Wow!" I think it's a terrific looking cover. I think it's beautiful.
RB: Did he design the whole book?
DT: Oh, of course he does.
RB: I know he can.
DT: He did for this book. He did the end papers, and we had much discussion about them. It was Chip's idea to do the black end papers. Also, what I like is that it echoes Secret History because these [pointing to the doll's eyes on the cover] are like the Greek eyes. There is something very ancient about this close-up of the eye. Do you see what I am saying? There is something of antiquity about that, particularly when you see it in black and white, and it seems very abstract. You can see the brush strokes. It almost seems like something from an Attic vase. Chip is very smart about things like that.
RB: Yes he is. And he is a novelist now.
DT: Yes, he is. He is a man of many parts.
RB: I find it fascinating that someone might be involved in a project for a long period of time. I think we would all agree that ten years is a long time. Apparently that was not difficult for you or a burden. Have you worked only on your novels in the times that you were writing them?
DT: No. I have written essays and short stories and even a poem or two. I've written some short things. In general though on a big piece—I am interested in working on it over a long period of time. I like spending a long time with a project. There's a level of richness that one gets if a whole decade is put into a book that is just not possible if you spend two or three years on it. And that's fine that not everybody wants that in a book. There are books that don't aim for that quality and not every reader admires that quality. But definitely the fact of spending a long time on something, it gives the book a hidden weight. It's a hidden anchor. You can feel the time that's been put into it.
RB: That sounds correct. And we can judge the results. I'm wondering what effect it has since it seems clear to me that one has to give up other parts of one's life to write a novel.
DT: That's true. That's true. That is absolutely true.
RB: Apparently you are happy to do that, as are many other people. What else can we say?
DT: Exactly. What would I be doing otherwise? I don't know. This is what I care about doing and what I have chosen to do.
RB: Well, there is the Dorothy Parker school that claims to "hate writing but love having written."
DT: Well, there is that school and sometimes on bad days I feel like that. On good days I really enjoy being at my desk. The level at which I enjoy writing most is the sentence-to-sentence level. Even though I write big books, I really like constructing sentences and paragraphs and really thinking, "Is this exactly the right adjective I want? Is this exactly the right word?" If I have a paragraph in front of me, that's when I am happiest. Not when I am trying to draft out the big picture.
RB: Do you complete the book and then start doing re-drafts?
DT: It is just pebble by pebble by pebble by pebble. I write one sentence until I am happy with it until I go on to the next one and write that one until I am happy with it. And I look at my paragraph and if I am not happy with that I'll write the paragraph until I'm happy with it and then I go on this way. And, of course, even writing this very slow way, one does have to go back. One does start off on the wrong foot sometimes and a whole scene has to be chopped and you have to start over again. Generally, you know that pretty quickly, though. You realize you have painted yourself into a corner and you think, "Okay I am just going to trace my footsteps back to the last solid bit of ground that I know. Look around start again and take a different tack." It's the way that William Styron writes and he said, when he was about my age, that he realized that he had maybe four or five books in him—the way that he worked—and he said he was fine with that. I'm fine with that too. It's okay by me.
RB: Can we talk about what a Southern writer is?
RB: Is that a worn-out subject for you?
RB: What's a distinguishing characteristic of a Southern writer?
DT: To my mind, the way I grew up in the South, I always thought of Southern writers—when I hear the term "Southern writer" I think of it in the purest sense of the term. I think of Eudora Welty or William Faulkner—who spent their whole life in the South, who took their entire subject matter from the South. That's not true of me. It's very funny how people tend to claim writers—in Manchester I'm on the shelf with the Vermont authors. (both laugh) My first book was in New England. I wrote it in New England. I wrote about New England and it is really a New England novel. At the New England Book Sellers convention I received a very warm welcome as a New England novelist. (long pause) I'm happy being called a New England novelist. I am happy being called a Vermont novelist and I am happy being called a Southern novelist.
RB: Does anyone call you a Southern novelist?
DT: I have been. It makes sense because I am from Mississippi and this book is about the South. So…
RB: Robert Olen Butler, I've been told, is from Granite City, Illinois, and he's considered a Southern writer.
DT: The South will claim anyone.
RB: One of the more visceral examples of your writing was a chase scene that had me panting at the end. There is a scene where Danny [the character Harriet suspects of murdering her brother] is chasing Harriet. I don't know if you remember the paragraph. It takes place behind a warehouse. You describe the signage and then repeat a phrase:
"She heard him shouting in the distance. Breathing painfully, clutching the stitch in her side, Harriet ran behind the warehouse (faded tin signs: Purina Checkerboard, General Mills) and down a graveled road: much wider, wide enough for a car to go down. With wide bare patches marbled with patterns of black and white sand swirled through the red clay and dappled with patchy shade from tall sycamores. Her blood pounded, her thoughts clattered and banged around her head like coins in a shaken piggy bank and her legs were heavy, like running through mud or molasses in a nightmare and she couldn't make them go fast enough, couldn't make them go fast enough, couldn't tell if the snap and the crash of twigs (like gunshots, unnaturally loud) was only the crashing of her feet or feet crashing down the path behind her."
DT: It's how we think when we are running. When we are children on the playground—I can remember, this isn't even my story, but someone told it to me—when he was a little boy running on the playground, he didn't know who Chiang Kai-Shek he was but he would run chanting, "Chiang Kai-Shek, Chiang Kai-Shek, Chiang Kai-Shek." It's how your mind works when you are running. Particularly a child's mind. Children will tend to repeat things over and over. Athletes do it, even. That was a very intentional thing, repeating that sentence over and repeating it to capture the cadence of running and having it come back at particular intervals. If at all possible the sound of a passage should mirror the action that is going on. Lyrical passages—I construct my passages in a very different way—in a much dreamier way to lead you in, and they have a more hypnotic tone. It is like writing music, and it has to do with the words and the sound too. The sound that even a non-native speaker of English would pick up on if they were hearing the passage read aloud, sound in the purest level. You know you are always trying to marry sound and sense. Sometimes you can't and sometimes you have to pick one or the other, sacrifice sound a little bit to make sure the reader really understands. Again, these are the problems I am working on on a very small, sentence-to-sentence level.
RB: Are you reading out loud when you are writing?
DT: Oh yes, always reading out loud. I did the audio books for both of my books.
DT: There will be an unabridged, but for now it's abridged. I read The Secret History unabridged and it took me fourteen days.
RB: I have just read Sandra Cisneros' Caramelo and I went on to listen to the audio and it was like seeing the movie of a book. It was like the movie/book dichotomy, it's the same thing but it's not…
DT: It's not. Particularly if it's by the author. It's a completely different interpretation—I remember the first time I ever heard a recording of TS Eliot reading The Waste Land, which was a poem I knew very well. I was so enchanted by the stresses that he put on different lines and he made you see the poem in a completely different way. Much more in his way. I think it's wonderful to hear a writer read their own work. I love to read my work.
RB: Considering that you are making some bookstore appearances, how do you select what to read out of this large story?
DT: It depends on how long they want me to read. (both laugh)
RB: Are your books subjected to much analytical dissection?
DT: I don't really know. I don't read my reviews. I really try to stay away from reading things that are written about me. My business is to write the books, not to participate or review the criticism of them. Do you see what I am saying?
RB: Well, okay let me ask you, except for the snake-handling preacher, the men in this book are a rather shabby lot. What is one to make of that?
DT: There are some not wholly admirable women in this book too. There's the obnoxious neighbor lady, the horrible lady at the camp. Edie is a very dominating grandmother.
RB: The sisters [Harriet's aunts] have flaws that are excusable. Even the selfish sister was not despicable.
DT: If you are talking about the parallel family, the Ratliffs, I don't think they are despicable exactly. Personally, I don't.
RB: You're right, that's not a good description.
DT: Danny and Eugene are victims of fate. I feel sorry for them and they are not quite as bad as they appear from the outside. They have very frightening exteriors, but we go inside the minds of those characters and know what they are thinking and they are frightened themselves. They are frightened. They are sad…
RB: Putting them aside though. Dix, Harriet's father, a good ol' boy…
DT: He is more of an absence than a presence. He's not really in the novel at all. Harriet's mother, even though she is physically present in the house, is more of a ghost. She, too, is more an absence than a presence.
RB: I know what you are saying, but I don't see it in the same way. I am very conscious of Harriet maneuvering around her mother, whereas the father is an occasional reference and makes an occasional appearance and does seem peripheral. I find the mother haunting.
DT: Yes, she is haunting. That's a good word for it. But she is very ghostly, and a ghost is not a full presence. A ghost is a partial presence. Do you know what I am saying? She is not fully there. If the mother was fully there then Harriet would not be doing what she was doing. Harriet is a very neglected, unsupervised child. She raised herself by reading Robert Louis Stevenson. This is how she has acquired her code of honor and her code of values and why she sets out upon this impossible quest…
RB: An unusual child, isn't she?
DT: I guess so. (long pause)
RB: Was a clear picture of Harriet part of the story when you began this novel?
DT: Characters get clearer as they go along. Particularly if one writes character-driven fiction as I do. That's one of my main interests in fiction is character development over time and interaction between characters. They do get richer as they go along. They don't necessarily change but they…it's like getting to know a person in real life. First impressions are often quite accurate. Yet that's not to say that by spending—the more time you spend around someone the more richness you add to that impression.
RB: Harriet is so independent and so driven that when you have her express her vulnerability it is reminder that, yes, this character is only a child.
DT: She's twelve. Yes.
RB: Given her behavior one might forget that. At any rate, you are going to spend another few weeks talking about this book and then what happens?
DT: Then back to work again. Back to my desk.
RB: Do you find yourself interested in the adjunct activities of writing: teaching, reviewing, writer's conferences and so on?
DT: No, none of those things… not something I do much of.
RB: What do you do for fun?
DT: See friends, go to the movies…
DT: Actually, mostly read. Work in my garden and play with my dogs.
RB: What kind of dogs do you have?
DT: I have two pugs and a Boston Terrier.
RB: Farm dogs. (both laugh)
DT: No, they are not farm dogs at all. They are such city dogs. The Boston Terrier is a farm dog but the pugs aren't. They don't like to walk on grass, only concrete.
RB: I have a feeling you don't read much contemporary fiction. Am I wrong?
DT: I don't read much contemporary fiction.
RB: Apparently the New York Times' Japanese lady's use of the word 'limning' set off a flurry of commentary—in any case, are you still limning classic literature?
DT: I like to return to the same books again and again. It's what I tend to do if I have a choice.
RB: What are some of those books?
DT: I love Dickens. I love Henry James. I love Conrad. I love PG Wodehouse. I love Evelyn Waugh. I didn't like Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager but I love her now. There are some writers that one doesn't like as a child that one gets to like as one gets older. I tried to read her as a teenager and I just couldn't stand her. Now, I think she is incredible. I love Melville. I love Poe. I loved Poe from the time I was little. I really love Robert Louis Stevenson.
RB: Do people send you galleys or do they know better?
DT: Sometimes, sometimes.
RB: Have you blurbed any books? Or maybe another way of asking is are there any books that you have read recently that have penetrated your commitment to the classics?
DT: Yeah, there have been. But you know it's—I find that it's a slippery game. I know that other writers don't feel the same way that I do. There are definitely contemporary writers that I admire. There are definitely contemporary writers that I don't understand why they are published.
DT: But it just becomes a very gossipy game. I don't like to talk about my peers in public. I really don't. I don't think it's fair.
RB: It's funny that you say that. I was pontificating on Identity Theory that I don't really care if Eminem is dating Zadie Smith but somehow I have come to have this knowledge.
DT: (laughs) That would be a story.
RB: Yeah well, reportedly they are.
DT: Is that true? That's funny. Oh my goodness.
RB: Nor do I care that Mark Costello's wife is an editor at Doubleday. Or that Jonathan Safran Foer is dating another young novelist. But how do I end up knowing this stuff? Somehow it gets transmitted …
DT: That's interesting. I know all this like in the last 20 seconds. I didn't know any of this. It's a lot of information you have just imparted to me. (laughs)
RB: Well, part of my rumination on this is my recognition that going back to when I first began to be interested in baseball, I wanted to know everything about it. Who were friends with each other? What players ate or who was going to be traded?… All sorts of inside information.
DT: Sure, I think it's human nature. I think we all do. But at the same time, does one want to participate in that? I don't. I don't see any reason to…I understand that there is interest in it—that doesn't mean that one has to participate.
RB: When is the movie of Secret History coming out?
DT: I don't know. Everything changes…if you want to know the answer to that you will have to call my agent.
RB: Do you call her Binky or Amanda?
DT: I call her Binky. Things with that change on a daily basis.
RB: Are you at all concerned with whether ultimately the film is faithful to your book? How much do you care about what might be done?
DT: Well, I think that any author would hope for a fairly faithful rendition.
RB: Some writers who believe they know about Hollywood don't hold out for that hope.
DT: I have yet to go through the experience of having a film made of my book. I don't know what it is like. I really don't know. I can't say. There is no way I can really comment on that.
RB: I did read somewhere that you have been commissioned to write a novella. Is that correct?
DT: Uh huh.
RB: That's kind of strange.
DT: I think it's kind of fun to try my hand at something shorter. The idea is to write a novella or a short piece based on the myth of your choice—Ulysses being the guide. Not even being the guide but being the example of what you could do with a myth. We were told to pick any myth we wanted and to run wild with it for 20,000 words. Interesting and something I wouldn't have done ordinarily. It seemed like it would be fun to do. I've never written a novella before.
RB: Do you know what a novella is?
DT: (laughs) I know what a novella is. I've read novellas.
RB: I've read things that have been called novellas too. But I can't tell the difference between a novella and a…
DT: A long short story. Actually, you are totally right about that. I have word limit, so I am going to stick to my word limit and then we'll call it a novella.
RB: Would I be off base in assuming that you have begun your next novel?
DT: I have started it.
RB: How's it going?
DT: Well, it's not going at all because I am traveling around.
RB: How much do you think about what you have already written when you are working on something new?
DT: I'm like an athlete who's run a race. One race doesn't really bear on the next race except with the lessons that you have learned. Do you see what I am saying?
RB: Yeah, yeah.
DT: I feel much stronger after Little Friend. I feel I've expanded my range as a writer. I've done a lot of technical things that I didn't do in The Secret History—didn't try to do. This [the new novel] was many different viewpoints, a wide range of characters. Very different from the very cloistered, male academic world of Secret History. This is a much broader book—socially and inter-generationally—in every aspect. So, I feel like, as if I was a singer, I've increased my range. There are notes that I can hit now that I couldn't hit when I had finished The Secret History. So one carries that awareness into it. In terms of thinking about the books themselves, not so much.
RB: Thanks for sitting and talking with me.
DT: Oh, thank you. It's my pleasure.
RB: And see you around. (both laugh)
DT: See you around, yeah.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing