Donna and I became friends in the early 1980s at Bennington College where she began writing her first novel, just published, The Secret History. This is the story of a group of under-graduate classics majors who take their studies too far—recreating the Bacchanal ritual for the first time in two thousand years—and in the process become murderers. In Donna’s own words, it is not a “whodunit” but a “whydunit,” a psychological mystery, a fictional confession, a coming of age tragedy. We started the interview as conversation and finished it as notes, sent back and forth, while Donna was on tour for The Secret History.
Jill Eisenstadt Donna, you’re carrying Nabokov’s Despair.
Donna Tartt Yes. It’s about a man who undertakes the perfect crime, his own murder—which I’ve actually been thinking about. What a great thing, to just disappear. It’s what I’ve wanted to do, to have voyager checks sent to some address in Mexico. After two interviews today …
JE What were they for?
DT One was for the Williams College magazine. And the other for a thing called Book Page.The interviewer liked all these weird writers that I like who nobody has ever heard of or probably ever reads. People like M. R. James and Arthur Machen.
DT And really old. I don’t know; I like ghost stories. They’re like mysteries, a very specialized thing.
JE Do you consider your book a ghost story?
DT It has some ghosts in it. It actually had more that were cut out.
JE Was that your choice?
DT Yeah, it was just too long. There are enough left.
JE Were the ghosts the germ?
DT No, there’s something, well, supernatural that occurs early in the book. And once you open that door—when something completely out of the ordinary happens—why not have a ghost too?
JE By supernatural occurrence, do you mean the bacchanalia?
JE You don’t say how they work themselves into a Dionysian frenzy. Do you know how?
DT Nobody really knows, not really. Or else, probably people would be doing it.
JE Did you ever try? (laughter)
DT Maybe we should … tonight. (laughter) Kill some cab drivers or something.
Editor’s Query: The Dionysian cults were part of the secret Eleusinian Mysteries. Sophocles was put on trial for revealing these secret mysteries in his tragedies. Are you afraid of retribution?
DT Personally, of course.
Editor’s Query: Is that what your characters fear?
DT They’re not real.
JE Did the book change a lot in other ways along the way besides just cutting?
DT When I was writing at Bennington—I’d write some tricky time sequence then, and about three and a half years ago I realized that I was just torturing myself unnecessarily. The best way to tell it was very simply from beginning to end, because I did have a lot of flashbacks and very screwed up time sequences.
JE Did that require rewriting the entire thing?
DT No, it was just cut and paste. It was actually kind of funny. Once I realized that, everything fell smoothly into place. It was a straight line from there to the end. I wrote the book out of sequence. I wrote a lot of the end before I wrote the middle.
JE Your decision to reveal who one of the people is who’s murdered at the very beginning …
DT Yes, that was conscious from the beginning. The novel started out with the actual murder and then the flashbacks figuring out why.
JE So it’s more of a psychological mystery than a physical one.
DT It’s not a whodunit at all. It’s a whydunit.
JE That’s a very high concept. Did you come up with other sentences like that for all these interviews?
DT (laughter) No, I wish I did. There are questions I’ve been asked over and over again, and I wish I had some pat answers, but I just don’t.
JE For one of my books, I made up a different answer depending on who asked me. If it was someone my age, I’d have one sentence. For an older adult, I’d have another sentence. Has it been a nightmarish experience, all this heavy hype?
DT Yes, yes, yes!
JE What’s the worst thing about it?
DT It’s this glaring light turned into your face, you know. I feel like I’m a criminal. (laughter)
JE Has it changed you?
DT It’s made me a little more cagey.
JE What about writing a book, did that change you?
DT It took so long, and I changed so much anyway. I’m a completely different person now than I was when I started the book, but you know how that goes, I mean, things happen to you …
JE The book must have something to do with being a completely different person, though—if that was your main focus through all those years.
DT I think it does, but I don’t know exactly what. That’s a hard one.
JE See, with me, I always manage to throw it all in the book. It’s like a garbage dump of my life. But yours seemed pretty consistent. I mean, did even your writing style change? Did you have to go back and even it out?
DT Yeah, yeah. (laughter)
JE How many years was it?
JE What’s the record, do we know?
DT Didn’t Margaret Mitchell work for something like 20 years on Gone With the Wind?
Interviewer’s Query: Time is a theme you play within the book. It’s as if you superimposed characters from the past upon the present, or black and white upon color. Was this the effect you were after?
DT I was trying to impose structures and conventions of the past upon characters and places in the present, not the other way around.
JE You always had these great stories about Ole Miss, about being in a sorority. What if you had stuck it out?
DT I don’t know if I could have stuck it out there. A year was plenty. Although, they had a major in Southern culture, Southern Studies, which is cool. You get to sit around and listen to jazz records all day.
Editor’s Query: You grew up in the South—where, I think, traditions with Bacchanalian tendencies abound: the hunt, heavy drinking, hedonistic parties, secret societies and violence. Did any of this influence the book?
DT That’s a good question. Most people have to get this stuff off the TV. There’s a lot one sees that’s useful for a storyteller’s purposes.
JE Did you expect to get The Secret History published?
DT I thought somebody would probably publish it.
JE With such hoopla?
DT Good Lord, no. I was shocked. I still am shocked. I really am still puzzled by it.
JE Is it scary?
DT It’s just very confusing. You know, you work towards something for a number of years and you think you’re going to know what to expect. I thought it would be published, a couple of my friends would read it.
JE Have you been able to enjoy it at all?
DT Somewhat, but not nearly as much as you might think. What about you?
JE I both couldn’t imagine it not being published and couldn’t imagine it being published.
DT Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.
JE But the actual thing, when it happened, was shocking, because there were a lot of personal attacks, just being grouped with the “brat pack,” I didn’t understand.
DT How did you deal with that? Because I know that’s going to happen to me. I’m just waiting.
JE Some people will come across as really nice, and then write something vicious.
DT Yeah, Evelyn Waugh said that the nice journalists are the worst.
JE You think you can judge a person’s sincerity, but you discover that you can’t. It’s still so exciting when you first know it’s going to be published.
DT The most exciting part for me, actually was the morning that I went and left it at Binky’s [Amanda Urban’s] office. It weighed a ton. For years, if the house burned down, it was the first thing I was going to grab. I was very bad about making Xeroxes—for huge portions of the book, I would only have the one copy. I wouldn’t let it out of my sight.
JE You must have felt awfully light-handed leaving the office.
DT Yeah. I was on pins and needles for a couple of days. Because she was really the first person who had read it all the way through. I hadn’t even read it from start to finish; I had read it all in pieces.
JE It’s almost impossible.
DT So, when she called me back—actually, I think, from her car—and said “This is really great, I really love this,” that was just a bolt from the blue because I was fully expecting her to say, I made it through 50 pages and this really needs some serious work, and I think I can’t help you. (laughter)
JE The most wonderful part is when you are finally holding the book in your hands, when it becomes an object. That’s very personal. It doesn’t involve anyone else.
DT There’s a flip side of that, because when the book really does become an object—it’s not yours anymore.
JE You can’t change it. Although John Updike supposedly does.
DT Well, I’m so manic about that. They told me if there were things I wanted to change from the first edition to the second edition, if it goes into a second edition, that I could. Because, literally, up until three o’clock on the afternoon of the last day that I had to get the proofs in, I was rewriting—it was hard.
JE Hard to let go of?
DT You just don’t think it’s good enough. To me, there are so many passages in the book that seem wobbly, inadequate. When I thought about them, I had this great idea, and it’s just not nearly as good. I know that there’s some way, if I worked long enough, I could make it better but I can’t see quite how. I wrote the epilogue about two weeks before I handed it in.
JE Is that the fastest thing you ever wrote?
DT It’s not the fastest thing I ever wrote, but it’s the best thing I ever wrote the fastest. Eight years work, and this really was the end, and I’d thought about these characters for so long, and things that I had never seen before started clicking into place.
JE I kind of had the same experience with the prologue of From Rockaway, which I wrote last.
DT The tornado! You wrote the tornado years before?
JE That was the first chapter. The prologue was about the prom. You were the first person to tell me that people’s ears could bleed from tornadoes.
DT I don’t remember telling you that. I wish I could take credit for that; I really don’t remember saying that.
JE It was when you lived next door and …
DT I remember.
JE One of the things that struck me about your book is how many scenes there are with people waking up, as if they were waking up to the realization of what they’ve done.
DT It was a Gestapo sort of thing, people coming to your room, waking you up in the middle of the night. These people always had done something wrong; they’re always going to be waiting for that knock on the door. In theory, any time the phone rings, for the rest of their lives, they should jump out of their skins; they never know when it’s coming.
JE One of those writing rules: never start a scene with someone waking up.
DT Really? I never heard that one.
JE I imagined you were breaking it by doing it excessively.
DT No, I’ve heard ones like: never have your narrator looking in a mirror describing himself …
JE Or their dreams. All those rules to, of course, break.
DT Are you not supposed to have dreams? I love to have dreams.
Interviewer’s Query: Your book ends with a dream, or a nightmare rather, in which a ghost appears. Behind him, history is clicking by on a machine. Would you care to interpret this for us?
DT Dreams are those dark, fairy-tale woods that we enter every time we go to sleep. All the scary monsters are there—with real teeth and claws—and all the fairy godmothers and secret friends of childhood are waiting there, too, ready to help us whenever we call. You can’t analyze something like that. It’s magic. You simply have to listen to that scarcely audible old call, the one that will always lead you off the safely marked path.
JE I do love—maybe I’m making this too personal—how you took things that I recognize from Bennington and gave them a very ominous spin. The sculpture some student built on the lawn, for instance, you had your narrator mistake for gallows.
DT Those weird structures that came out of nowhere. They’d just appear. I don’t like modern sculpture, don’t really understand it. Maybe this one was beautiful and wonderful, but I’m ignorant about these sort of things—I’d just see some strange shape and be completely terrified by it.
JE I think Sidney Tillian said, “Sculptures are what you bang into when you’re trying to look at the paintings.” (laughter) I was also thinking of the boy who actually disappeared, you know, who was later found killed in an elevator shaft.
DT Barry Weinbach. That was before we got there.
JE Right. I was reminded of him reading the book—people disappearing. That’s what is so fascinating about knowing the writer: being about to see how they put the novel together. I don’t mean what’s factual …
DT No, the mechanics. We all took the same place and put it through the Mixmaster, put it in the oven, and came out with completely different things. It does make you see how much fiction is subjective, how much everything is subjective.
JE And the nightmarishness of the sculpture fits the novel’s tone of paranoia and terror in the book. A very normal thing, that I might have made a joke out of in my book …
DT … but ominous in mine.
JE I remember the teacher, Julian, being a more central character in your earlier drafts. Is this true?
DT I don’t know. I tend to say not. He really should have been there more than he was. That’s a real weakness in the book. But the scenes with him were just excruciating to write. His scenes took me a month, even tiny scenes that were half a page. The other characters—I would just wind them up and let them go—he was much harder. The whole book would fall on it’s face if he wasn’t credible—he was the whole reason for everything happening.
Interviewer’s Query: Is there a character with whom you most identify?
DT All of them.
JE So, you’re working on shorter stuff now?
DT Yes. I started a novel last fall too. I have a notebook that’s got like, gosh, it must be 80 to 100 pages of notes now, and it’s all outlined, but I know once I start—you know, tie the rock to my feet, go down to the bottom—it’s going to be down, and a long, hard pull.
JE Do you have to suffer to be an artist?
DT Absolutely not. I think the best writers … It’s real leisure class activity; you have to have large blocks of time in order to write. It’s possible to have a day job and do that, get up early in the morning—it’s possible for some people, but it wouldn’t be for me.
JE Can you actually sit there for eight hours?
DT Oh yeah, I mean, I get up and do stuff: walk the dog. I’ve done that, though. When I was finishing work on my book, for weeks and weeks and weeks I would work for six hours, sleep for two; work for six hours, sleep for two. I got to the point where I was, finally, just completely crazed. But it’s good to just blow yourself out. You know, it’s like being an athlete, you’re so tired and you can’t go anymore, and then you go to sleep for those two hours, and it gets to the point where you’re so saturated that you dream that you’re actually working on the book.
JE You can really wake up after two hours?
DT I don’t sleep very much; I have a problem sleeping.
JE That’s remarkable.
DT It’s not remarkable. It’s a desperate flaw. I would do anything … I need to go to a sleep clinic.
DT When I am asleep, when in the middle of the night I’ll wake up, or I’ll be in that twilight state, and I do have to get up and write it down. Because I’m very superstitious about that: even if I think it’s stupid, I’ll get up and write it down. And most of the time it is stupid, and some of the time it’s not.
JE What other superstitions?
DT I have a lot of them; I’m just not thinking of them now. Dickens used to sleep with his head pointing north, always. When he was on tour, he toured extensively, he would make them move his bed. He felt his head had to be in alignment with the magnetic pull of the North Pole.
JE And didn’t Benjamin Franklin have to write naked?
DT Somebody did, was it him?
JE He used to sit in front of an open window naked, or something. (laughter) And Balzac died from too much caffeine.
DT He was really overworked. He wrote the whole Human Comedy, millions of volumes, and just sucked up three hours a night for years and years, until he was fat and just drank coffee all the time.
JE Somewhere, I have written down—you would love this—the lethal dosage of coffee. How many you’d have to drink in an hour to die.
DT That’s interesting.
JE “Death By Coffee.”
DT Death by Writing.
Editor’s Query: Your narrator comes from the lower middle class, and contrives to join a group—a closed, secret society—comprised of students from the wealthy upper class. Why make him the narrator? Is he the one, actually, most likely to betray the others?
DT It’s the narrator’s business to betray, whether he’s aware of it or if he wants it to be or not. That’s his function in any novel.