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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
In contrast to her often severe-looking author photos, Donna Tartt in person is warm and vivacious, speaking with a lingering twang leftover from a childhood in the small town of Grenada, Miss. Her second novel, “The Little Friend,” was based on that childhood spent amid eccentric great aunts who shared an invented language and wore white gloves at DAR tea parties, but it was Tartt’s first book, “The Secret History,” published in 1992, that made her name. “The Secret History” was written while Tartt was an undergraduate at Bennington College in Vermont, and it remains one of the most indelible college novels of all time; the fascination commanded by that novel alone assures that Tartt can publish a book every decade or so and never worry that readers will have forgotten about her.
Tartt’s new novel, “The Goldfinch,” has been hailed by Stephen King on the front page of the New York Times Book Review as a “triumph” and “a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.” It’s the story of Theo Decker, a boy who loses his adored mother in a terrorist bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and somehow wanders away from the scene with the painting that gives the novel its title. The picture (currently part of a visiting exhibition at the Frick Collection in Manhattan), is one of the few surviving works by the Dutch master Carel Fabritius; the painter was killed and most of his oeuvre destroyed in 1654, when a gunpowder warehouse next to his studio in Delft exploded.
“The Goldfinch” is a meditation on beauty and love, two things equally fragile and enduring, but above all it’s a marvelous feat of storytelling, reminiscent of the great 19th-century novels Tartt grew up reading. I recently met with her (in restaurant not far from the Park Avenue enclave where Theo finds brief shelter after his mother’s death) to find out more about the novel and its author.
What drew you to the work of Fabritius and “The Goldfinch” as fictional subjects?
It was just a gift, when I read about the history of the painting. He died young. Insofar as we know him, he was revolutionary. He was Rembrandt’s most famous pupil, the great painter of his day. If you look at “The Goldfinch,” it’s that quality of daylight. It’s Rembrandt’s technique, but not that golden, lit-from-within quality of Rembrandt. Fabritius used it to paint sunlight. Vermeer picked up on that. The quality of daylight that we love in Vermeer, he got from Fabritius. He was the link between Rembrandt and Vermeer.
He was perfect to write about because he’s so unknown that he’s like something from [a story by Jorge Luis] Borges, this very famous painter who might exist and might not. So little is known about him, he’s on the edge between fiction and nonfiction, legend and reality.
And he died in this terrible catastrophe.
Egbert van der Poel, another artist of the time, did painting after painting after painting of Delft after the explosion that killed Fabritius. They’re really haunting. Smoke coming up from the ruins, little fires burning, black birds in the air.
So he was like Theo, who keeps reliving the explosion that killed his mother.
I don’t even know what van der Poel painted before Delft blew up, but after it blew up he couldn’t paint anything else. When the great Buddhas at Bamiyan were destroyed, before 9/11, that was a really traumatic event. That’s where I got the idea of writing about a piece of art that is imperiled or maybe destroyed.
But it sounds like Fabritius came into the novel a bit later, rather than being the inspiration.
With all my books, I start with a general mood before I have a story. “The Secret History” very much started from a mood. A mood of cold rooms, ink on your hands and feeling homesick, away from home for the first time.
This book really began 20 years ago in Amsterdam. My first book did very well there, and as a consequence I ended up spending a lot of time there. I wrote a lot there. A lot of what I write doesn’t end up in a novel. I keep notebooks and write in them all the time. I wrote a lot about Japan, for example, when I was there. It hasn’t found a home in a novel yet and it might not ever.
Another important setting for “The Goldfinch” is New York. This is really your first big-city novel.
New York is New Amsterdam. I’ve lived here off and on since 1987. Those parts of “The Goldfinch” started as a dark, spoiled Park Avenue mood. Park Avenue — but a bit off. And then that evolved into something Dickensian because it had to do with questions of wealth. Theo’s setup is Dickensian. I love Dickens a lot and just kind of internalize him.
So you didn’t necessarily start out intended to write a long Dickensian book?
I never want it to be really long! I always think, “I want this to be really short,” but it never happens that way.
So the beginning was just a fog of motifs, settings and moods?
Exactly. Very nebulous. You don’t know what you’re doing for a long time. It seems like a huge mess because it is a huge mess. If you looked at the notes from early on in the writing of this book, you’d think, “This person is crazy. This could never be a novel.” That’s how all my books have felt when I started writing them. Trying to explain them to people was like trying to explain a dream.
That makes a lot of sense. Your novels often feel to me like a series of very heady moods cinched together by a strong story line. In addition to New York and Amsterdam, in this one there’s also the Las Vegas interlude: hanging around in a deserted, failed subdivision in the desert, wasted youth in the middle of nowhere.
All that is a way in for me. To think about a place has always been a way into a story.
You’ve got some bravura passages in this book depicting post-traumatic disorientation. The first is Theo’s experience in the Metropolitan Museum of Art after the terrorist bombing and the second, which I won’t describe because it happens much later on, is the immediate aftermath of a violent incident in Amsterdam. It’s very striking in that you depict him as being in an altered state. I assume you wrote the museum scenes after 9/11?
Some of it I did, but some of it I didn’t. Actually, the mechanics of that bombing are very different. It’s not high in the air. The model I was working from was Oklahoma City: Down on the ground.
When Theo is in this state, the sentences become merely nouns, or he doesn’t always understand where he is or who’s with him.
I wrote that first and then cut it up, and fragmented it. Literally, like a [William] Burroughs cut-up. Mix things around, out of order. That was very hard to write. And there was also a lot of research because a bomb going off in a building like the Met — that’s never happened in real life. I had to construct that. There would be huge amounts of white powder, huge amounts of dust. It’s not like anything we’ve seen, a different kind of physical event. Oklahoma was a different kind of structure. There was a lot of research just figuring out what it would look like.
But also what it feels like to be in it. Not that I’ve ever been in a bombing.
I haven’t either! I did read a bit, but I’ve been in a couple of car accidents and know how time slows down and goes funny and how there are gaps, things you don’t remember, and weird things that you do.
That’s one of the most interesting things the novel can do, which is to portray things from the inside. In film you can’t do that. You’re looking at someone’s nervous state, looking at Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion.” You don’t really know what she’s thinking. A novel is really the only way you can be someone else.
Another form of altered state you portray is simply … drugs. You write really well about drug use and about the way it shapes certain relationships. It can create a social bubble that blocks out the rest of the world and that in turn sort of stews and intensifies the relationships of the people inside. Bubbles like that are a recurring theme for you. The seminar students in “The Secret History” and the clans in the small Southern town of “The Little Friend” all have that quality. Even though Theo lives most of his life in a big city, he’s always wrapped in an enclave: The rich, dysfunctional Park Avenue family who take him in, or when he gets a job in an antique shop that’s never open.
Yes, but one thing I love about New York is that it’s a series of small worlds. I’ll be walking down the street and catch a glimpse in the window of an apartment. I’ll never go in that place, but I know something really interesting is going on in there. The embassies over in the East 60s — there are these parties over there, and you just see this hand reaching up to let a curtain fall.
Part of it, too, is growing up in a small town and an insular family. Then I went to a very small, very insular college. I think that’s just how the world naturally arranges itself around me. Even when I come to the biggest cities in the world, everything is a series of small rooms.
It’s also so powerfully reminiscent of the cocooning of a child reader with a book.
Oh, god! My mother would talk to me, and I wouldn’t hear what she was saying. It’s a self-protective thing. I can remember once being on a train in India. It was a bad train, dirty, stopped in a field for 12 hours and we didn’t know when it was going to start again. It was hot, there were flies, hard metal seats. The only book I had with me was a not particularly interesting study of Hinduism. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so deeply as I read that one, going into it with such ferocity. Because I really didn’t want to be on that train, and that book was what I had.
What was your first book as a child?
The first book I really fell hard for was “Peter Pan.”
That’s such a weird book! People who only know that movie or the play have no idea how strange that novel is.
I loved it. There’s something of “Peter Pan” in every single thing I’ve written. It’s there in everything, very, very deeply. I also loved “The Wind in the Willows.” My mother read that aloud to me. “Peter Pan” was the first book I loved that I read to myself. It was a drug, an altered state of consciousness. You weren’t at your school. You were really somewhere else.
Did you ever surreptitiously read a book while you were in class?
All the time! I had all kinds of methods for it — opening it down by my leg and glancing at it “casually.” I would also make my own small books that I could sneak looks at in class.
When we were kids, it was so much more difficult to find the kinds of books we wanted than it seems to be for kids today. I remember so much frustrated yearning, but also that the books I did find for myself, like the E. Nesbit books or Edward Eager, were so precious.
It was really hard for me. Our library was built by the WPA and then after that they sort of stopped buying books. That’s why I’ve read so many 19th-century books. It was all they had. There weren’t a lot of new children’s books. I couldn’t get the Narnia books. They did order “The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” but other than that … I’d hear about a book like “Paddington Bear” or “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” on “Captain Kangaroo,” and maybe my aunt Frances would buy it for me.
Who knew that “Captain Kangaroo” was the Oprah of 1960s children?
He was! That’s how I found out what people were reading.
Your books capture and inspire that submerged feeling of childhood reading so well, even when the characters are grown up. I mean, they’re partly in this new world — they have cellphones and know how to Google — but Theo also seems withdrawn from it. He works in this sleepy shop and watches mostly old movies.
That’s just me. I’ll sit around and watch five Peter Lorre movies in a row.
Is Theo like you? He’s not autobiographical, obviously, but in taste?
His take on things is not a million miles away from my own.
He’s a little bit out of time, or the flow of the immediate.
Not in an unpleasant way. I like that feeling in a book. There are no dates, for instance, in “The Secret History,” and that’s very deliberate, and I didn’t do it in “The Goldfinch” either. It’s really an alternate history, because the Met wasn’t bombed eight years ago, of course.
Many writers today complain about difficulty focusing and technological distractions. You live on a farm in Virginia part of the time, but is that a problem for you?
I understand it. Since finishing the book I’ve been thrown into having to check my cellphone more than five times a day. I used to check it once a week. I’d leave it up in a corner of the house, because that’s the only place where there’s cellphone reception. Now it’s very different. Obviously I can’t do that right now or people from Little, Brown would come and break down my door.
Theo, like Richard, the narrator of “The Secret History,” is a man. Is there something particularly appealing for you about male narrators?
Well, I alternate, since “The Little Friend” is about a girl. It’s a very feminine book. It’s set in a female world. So coming off of that, it made for a change.
True. It’s also a third-person narrative about a child. “The Goldfinch” has very much the how-I-grew feeling of “David Copperfield.” This isn’t really fair, but when you have a novel like “The Goldfinch” — with that Dickensian length and the different milieus it moves through, and with that robust storytelling — if it’s a female main character at the center of a book like that, we’re almost conditioned to think that the key issue in the novel will be …
I know, I know! I’m making a face because I know exactly what you mean. It’s terrible.
I had a fairly well-known editor tell me that “The Secret History” would never be published because no successful book by a woman had ever been written from the point of view of a man, and that I would have to change it to a female narrator. But that novel would never have worked with a female narrator because then you would inevitably have the question of whether she was attracted to some of the male characters … it would just never work. It would have been a different book. It could only work if no question of attraction came into it.
It’s such a frustrating thing about that style of novel, which is probably read now by more women than men, that almost as a reflex we’ve come to expect that, if the main character is female, the resolution of the novel will be about her finding a romantic partner. We even discuss it as a question of which guy she’ll “end up” with, because that’s the kind of ending that satisfies people.
And you know something? A lot of readers get mad when that doesn’t happen. People don’t like this, if they think they’re getting one kind of book and you give them another. People really are annoyed by that.
I did read one of the reviews of this novel, the Stephen King one in the New York Times Book Review. I couldn’t not read that. There’s a part where he says he’s impressed with how well I write about these closed male worlds that I was never a part of. But I was a part of those worlds. To be a girl who’s friends with boys … I’ve always had lots of male friends, close male friends. It’s really not a million miles away from what happens between Theo and [his best friend] Boris. It actually is something that I know about. But if I had made Theo a girl, then there would have been all kinds of …
That must be frustrating.
It is. It’s very hard to move past those conventions. You’re setting up very different kinds of expectations. And if you don’t fulfill them, then it becomes a novel about thwarted expectations, if [in a silly sing-song voice] they don’t get married.
Elizabeth Gilbert says that’s what she set out to do with her new book, write a long novel about the life of a woman who is saved by her work, not love.
I read that interview with her, too, and thought it was wonderful. I thought, brava, to do that. It’s difficult even to write a book about a man whose life is saved by work. That’s a hard book to write, a hard sell.
I think she pulls it off. I hate to think this fixation on marriage plots is a reflection of what readers think is the most important thing in any woman’s life. But there are certainly readers who only want to read books about characters who are as much like them as possible.
I know some people are like that, but, man, that just seems so boring to me! You know, the fun thing about writing a book is that it really is a different life, just as reading it is like a different life for the reader. I don’t want to write about my own life, I want to write about someone else’s, to live someone else’s life.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)