An Evening with Donna Tartt

A week ago, Mr Litove and I swallowed our dinner in double quick time then rushed over to the Cambridge Union with our tickets for Donna Tartt. We were surprised to find it so sleepily uninhabited. When the official on the door disclaimed any knowledge of the event, Mr Litlove got our tickets out. ‘Yes, but look it says the Union is the venue,’ he pointed out. ‘And it also says the 13th,’ the official countered, ‘which is a week away.’

Ah.

Once we had stopped laughing and slapping our foreheads and so forth, we went home, waited a week and then tried again. It was a very different story this time, with queues of people stretching as far as the eye could see. Apparently the British like to queue, and it was admittedly a very good-natured crowd who stood about for almost three-quarters of an hour, waiting to be let into the union’s main room. Donna Tartt, it turned out, had been stuck in traffic. But we were very keen by then to be rewarded for our patience. I found myself unfairly hoping that she’d be worthwhile.

donna tarttDonna Tartt is tiny. She is in direct proportion to the hype around her, which is huge. I couldn’t believe it when this waifish child walked in, dressed in a neat black suit with a white shirt and tie, her hair in a slick bob. Her voice is high-pitched with a Southern accent that became more distinguishable as the evening wore on. And most interesting to me, she proved not to be a performer. She was often not terribly articulate, but instead she was genuine and direct. I’d been expecting a super-cool member of the literati, a tad pretentious but sharp and intelligent. I hadn’t been expecting her to be so… sweet.

And cagey. We were told from the start that there must be no photography, and reading up on her online afterwards, Mr Litlove found out that personal information is off-limits too. Details like whether she is married or not have never been released. I was impressed that she could talk about her latest novel, the 800-page super-chunkster, The Goldfinch, without letting slip anything much at all of its plot or themes. She talked instead about the creative process, which was intriguingly opaque for her. She described visiting Las Vegas about ‘three or four years’ into the writing of the novel and finding in the midst of its rampant artificiality an exhibition of genuine Impressionist paintings. The contrast must have been striking, and that moment gave her the answer to a question that she didn’t even know needed to be asked – but it moved the development of the novel on significantly. It was so interesting to me, this sense that a fiction writer might be so hazy about creativity, aware that certain events or sights had an impact, unable or unwilling to put that impact directly into words.

She was very clear, though, that she writes the kind of novels she wants to read herself, and the experience of being completely gripped by a story is the ‘only thing I care about’. She recounted an anecdote she’d read somewhere, of a dentist saying to a patient, you have to have root canal work done and I’m afraid there’s no anaesthetic available, but you can take in a book – which book would you like? That chosen book was the one Donna Tartt wanted to read, and the one she wanted to write. As a child she loved Peter Pan, Dickens was also a big influence, and she gestured towards him again when there was a question about genre. She was not particularly keen on the distinctions of genre, preferring books (and writing books) that crossed multiple divides.

A great deal was made of the fact that she has published three books in twenty years, and that this is considered to be slow. I actually felt a bit annoyed by the endless carping on about this. If you add all the pages of Donna Tartt’s novels together, they probably make up six or seven books on anyone else’s scale. And anyway, great art takes time, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. Tartt said, in response to a question about what she did when she got fed up of what she was writing, that big novels like hers were akin to big houses; there were always lots of jobs that needed doing, and if she was tired of one part, she could simply move onto another. Her own writing process was ‘very disorganised’. Apparently she drafts on different colours of paper, so that over the years she can distinguish between parts she wrote at different times, rather than losing herself in an ocean of white pages. And she clearly doesn’t write in order.

The courage a writer must have to trust to the organic gestation of a novel over a decade seems amazing to me. By the end of the evening, I had been completely won over by Donna Tartt, and felt that we had been in the presence of a special kind of artist. To take one’s time over creation, and to refuse public intrusion into one’s private life defies some of the basic commandments of the media-driven commercial world, and I am right behind that. Donna Tartt won’t let herself be exploited, even though she recognises the need to get out and meet her reading public. She was talking about the way that going on tour took her to new places and gave her unexpected experiences that often fed back into her writing – how many harried, tired, hassled authors promoting their books would have enough emotional energy to be inspired too? I haven’t read The Goldfinch yet, but I don’t doubt that Mr Litlove and I both will.

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48 thoughts on “An Evening with Donna Tartt

    • I confess, I’ve only read about the first 30 pages of The Secret History and found her to be a queasy sort of writer. But after that evening, I’m definitely going to try her again!

  1. There has been so much hype in the US about The Goldfinch that I have shied away from reading it so far. However, after reading about your experience with the author I am much more intrigued to read her work.

    • I’ll bet! There’s been a significant amount of it over here, so I shudder to think what the USA publishing arena is like. Like you, I tend to avoid the hyped books, but I do think she is a proper artist, and that will always make what she writes interesting.

  2. I really enjoyed The Secret History. Thanks for sharing your experience of the evening! And good point about how it’s ridiculous to call out Tartt for being “slow” in writing her books. I like the bit about the colored paper as well.

    • Then I would think you’d like this one – lots of people in the audience had read it and were very enthusiastic. Isn’t the coloured paper a good idea? I liked that too!

  3. I saw her in Philadelphia; it was absolutely wonderful. Very similar to your experience. I flew 900 miles to see her, and when I told her that (during the book signing), she looked amazed and put her hand out to shake mine. I got to chat with her for about 3 minutes, and the entire time she was looking me in the eye; very engaging, very direct and genuine. I got a nice, relatively lengthy inscription and left feeling wonderfully fortunate for the encounter.

    • Oh but Donna Tartt must have been just as delighted to meet you! That’s a wonderful tribute to her work that you paid, by travelling so far to see her. I’m so glad you got to have a proper talk with her, and some wonderful memories to take away.

  4. We did that week early thing for Michael Pollan, arranged an early dinner and where to meet–but we didn’t end up actually meeting there because someone clued us in that it was the following week.
    She sounds smart. I should read more of her books.

    • Ah, you were saved before committing yourselves to the trip! Thank you for the solidarity, though, it’s lovely to think we are in good company with our misreadings. :) I am definitely much keener to read Donna Tartt than I was before I saw her. She had charisma and personality.

  5. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into The Goldfinch. A friend has just finished it and can’t decide what to read next – she said no book she’s picked up since can come anywhere close to it. Lucky you to see her – she is intriguing, and it’s lovely to hear that she is genuine, and totally not a luvvie.

    • That’s it exactly – not a luvvie! Is that a term that crosses international borders, do you think? It ought to. I am delighted to know your friend enjoyed it so, and I feel for her – I’ve had that experience of wandering about missing the book I’ve just finished and not knowing what will come up to scratch!

  6. I recently watched an interview of her on TV, forgot with whom, but was impressed by her personality. Thanks for your detailed recount of your experience. Although I’m apprehensive about long works, and a very slow reader myself, I have an urge to find out more about her books. I saw The Goldfinch in the library yesterday but didn’t pick it up, probably I’ll go back and see if it’s still there. BTW, your description about an author not being too articulate in real person, that’s exactly Proust’s encounter with his literary idol Bergotte. (Reading through Within a Budding Grove right now ;) )

    • Arti, if you are deep in Proust then I think you should be excused all other chunksters for the time being! I am scared by books over 500 pages – my basic feeling is that no book requires more than 500 to tell its tale, and the excess is due to padding. But I’m hoping that Donna Tartt will prove to me why more is more. :)

  7. There’s a long story behind the fact that I have two copies of ‘The Goldfinch’ in the house at the moment, neither of which I can read because the book is too thick for my reading stand. (600 pages max) So, I’m going to have to download it onto my e-reader. The same is true of the Booker winner. My current plan is to wait until Christmas when I’ve got a week with no planning or book group reading to do and then bolt the doors and just curl up over them both.

    By the way, Jeffrey Eugenides is another writer who has almost a decade between novels and I don’t think his work is ever any the worse for it.

    • I have the Luminaries to read too! And like you, require more time, space and energy to commit to it, or The Goldfinch, than I have right now. But their time will come. I didn’t realise that about Jeffrey Eugenides. I wonder why no one berates him for tardiness? Poor old Donna Tartt, if it got mentioned once it got mentioned five or six times over the course of the evening, which felt like too much.

  8. I too will read it but I have been disappointed with the other two because they promised so so much and the end was less than I needed.
    The journey however was great.
    I would like to hear her talk. Lucky you two.

    • Ah, interesting. I think she may well be a journey novelist, rather than a take-home novelist. It sounded like she was on quite a tour of the UK, so she may come to a venue near you, and will definitely be appearing in London. I’m glad we made the trip, even if we did make it twice….

  9. She sounds very interesting and ohhhhh I am so so jealous of your evening out.

    The Goldfinch was a good book on the radio, as the gripping plot made it excellent radio material. However reading the Amazon reviews I am aware that I have missed out on the power of the finer details in her writing.

    Thank you for bringing us such highlights of Donna Tartt’s sell out tour!

    • Ah, Mr Litlove listened to some of it on the radio! He said it was good and made him want to hear more. I presume that it would be an abridged version that was read – unless Radio 4 gave over a couple of days of its programming to Donna Tartt? :) She mentioned Dickens a fair bit while talking, and so I got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that he was a model and a big influence on her, and Dickens is all about the detail.

    • Yes, I thought so too. It’s a bit rich coming from someone trying to write a biographical project, but I still don’t think we need to know every detail of every person in the public eye. Just so long as they keep plenty of archives!

  10. It does seem amazing to trust yourself enough to devote a full decade to one work. She must know, somehow, that the book will end up working — or does she? Wouldn’t it be awful to get into year eight and realize your plot has huge, unfixable holes in it? Anyway, it sounds like a very interesting evening. I haven’t decided if I want to read her new one or not. I enjoyed The Secret History, but didn’t fall in love, and I’m not sure I want to pick up another big book of hers. We’ll see.

    • I work in a totally different field, particle physics. In 32 years I have worked on only 3 experiments. My current experiment I joined in 1995 and our first experimental results were obtained in 2011. Why should it be so different for authors (other than the cash flow problem of course!!)?

    • Rebecca, that’s what I think! Knowing my luck, I would be BOUND to be eight years in before I realised it was a bust. I also think it’s tougher deciding whether or not to chance an author when the prospect before you is over 500 pages long. I certainly feel much keener to read her now than I did before, in fact, without seeing her, I doubt very much I would even have considered her novel. We’ll see how it turns out!

      Dark Puss, heh , you make an excellent point. Scientists are clearly used to being much more patient than those of us in the arts!

  11. I’m glad she was good — it’s interesting the things that strike one about an author, isn’t it? I don’t remember her having a Southern accent at all, not because long custom makes it impossible for me to hear a Southern accent (it doesn’t), but just because I suppose a Southern accent would have seemed like a very normal thing for her to have, as I was seeing her in New Orleans.

    I like that anecdote about the dentist. That is a perfect thing to aim for. I might very well take The Secret History in with me, if it were me, and if I were in the middle of it — it takes a bit to get going properly, but once they’re resolved on killing Bunny it’s un-put-downable.

    • She really didn’t have much of an accent at all to begin with. It just so happened there was someone from Mississippi in the audience, and when they got chatting, it came out more and stayed out for the remainder of the evening. The anecdote about the dentist certainly hit a nerve for me! If I have to have more dental work done then perhaps I should give her a go on audio book….. I would fall down and worship anything that properly took my mind off the experience! :)

  12. Thank you for sharing your experience with Donna Tartt, she sounds as intriguing as her books…I am about to listen to The Goldfinch as an audio book.

    How admirable that she can engage with her readers while maintaining privacy and integrity.

    • Harriet has been listening to it and in her comment above is enjoying it very much. I think audio may be an excellent way to experience her writing. And yes, I couldn’t agree more – privacy and integrity are important things, and not to be removed from anyone lightly.

  13. I’m amazed she manages to withold all information on her private life. I would have thought that would be nearly impossible.
    It’a admirable that she takes her time to write her novels. I’ve only read the first and found it amazing. I’m sure there are brilliant writers who write very quickly. I think key is not to force yourself, to write at your own pace.

    • She’s done very well, but apparently before she became really well known, she wrote a memoir piece for Harper’s Bazaar about her extraordinary childhood. So there is some information out there, only the years do bury it online. In reading up on writers, it seems to me that some do write quickly, but they then have long periods leading up to composition. I think that gestation of an idea might always require some time, if that idea is going to emerge fully imagined on the page.

  14. What a wonderful evening! So funny that you and Mr. Litlove turned up for it a week early! What a fascinating tidbit that she writes each draft on a different color of paper. I never would think of doing something like that. Good on her for sticking to her own timeline for writing and not giving in to pressure to pump out books.

    • We were all struck by the different coloured pages – you could FEEL the whole room thinking about that once she’d said it! And I agree, the pressure to pump out books as you so excellently say it, is far too prevalent. I don’t think much good comes of it!

  15. This is the second Donna Tartt encounter I have read today! A friend on goodreads also noted how gracious she was when he went to a book signing.. I have read both the Secret History and The Little Friend and liked them both. I have a copy of the Goldfinch and look forward to reading it over the Christmas break.

    • Ha how about that! She did come across as a charismatic and admirable person. I’d love to know what you think of The Goldfinch! I doubt I’ll be reading it myself until Christmas or thereabouts. You have to set time aside for that sort of book (ie a huge one!).

  16. Pingback: The Secret History by Donna Tartt | Jorrie Spencer

  17. Fabulous article, me now happy I am for you that you were able to see this most wonderful authors. Eventually. ;)

    I have read The Secret History many, many times, and am just now finishing The Goldfinch. Her novels are so powerful to me I wonder how I’ll write about them on my silly blog. (I never have found the courage to write of The Secret History.) I can clearly see a Dickens’ influence in The Goldfinch, and there is a commonality between the two books of hers I’ve read about the bleakness of Christmas. The disappointment of friendships. The loneliness in living. It all sounds terribly depressing, and yet her books are endlessly fascinating to me. They’re so multi-layered.

  18. I’d love to have seen Donna Tartt. I tried to get tickets for the UK tour but they were sold out. I’ve just read The Goldfinch and now I understand why she has such a cult following.

  19. Pingback: The Goldfinch | Care's Online Book Club

  20. Dear All,
    The London Telegraph did an interview with Ms. Tartt –http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10505597/Donna-Tartt-If-Im-not-working-Im-not-happy.html

    which says:

    ‘She is unmarried. “My idea of hell is a crowded and oppressive domestic life. Some people love that. It’s absolutely my worst nightmare.” When I ask what I should write about her personal life, she laughs. “As little as possible…” ‘

    I read the book a few days ago; I am spoiled for any new fiction just now.

  21. I so enjoyed reading about your experience, both in and of itself, but also comparing it to the event I saw with her in Toronto in November; it’s interesting that some different aspects of process and presentation seem to emerge depending on audience and interviewer, although I’m sure there was a lot of overlap as well. (My thoughts on the event are here, if you’re curious.)

    Like you and Mr Litlove, when I attended, I had not read the book, and I was reluctant to do so immediately afterward, but when I picked it up again a few weeks later, I was immediately and powerfully swept away. Sooo wonderful.

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