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Famous and yet unknown

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Though Donna Tartt will readily talk about her novels, she likes to keep her private life ... well, private.

December 08, 2002|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

San Francisco — Donna Tartt is a small, tightly wrapped package. Her arms are folded over a black, double-breasted jacket buttoned to the neck; her legs are crossed in a long black skirt, revealing a bit of black hose that quickly disappears into a medium heeled black shoe. Her dark hair is equally severe, bobbed to frame her face, which she frequently turns away even while talking to you. Her skin shows no sign of having seen sun; her eyes are green and ethereal, like light through a stained glass window. Smiling is not her strong suit.

Ten years ago, Tartt published her first novel, "The Secret History," which she had started writing in college and which sold a million copies in the U.S. and was translated into two dozen languages. And now, after a decade of work, Tartt, 38, has just published her second novel, "The Little Friend" (Knopf), with a huge first printing, 300,000 copies.

Tartt says that she is a slow, meticulous writer, but very quickly you get the idea that maybe she produces a novel only every decade or so because she dislikes the book tours that come with celebrity. "Our Reticent Hero," one Web site devoted to Tartt calls her.

Rather basic biographical facts, for example, such as whether she is married, are off limits.

"I don't like to talk about my personal life," she says, sitting in a chair in the corner of a hotel lobby.

Why?

"Why should I?" she asks, well, tartly.

Personal publicity, Tartt explains, is not just annoying; it's actually injurious to a writer.

"It's detrimental," she says. "It's actively harmful. It draws attention away from the books. The books are the important thing. I think that a writer's life is very unimportant. The book is the important thing. I'm not an actress; it's not my job to present myself as myself. Books are objects that stand on their own. There's too much interest in text being interpreted in terms of the writer's own or imaginary biography. Hemingway is a really good example. People think that they've got Hemingway's number, that they know who he is, so they don't bother to read his books anymore. Hemingway's life was not the interesting or important thing about him; it was his books, that's what he did."

Yet Tartt is no slouch at carefully crafting an image, always smartly turned out, as fastidious in appearance as in print. She lounged like a rather stern-looking odalisque (in riding boots and holding her dog) for a photo in Newsweek recently and so great was the buzz stirred up by the bidding war for her first book that Vanity Fair sent a writer with Tartt back to Grenada, Miss., where she grew up, for a fawning profile.

Tartt is the elder of two daughters of a service station owner-cum-local politician; she started writing poetry at 5 and began publishing in literary reviews in her teens. In Tartt's telling, reading was always in the air at home, like the scent of magnolia. A great-aunt and an aunt were librarians, and Tartt worked in the public library as a high school student.

"We just all read," she says. "It was just something in the culture of my family. I didn't know other children who read."

Tartt went to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she wanted to write for the school newspaper but didn't have any clips. She submitted a few short stories. The editor passed them to Willie Morris, a member of the New York literati and former editor of Harper's who was a writer-in residence at Ole Miss. He became a mentor, urging her to transfer to Bennington College in Vermont. There Tartt started writing the novel that became "The Secret History," about an elite group of classics students at a New England school a lot like Bennington who kill a farmer and then one of their own.

"If I had had the money, I probably would have gone on to graduate school and become an academic," Tartt says. "So it's probably a good thing that I didn't have the money."

Instead, after almost a decade of work, she finished the novel. Author Bret Easton Ellis ("Less Than Zero") was a close friend from Bennington, and he introduced Tartt to his agent, Amanda Urban, at Creative Management. Before long, Tartt had sold the hardcover and paperback rights for close to a million dollars.

"The Secret History" was a huge success but, except for a few magazine pieces, Tartt largely dropped out of sight for the next decade. "Ten years of mysterious silence," as Vanity Fair put it recently.

Not so mysterious, Tartt says. She was just working, either in her house near Charlottesville, Va., or in her New York apartment.

"I write pretty slowly," she says. "It's part of every author's job to decide one's own pace and not to pay too much attention to other people's expectations. When I start something, I don't ever think of how long it will take me or I'd probably never start in the first place."

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