A taste of Tratt

 

Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' was a publishing sensation. Now, 10 years later, in Ireland to talk about her new novel, she tells Kathryn Holmquist about writing, drinking whiskey and her book - but little about the woman behind the Dickensian facade.

Looking like a sexually ambiguous Victorian child, Donna Tartt has developed a brand that the book industry can sell. Dressed in a meticulously tailored Dickensian shirt, waistcoat and trousers, with lace-up, black boots like Pip's in Great Expectations, the tiny Tartt wears her clothes like she wears her persona. She is coy about her personal life, which adds to her mystique.

The fact she also writes like an angel makes her the perfect package. Ten years ago, Tartt's début novel, The Secret History, was a publishing sensation. Tartt was young, bright and wrote like a literary Ruth Rendell or John Grisham. She appealed to a wide spectrum of readers. She was 28 and had begun the novel at the age of 19.

After graduating from Bennington College,Vermont, in the US, Tartt worked "strange" jobs, lived with her family and avoided any kind of career. "For me, to become a writer was to take a vow of poverty. I knew lots of writers and they were all poor. I decided I would rather fail at what I loved rather than succeed at something I could not stand."

She never intended to become a literary phenomenon. "I started The Little Friend before I sold The Secret History. The huge success of The Secret History was not what I expected. Salinger says you hit the target by not aiming at it. I was really trying to write the best book I could. You can't go out with the attitude of writing a best-seller and making money."

Tartt spent years touring, adding oxygen to The Secret History phenomenon. "I was a babe in the woods," she says now. She was also a writer who knew that you have to meet your public and your book-sellers if you want to sell books.

When the excitement about The Secret History died down, Tartt disappeared. Her publisher, Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury, showed remarkable patience. A decade after the publication of The Secret History, Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend, has arrived. She refuses to say what took her so long.

Tartt hasn't changed at all. She still wears her hair in a China doll bob and dresses with the same delicate, Dickensian precision as she did on the publication of her first novel. She is protective of her image, yet not as much as previous interviews had led me to believe. She speaks freely of her three dogs and her friends - among them William Faulkner's daughter, Dean.

Yet Tartt refuses to be photographed without her full control. Rumour has it that she likes a drink. "I drink gin in the summer, whiskey in the winter and champagne any time," she says.

She also likes a bawdy joke. She keeps an apartment in New York, where she returned shortly after the September 11th attack. As the firemen worked to clear Ground Zero, Tartt saw a flamboyant Greenwich Villager on a bicycle festooned with daisies, giving the firemen the once-over. One of the fireman quipped to Tartt: "Aren't we doing enough without having them checking out our asses?"

There are few novelists who can take a decade between books and still get the full promotions treatment when they go on tour. Meeting book-sellers and authors in Dublin last week, she was personable, patient and charming. She talked with everyone, despite her fatigue on the last day of an exhausting UK tour. She had flown into London on the day of the gales and, for one heart-stopping moment as the aircraft shuddered and careened across the runway, she felt she might die. "All I thought was, at least I won't have to do all those interviews now." However, it was a safe landing. Tartt met her fate bravely, so when she read to a packed auditorium at an event sponsored by The Irish Times, she was forthcoming. Far more forthcoming than at any previous book interview, says Alexandra Pringle.

Tartt seemed genuinely delighted to be in Dublin on Hallowe'en night. As the limo passed St Patrick's Cathedral, she craned her head out of the window looking for a ghost of Jonathan Swift. Stern at the reading, she soon loosened up and was looking forward to a drink of Black Velvet afterwards. And, despite the rumours, she drank only one.

Being around the Irish relaxed her. We laughed in the right places. We caught the satirical edge of her novel. "I always wanted to be Irish," she says. Oscar Wilde and Flann O'Brien/Myles Na Gopaleen and W.B. Yeats are among her favourite writers. She doesn't read outside the classics; she would rather re-read Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe and Eudora Welty than immerse herself in something new.

The musicality of her writing comes through when she reads publicly. She even sings the lyrics of the spirituals that she uses to create the aural mood that is as strong in her work as visual imagery. She has a hauntingly beautiful voice - a bit like Iris Dement. So it makes sense she writes without a computer. She talks to herself as she writes in longhand in spiral notebooks, taking on the voices of her characters. ("Can you imagine what those notebooks will be worth?" a member of the audience whispered.) Workmen at her house in Charleston, Virginia, where she lives with two pugs and a Boston terrier, have found themselves lurking by her study door just to listen to her as she writes.

Her lyrical, southern voice has a rhythm and music that come through in her prose. "Southern speech is marginalised speech. Whenever you hear southerners in films or on TV, that's not the way we really talk," she says.

She sees many similarities between southern and Irish writers, who come from traditions that never quite got over being colonised.

"In Mississippi, where I grew up, they like to say that there are more writers than there are people in Ireland," she says. Later, she adds: "In Mississipi, there are more writers than there are people who can read."

With The Secret History, few readers had Tartt pegged as a Southern gal. Set in an effete Vermont college similar to Bennington, it follows a group of Greek scholars who get involved in a murder.

Tartt's account was so convincing, as told through her first person narrator, that a few became convinced Tartt's intimacy with horror went beyond the genre and into real life.

A lot of Donna Tartt mythology is based on her short story, Sleepy Town, which was published in Harper's magazine. It tells of a little girl who spent her childhood in a fantasy world, reading Kipling while drugged on opiate-rich cough syrup. She laughs at the suggestion that any of her work is autobiographical.

"It's a story. It didn't really happen. Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but that didn't mean he had a submarine," she says, suppressing the obvious "duh, stupid", although her voice says it all.

And so, The Little Friend isn't about Tartt's own childhood, although the reader is bound to wonder. Harriet, the main character, is a precocious and plucky 11-year-old who sets out to avenge her murdered brother. Harriet has the enhanced perceptions of a child, although many of her perceptions are wrong. "Children are unreliable witnesses," Tartt believes.

The parents in the novel - Charlotte and Dix - are distant and unloving. Tartt says that her own mother was far better than the decaying Southern Belle, Charlotte, who rarely wakes from drugged sleep. Every day, she speaks with her mother, "an elegant but comical Ava Gardner who can tell a good story". But she adds that her father, a local politician, was "10 times worse" than the philandering Dix. Tartt hasn't spoken to him in 20 years and her steely look tells you that she never intends to speak with him again.

Her family were "very bookish" and she got her love of writing from her grandmother, who read her Oliver Twist in instalments every day after school. Asa teenager, Tartt was determined to become a writer and published poetry in literary journals.

The Secret History has developed a cult following and is now engaging a generation of readers who were barely 10 years old when the book was first published. In the flurry of publicity around the book, much was made of the fact Tartt was in college with Brett Easton Ellis, chronicler of the X-generation. But while Ellis has since burned out, Tartt's star is still rising. The Little Friend has a broader sweep as a novel, with an omniscient narrator dipping in and out of the consciousnesses of its characters. The influence of Henry James, who neutrally chronicled the moral failings of his characters, is obvious. This is a novel intended to be a classic, rather than a literary event.

And that's the way Tartt wants it. She works hard to sell her book, but her life is far larger than writing. If she writes three more books she'll be happy. "If you want to know the truth, she loves shopping," confided a friend.

The Little Friend is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99