The Denver Post
December 22, 2002
By Dylan Foley
In 1992, Donna Tartt burst onto the American literary scene with her debut novel "The Secret History," a beautifully written story of a murderous society of classics majors at an elite Northeastern college. The book sold a million copies, Tartt was lionized as a new literary star and her keen intellect and a preference for dramatic black outfits made her a media darling.
In the past 10 years, little has been heard of Tartt. Rumors swirled she had bought an island and was living like the James Bond character Dr. No or that she suffered from horrible writer's block.
Tartt actually was writing her second novel "The Little Friend" (Knopf, 557 pages, $26), the tale of 12-year-old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a tomboy who lives in a sleepy Mississippi town, where her family has been devastated by the murder of her only brother Robin. Part "Treasure Island," part "Harriet the Spy," it is a demanding novel, full of exquisite images of dying Southern gentry and the class and race turmoil of the 1970s South.
Harriet picks out Danny Ratliff, a local speed addict, as the man who murdered her brother and stalks him with a stolen cobra.
"It is difficult to write a second novel," said Tartt in an interview at a Japanese tea room in New York City. "The way I dealt with it was by trying to write a completely different type of book, taking on new challenges and working on different questions. There is a different idiom in the book."
The 38-year-old Tartt is a tiny woman, with dark hair and light green eyes. She cuts an intimidating presence because she is always impeccably dressed, but she laughs easily and enjoys talking about her new book.
The idea for "The Little Friend" started evolving when she read a footnote about snakes. "I was finishing up the first novel and I was checking my Greek quotes," said Tartt. "Snakes are part of the Dionysian ritual. This footnote said this tradition survives today in the hills of Kentucky, this religious practice of handling snakes. There was a real sense of 'My god, I live quite close to the only place in the world where something like this is still practiced.' This was definitely part of the new book."
For Tartt, her writing process is very old style. "I write by hand," she said. "I write in these spiral composition notebooks, like the ones I used to have in school. They have to be big fat ones, because I write big fat novels. When I can't find a notebook, I'm like Medea, storming through the house: 'Where's my notebook?"'
Tartt's fictional town of Alexandria, Miss., is in the throes of post-civil rights changes, where the old Southern culture is giving way to new housing developments. The dying aristocracy that Harriet's family comes from watches as race relations change. Then there are the Ratliffs, the poor, white criminal family that is cooking methamphetamine in their backyard.
"In the 1970s when I grew up," said Tartt, "you have two things going on - the very slow, ritualistic way of the tea parties, the garden club meetings, then you have the bulldozers coming in and building strip malls and highways. Someone made the comment of making the Ratliffs speed addicts. It was right - the new (world) was about getting it in, getting it done, and driving fast cars."
Raised in the tiny town of Grenada, Miss., Tartt went to the University of Mississippi and Bennington College in Vermont. She lives in Manhattan and on a farm in Virginia.
Though Tartt was mentored by the legendary Mississippi writer and editor Willie Morris, she wasn't influenced by Southern writers. "As a child, I read Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle. The only Southern writer I read much was Edgar Allan Poe," said Tartt. "I learned my craft from those early books, partly because I like 19th century novels better than 20th century writers."
Tartt's childhood reading had a major influence on the new novel. "When I was a little girl, my favorite books were really for boys," she said. "It struck me that if Jim Hawkins (in Stevenson's "Treasure Island") had been a little girl, he would have acted differently. Little girls are craftier, they play with their cards closer to their vests, they hold grudges. I thought it would be interesting to see how a little girl would react."
In "The Little Friend," Tartt develops strong female characters, including Harriet's grandmother, Edie, and Gum, the matriarch of the outlaw Ratliffs.
They are both tough women who come down hard on their families. "It is valid and true that it is a book about two grandmothers who are different socially and culturally, but who have similar attributes," said Tartt. "This is a book about the matriarchy."
Harriet and her young friend Hely expose themselves to a lot of danger in the novel. "My compass, what I used when I felt I was getting off track in the book, was the terror of being a child, when you are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Tartt. "Children don't have any weapons to use against adults, except evasion - running away, lying and hiding. They can't meet in direct combat."
The drug writing in the book is some of the best in the novel. At points, the reader can feel trapped at the table with the paranoid Ratliff brothers as they are strung out on meth. "In Faulkner's time, they would be moonshiners," said Tartt. "Today, they would grow marijuana or make speed."
Tartt found her drug material in odd places. ``The Internet is an amazing thing," she admitted. She found the website for the Washington state outlaw press Loompanics, known for its antigovernment books. The rest became literature. ``I used Uncle Fester's 'Secrets to Methamphetamine Manufacture,"' she said. ``I am a very big fan of Loompanics."