Interview with Donna Tartt

Powell's Books
Jul 13, 2015 · 9 min read

By Jill Owens,

Donna Tartt has a lot of devoted fans among the Powell’s staff; I think I got more requests for advance copies of The Goldfinch than any other upcoming book. And for those lucky enough to get one, the reviews were unanimous: we loved it, and it was well worth the wait. The Goldfinch is a masterful novel. An epic coming-of-age story written in brilliant, illuminated prose, and a mesmerizing portrait of friendships and unconventional families, Tartt’s third novel has been rightly called Dickensian for its sweeping themes, colorful characters, and extraordinary attention to detail. Stephen King raved, “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind….Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.” We absolutely agree, which is why we chose it as Volume 43 of Indiespensable.

Jill Owens: How did you choose the painting, Fabritius’s The Goldfinch? What about that particular image resonated with you, and what’s your history with the painting?

Donna Tartt: Actually, I did consider a couple of other paintings, briefly, though I always knew it was the one. I first saw it as a copy at Christie’s Amsterdam — I loved the painting the instant I saw it, and the more I found out about it, the more enthralled I became. The Goldfinch is a tiny painting — not much bigger than a child’s school notebook — and a greatly beloved and unique little work; in all the Golden Age of Dutch art, there’s nothing quite like it, and it also has a fascinating history that plays into the plot of the novel. The painter who made it, Carel Fabritius — who was the pupil of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer, and who was greatly celebrated in his own day — died very young in a tragic accident, the explosion of a gunpowder factory in Delft that destroyed most of the town. This little painting is one of Fabritius’s very few works that survive.

Jill: Place seems to be an extremely important part of all your novels — the Northeast in A Secret History, the South in The Little Friend, and now Amsterdam, New York City, and Las Vegas in The Goldfinch. How do you think about place in your work, and why did you want to focus on these cities this time?

Tartt: My books have all really started with a sense of place. Amsterdam’s a city I’ve spent a good deal of time with, and the germ of this book really began almost 20 years ago with a sort of dark Amsterdam mood. And, I’ve been in and out of New York most of my adult life.

Jill: Theo is in such varying states of grief throughout most of the book, and he also — understandably — is frequently on drugs of one sort or another in order to try and deal with it. How did you approach having a voice and perspective that were filtered through those lenses?

Tartt: This is something that the novel does better than any other art form: reproducing the inner life and the inner experience of another person, particularly extreme forms of consciousness like grief, dreams, drunkenness, spiritual revelations, even insanity. Unlike movies, where we’re always onlookers, in novels we have the experience of being someone else: knowing another person’s soul from the inside. No other art form does that. And I like dealing with particularly intense inner experiences because I think that in many ways, this is what the novel does best.

Jill: Reading your work is incredibly immersive; while I was reading The Goldfinch, I was jumpy, edgy, feverish, worried as one crisis or another was happening in the book. Do you think about how your readers will inhabit your characters? Does that affect the voice or the perspective?

Tartt: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I never really thought about it in quite that way before. I would have to say no. But I do inhabit my characters myself as I write.

Jill: Each character, too, leaps off the page; Theo’s friend Boris, for example, is such a fantastic creation, but even smaller characters like Platt Barbour or Xandra are fully developed and memorable. Can you talk a bit about how you approach character, and if there were any in particular that you enjoyed writing in this book and your earlier work?

Tartt: I started out wanting to be a poet rather than a novelist, but character, and my fascination with character, is primarily why I’m a fiction writer instead. And I think that part of the reason I write such long novels is that I like to spend a long time with my characters and get to know them really well — I especially enjoy writing characters who are unruly and unpredictable, who have their own energy and who carry scenes by themselves. Bunny and Henry in The Secret History were like that for me, as were Hely and Edie in The Little Friend. In Goldfinch, I loved all my characters, but I especially loved writing Theo’s scenes with Boris and Andy — I enjoyed writing Andy so much that there were a lot of scenes with him that got cut and didn’t end up in the finished novel.

Jill: In all your novels, the main character or narrator has been a child or an adolescent. While Theo is a bit older than that by the end of this novel, he’s arguably not fully adult yet. What interests you about writing from the perspective of young people?

Tartt: For me, writing from the point of view of young people brings me back to the great pleasure I first had when reading as a child — when I galloped breathlessly through books, when I would come home loaded down with library books and really become lost and entranced in them. Writing about young people is a way back into that readerly excitement. It’s also fun to write about young people because they are introspective and still trying to make sense of the world, and their own place in it.

Jill: You have such a gift for metaphor and simile, in even the smallest moments in your work — I could almost have picked them off any page, but two examples that I loved were early in the book. About Mrs. Barbour:

“Her voice, like Andy’s, was hollow and infinitely far away; even when she was standing right next to you she sounded as if she was relaying transmissions from Alpha Centauri.”

And Mr. Barbour:

“His ruddy cheeks and his long, old fashioned nose, in combination with the prematurely white hair, gave him the amiable look of a lesser founding father, some minor member of the Continental Congress teleported to the 21st century.”

How do you think about metaphor, particularly in relation to describing or defining character?

Tartt: Metaphor, to quote an old teacher of mine, is a kind of elegant confusion. But the metaphors a narrator chooses are just as revelatory of the narrator as they are of the character described. So there’s a kind of double characterization. In the two examples you mentioned, you’re not just getting a description of Mr. and Mrs. Barbour but also getting a peek into Theo’s mind: a boy who is interested in stargazing, who has stars pasted on his bedroom ceiling (Mrs. Barbour and Alpha Centauri) but who also likes American History (Mr. Barbour and the Continental Congress). So these are the metaphors that occur to Theo — you learn a little about him, and the way he sees the world, from the metaphors he uses here. If a different character had been speaking of the Barbours, I would have chosen different metaphors.

Jill: Your prose is also almost forceful in its clarity — even though I have a terrible visual imagination, I could see every moment of The Goldfinch, as well as your earlier work.

Tartt: Oh, that’s great! As a writer, I think I’m more an eye than an ear — the world comes mainly in for me at the eye. So I’m glad the visuals came through for you. As I’m writing my books, I really do see them almost literally — I experience scenes almost as an onlooker, watching from the outside.As I’m writing my books, I really do see them almost literally — I experience scenes almost as an onlooker, watching from the outside.

Jill: How do you think about your language and your prose?

Tartt: I think a lot about them in terms of sensory detail. Tactile, olfactory. And I’m very preoccupied with my work on a word-to-word, sentence-to-sentence level. The mechanics of language, and the writing of individual sentences, are what keep me entertained and engaged with my work on a day-to-day basis for so many years.

Jill: Did you have to do much research, either in art history or antique restoration? Or, for that matter, for the locations? I love the descriptions of both cities, but the Las Vegas scenes felt particularly haunting and oppressive.

Tartt: I spent a lot of time in all three cities in the book. I’ve lived in New York for years, I made several trips to Las Vegas, and Amsterdam is a city that I know fairly well.

So, yes, I did travel. But I also read a great deal about art history, antique restoration, casino gambling — all sorts of things. I did a lot of the research for this book at the New York Public Library. But since I was really only reading about things I was interested in, it never felt like research, more like reading for pleasure.

Jill: How do you think your writing has changed (or not) over the years?

Tartt: From my perspective, it’s really changed remarkably little from when I was a teenager — at least it doesn’t really feel very different while I’m doing it.

Jill: What’s your editing process like, and what was it like working with a new editor for this new novel?

Tartt: I’m very lucky to have worked with two of the most celebrated American editors of the 20th (and 21st) century: Gary Fisketjon and Michael Pietsch. I try to have everything as polished, and finished, as possible before I show it to an editor. Michael and Gary, both brilliant, are very different editors: Gary is a hands-on-line editor; Michael, while he’ll also make line suggestions on the page, also writes letters to the author with more general thoughts and comments, or at least he did with me.

Jill: What are you reading and enjoying lately?

Tartt: When people ask me this, I feel like I keep repeating the same old books since things are unusually busy for me at the moment, with publication. But I loved Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape, and I would really love to be able to spend some time with Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, which was what I was reading before everything got so frantic. A bookstore owner in Amsterdam gave me a copy of The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig that I really want to read. And I just received a galley of Willy Vlautin’s new book, The Free, that I’m really looking forward to reading as well — I’m a great Willy Vlautin fan.

Jill: Is there anything you’d like to talk about or expand upon that I haven’t brought up?

Tartt: I’d like to point out that all the books I signed for Powell’s are signed in purple ink, which is not the usual color of ink I use in my fountain pen. Usually I sign in brown — only Powell’s got purple.

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