Born in 1963, in Greenwood, MS; daughter of Don (a politician) and Taylor (Bousche) Tartt. Education: Attended University of Mississippi, c. 1981; graduated from Bennington College, 1986. Religion: Catholic.
Publisher —Knopf Publishing, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
Began writing poetry, c. 1968; published first poem in Mississippi literary journal, c. 1976; published novels, The Secret History, 1992, and The Little Friend, 2002; other published works include short stories "A Christmas Pageant," 1993, and "A Garter Snake," 1995; and non–fiction Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine, 1992; Basketball Season, 1993, and Team Spirit: Memories of Being a Freshman Cheerleader for the Basketball Team, 1994.
Though author Donna Tartt only published two novels—1992's The Secret History and 2002's The Little Friend —in ten years, and a few other works in fiction and non–fiction in between, she is considered an important, influential novelist. The petite, private Tartt is a native of Mississippi, and though her first novel was set a northern college, she is considered a Southern Gothic writer. Her books also have some qualities of thrillers and suspense novels with intricate plots and interesting characters.
Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, the first of two daughters of Don Tartt, a local politician, and his wife, Taylor. When Tartt was born, she was very small in size and she was often ill throughout her childhood, suffering from such maladies as tonsillitis. Tartt was raised in Grenada, Mississippi, and spent much of her childhood with older family members, including great aunts and grandfathers. She did not have many friends her own age.
By the time she was four, Tartt began keeping a notebook, which later turned into a detailed daily journal. When she was five years old, Tartt started writing poetry. Because she was thought to be sickly, she spent many days home from school. In addition to writing, Tartt also used that time to read. She was particularly a fan of nineteenth–century British authors Charles Dickens and Thomas de Quincey. Even when she was not sick, Tartt spent much of her time reading.
At the age of 13, Tartt published her first work, a sonnet, in a Mississippi–based literary journal. While a teenager, she worked at the local library. In addition to her literary interests, Tartt was also a cheerleader for her high school basketball team when she was a freshman. In 1981, Tartt entered the University of Mississippi, where her writing talents were noticed by her professors.
One of Tartt's biggest supporters at the University of Mississippi was author Willie Morris, the school's writer–in–residence. Another professor who favored Tartt's work was Barry Hannah. Tartt sometimes took classes with graduate students and outshone them. While Tartt was emerging as a distinctive literary voice, she pleased her mother by joining a sorority.
After her first year at the University of Mississippi, Tartt transferred to a private college in Vermont, Bennington College. There, she continued to enhance her knowledge of Greek and English literature. She also became friends with at least two future important novelists, Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt. Ellis was already working on what would be his defining novel, Less Than Zero. By the end of her years at Bennington, Tartt began work on what would become her first novel, The Secret History.
After Tartt graduated from Bennington College in 1986, she moved to New York City, living in Greenwich Village. She also lived in Boston, Massachusetts, for a time, and went back and forth between the cities. During this period, she attended an art school in New York City for a short time, but did not have much skill as a painter and gave up this pursuit.
While living in New York City and Boston, Tartt continued to work on The Secret History. Ellis introduced Tartt to his literary agent, International Creative Management's Amanda Urban, who became Tartt's agent as well. When Tartt neared completion of the manuscript for The Secret History, Urban began a bidding war. A manuscript was circulated among those in the know, creating demand.
The Secret History was sold to the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company in 1991 for $450,000 for hardback rights. International rights were sold for $500,000, while paperback rights were sold to Ivy for $510,000. These were amazingly high numbers for a previously unpublished novelist. Tartt's novel was sold just before the American Booksellers Convention, adding to its buzz.
When The Secret History was published by Knopf in 1992, it had a distinctive design, including a different shape than most novels; it was proportioned so that it would stick out on a bookstore shelf. Even before it was published in September of that year, the 850–page–long novel had good word of mouth among booksellers and reviewers.
Tartt's novel was a mystery–thriller set at the fictional Hampden College, a small liberal arts college in Vermont not unlike her alma mater, Bennington College. The Secret History 's plot focused on a group of select college students studying with a classics scholar, Julian Morrow. The story is told from the point of view of Richard Papen, the narrator and a scholarship student from California, whom even the reader cannot trust because he wants to be accepted by the students as well as the readers.
Papen tries to befriend the already tight group of Henry, Francis, Bunny, and the twins, Camilla and Charles. Morrow had told his students about Greek bacchanals (a orgy–like celebration). Inspired by the idea of the bacchanals, the students tried to recreate such a frenzy with drugs, herbal potions, and alcohol, but a human sacrificial killing proved to be the only way they could come close to the thrilling feeling. Bunny, the only one who did not participate in the murder, is aware of what they did, and wants to tell. The four plus Papen murder Bunny, and Tartt explores the price each pays for their crimes. The Secret History also delves into how the campus panics after Bunny disappears and the Federal Bureau of Investigation comes on campus to investigate.
The Secret History was minimalist in the literary sense, but rich with details about colleges, romance, and Greek literature and history. Tartt's gothic thriller received mixed reviews from some critics. They believed that though she knew her material from a scholarship point of view, she lacked sufficient skill in plotting, character development, and relationships. Others believed that letting the characters remain incompletely drawn allowed readers to better identify with them.
One reviewer, Alexander Star, wrote of Tartt's novel in the New Republic, "Tartt records the aftereffects of unpunished crime with great skill. But her efforts to transform a chronicle of suspense into a study in sensibility are less successful.… Like her Bennington peers, Tartt offers the aroma of decadence, not its anatomy; stylish intimations of misbehavior, not visions of hell. She leaves her hero hanging out at the abyss, admiring his new sneakers."
Despite some initial critical negativity, Tartt's novel was a best seller for many months in the United States and aboard. The Secret History spent 13 weeks on the New York Times best–seller list, and three months on the Publishers Weekly best–seller list. The novel sold millions of copies worldwide, including more than a million in the United States (both hardcover and soft cover). Critics eventually praised it, and The Secret History was considered a success. The film rights were bought by Alan Pakula, but the film was not immediately made as the project passed though a number of hands in Hollywood.
After the success of The Secret History, Tartt stayed out of the spotlight and did not publish another novel for ten years. During that time, she lived in Manhattan, on a plantation she bought in Virginia with some of her earnings, and in France for a time. Tartt also traveled to other countries abroad. She did not completely stop writing, however; she had a few short stories published in leading magazines like the New Yorker and Harper's, and contributed poems and non–fiction works to The Oxford Mississippian, including a 1994 essay on cheerleading.
Many questioned how Tartt was going to follow up The Secret History. Though she was already working on a second novel before The Secret History was completed, she kept this work to herself. Tartt would not succumb to pressure to produce a novel a year. She told Charlotte Abbott of Publishers Weekly, "Those were not the rules I wanted to play by. I can't think of anything worse than having a big success, and then trying to rush out another big success." She was a slow writer, allowing herself to become immersed into the world of her novel over a number of years before its completion.
Tartt published her second novel, The Little Friend, in 2002. Tartt had built up expectations among readers and critics by taking a decade between novels. As with her first novel, she received another huge payment from her publisher, Knopf. Like The Secret History, the novel's story focused on intense personal relationships and murder, though this time, a child in Mississippi served as its focal point.
Set in the early 1970s, The Little Friend focused on the life of 12–year–old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes. Harriet lives in a small Mississippi town and becomes determined to avenge the death of her nine–year–old brother, Robin, which happened when she was an infant. Robin was found hanging in a tree in the yard of the family home. After Robin's death, Harriet's mother, Charlotte, withdrew from her family, and Harriet's father, Dix, moved away. No one was ever charged with the crime, and Harriet was raised by her three great–aunts and the family's housekeeper, Ida.
Harriet, a fan of adventure novels and Bible stories, enlists her best friend, Hely, to help her get revenge for Robin's death. Harriet decides that a former schoolmate of Robin's named Danny did the crime and decides to kill him. However, Harriet gets more than she bargained for because Danny is a drug addict (and has a brother who runs a crystal meth lab) and becomes paranoid about her following him. As a result, Harriet tries to kill him with a stolen cobra.
Tartt creates many challenges in Harriet's life. In addition to running into danger by wanting to kill Danny and deal with his drug–producing brother, her home life suffers. Ida is fired, and one of her great aunts, Libby, dies. Tartt uses these intense relationships to explore ideas about race and class in the South in this time period. She was praised for how she wrote about the South, catching its words and phrasings, and the social study aspects of it. Tartt structured it like a novel by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, but with a twist of the child's point of view.
Like The Secret History, The Little Friend generally had positive reviews. However, some critics still had problems with her plotting of the story, though others believed that the pacing reflected the setting of the novel. The Little Friend was seen as giving the readers more emotional currency to which they could relate. A number of reviewers compared the character of Harriet to such classic literary characters as Huck Finn and Scout La Rue. As Malcolm Jones of Newsweek wrote, "If To Kill a Mockingbird is the childhood that everyone wanted and no one really had, The Little Friend is childhood as it is, by turns enchanting and terrifying."
The Secret History was nominated for a number of literary prizes. They included a nomination for the Orange Fiction Prize for Property in 2003, and a place on the long list for the 2003 International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Tartt planned to follow this novel up with a novella based on the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. This was a commissioned work, done as a part of a series of books for Canongate, a Scottish publisher.
Though Tartt made her name in public as a writer, she actually spent much of her time reading, primarily books published in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. She claimed to enjoy it more than writing in some ways, and she allowed reading to cut into her writing time. Liz Seymour of Book quoted Tartt's editor, Gary Fisketjon, as saying, "She's such a dedicated reader and has been reading so long it's almost in her marrow. More than even most writers, her reading informs her writing."
The Secret History, Knopf (New York City), 1992.
The Little Friend, Knopf (New York City), 2002.
Book, November–December 2002, p. 42, p. 80.
Boston Globe, November 10, 2002, p. E9.
Daily Telegraph, June 4, 2003, p. 2.
Independent (London), May 21, 2002, pp. 4–5.
Independent on Sunday (London), October 20, 2002, pp. 1–2.
New Republic, October 19, 1992, p. 47.
New Statesman, October 28, 2002, p. 48.
Newsweek, October 21, 2002, pp. 66–68.
New York Times, November 16, 1992, p. D6; October 17, 2002, p. E1; November 19, 2003, p. E2.
People, September 14, 1992, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, September 9, 2002, p. 18.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 2002, p. D1.
Sunday Star Times, November 10, 2002.
Time, August 31, 1992, p. 69; October 21, 2002, p. 74.
World Literature Today, July–September 2003, p. 100.
"Donna Tartt," Mississippi Writers Page, http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms–writers/dir/tartt_donna/ (February 9, 2004).
— A. Petruso