Interview with Donna TarttPosted by Goodreads on October 1, 2013
Donna Tartt: This is a difficult question because the germ of this book began so long ago—20 years ago, with a long stay in Amsterdam. Rather than any specific story about art crime, I was more interested in a dark Amsterdam mood, a dark New York mood—and art seemed to be the tie between those two cities. As far as I remember, it wasn't really a conscious decision to take the art world as a subject but something that just seemed to spring organically from place. The destruction of [Afghanistan's] great Buddhas at Bamiyan [destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban] was also something that bothered me greatly, and though I can't say how that affected my decision to write about crime in the context of art, I know that it did.
GR: How did you go about researching it?
DT: I did most of my research for this book in the Allen Room of the New York Public Library—although when people ask me about "research," it always strikes me as really funny, because really I'm only reading about things I enjoy and would probably be reading about anyway even if I wasn't writing a book (such as Dutch art and antique furniture). Even the side things I had to learn about along the way turned out to be interesting. Though I hate team sports and have never in my life willingly watched a football game from start to finish, I taught myself about sports betting from a library book—well enough that I did all right in the football pools at my local bar last fall, and this without ever watching a game. Basically I can learn almost anything from a library book.
GR: Goodreads member Sean Frisco asks, "As you researched NYC's art underworld for The Goldfinch, what surprised you about that cutthroat black market?"
DT: I suppose the most disheartening statistic I learned was that so few stolen paintings are ever recovered. It's a miracle when they resurface—and when they do, they're often damaged from being poorly kept.
GR: From almost the moment we meet the protagonist, Theo, his life pivots around loss—people and places keep leaving him. It's heartbreaking, but you also want to root for him.
DT: The young people in both my previous novels tend to be on their own and live in worlds without adults they can depend on—even if they aren't literal orphans, as is Theo.
GR: As with The Secret History, The Goldfinch peers into the world of the preppy, slightly snobbish elite. What made you choose this microculture as a backdrop to the narrative?
DT: Well, apart from the fact that the surface of this milieu is attractive and sometimes deceptive, it's an interesting contrast, I think, to the other worlds Theo moves in. I like big novels that cross a wide range of emotional registers but also social and cultural registers, from polished to rough. Theo slips in and out of several worlds he's not really a part of: art dealers, drug dealers, from high life to low life and everything in between, and a lot of the novel is about how he learns, as an orphan, to slide easily back and forth between very different worlds: privilege and poverty, preppy kids and street kids, money and the lack of it. Then, too, and this idea is certainly present in The Secret History, the wealthy, educated, outwardly respectable world isn't necessarily a moral world. And what looks captivating and wonderful on the outside is often terribly flawed.
GR: The contrast between New York City and Vegas is sharp—almost two Americas. What interested you about setting parts of your largely cosmopolitan story in the desert?
DT: I visited Las Vegas for the first time almost by accident—honestly, had it been up to me, Las Vegas wouldn't have been my first choice of places to visit—but unexpectedly I ended up becoming fascinated and subsequently spending a good bit of time there. On that first visit I was two or three years into writing The Goldfinch, and when I chanced to see an exhibition of paintings in the Bellagio—I think it was an exhibition of French impressionists—I thought, Ah! Before then, my novel had taken place wholly in Amsterdam and New York. But when I saw those paintings in the Bellagio, in an actual casino, all sorts of previously unformed notions began to click into place: about art and money, about the covert movement of money, about luck and chance. The desert landscape was perfect, too—it in itself opened up the middle part of the book in just the right way. It was a good lesson that sometimes the things you don't think you'll like are exactly the things you ought to do, the things that make the difference.
GR: Goodreads member MBP asks, "In your novels you seem to gravitate toward the coming-of-age phase of life, with a dark or macabre twist. Why are you drawn to this stage and to a dark treatment of it?"
DT: It's a mysterious matter, why we write what we write. I know that part of the reason I gravitate to both these things is that I'm always trying to re-create that gleeful, galloping joy I had when I was reading books as a kid. Writing about young people is for me a way of being swept back into that readerly excitement of childhood, where anything's possible—a way of remembering what I loved about reading in the first place. As for the dark edge that many people find in my work: There's more at stake in a book for both writer and reader, and more fun, too, if there's an element of real danger and uncertainty—if you feel the amusement park ride may switch tracks at any moment and whisk you off toward something you never saw coming. But the light edge is just as important for me as the dark. I want to have a full register: both ends of the scale.
GR: Goodreads member Kary says, "Now when I read The Secret History, I get very wistful thinking about how much things have changed for people in their late teens/early twenties due to technology. You used to go away to college and into an isolated world. Does your first book ever prompt similar feelings of nostalgia?"
DT: I have to say I've never really considered this, maybe because I'm capable of switching off my cell phone and going back into that isolated world when I want to. I like being able to move back and forth between the two worlds, although certainly it's different for young people now. I think technology can be very isolating, although in a different way. People have commented to me that The Secret History would have been a very different book if it had been written in the days of cell phones. But Theo in The Goldfinch—despite the fact that he has a cell phone and uses a computer—also lives in an arcane, obsessive private world that's very much his own. Technology doesn't really take that away.
GR: The Secret History in particular has such an ardent following—have you subsequently felt pressure while working on your second and third books?
DT: When I wrote The Secret History, I wasn't expecting it to develop such a following—it was a lovely surprise, and I've been delighted by it, but each book is its own book, and I've never felt any pressure to try to match or compete with what I wasn't expecting in the first place. What I'm really more concerned with is reaching people deeply as individuals rather than attracting the broadest possible following. The reader, for me, is a singular proposition. A book is always one person talking to one other person, and when I'm writing I always feel as if I'm speaking in someone's ear rather than to a group of people.
GR: Could you tell us a bit about your writing process? Do you still write by hand?
DT: I do still write by hand. But once the page starts getting tangled up and hard to read, I type it out on the computer, and from there I'll often print out several drafts on different colors of paper—different colors, so I don't get the versions mixed up. It's easier to reach for the blue draft or the pink draft rather than being awash in multiple stacks of white paper and not knowing what's what.
GR: It's a well-known fact that you spend many years writing your novels—this one took 11. How do you stay focused, motivated, and committed to the story for that amount of time?
DT: Well, when I'm traveling, I'd much rather go to one place and stay there for a while and get to know it well rather than hop around to a lot of different places. And it's the same when I'm writing a novel. I much prefer writing something longer and pouring all my time and energy into one big piece of work than to start and stop on a lot of little projects, which I find distracting and frustrating. So even though it's hard sometimes to maintain focus on a larger piece, it's still easier for me to stay interested in one story and one set of characters over a long period of time rather than to constantly have to refocus and start again with new ones.
GR: What books have most influenced you?
DT: The books that have influenced me most as a writer are my earliest loves, which were mostly books of the 19th century. Peter Pan was the first book I really loved—and though I can't say I was consciously influenced by it, it was part of the atmosphere, the air I breathed, and I think in some ways it's colored everything I've ever written. It was a kinship that felt almost genetic. Same with Oliver Twist and later on David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in particular, was very formative. There's something of it in every novel I've written—questions of guilt, doubleness, alienation, persona vs. soul, the divided self. As an adult Lolita also captured some of this same doubleness, but in a gorgeous new language all its own that's influenced me greatly as well.
GR: What are you reading now?
DT: Lionel Trilling's Liberal Imagination and an old book I found at the flea market called Art and the Occult.
Interview by Molly Creeden for Goodreads. Creeden is an L.A.-based writer and former culture editor of Vogue.com.
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