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.’
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 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.