Bookish Birthdays: Donna Tartt

17th Dec 2012

Bookish Birthdays: Donna Tartt

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” – The Secret History

Donna Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, on December 23rd, 1963. Her father, Don Tartt (a service station owner and local politician) and mother Taylor (an executive secretary for the State Employment Commission) moved to the eastern delta town of Grenada soon after.

As a child, Tartt devoured classic adventure stories like Peter Pan and Kidnapped, cloistered among a large extended family of aunts, uncles and grandparents. She wrote her first poem aged five, while lying in front of the television. At thirteen, one of her sonnets was published in a Mississippi literary journal.

In 1981, Donna entered the University of Mississippi, whose writer-in-residence, Willie Morris, swiftly declared her ‘a genius.’ A year later, she transferred to Bennington College in Vermont, where – under the tutelage of another Mississippi writer, Barry Hannah – she met other rising stars, including Bret Easton Ellis. (On reading Tartt’s first novel, Jonathan Lethem remarked that ‘every person from our time at Bennington seemed reworked in her pages, except for me.’)

The Secret History – eight years in the making – focussed on a small, elitist group studying Ancient Greek. It is narrated by a fellow student who infiltrates the clique, only to discover that they have committed a murder as part of ritual bacchanal.

In a review for Booklist, Donna Seaman described Tartt’s prose style as ‘flawless and enthralling’. Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’, an academic study by Dr Tracy Hargreaves, was published on its tenth anniversary.

‘Back in 1992, interviewers noted Tartt’s desire for privacy, her unwillingness to talk about various aspects of her work and personal life,’ Hannah Rosefield wrote in ‘The Cult of Donna Tartt’, a retrospective for Prospect magazine. ‘They wondered how long she would be able to preserve such secrecy. “You can’t be Salinger and be represented by ICM,” said Bret Easton Ellis when questioned on the subject, referring to the talent agency that had signed both him and Tartt. Several journalists repeated this statement, presenting it as wisdom from one who knows. But Ellis was wrong. Twenty years later, The Secret History is one of the best-loved and best-known books of the past two decades—but its author remains as mysterious as ever.’

Katherine Viner, who interviewed Donna for The Guardian, found her ‘fizzy and funny’, but also wondered   ‘if this myth-making and mysterious self-creation are to protect the creative process, or are just her being a storyteller.’

Some predicted that Tartt would never finish another book. ‘I learned pretty early on that I wasn’t cut out for sort of the public, literary….’ she told Julie Bosman of the New York Times recently. ‘Too much noise, too much hubbub, too much.’

More than twenty years into her career, Donna Tartt has been characterised as a ‘slow-burn literary giant.’The Little Friend, Tartt’s second novel, was published in 2002. Its main protagonist is a 12 year-old girl who lives among her eccentric relatives in a small Mississippi town. Clever and lonely, she becomes obsessed with her brother’s unsolved murder.

‘There are none of the aesthetic sweeteners of The Secret History here,’ Natasha Walter wrote in The Guardian. ‘There is a great deal of violence in The Little Friend, and it is executed in a very different style: bloody and unglamorised, with apparently endless repercussions of guilt and misery.’

The Goldfinch, published in 2013, is Tartt’s longest work to date. It is described as ‘a story of loss and obsession about a young man, guilt-stricken and damaged after the death of his mother, and the growing power that a stolen piece of art exercises over him, drawing him into an underworld of theft and corruption where nothing is as it seems.’

‘Tartt is a notoriously slow writer,’ Elaine Showalter wrote in a review for Prospect.  ‘But in the epic range of its concerns with grief, loss, loneliness, fate, and the nature of good and evil, its rich cast of characters, and its broad social canvas, it bears comparison with Proust, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Nabokov… [The Goldfinch] is meticulously structured and paced, and reading it is an enthralling experience of total immersion in Tartt’s vision and voice.’

More than twenty years into her career, Donna Tartt has been characterised as a ‘slow-burn literary giant.’ She occasionally publishes short stories and essays, collected on the Donna Tartt Shrine fansite.

She seldom uses the internet, and won’t be found on social media (although I run an unofficial Facebook page.) Dividing her time between New York and Virginia, Tartt enjoys travelling – for months at a time – and often writes in public libraries.

‘I’m a miniaturist who just happens to write big books—detail is what interests me, trees not forest,’ she told author Tom De Haven  in 2012. ‘The obsessive quality I have with my work—well, this is why my books take so long to write, I am basically painting a very, very large wall-sized mural with a brush the size of an eyelash. But this obsessive quality is also why I don’t get discouraged and give up—how I can keep myself completely entertained writing a book for a decade.’