Donna Tartt

Laura Maw writes a tribute to one of her favourite authors, Donna Tartt, after visiting a series of events discussing the writers old and new works.

John Mullan, in conversation with Donna Tartt, describes the discussion of her first and most acclaimed novel, The Secret History, as like “a seminar but with George Eliot with us”. In two weeks in November I went to two events: Donna Tartt’s launch for her new book, The Goldfinch, in St James’ Church in Piccadilly and a talk about The Secret History, in Kensington. I tried to describe the ecstasy of being in the same room as a writer you admire to other people. Maybe it was English student syndrome, or academia’s emphasis on less contemporary texts, but I could only settle on: “This is amazing because most of my favourite authors are dead”.

Dressed impeccably in dark, sharply cut suits and ties (stripy red socks also make an appearance), with a precise bob of dark hair, Tartt somehow retains the aloof,  unapproachable enigma the media has created around her and yet in conversation becomes the opposite – she is friendly, witty, telling amusing stories of her family at Christmas and her conversations with her publishers.

Tartt recalls starting The Secret History – an intensely captivating narrative which follows an irresistible group of Classics students at an American university – at nineteen, as a student herself. Two books (The Little Friend and The Goldfinch) and two decades later, she has unknowingly created a deeply loyal readership. There was something almost sacred about The Goldfinch evening, sitting in the beautiful, ethereal St James’ Church, with its stained glass windows and wooden pews.

The setting couldn’t have been more fitting: Tartt’s The Secret History has created a cult, a devoted following. During the period of questions from the audience, a man reveals he attended the first launch of the book in 1992; standing in line for book signings, I see masses of people clutching their tattered, well-thumbed copies of her novels. Tartt’s reading of an excerpt of The Goldfinch in the church produced a divine silence, akin to the level of intense awe felt after witnessing something remarkable.

Tartt outlines her writing schedule: a minimum of three hours in the mornings, and describes herself as “a gambler – I won’t leave the table” if the writing flows naturally. Despite the reckless façade, however, this meticulous approach provides a high level of beautiful detail and flawlessly crafted characters – she compares this to experiencing a car crash and the way the mind fixates on minute detail in moments of trauma.

Excluding stream-of-consciousness diary ramblings, essay plans and hasty scribbles in notebooks on the tube, the general rule goes as follows: when writing creatively, I usually type. Whether this is a twenty-first century curse of being suffocated by the omnipresence of technology, the fact that my handwriting occasionally declines into the illegible, or for some unknown reason it almost feels too personal to write creatively by hand, I shall never know. But Tartt describes the unique way she places emphasis on hearing the voices of her characters and writes in various notebooks at length.
At one point Tartt recalls a particularly funny exchange with her publicists, in which they asked if she could help write the summary for the back cover of The Goldfinch – to which she replied, “I’m sorry, I really can’t help you.” There is an acknowledgement of the seductive complexity and richness of plot and character: these are difficult novels to summarise. As an artist uses a sketchbook, Tartt describes the way she composes the fragments of prose, research, phrases and thoughts from her notebooks into a novel, likening it to applying miniature brush strokes to a large canvas.

Before going to The Secret History talk in Kensington, I’d made a card, complete with lace ribbon, illustrations, and an essay outlining my various feelings for Henry Winter. I gave it to her as she signed my copy of The Goldfinch, and she looked at my handwritten envelope, saying, “I love the art deco writing of my name!” In Piccadilly, I remember Tartt explaining that the “fun of writing a novel is knowing your subconscious is throwing up the right stuff for you” – even if that includes messy handwritten scribbles. I don’t think I’ll ever worry about that again. Donna Tartt likes my handwriting.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was published on 22nd October.

Donna Tartt. Image from Hans G
Donna Tartt. Image: Hans G

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