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Donna Tartt: A Profile

MONDAY 28th October 2002
"If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality, I'd be happy. But I don't think I'd have any fans."

Decade of Silence

Thus Donna Tartt explains the decade of silence since her debut novel, The Secret History, made her the international literary sensation of 1992.

Until the recent publication of her second book, Tartt has endured rumours of writer's block and nervous hermit-hood. But now that The Little Friend is safely in the bag, she says calmly, "it just took a while to write."

Trying to meet readers' high expectations after History was never going to be easy, but Tartt wasn't intimidated by the search for a new idea. She said at the time, "I have my life to resort to."

Mississippi childhood

For The Little Friend, its author has dug deep into her southern background. Raised among the antebellum mansions of Grenada, Mississippi, Tartt experienced the shabby gentility of a changing south. Her extended family members were the stuff of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner and, for Tartt, "books were the great escape".

Fixated by Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter Pan, young Donna was taken on her own imaginative odyssey by her grandfather. A believer in the power of medicine, he fed his granddaughter codeine cough syrup, and much of her childhood was a "languorous undersea existence".

A less dubious family contribution was a love of Dickens and Kipling, and Tartt's own storytelling talents were later nurtured at college. Her professor told her she was a genius and, even among classmates such as Bret Easton Ellis, the chain-smoking, Neitszsche-sprouting Tartt cut a dash.

Professional houseguest

While fellow graduates sought conventional employment, Tartt became a "professional houseguest" who started writing The Secret History. Nine years later, the classical cleverness and adolescent angst of her murderous aesthetes sold millions and meant the author need never again pick up her pen.

But despite being translated into 23 languages, Tartt remains "a writer, not a TV personality", whose job it is to "dive deep". Now aged 38, the gamine-featured, pint-sized perfectionist is unfazed by the transitory nature of celebrity, concentrating instead on "the five books I have in me".

Of her own style, Tartt remains vague, following Kipling's instructions only to "drift, wait and obey".

Her continuing royalties have afforded her as much time to drift and wait as she needs to produce another opus. Her army of fans may be champing at the bit for more of her work but Donna Tartt remains a defiantly bookish character, "moving a comma round very happily for hours".