HomeNovelDonna Tartt answers questions about the Secret History, social media and more
Donna Tartt answers questions about the Secret History, social media and more
December 20, 2022
“The Secret History” was released 30 years ago, and fans have been searching ever since for a sequel that offers the same heady blend of mystery, mythology, close-knit groups of friends, and dodgy narrators.
Jenna selected Donna Tartt’s debut novel, a true modern classic, for Read With Jenna’s latest pick of 2022.
“With a book as layered as ‘The Secret History’, there will be new revelations every time you read it. I feel like this is the kind of book that needs re-reading every 10, 20, 30 years,” Jenna tells TODAY.com.
After 30 years, readers like Jenna have piled up enough some questions. Below, Tartt responds to some of them, from Read With Jenna members and Jenna herself.
Questions from Jenna
What has the book’s response meant to you over the past 30 years?
Donna Tartt: I love that it means something to people — that readers not only enjoyed wandering through the book’s imaginary space, but kept coming back to it. For me, writing a novel feels less like a speech to an audience than a direct interaction with another person – the lone person who takes the book off a shelf and reads it, whoever that is – so I’m less concerned about the wider impact of the book than how it reverberates in the lives of individual readers. If the book keeps someone company during a difficult moment in their life, I’m happy. I have received touching letters from people in prison. I also enjoyed hearing from young people who were inspired to study the classics after reading the book.
How has your life changed since the book was published?
On the one hand, the tasks that have fallen to me since publishing the book have almost zero to do with the factors that got me to write the book in the first place, but I’ve had a life full of travel (the book has been published in 40 languages) and it was more than wonderful to have a following and the freedom to write whatever I want.
Did you imagine, then, the impact that the book would have?
I’m thrilled with how the book continues to resonate with readers – I couldn’t have wished for anything better. The people who connect with “The Secret History” are passionate about it: it’s not a book for everyone but the responses to it, for better or for worse, are rarely lukewarm.
Where do you get your ideas for fiction from?
Everywhere – from travel, history, gossip, true crimes, stories in dentist office magazines, childhood memories, rumors and songs, dreams (I mean that literally – I keep a dream journal and dreams often find their way into my books). I think the assumption is that novelists have a giant idea in one piece, and then all they have to do is sit down and write it. And this may be true for some novelists, but for me a book is a storm, a swarm, a party. Ideas don’t fall upon me singly, in monumental chunks, but flow from thousands of different sources and tributaries evolving over a long period of time, and I think the storylines of my books reflect that.
Have you ever re-read ‘The Secret History’? If yes, how was the experience?
I re-read it about 15 years ago, and it was disturbing because it brought back with great clarity where I was and sometimes even what I was wearing when writing certain passages. Other passages felt foreign and as if someone else had written them.
How do the characters in the book still live for you?
There is no way to build a solid or realistic literary character without putting a good deal of yourself into it. With “The Secret History,” my DNA is recognizably woven into all the characters – which just means that a gesture or turn of phrase or intonation of my own voice will unexpectedly evoke Francis, say, or Henry, and the emotions and ideas that helped create them.
Richard in “The Secret History”he lives for me in a more practical way than any character I’ve ever written, by the way. Richard’s voice, to begin with, was a made-up voice constructed for the purposes of the story I wanted to tell, but because I spent so many years as a youth writing almost exclusively in Richard’s voice, his narration ended up affecting the my own writing. voice deeply enough.
We are always looking for a book like “The Secret History”. Are there any books you recommend as a follow-up?
Not really as a follow up, although I can point people to some books that were important to me when I wrote “The Secret History” that book admirers might like. I could not have written or even thought of writing “The Secret History” without “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which is as edgy and shocking as ever on the page: It’s a standard 19th-century, very tight, modern short novel.
Alain Fournier’s “Le Grand Meulnes” has a lot to do with the elegiac atmosphere of the novel, the sense of a magical and lost past – so too “The Great Gatsby.”
Brian Moore’s “Cold Heaven” and Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” helped me maintain an open sense of what is possible in a literary novel.
It’s a shame that most people seem familiar with the film version of ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ because the novel, by Patricia Highsmith, differs in key respects and is far superior.
The books by George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh were very important to me during the time I was writing The Secret History and still are. I read them obsessively at the time: novels, essays, letters, everything.
Vladimir Nabokov’s novels are also touchstones.
Anyone who wants to know more about the ideas behind the book should read Euripedes’ “Bacchae” (I like the Richmond Lattimore translation) and “Phaedrus” and “Apology”by Plato: Many people will be put off by the mention of Plato, but these two dialogues in particular were life changing.
JF Martel’s “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice” had not yet been published when I wrote “The Secret History” but very clearly articulates some of my ideas about art as a meeting place for otherwise inexpressible ideas and a conduit to deep reality. beyond the human: “True beauty is not pretty. It is a tear in the facade of the everyday, a sudden revelation of the forces bubbling beneath the surface of things.
Between “The Secret History” and “The Goldfinch,” what do you find most compelling about writing young characters at this general age? What qualities do they have in terms of development and storyline that older adults don’t have?
Younger characters tend to be more malleable than older ones because they are less driven by circumstances and have more room to grow. Though with older, more fixed characters, there’s more ability to flip and surprise.
What inspired the names of the characters? We couldn’t help but notice that Charles and Camilla – as the current King and Queen of England – feature prominently.
I can’t remember how Charles got his name, but Camilla got his from Camilla the warrior maiden in Aeneid — Virgil calls her “a sacred falcon” and there is a beautiful passage where the mothers of Italy gather to watch Camilla leave for battle. I was reading the Aeneid for a class right around the time I started writing The Secret History. Camilla is as strong and heroic as any soldier in poetry, and her name has stuck with me.
At one point after the book’s publication, my publicist Bogie telephoned me enthusiastically because “Charles and Camilla” had been featured prominently in some major news as personality of the year. But of course it turned out they were talking about different Charles and Camilla and not my characters.
Why aren’t you on social media?
I was warned early. Years ago in India, I was the only American at a big dinner where everyone was talking about social media, which was very new at the time. Some of us (including me) had never heard of it — I was trying to figure out what it was and how it worked, but Margaret Drabble’s daughter Becky Swift was very emphatic: ‘You should never have social media Donna, it’s a terrible idea for you, it’s loud and superficial and distracting and it will intrude into your reading and writing life in a thousand awful ways and it will be a monstrous waste of your energy and time. Promise me you’ll never touch it.
And I didn’t. It would be years before people started talking about how destructive social media was, or how insidious it would prove to be on so many cultural, political, and personal levels. So I’m hugely grateful to Becky for pulling me away from it before I unexpectedly stumbled upon it – Becky died young, and I’m sad I never got the chance to say how much that conversation changed my life for the better.
Do you have guilty pleasure books or TV shows?
I dislike most television – a rare exception was “Better Call Saul.” I love Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” episodes, film noir from the 1940s and 1950s, and old horror movies from RKO or Universal.
I don’t feel guilty about reading a book that I enjoy or that keeps me interested, although I do sometimes feel guilty about listening to an audiobook instead of reading the book on paper. It’s probably silly, because I listen to audiobooks at times when I wouldn’t read anyway, when I’m walking the dogs or ironing shirts.