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Author Wed Nov 13 2013

Donna Tartt Talks Art, Inspiration and Process at the Chicago Humanities Fest

donna tartt.jpgDonna Tartt's three novels have been published across the span of three decades--one for each. Her first novel, the wildly successful A Secret History was published in 1992, and her second, The Little Friend, rolled around in 2002. (Almost) right on time arrives her latest, The Goldfinch, which Tartt was in town to discuss with Jennifer Day, editor of Printer's Row literary journal, for the Chicago Humanities Fest on Saturday, November 2.

When discussing why it takes 10 years to write a book, Tartt partially attributed it to her willingness to wait for surprises. "[Some of the best ideas] come quietly to the back door," she said onstage at the Thorne Auditorium at Northwestern University Law School. (We can only hope that Tartt will deliver yet another masterpiece of moody genius come 2020-something.)

The Goldfinch surrounds the story of adolescent Theodore Decker who, one fateful afternoon, escapes from the rain to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his beloved mother. She has just explained that Carel Fabritius, the painter of The Goldfinch (after which our novel is titled), died by a gunpowder explosion in Delft in South Holland in 1654. While Theodore and his mother stroll the MMA there is a terrorist attack. Theodore survives, his mother does not. But he manages to escape with the painting.

Part of the inspiration for Tartt's novel was the 2001 bombing of two giant Buddha statues by the Taliban in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan. While not eager to dissect the impact of that event on her psyche--"I write fiction, that's how I process things, something happens and it'll come out in a story and I don't want to analyze that too much"--she did express her feeling of remorse for the demolished sacred objects, which led her to muse on endangered art, like the paintings destroy in her novel.

Tartt's use of the painting as her novel's centerpiece ignited a fascinating discussion about the life of objects, particularly those of artistic significance. "The word 'priceless' is used only in reference to life and to great paintings," Tartt said, stressing the inherent humanness of a work of art or literature. After Tartt read a long passage in which Theo deftly observes and describes The Goldfinch painting, Day highlighted a particular phrase in Tartt's prose: "The paint is paint, yet feather and bone."

"Like words are words, but they're also real people," Day noted, with Tartt chiming in: "They're also Huck Finn. Huck Finn has a longer life than we do." She loosely quoted Flaubert in reference to Madame Bovary: "That bitch will outlive me." Recalling her total immersion in books as child (Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island were among her favorites), one gets the sense that, for Tartt, there has always been a fine if non-existent line between the external world and that of her imagination. After an audience member asked which of her characters have lingered in her subconscious, (the answer: Boris from The Goldfinch, Henry from The Secret History, Edie from The Little Friend) Tartt admitted she often dreams of her characters interacting with real people.

It adds up for a writer deeply enthralled and inspired by the power of written language and its unfiltered expression. She writes entire first drafts by hand because by the time she learned to type, her process had already been formed-- "I found I couldn't think on a keyboard." (Tartt's first sonnet was published at age 13 in a Mississippi literary journal, and she began writing The Secret History at 19).

With a proclivity for authentic human imperfection, it isn't surprising that she's known, as Day put it, for being a "stickler with copyeditors". On the standardization of language, Tartt said: "It drains blood from and spellcheck wear the language down. Style is a 20 century newspaper convention"-- part of the reason why she never wrote for magazines. When asked if she thought the narrowing of language lead to the narrowing of ideas, Tartt confidently answered, "George Orwell would certainly say it does."

Like The Secret History, The Goldfinch is told from the voice and perspective of a young male protagonist, a move that felt good after the very female voice of The Little Friend. Day shared a quote from Stephen King's gleaming review in the New York Times, in which he writes: "Tartt depicts the friendship of two cast-adrift adolescent boys with a clarity of observation I would have thought next to impossible for a writer who was never part of that closed male world." Taken aback, Tartt remarked, "First of all, the male world isn't closed." It was a fitting comment for a woman wearing a tailored suit sleek as her black bob and punctuated by a royal purple tie.

The evening ended with an inquiry into that very suit. "You look wonderful," the audience member remarked. "How did you choose that suit?" Tartt informed the tittering crowd that she had it made by Duncan Quinn, a tailor with shops in New York and Los Angeles. "I like to wear suits," Tartt added. And that was that.

As of today, video of Tartt's discussion has not been posted, but check the Chicago Humanities Fest website for videos of Tartt and other 2013 presenters.

Illustration courtesy of Last Night's Reading by Kate Gavino.

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Dmitry Samarov / November 14, 2013 9:38 AM

You could've used a sketch from that talk, you know...

Lara / November 14, 2013 6:36 PM

Nice work, Dmitry! You captured her posture quite well.

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