Donna Tartt’s first book, “The Secret History”, published in 1992 when she was 28, took her eight years to write. Her second, “The Little Friend”, published in 2002, took ten — about the same amount of time she has taken to complete her new novel, “The Goldfinch”, which at 771 pages is her longest yet.
“I’m like an astronaut or something,” Tartt says. “I’m really, really out there for a very long time. It’s like a long sea voyage, or a polar expedition and then you come back to land and ...” She makes a whooshing noise of mad pandemonium and activity; her interpretation of having spent ten years nursing the book to completion and now having to cast it, and herself, into the world to face the ordeal of explaining it.
“So many people say to me, why don’t you write books faster? And I’ve tried to, just to see if I could. But working that way doesn’t come naturally to me. I would be miserable cranking out a book every three or four years. And if I’m not having fun writing it, people aren’t going to have fun reading it. I don’t want it to be just some little amusement-park ride. I mean, what’s the point of doing that?”
She has done the American tour for “The Goldfinch”, and travelled to Holland, and come to rest, for the moment at least, in the restaurant of a London hotel. There is something quite exquisite about Tartt. She is 49, petite — barely 5 feet tall — and very chic, dressed in black trousers, a black blouse, a silk scarf tightly tied at the neck, and a vividly embroidered Indian shawl draped over her shoulders. She has pale, flawless skin and pointed features, and her voice is high and breathy with the faintest hint of a Southern twang. She is whiplash smart, and there is something fiercely interrogatory in the way she fixes you with her pale green-grey eyes — eyes, as she puts it, “like a hawk”.
“The Goldfinch” begins in New York, with a 13-year-old boy, Theo Decker, and his mother stepping into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to get out of the rain. Walking around the gallery, Theo spies a young girl, Pippa, and his heart quickens. Then a terrorist bomb goes off. Theo’s mother is killed. He walks dazed from the wreckage carrying a gold ring, pressed into his hand by a dying stranger, and a painting that has been blown off the wall — “The Goldfinch”, by the 17th-century Dutch master Fabritius (a work which, in real life, is safe and sound at its home in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague).
The book follows Theo over the next ten years of his life, from the temporary sanctuary of a school-friend’s wealthy family on Park Avenue, to a drug-frazzled existence in the ghost suburbs of Las Vegas with his flaky, errant gambler father, to a life as a shady dealer in restored antique furniture, and a final climactic showdown in well, that would be giving too much away. Through it all, he clings to “The Goldfinch” — a memento of his mother’s death and a symbol of his own precarious existence, “the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate”.
Tartt says that one of the reasons she dislikes giving interviews is because the more she talks about her work “the more false it seems and the further away I get from the truth of it.
“When people ask you why you did this or that you’re sort of compelled to make up the reasons. But the real answer is, I don’t know why.” The best answer she can give is to cite Rudyard Kipling’s maxim: drift, wait, and obey.
In 2000 — two years before the publication of “The Little Friend” — the Taliban destroyed the monumental sixth-century Buddhist carvings at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. “That was the pre-shock before 9/11. And it was really, really disturbing to me.” It gave her the idea of writing something about terrorism and the destruction of art.
At the same time, she began to toy with the idea of a child obsessed with a painting. She specifically wanted a painting “that would appeal to a child — and there are not a lot that fit that bill”. Her first candidate was a Holbein painting, “small enough for a child to pick up and carry”. Then in 2003, on a visit to Amsterdam, she saw a copy of “The Goldfinch” in a house sale at Sotheby’s. Painted in 1654, the year of Fabritius’s death, on a piece of board about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, “The Goldfinch” is an arrestingly delicate image of a tiny bird, tethered to its perch by a chain.
“The the first time I saw it, I connected very strongly with it,” Tartt says. “This little bird, so brave and so dignified, and then you see that terrible little chain ...
“It’s in the Upanishads, I believe — a chained bird is used as the metaphor for the breath in the human body; it goes out, and then it always comes out to rest in the same place. Our body is the chained place, the place where we’re caught. Breath is spiritus in Latin. That being the paradox of humanity. We’re winged creatures on some level, but we’re also trapped. We can fly, but we can’t.”
She pauses. “Anyway” Tartt had already settled on the name of Theo Decker for her protagonist. It was only later that someone pointed out the correspondence of his initials and hers — DT and TD — and the fact that both names have same ten-letter sonorous cadence. And it was not until she had written the section about Theo salvaging “The Goldfinch” from the explosion at the Met that she learnt that shortly after completing the painting Fabritius himself had died in an explosion, at the gunpowder arsenal in Delft. At the time of the explosion he was painting the portrait of a church deacon. His name was Simon Decker.
“It was as if God had dropped this into my lap,” Tartt says. “I didn’t know Fabritius had died in the explosion. I didn’t know this painting had a history of disaster behind it. It all fit together in ways I could never have imagined. When coincidences like that start happening you know the muses are at your side.”
A thriller, a pilgrim’s progress, a love story, and a prolonged meditation on the redemptive power of art, “The Goldfinch” is a great pounding heartbeat of a book, with a vibrant cast of characters: the bewitchingly beautiful Pippa; the noble furniture restorer Hobie, a man with the “bedraggled aspect of an elegant but mistreated polar bear”; the delinquent Russian dopehead Boris, and a rackety chorus of art-scammers, gangsters and extortionists — that has had critics uniformly reaching for the adjective “Dickensian”. Is Tartt happy with that?
“Who would not be?” With all her books, she says, what she is striving for is an “immersive experience — the kind of book that you can absolutely lose yourself in; where you’re in a different world, your mother calls you, you don’t hear her — that kind of book”. In short, the kind of books that she loved as a child growing up in Mississippi, “a girl who loved books for boys” — Jules Verne, Ivanhoe, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Her father Don was a wild card — an erstwhile rockabilly musician turned politician; her mother, a Southern belle, who Tartt says was “not particularly interested” in small children. Tartt and her sister spent much of their childhood running in and out of the houses of elderly aunts and grandparents. Her parents eventually divorced; she has not spoken to her father in years.
At 13 she was publishing poetry in Mississippi literary journals, and winning every literary contest she entered. As a sorority member (“Kappa Kappa Gamma”) at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, in the “sunshine box” in which her fellow members would deposit messages of hope and joy — hello trees, hello sky — Tartt would throw literary grenades from Nietzsche and Sartre: “God is dead and we killed him” and “Hell is other people”. She left Ole Miss after a year and enrolled at Bennington, a liberal arts college in Vermont. It was here that she began writing “The Secret History”, an orchidaceous Gothic thriller about a mysterious death involving a cabal of precocious classics students, exalted by one critic as “‘Dead Poets Society’ meets ‘Lord of the Flies’, penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald paying homage to Joseph Conrad”.
In “The Goldfinch”, Theo talks of the finest thing in life being to “throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name”. Tartt’s holy rage, she says, is writing. “If I’m not working, I’m not happy. That’s it. That’s the prerequisite for me for happiness.”
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 ...”
Her deepest satisfaction is shaping a sentence — the right word, the seemly metaphor. She can happily move a comma around “for hours”. Her books may be big, but she describes herself as “a miniaturist — painting a wall-size mural with a brush the size of an eyelash; doing very tiny, very detailed work, but over a large space and over a long period of time. That’s why it takes so long”.
Her working method is Byzantine. She writes in longhand in large spiral-bound notebooks, adding thoughts and corrections in red, blue and then green pencil, and stapling index cards to them to keep track of plot and characters. When it all starts getting “too messy” she types the manuscript into the computer, then prints out the drafts on colour-coded paper.
“I can pick up the pink draft, and I know that’s the first one; or the grey draft, or the most recent one is the blue. So if I need something from an older draft I know where to find it. My French teacher, many years ago, told me this, and it actually works.”
On the wall of her office is a quote from Paul Valery: “Disorder is the condition of the mind’s fertility.” She laughs. “It’s very reassuring and very true.”
At one point, seven or eight years into the writing of “The Goldfinch”, she was struck by the terrible realisation that the subplot she had been working on for the previous eight months was redundant. She abandoned it.
Eight months! She laughs. “To a journalist that must sound horrible.” And what do you do when that happens? “I pull myself together and walk around rather briskly and think ...” It was, she admits, “a bad day, or two”. But what is a bad day or two over ten years?
The evening after we met she was giving a reading. And the next day another. In January she will be in France, then Germany, Italy, Scandinavia ...
In her mind, she has already started her next book. She can’t wait for the long sea voyage, the polar expedition, to get on with it.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013
By Donna Tartt,
Little, Brown, 784 pages, £20