If I was Donna Tartt and I was in Edinburgh for one night, and I’d playfully mentioned ‘Potter’ in my latest novel, I’d stay in the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, in the room where JK Rowling completed the final pages of the Harry Potter series. It’s not as fanciful as it seems. Unlike the cold persona she puts out – few interviews – professional photo shoots in an array of serious poses – no blogging or tweeting or facebooking – Donna Tartt is engaging, delightful, entertaining and really rather lovely to listen to for an hour on a grey November night.
She came on in a bit of a rush, like a rock goddess whooshing through the corridor on the way to an event. Draped in a jaunty tartan scarf (which I’ll come back to later), DT enthused about art, about literature, about the trickery of artifice and how to deceive with truth. She was very good. And it was so appropriate to sit in the nave of a converted church, listening to her evangelise about writing – a religious spectacle where DT explained her reverence for the act of writing as a spiritual act as a form of spiritual connectedness between writer and subject, writer and reader – they [we] engage in a soul exchange; literature is the only medium, she said, where we enter another person and see what they see, feel what they feel, know what they know.
It was enthralling. I have to admit that this year’s literary events have seemed to me to be a bit jaded, as if the writers I’d listened to had dragged themselves out to speak to us because they had to, it was just another part of their job. I didn’t get that at all last night from Donna Tartt. For the first time in a long time (Margaret Atwood and Edna O’Brien excepted) I felt I was listening to a writer who really cared about her art as art, not just as a means of making a living; as if she wanted to make us care, searching for the right word, the exact metaphor to explain or describe what she was attempting to do in The Goldfinch and in her writing.
The Goldfinch is the best book I’ve read this year. Everything about it is perfect: characterisation, narrative drive, pacing, dialogue, cultural references, setting – it’s a superb achievement and well worth the eleven years it took to bring it into print. I only finished reading it a couple of nights ago and I’m still in that ‘it’s a great book’ phase you get after reading a great book and I have nothing to say about it, except telling everyone ‘it’s a great book’. (I’ll try and write something more meaningful by the end of the year.)
On the tartan – when she came in draped in a tartan scarf and laughing about buying a vintage kilt, I was disappointed. Typical, I thought, an American coming to Scotland thinking that tartanry is our culture and we’d love her for ‘joining in’. Oh I was wrong – happily. She explained, when I asked about it at the book signing, that it was a bit of fun – she knew it was all phoney but she was passing the vintage tartan shop on the Royal Mile (that shop and the one down the Grassmarket are tourist magnets) and felt a piece of tartan from there was appropriate to the idea of fakery and authenticity in The Goldfinch. She was right, I do love her for buying it because she understands (more than many Scots) about the fakery we accept as our past.
On Writing: Crumbs from the Tartt table
- DT has kept a writing notebook for decades, she owns piles of them where she writes snippets of conversations, descriptions, ‘bits and pieces of the mind’, she said, quoting Didion
- she writes and writes to hone her talent, as a pianist or a dancer, writing yards to get a sentence just right
- DT builds her scenes through small brushstrokes to perfect the texture of a character and a scene, building them up and going over and over, adding little telling details to bring them to life; make them authentic
- there’s a little bit of every writer in all their characters – which is not the same as saying ‘it’s about themselves’ (which is reductive)
- the opening of The Goldfinch is deliberately leisurely – like Hitchcock, DT builds the tension by looking away from the moment of high drama that’s just around the corner, drawing the reader in with lengthy description, exposition and dialogue
- writers should write for themselves
- there’s no ‘readership’ to write for but an ideal reader – one true person who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say
- tragedy, cruelty, horror and outrage are ‘sweetened’ by the act of writing – it can be cathartic for both the writer and the reader
**With thanks to Waterstones and Little Brown for bringing Donna Tartt up to Edinburgh and hosting a highly enjoyable evening.
*** Isabel Costello has reviewed both The Goldfinch and the London event on The Literary Sofa << well worth a read
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