Profile by Cameron Elizabeth Williams
By the age of thirteen, Donna Tartt had already begun to establish herself as an emerging literary talent. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963 and raised in nearby Grenada, Tartt spent her childhood enjoying the company of her great-aunts, great-grandparents, and grandparents. Tartt was especially fond of—and likewise adored by—her great-grandfather. It was he who helped facilitate Tartt’s interest in writers such as Charles Dickens and Thomas De Quincey, authors who would later influence Tartt’s own writing and storytelling. It was also he who, as she describes in her memoir “Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine” (1992), because of what she describes as his “nearly unlimited faith in the power of Pharmacy,” insisted that five-year-old Tartt, sick with tonsillitis, regularly imbibe a cocktail of “blackstrap molasses and some horrible licorice-flavored medicine that was supposed to have vitamins in it, along with glasses of whiskey at…bedtime and regular and massive doses of some red stuff” that she later learned was cough syrup with codeine.
Because of this, Tartt spent nearly two years of her childhood “submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness.” During the days that she was kept home from school due to her illness, she would read and write poetry.
In 1976, at the age of thirteen, Tartt published one of her poems in a Mississippi literary journal. After high school, where she continued to pursue her interest in reading and writing, she entered the University of Mississippi. Then-writer-in-residence Willie Morris took notice of her prodigious writing talent and encouraged her to enroll in a graduate-level course taught by Barry Hannah. At their suggestion, Tartt left the South in 1982, transferring to Bennington College in Vermont.
In her second year at Bennington, she began working on what would become her first novel. After graduating in 1986 and moving to New York City, Tartt’s friend and fellow Bennington alumnus, Bret Easton Ellis, recommended her to renowned literary agent Amanda Urban. After nearly eight years in the making, and after Urban launched an almost unprecedented marketing campaign, The Secret History was published to much anticipation in 1992.
The overwhelming success of Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History (1992), which sold well over its initial print of 75,000 copies and was later translated into 24 different languages, solidified her reputation as what the New York Times called a “cause célèbre.” The novel, dedicated to Tartt’s close friend and fellow Bennington College alumnus Bret Easton Ellis, tells the story of a group of brilliant, eccentric Classics students studying at an elite liberal arts college in Vermont. Under the influence of their equally eccentric professor, the students decide to perform a bacchanal, and in their drug-induced, Dionysian frenzy, they inadvertently murder an innocent bystander. When one of their fellow students threatens to reveal their terrible secret, they must commit another—this time carefully calculated—murder.
It took Tartt ten more years to complete her second novel, which she wanted to differ from The Secret History on “every single level.” At this, she succeeded. In The Little Friend (2002), Tartt takes readers into the turbulent, racially-charged atmosphere of the 1970s South. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi, the novel opens by recounting the day when nine-year-old Robin Dufresnes is found murdered, hanging from a tree in his family’s backyard. Robin’s death leaves his family traumatized: his mother and older sister wander around dazedly, unable to distinguish dreams from reality, while his bevy of adoring great-aunts and his grandmother revise the details of the past to make for a more palatable present.
Twelve years later, Robin’s youngest sister, Harriet—who was but a baby when Robin was murdered and whose precociousness and rebelliousness would make someone like Scout Finch proud—takes it upon herself to uncover his killer. Based on purely circumstantial evidence, Harriet pinpoints a member of the town’s infamously “white trash” family as her prime suspect. Harriet’s quest for vengeance (which, among other things, involves stealing a deadly cobra from another Ratliff brother’s apartment) takes her and her faithful sidekick, Hely, through dangerous twists and turns. More profoundly, it compels Harriet to confront some of her idyllic Southern town’s sinister class and racial prejudices and forces her to recognize the fated connection between her own family and the Ratliff’s.
Tartt’s writing has been highly praised for its ambition. Indeed, as London’s The Times writes of The Secret History, both novels are “packed with literary allusion” and told with stunning “sophistication and texture that owes much more to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth.” Her prose has been described by The Village Voice as “stunning” and “lyrical”; her command of language is extraordinary, her writing beautiful, atmospheric, and evocative.
In 2003, Tartt was awarded the WH Smith Literary Award for The Little Friend. She has also published other short pieces of fiction and non-fiction, including “A Christmas Pageant” (1993), “A Garter Snake” (1995), and most recently, “The Ambush” (2005). She is said to be working on her third novel.