Donna Tartt has written three books in her thirty-year writing career—each intricate, fascinating, and hugely different from one another. She broke out in 1992 with her debut The Secret History, a tale of ritual, murder, and intrigue among an insular, intense group of college students at a small college in Vermont. She followed this almost a decade later with The Little Friend, a divisive tale of childhood and revenge which asked more questions than it answered. Her third novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and is now being adapted for the big screen. Tartt is without question one of my favorite authors. Her style is enough to intrigue anyone, but she herself is also intriguing, and, for someone so famed and enormously well-respected, we know very little about her.
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1. She memorized insane amounts of poetry as a small child.
Donna Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1963, and grew up in a literary home which featured, along with her book-loving parents, several eccentric aunts and cats. As a child, Tartt would memorize long poems, starting with A.A. Milne, “then I went through a Kipling phase. I could say ‘Gunga Din’ for you. Then I went into sort of a Shakespeare phase, when I was about in sixth grade. In high school, I loved loved loved Edgar Allan Poe. Still love him. I could say ‘Annabel Lee’ for you now. I used to know even some of the shorter stories by heart. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’—I used to be able to say that.” Tartt stated that she began composing her own poetry at the age of eight, and had her first poem published at thirteen.
2. She didn’t quite fit in at cheerleading camp.
Once, at cheerleading camp, which took place in a sorority house, Tartt filled the Sunshine Box “—which her fellow Kappas would fill with sayings on scraps of paper, epigrams dear to their hopeful hearts, apothegms of uplift, treasured most about life and lemons and lemonade—with vile sayings by Nietzsche and Sartre. ‘God is dead. . . . And we have killed him’ and ‘Hell is other people.'” The other girls knew it was her and demanded she confess. But she refused.
3. Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and Peter Pan make their way into all of her books.
At thirteen, she read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which, she says, has made its way into all of her books, as has Peter Pan. “There’s something of Peter Pan in every single thing I’ve written. It’s there in everything, very, very deeply. Peter Pan was the first book I loved that I read to myself. It was a drug, an altered state of consciousness. You weren’t at your school. You were really somewhere else.”
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4. Charles Dickens is her favorite writer.
Charles Dickens was her first love. She told the Irish Independent that “Oliver Twist was the first book I read with real blood and death in it. I would worry about Oliver all day at school.” She still cites Dickens as her favorite author and the one who inspired the complex plots of her own works. On Dickens’ influence in The Goldfinch, she commented “Theo’s setup is Dickensian. I love Dickens a lot and just kind of internalize him.”
5. She maybe dated Bret Easton Ellis.
She started out attending the University of Mississippi. Barry Hannah, who admitted her to his graduate course on the short story when she was just eighteen, said, “she was deeply literary. Just a rare genius, really. A literary star.” Tartt later transferred to Bennington College, Vermont in 1982, where she befriended fellow student Bret Easton Ellis, with whom it is thought she had a relationship while they worked on their respective novels The Secret History and Less Than Zero.
6. Apects of her first novel closely mirror her time at Bennington.
While at Bennington, at age nineteen, Tartt began writing The Secret History, whose location and characters mirrored closely small, liberal arts college Bennington and the students Tartt knew there. Tartt was a member of a select class of students who were taught Greek literature by famed professor Claude Fredericks. Her first novel follows a group of insular, alluring classics students taught by an eccentric professor Julian Morrow, who have murdered one of their own. She told Salon, “I went to a very small, very insular college. I think that’s just how the world naturally arranges itself around me. Even when I come to the biggest cities in the world, everything is a series of small rooms.”
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7. She dresses extremely well.
She has impeccable personal style, for which she is famous. During her rare public appearances, Tartt usually wears tailored suits, colored cravats and and has her hair cut in a sharp, distictive bob. She always pays close attention to what her characters wear, meticulously describing their clothing.
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8. Her writing process is intense.
Her writing process is long and intricate. She writes all the time, “like a pianist with scales or an artist with a sketch book,” and takes up to ten years per novel, writing first by hand, “making notes in red and blue pencil, stapling note cards to the pages and when the notebooks start to fall apart she prints out drafts, and each new draft is printed on a corresponding shade of paper.” She first got the idea for The Goldfinch when she saw Fabritius’s painting in Holland while on tour for The Secret History. The painting was hung above her eyeline, compelling her to “gaze up, yearningly.”
9. On her alleged reclusiveness, Tartt told The Irish Independent:
[Book tours are] just distracting. It’s better for me to be at home and getting on with my work than standing up and talking about a book. It’s very counterproductive. I’d go mad if I had to go on a book tour every two years. I’d go completely berserk. I can just about handle it once every decade… Just because you don’t go to a lot of literary galas and things doesn’t make you reclusive…Joan Didion writes a beautiful essay about Howard Hughes who was a lonely recluse but also a kind of weird American hero who built the whole city of Las Vegas and Joan Didion said, ‘he’s the last private man, the dream we no longer admit’.
10. Her answering machine message is T.S. Eliot, reading from “The Waste Land.”
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.”
Tartt with her pug, Pongo. | Image Via Pinterest
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