Interview: The very, very private life of Ms Donna Tartt
In a rare chat, the renowned author tells Edel Coffey why she remains aloof in the world of instant access
Donna Tartt is that rare thing, the last private woman in the world of the selfie. Tartt is the author of The Secret History (1992), The Little Friend (2002) and has just published her third novel, The Goldfinch.
She was raised in Mississippi and retains a strong southern accent and even stronger southern manners – friendly but formal.
She was brought up in a bookish family – the fact that her mother read novels as she drove her car will give you an idea of just how bookish. Donna says they were the 'different' family, the eccentrics, the family that talked to their cats.
Tartt left the "snakes, stickers and quicksand" of Mississippi for Bennington College, New England, in 1982 where she studied Classics (just like her protagonists in her debut novel The Secret History). It was here that she began writing her first book, alongside authors such as Brett Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem who wrote The Fortress of Solitude. The Secret History became a best seller and Donna became a writer who lived up to the hype.
All three of her books are mysteries and the writer is a little mysterious herself. Now 49, she has an ethereal quality that makes her look ageless, and her delicate femininity is offset by her masculine style – velvet blazer, pinstriped shirt, trousers and leather loafers in a poisonous shade of green.
The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo, a 13-year-old boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bomb in a New York museum. Theo steals the Dutch master The Goldfinch from the rubble and it sets him on a 10-year adventure, taking in Las Vegas and Amsterdam.
Tartt is famous for how long her books take to write – an average of 10 years – and she describes the first few years of writing a new book as a torturous time, comparable to trying to bring Frankenstein's monster to life.
She writes by hand, making notes in red and blue pencil, stapling note cards to the pages and when the notebooks start to fall apart she prints out drafts, and each new draft is printed on a corresponding shade of paper. You can kind of see where the years go.
She says she writes all the time, "like a pianist with scales or an artist with a sketch book" and the origins of The Goldfinch go back 20 years ago to a sighting of The Goldfinch painting in Holland, which was hung frustratingly above her eye level (it's hard to emphasise just how petite she is) so she had to "gaze up, yearningly".
The influence of Dickens in this book is inescapable – Theo becomes an orphan with a mysterious benefactor – and it's no surprise that Dickens was a big part of Tartt's early reading. "I was entranced by Oliver Twist. It was the first book I read with real blood and death in it. I would worry about Oliver all day at school.'
But the Russian novelists are here too, and the early Greeks, all of whom are preoccupied with the randomness of fate.
"It's the nature of our life on the earth," she says, pouring some more tea, "how things can just turn on a dime. It's one reason that the novel is sort of a moral playing field in which moral problems can be played out in the field of time in a way that we can't experience it in normal life. You might live a whole life without learning the lessons of Emma Bovary. Books are other lives. They enable us to be other people."
As well as the Russians, she is a fan of many Irish writers, including Oscar Wilde, Frank O'Connor, Flann O'Brien and Edna O'Brien. Not Joyce however: "I'm not as much of a fan of Ulysses as I know I should be."
Donna admits that writing is as much of an escape for her as reading is for most of her fans. "Staying with the same characters for so long is fun, it's fun seeing how they evolve over time, being in the same world for a long time. Once I'm there I like to stay there. It's an alternate life, it's wonderful. Of course it's escapist."
She says she is always trying to recapture the childhood experience of disappearing into a book's word.
"It's hard to find that readerly experience as an adult where you disappear inside a book and the book becomes your whole world and you don't hear your mother calling and you're just galloping through the pages and to really be somewhere else, to have an alternate life, and somehow for me that writing about young people is often the spark or has been in the past because it goes back to my childhood reading."
Between books, Donna doesn't give talks, or lectures, or interviews. She doesn't appear on the festival circuit, which only adds to her allure, but there are practical reasons behind it.
"They're just distracting. It's better for me to be at home and getting on with my work than standing up and talking about a book. It's very counterproductive. I'd go mad if I had to go on a book tour every two years. I'd go completely berserk. I can just about handle it once every decade."
Is she reclusive in her day-to-day life? "No, not at all. Just because you don't go to a lot of literary galas and things doesn't make you reclusive."
In world where Facebook and Twitter have made modern writers wholly accessible, Tartt remains aloof, mysterious.
"I think there's an expectation now, possibly because of Facebook and those sorts of things, that everyone should share the Facebook vision of the world but people have different ideas of what makes them comfortable and what makes them uncomfortable.
"Was it Emerson who talked about the great freedom of American life as the freedom not to participate in the life of the culture, the freedom to shut the door, to close the curtains? American heroes are almost always solitary figures in our literature.
"Joan Didion writes a beautiful essay about Howard Hughes who was a lonely recluse but also a kind of weird American hero who built the whole city of Las Vegas and Joan Didion said, 'he's the last private man, the dream we no longer admit'."
'The Goldfinch' is published by Little, Brown