Spotlight on: Donna Tartt

I fell in love with Donna Tartt’s writing when I read The Goldfinch. For some reason, it took me a year or so to get to The Secret History, her first book. The book she wrote between the two, The Little Friend, is next on my list. She writes the kind of books I dream of writing–epic stories with amazing detail and stunning character development. Frankly, I don’t know if I have the patience to write the way she does. It doesn’t surprise me that there are years between her books. The care shows in each of her paragraphs. I feel very immature in comparison, rushing to get my thoughts out there before they are ready. I wanted to know a bit more about her process, so I explored the Internet for some gems of insight.

donna tartt

On writing long books:
“I never want it to be really long! I always think, “I want this to be really short,” but it never happens that way.” (Source)

“I enjoy the process of writing a big long novel. Melville came up with the best metaphor for it: a deep-sea dive. “I love all men who dive,” he says. “Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don’t attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plummet that will.” He’s talking here not about Moby Dick, as you might think, but about writers—about “thought-divers,” as he calls them, “the whole corps that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.

Anyway, it gets into one’s blood, this long lonely way of writing, like a long sea-voyage. Men used to come back from three-year whaling voyages sunburnt and emaciated and vowing never to go on another one, yet something would draw them back to the water again. And it’s the same with me. I’ve written only two novels, but they’re both long ones, and they each took a decade to write. It’s a slow, quiet, gorgeous drift, with its own pleasures and difficulties and dangers, completely removed from whatever storms are going on up on the surface, and there’s a slight sense of decompression when I come back up and into the regular old noisy world again. So I’m rather anxious to get back to work on something else. Not preliminary dives—not the little shallow ones, where you’re only getting ready—but the kind where you don’t come up again for years.” (Source)

On the time between books:
“There’s an expectation these days that novels—like any other consumer product—should be made on a production line, with one dropping from the conveyor belt every couple of years. But it’s for every writer to decide his own pace, and the pace varies with the writer and the work.” (Source)

“When I was young, I was deeply struck by a piece of advice that John Gardner gave to beginning writers: “Write as if you have all eternity,” he says. This is the last thing a publisher or an agent or an accountant would tell you, but it’s the best advice in the world if you want to write beautiful, well-made books. And that’s what I want to do. I’d rather write one good book than ten mediocre ones.” (Source)

On themes in her work:
“Almost never, in writing a novel, do I find myself thinking about themes or symbols or things of that nature. They either occur naturally within a story—which is to say, spontaneously and unconsciously, as they do in a dream—or else they seem a bit forced.” (Source)

On the mess of starting a new novel:
“You don’t know what you’re doing for a long time. It seems like a huge mess because it is a huge mess. If you looked at the notes from early on in the writing of this book, you’d think, “This person is crazy. This could never be a novel.” That’s how all my books have felt when I started writing them. Trying to explain them to people was like trying to explain a dream.” (Source)

On where she writes:
“I write by hand, in notebooks, so my work is very portable. I have an office, which is tiny and crowded–I seem to work better in small rooms–but I’m also happy working in a hotel room or a carrel in the library. And sometimes if I’m feeling particularly beleaguered or fretful I’ll write in bed. Great storms of paper everywhere.

The one place I don’t like to work is outdoors. And, even on beautiful days, I keep the windows shut, as I live in terror of the gust of wind that will send my papers flying all over the room.” (Source)

On the tools of her writing process:
“For actual composition: I write by hand, with ball point pen, in college-ruled spiral notebooks, the kind that children use for school. In the fall when the school supplies are in the store, I’ll tend to buy lots of them so I can get just the kind I want: silly patterns and colors are, for me, an important aide memoire, a mental filing system. When I was finishing Goldfinch, I had a series of notebooks that had covers from Beatles albums, and when I was looking for something, it was easier for me to think: “Oh, I wrote that in the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ notebook” or “I wrote that in the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ notebook” rather than “I wrote that in the blue notebook.”

Anyway, that’s how I write: by hand, in notebooks. By the end of this book, I had stacks of them. And then, I’ll often go and write over that draft in colored pencil (colored, so that the revisions stand out.) When the notebook starts getting too tangled-up to read, I’ll type it up into a computer–I print out my drafts on different colors of paper, because with a long book, the paper tends to pile up, and it’s easier to keep different versions straight that way. You’re reaching for the pink draft, or the blue draft, or the gray draft, instead of being lost amidst stacks of white paper and not knowing what’s what.”(Source)

On what she eats and drinks when writing:
“Coffee makes me too anxious and vigilant—I get most of my best work done when I’m in a more relaxed state of mind. So I drink tea when I’m writing. But I don’t drink a lot of it: a cup of Assam or strong Scottish Breakfast when I go to my desk in the morning and then, mid-afternoon, if I’m still at my desk, a cup of something perfume-y to cheer me up, like rose or jasmine. As for food: if my work’s not going well I’ll keep drifting into the kitchen and prowling for something to eat, but when I’m really working hard all I want are little things to nibble on–an apple, a handful of almonds, a peach. If someone brings me something I’ll eat it happily, but I’m generally too distracted to go hunt it down myself. And then at some point I look up and realize: I’m starving!” (Source)

On her reading habits:
“I read a lot while I’m writing. If I’m feeling dull or uninspired, I’ll often reach for a book of poetry:  often an anthology of British and American poets of the 20th century that I’ve had since high school and am superstitious about. At night, I like to read something completely different from what I’m working on, to get my mind off my work–Ivy Compton-Burnet is always bracing and fresh, and so is P.G. Wodehouse.” (Source)

On how she keeps writing:
“Sleep is always helpful for me. If I can manage to take a nap in the afternoon, just the right kind of nap, I’m often good for another three or four hours of work before dinner. A walk about three in the afternoon is also helpful.”

On being antisocial:
“I try to avoid social engagements. It’s hard for me to socialize or see people while I’m working. I sleep irregular hours and eat irregular hours and don’t like to be interrupted to go have dinner with someone if my writing is going well. Sometimes even knowing that I have a dinner engagement in the evening will keep me from working well during the day. I DO have a number of exuberant email correspondents though–writing letters to people at the end of the day is often my way of winding down from a day of work.” (Source)

On her favorite childhood book:
“The first book I really fell hard for was “Peter Pan.” There’s something of “Peter Pan” in every single thing I’ve written. It’s there in everything, very, very deeply. I also loved “The Wind in the Willows.” My mother read that aloud to me. “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.”(Source)

On the distractions of technology:
“Since finishing the book I’ve been thrown into having to check my cellphone more than five times a day. I used to check it once a week. I’d leave it up in a corner of the house, because that’s the only place where there’s cellphone reception. Now it’s very different. Obviously I can’t do that right now or people from Little, Brown would come and break down my door.” (Source)

On writing male main characters:
“I had a fairly well-known editor tell me that “The Secret History” would never be published because no successful book by a woman had ever been written from the point of view of a man, and that I would have to change it to a female narrator. But that novel would never have worked with a female narrator because then you would inevitably have the question of whether she was attracted to some of the male characters … it would just never work. It would have been a different book. It could only work if no question of attraction came into it.” (Source)

On the kinds of books she strives to write:
“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.” (Source)

Fun facts:

  • Tartt was born in Mississippi
  • At Bennington College in the early 1990s, she befriended Bret Easton Ellis, Jill Eisenstadt, and Jonathan Lethem. She dated Ellis for a while and they shared their respective works in progress (Less Than Zero and The Secret History)
  • She is a Roman Catholic
  • On the wall of her office is a quote from Paul Valéry: “Disorder is the condition of the mind’s fertility”
  • She is so well-read that she is known to recite entire poems and passages from French novels


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