Donna Tartt answers questions about secret history, social media and more

“The Secret History” was released 30 years ago — and ever since, fans have been clamoring for a sequel that delivers the same heady mix of mystery, mythology, tight-knit groups of friends and unreliable narrators.

Jenna chose Donna Tartt’s debut novel and true modern classic for the final Read With Jenna 2022 selection.

“With a book as layered as ‘The Secret History,’ there will be new discoveries every time you read it. I feel like this is the kind of book that needs to be re-read every 10, 20, 30 years,” Jenna tells TODAY.com.

After 30 years, readers like Jenna have multiplied Enough few questions. Below, Tartt answers a few of them, which come from Read With Jenna members and Jenna herself.

Questions from Jenna

What has the response to the book meant for you over the past 30 years?

Donna Tartt: I like that it meant something to people — that readers not only enjoyed wandering in the imaginary space of the book, but kept coming back to it. For me, writing a novel doesn’t feel like addressing an audience, so much as a direct interaction with one other person—the lone person who pulls the book off the shelf and reads it, whoever that is—so I’m less concerned with the wider impact of the book than with how it resonates in the lives of individual readers. If the book keeps someone company in a difficult period of life, I am happy. I received touching letters from people in prison. I also loved hearing from young people who were inspired to study the classics after reading the book.

How much has your life changed since the book was published?

On one level, the tasks that have come my way since the publication of the book have almost nothing to do with the factors that allowed me to write the book, but I have had a life full of travel (the book has been published in 40 languages) and it has been more than wonderful to have followers and freedom to write what I want.

Questions from readers

Did you imagine then what kind of impact the book would have?

I’m thrilled that the book continues to resonate with readers — I couldn’t ask for anything better. People associated with The Secret History speak passionately about it — it’s not a book for everyone, but reactions to it, good or bad, are rarely lukewarm.

Where do you get ideas for fiction?

Everywhere — from travel, from history, from gossip, from true crimes, from stories in magazines at the dentist’s office, from childhood memories, from rumors and songs, from dreams (I mean this literally — I keep a dream diary, and dreams often enter my books). I think the assumption is that novelists get some huge idea in one piece, and then all they have to do is sit down and write it. And that may be true for some novelists, but for me a book is a storm, a swarm, a party. Ideas don’t come to me individually, in huge chunks, but come from thousands of different sources and tributaries that develop over a long period of time, and I think the texture of my books reflects that.

Have you ever read ‘The Secret History’ again? If so, what was the experience like?

I re-read it about 15 years ago and it was strange because it evoked very clearly where I was and sometimes even what I was wearing when I wrote certain passages. Other passages seemed foreign and as if someone else had written them.

How do the characters from the book still live on for you?

There’s no way to build a solid or realistic literary character without putting a lot of yourself into it. With The Secret History, my DNA is recognizably woven through all the characters—which just means that a gesture or a turn of phrase or the intonation of my own voice will unexpectedly evoke Francis, say, or Henry, and the emotions and ideas that went into their creation.

Richard in “The Secret History” however, he lives on for me in a more practical way than any character I’ve ever written. Richard’s voice, to begin with, was a fictional voice, constructed for the purposes of the story I wanted to tell, but because I spent so many years when I was young writing almost exclusively in Richard’s voice, his narration ended up influencing my writing voice quite profoundly.

We are forever looking for a book like ‘Secret History’. Are there any books you recommend as a follow-up?

Not much of a sequel, although I can point people to some books that were important to me when I was writing The Secret History that fans of the book might enjoy. I couldn’t have written or even thought of writing The Secret History without Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is as sharp and shocking as ever on the page – it’s a short novel, very compact and modern by 19th century standards.

  • “Le Grand Meulnes” by Alain Fournier has a lot to do with the elegiac atmosphere of the novel, the feeling of a lost, magical past – as does “The Great Gatsby”.”
  • Brian Moore’s “Cold Heaven” and Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” helped me keep an open sense of what was possible in a literary novel.
  • It’s a shame that people seem to be mostly familiar with the film version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” because Patricia Highsmith’s novel differs in key respects and is far superior.
  • The books of George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh were very important to me when I was writing The Secret History and still are. At the time I read them obsessively – novels, essays, letters, everything.
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s novels are also a cornerstone.
  • Anyone who wants to know more about the ideas behind the book should read “Bacchae” by Euripedes (I like Richmond Lattimore’s translation) and “Phaedrus” and “Apology” by Plato—many people will be turned off by the mention of Plato, but these two dialogues in particular were life-changing.
  • “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice” by JF Martel had not yet been published when I wrote “The Secret History”, but it very clearly articulates some of my ideas about art as a meeting place of otherwise ineffable ideas and a channel to reality beyond the human : “True beauty is not beautiful. It is a crack in the facade of the everyday, a sudden revelation of the forces boiling beneath the surface of things.”

Between ‘The Secret History’ and ‘The Goldfinch’, what do you find most attractive in writing young characters of this general age? What qualities do they have in terms of development and plot that older adults don’t?

Younger characters are usually more malleable than older ones because they are less determined by circumstances and have more room to grow. Although with older, more established characters, there are more opportunities for twists and surprises.

What inspired the character names? We couldn’t help but notice that Charles and Camilla — like the current King and Queen of England — were prominent.

I can’t remember how Charles got his name, but Camilla got hers from Camilla, a warrior girl in the Aeneid — Virgil calls her a “sacred falcon” and there is a beautiful passage where the mothers of Italy gather to watch Camilla go into battle. I read Aeneid for a lecture at exactly the time I started writing The Secret History. Camilla is as strong and heroic as any other soldier in the song and her name stuck out to me.

At some point after the book was published, my publicist, Bogie, called me excited because “Charles and Camilla” had been prominently mentioned in some major news as Person of the Year. But, of course, it turned out that they were talking about another Charles and Camilla, and not about my characters.

Why are you not on social media?

I was warned about it early on. Years ago, in India, I was the only America at a big dinner where everyone was talking about social media, which was very new at the time. Some of us (myself included) had never heard of it – I was trying to figure out what it was and how it worked, but Becky Swift, daughter of Margaret Drabble, was very adamant: “You should never have social media Donna, it’s a terrible idea to you, it’s noisy and shallow and distracting and will creep into your reading and writing life in a thousand horrible ways and be a monstrous waste of your energy and time. Promise me you’ll never touch it.”

And I did not. It will be years before people start talking about how destructive social media is or how insidious it will prove to be on so many cultural, political and personal levels. So I’m extremely grateful to Becky for talking me out of it before I stumbled into it — Becky died young, and I’m sad that I never got the chance to say how much that conversation changed my life for the better.

Do you have any guilty pleasure books or TV shows?

I don’t like most television – the rare exception was “Better Call Saul”. I love Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” episodes and noir movies from the forties and fifties and old RKO or Universal horror movies.

I don’t feel guilty about reading any books that I enjoy or that keep me interested, although sometimes I do feel guilty about listening to an audiobook instead of reading a paper book. That’s probably stupid because I listen to audiobooks at times when I shouldn’t be reading anyway, when I’m walking the dogs or ironing shirts.

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