DONNA Tartt is a little late. But that’s okay. Like the rest of the reading public, I have grown used to waiting for her. We have, after all, waited ten years for her to follow up her first novel The Secret History, a book which really ought to come packaged with an index of breathless reviews (”Tartt has a real shot at becoming her generation’s Edgar Allan Poe”) and matchless statistics (millions of copies sold, translated into 23 languages).
As with those other noted debuts Catch-22 and The Catcher In The Rye, it was the sort of success tsunami which can leave a writer shipwrecked on the desert island of their own imagination, cast away with neither inspiration nor hope of return to more fertile shores. Certainly, she was unprepared for the sudden rise, the ”shark tank” of wealth and fame, and the pressure to come up with a second book which would match the phenomenon of the first. To quote Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, one of Tartt’s favourite bands, what exactly do you do for an encore?
The answer is The Little Friend, Tartt’s new novel set in the Mississippi of her birth. It opens in 1964, the year she was born, with the mysterious murder of nine-year-old Robin Cleves Dufresnes, strangled and strung up from a tupelo tree. Years later, with the Cleves stagnant and becalmed by the death, Robin’s baby sister Harriet, now 12, sets out to find his killer, a quest that has its own tragic trajectory.
At 555 pages, The Little Friend is shorter than The Secret History but bigger in every other sense. Technically ambitious, the viewpoint shifts between a number of characters including two children and a redneck in the grip of amphetamine psychosis. Tartt creates a world within its pages, offering up the town of Alexandria in what the movies used to call glorious Technicolor. ”I remember everything about growing up,” she says, and it shows in her novel’s lush descriptiveness.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why this book has taken a decade to write (”Perfectionism is good,” she insists), but Tartt disciples have had their faith tested over the years, seizing on the occasional short story or book review as if they were holy relics, splinters of the One True Cross.
The media in particular abhors a vacuum, and Tartt’s prolonged absence has been filled with apocrypha. She had bought an island off Tahiti and was living as a recluse; she was living on a plantation in Virginia with sheep, goats and a very young boyfriend; she accidentally deleted an entire novel from her computer; she didn’t even write The Secret History, it was Bret Easton Ellis in disguise; she was blocked, she was ill, she was dead.
Yet here she is, part Lazarus, part Lolita, all in black. Five feet tall and 38 years old: Donna Louise Tartt, the word made flesh.
She is a born storyteller and within seconds of our meeting in the London office of her publisher, having established that I’m Scottish, launches into a tale. ”My great-grandmother, who I was very close to, who was, you know, just the great love of my life, she died when I was quite young. I suppose it happens when someone dies in your childhood, they remain the untarnished love of your life. She still remains completely beautiful in my mind. She was wonderful, and her father was Scottish. His last name was Kimbrough. When I was a little girl she used to recite Burns poems in dialect. And just the songs she would sing to me.”
Leaning forward, she closes her eyes and sings quietly: ”The bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.”
With her Delta drawl clipped by schooling to a precision RP, Tartt reminds me very much of Clarice Starling from Silence Of The Lambs. And she is extremely pale. If this were an opera instead of an interview she would die of consumption before the end.
The love of Scotland is genuine, by the way. She isn’t just playing to the gallery. She talks about Robert Louis Stevenson like Luke Skywalker talks about Yoda, at one point even referring to him as ”my master”. She would, she says, die for Stevenson, and kept a picture of him on the wall the whole time she was writing The Little Friend.
”There’s a great calling out across time from writer to writer, and Stevenson was definitely someone who called out to me,” she explains. ”There are writers I love and admire but one doesn’t feel as emotionally connected with them as I do with Stevenson.
”It’s a personal connection, and probably has mostly to do with the fact that I read him when I was so young, and it has to do with the fact that I was read him by beloved people, who had read him themselves when they were children, who loved him as much as I did.
”You know, when I was read Treasure Island, it was the copy my grandmother had received when she was 12 years old. And it said: Happy birthday, Louise, 1925.”
So great was her love for Stevenson that she used to press-gang the neighbourhood kids into dramatising passages from Kidnapped. ”I used to try to,” she says, ”but I didn’t know other children who read, really. Most of the other children I knew watched television, and reading was something that happened inside my family.
”I could be a very bossy little girl, and instead of playing tag or something like that, I used to stage manage everybody into this game, which was Kidnapped. No one else realised what it was, but we all had a good time. The storming of the round-house, you know that scene? I was ritually acting the book out in some way, which is funny to think about.”
And did she play the fiery Jacobite Alan Breck? ”You know, I played everybody.”
Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and raised in nearby Grenada. Like all Southern towns of any size, Grenada has its old families, folks who have been there through the centuries. The Boushe family is one such clan, and although it can lay claim to generations of worthy citizens and local dignitaries, Donna Tartt is the only internationally famous scion.
In The Little Friend, the Cleve family are so in love with their own history that they turn it, by repetition, into a stylised epic more real than the events themselves. This storytelling impulse, a mania for converting prosaic realities into tall tales, is familiar to Tartt from her own upbringing.
”I’m struck sometimes,” she says, ”that there are some families where stories are not told, and people are very surprised to learn things about their grandparents. Thing are not really talked about.
”But the American South is really a storytelling culture. And it’s a culture of oral storytelling. It’s just extraordinary. Anywhere you go you hear a story. If you go to a gas station and are paying for your gas, the guy taking your money will be going, ‘I tell ya, the most amazing thing happened in here yes-ter-day.’ And then this most amazing story about a robbery or someone falling down in an epileptic fit will unfold.
”People in the South just love to talk,” she laughs, ”and they will talk to anyone.”
We talk a little about the Boushe family (which is her mother, Taylor’s side. The Tartt name comes from her father, Don.) I ask whether she has ever heard the old song Judge Boushe Blues by seminal bluesman – and Greentown native – Furry Lewis, and whether it is about one of her relations.
”God, I don’t know,” she says, startled. ”I never heard that before. Wooo! Well, Jeez, I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”
Wasn’t her great-grandfather a judge? ”No, he wasn’t a judge. He was actually in the Mississippi Legislature, and he was a farmer. He had a brother who was a judge, who died before I was born. I know Furry Lewis, I don’t know that song though.”
Weirdly, you can buy it on a Sun Records compilation called The Secret History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
“Oh, how funny, how funny, how funny, how funny! What is the song about? What are his blues about? Was Judge Boushe mean to him?”
I explain that it’s about being falsely imprisoned for murder. ”Well, this is something I do know. My great-great-grandfather, his father was a lawyer. And he was apparently, from what I hear, the first white man to convict a white man of killing a black man in Mississippi.”
Race is a significant element in The Little Friend, a niggling splinter just beneath the surface of things. Growing up around the time of the Civil Rights movement, Tartt was four when Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, and remembers it well. That and buildings with separate entrances for ”White” and ”Colored”.
She loves talking about her early life. In fact, I’d go so far as to say she is obsessed with childhood and has a real horror of ageing. However, she can also be quite guarded and the portcullis bangs down quickly enough if she thinks she has revealed too much.
A case in point is a piece she wrote in 1992 called A Southern Gothic Childhood, With Codeine. Originally published by Harper’s magazine as a memoir, it later turned up in The Penguin Book of New American Voices renamed Sleepytown and rebranded as fiction.
When I start to ask about this, Tartt, quite narked, cuts in. ”That is a short story. It is a short story. It’s a short story. I was very upset when it appeared in Harper’s with the designation ‘memoir’. It’s a short story. It’s a short story.”
So it’s largely untrue then? Typically, she shields herself from this straight question with a literary reference, directing me to the similarities between the short story collection Nabokov’s Dozen and his autobiography Speak, Memory. ”If you are reading his autobiography you see very clear elements of these stories of Russian childhood,” she concludes. ”But, you know, he chooses to call them stories. And Sleepytown is a story. I’m glad you asked me that. I’m glad to clear that up.”
Still, it seems to me that whichever way you cut it, Sleepytown is heavily autobiographical. And that makes it the Rosetta Stone for Tarttologists. The narrator is a woman recalling her childhood. When she was born she was so small that she had to be dressed in doll’s clothes. At five, she developed tonsillitis and spent a good deal of the next two years in bed, heavily sedated by hot toddies and ”massive doses” of codeine cough syrup, prescribed and administered by her great-grandfather who managed to convince both her and himself that she was going to die before too long.
Between the fever and the whisky and the codeine, writes Tartt, ”I spent nearly two years of my childhood submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness,” dreaming of Peter Pan and Jesus, Neverland and Heaven.
This narcotised childhood chimes with what we know of Tartt’s own life. Two days out of every five, she would come home sick from school and go to bed with a book. And she is at her best as a writer when ”dreamy, almost sleepy”.
Plot developments and solutions to problems in her books sometimes come to her in dreams, although she has never dreamed up an entire novel as her beloved Stevenson did with Jekyll and Hyde. ”No, I’ve never had a classic of world literature come to me in a dream,” she laughs.
Tartt attended Miss Doty’s Kindergarten For Girls where, at the graduation ceremony, she announced her intention to become an archaeologist. She had a taste for boy’s-own adventure. Her heroes were Harry Houdini and Robert Scott. Female role models were thinner on the ground, though the androgynous Joan of Arc was certainly one.
Religion too went into the mix, and Tartt remains a practising Roman Catholic. ”When I was a child, we were made to memorise huge portions of Bible verses every day,” she says. ”I don’t think you could get first graders to do that now. In first grade you are six years old, and I was five; I started school early. Our teacher gave us a new Bible verse every day, and the first thing we had to do in the morning was stand up and recite what we had learned the night before.
”It was from the King James Bible, and we had no idea what we were saying. Some of them were very long and complicated, but the rhythm of the King James Bible is not just in written speech in the South, it’s just in speech. It’s in the way people talk, the way they construct their sentences.”
At five, Tartt wrote her first poem. Eight years later, she was published for the first time, by a local literary journal. Does she remember what that felt like?
”A-mazing! Amazing. The first thing I had in print was a poem. I was so proud. Actually I showed it to my English teacher, I was so proud. Because it’s not the sort of thing you want to show your friends. It’s a little bit uncool. It was a sonnet. Yeah, I showed it to my mother, and I showed it to my English teacher. And she had the school make an announcement over the public announcement system. As we were sitting in the classroom, the Principal was going: ‘We have a published poet in our school.’
”But it was actually very funny because boys who would never talk to me before were going ‘You published something? They printed something you wrote? What was it?’ They were interested. It was interesting because it was so strange. Like one of us being on television or throwing out the leading ball in a Major League game or just some strange fact.”
She’s not uncomfortable feeling weird. At Mississippi University, affectionately known as Ole Miss, she revelled in it. ”If you didn’t dress up like Scarlett O’Hara to go to biology class, you were a total oddball,” she told Vanity Fair. Instead, she sat around in the rain, reading Ezra Pound, blissfully happy, her body in 1981, her head and heart in 1948.
She sent some short stories to the local paper. A journalist passed them on to Willie Morris, an influential member of the literati and writer-in-residence at Ole Miss. He tracked her down at the bar of the Holiday Inn. ”Are you Donna Tartt?” Yes, she was. ”My name is Willie Morris, and I think you’re a genius.”
Morris persuaded Barry Hannah to admit Tartt, a freshman, to his graduate short-story course. She was way ahead of the older students and soon transferred to Bennington, a small college in Vermont with a literary pedigree (WH Auden and Bernard Malamud taught there). For the first time outside the confines of her own family, she fitted in. She made friends with fellow student Bret Ellis, then unpublished and sans the Easton, and started what would become The Secret History. Nine years later it did. Publishing history was made, and the rest was silence.
The silence was broken on September 15 this year when The Little Friend was published in Holland six weeks ahead of the rest of the world. Tartt is essentially a pop star there. In 1992, the Dutch bought 800,000 copies of The Secret History; that’s one in every 20 people. The excitement surrounding Tartt’s visit to Amsterdam in September was unprecedented for a writer. She still can’t believe it. ”It was amazing! It was wonderful. Gosh! It was extraordinary.
”I’d be walking down the street and people would pop out in front of me and take my picture. College kids running out of pubs and shaking my hand. People coming up and giving me flowers. I was standing by a canal having my picture made by a photographer, and the people on the canal boat waved and yelled ‘Donna! Waaaah!”’
Her photograph, blown billboard size, was ubiquitous. ”I was driving into Amsterdam from the airport, tired and a bit jetlagged, and I saw this face and thought ‘Who’s that? She looks kind of familiar.’ Then ‘That’s me! That’s me!’ I mean, Go-lly. It was really something.” She sniggers. “It was actually like that picture of Ozzy Osbourne I’m seeing right now all over London.”
When Tartt laughs she leans back, shaking, nose in the air, hands crossed and held out in front of her, overlapping front teeth on display. She looks like a character from Wind In The Willows, hugely amused that Mr Toad has fallen in the river. One thinks of Harriet in The Little Friend: ”like a small badger, with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short, a thin, determined little mouth”.
We should cherish these glimpses of her as it won’t be long before she goes to ground again, squirrelling away in her Manhattan apartment or the Virginia bolt-hole she shares with two pugs and a Boston terrier. The Secret History took nine years to write, The Little Friend ten. Tartt reckons she has another three novels in her, so anyone who expects another this side of 2010 should probably lay off the codeine.
What we can look forward to is a novella, due to be published by Canongate in late 2004, in which she will retell the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus in a contemporary setting. Tartt says that she was ”like a kid in a candy store” and could have chosen any myth, but it’s tempting to seek personal resonance in her selection, and to wonder which of Daedalus or Icarus she most identifies with. The creative genius trapped in a labyrinth of his own creation, or the prodigy flying too high too soon?