Breaking Her Silence

I could start with an anecdote, a revealing vignette, say, set in a Japanese teahouse in Manhattan where I met Donna Tartt for an interview (it tickles her that in this teahouse you can get green tea, the beverage at the heart of Japan's ritualistic tea ceremony, in a go cup). Or I could talk about the frenzy of chatter filling up the shrinelike Web sites where her fans speculate endlessly about what she's been up to since her acclaimed, best-selling debut novel, "The Secret History," appeared 10 years ago ("My favorite rumor," she says with a giggle, "was that I'd bought an entire island, like Dr. No"). Or I could talk about the reception her new novel, "The Little Friend," received when it was published in the Netherlands last month (most salient fact: it sold 150,000 copies in one week).

It's tempting to just go on telling stories about Tartt, because she's a character--Mississippi bred, Bennington educated, a snappy dresser with an eccentric streak (she won't talk about her private life, won't even say if she's married: "As Mississippi John Hurt put it, 'Ain't nobody's business but my own' "). More important, she became a literary superstar on the basis of a single novel. She published "The Secret History" when she was 28 (the legendary editor and writer Willie Morris told her "I think you're a genius" when he met her at Ole Miss; she was still a teenager). "The Secret History" was the talk of the literary world, with critics competing to pile on superlatives. The Gothic tale of five New England college students involved in two murders, the book sold more than a million copies. But after that, there was not another word from Tartt, no new novel, year after year after year. And so the rumors started afresh. She was blocked. "The Secret History" was really the work of a boyfriend. And on and on.

But now there is a book, so enough already with the rumors. Because what you really want to know is, how good is it? In fact, "The Little Friend" is a terrific story--a much better book than "The Secret History." It's got a main character, a 12-year-old girl named Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, who ranks up there with Huck Finn, Miss Havisham, Quentin Compson and Philip Marlowe, fictional creations who don't seem in the least fictional. I read this novel a month ago, and since then I have gone back over and over to keep company with Harriet. She is not a particularly nice kid ("Harriet," the book tells us when she is introduced 26 pages into the story, "was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart"), but she seems as real to me as my own children.

In the book's opening pages, Harriet's 9-year-old brother, Robin, is found dead, hanging from a tree in the Dufresnes yard on Mother's Day. At the time, Harriet is only a baby. Twelve years later she sets out to find his murderer. Her search occupies the rest of the book, and along the way we meet her loony mother, her dotty great-aunts, her magisterial grandmother and a clan of drug-dealing white trash who would scare anyone but Harriet halfway into the next county. The 38-year-old author etches each of these characters with indelible assurance. Any one of them could single-handedly dominate most novels. But Harriet outshines them all.

So the first thing I wanted to know when we met was just how much of Tartt was in Harriet. "Not as much as you might think," she replies. Yes, both Harriet and Tartt grew up in small Mississippi towns in the '70s. Both were loners, voracious readers with few playmates and surrounded by aging relatives. "Harriet is actually more a state of mind, a sort of no-nonsense trait that runs in my mother's side of the family. My great-grandfather used to talk about his own grandmother like that, and she must have been born in the 1820s or 1830s." And frankly, Tartt is much nicer, and a lot funnier, than the grimly determined little girl in this novel. You can't imagine Donna Tartt trying to kill anyone, certainly not with a cobra.

You sure can't imagine tomboy Harriet winning Little Miss Grenada County's beauty contest when she was 4 years old the way Tartt did, decked out in a Jackie O pink sheath dress by her style-conscious mother. But that contest's result is a gimme when you look at Tartt all grown up. At five feet tall, she's no bigger than a minute, but she's the most coutured author you're ever likely to meet, in a black suit that sets off her sea-green eyes, which match her cuff links, watchband and handbag, a boxy leather contraption ("I like it because it reminds me of a lunchbox"). Sipping her iced green tea and nibbling at finger sandwiches, Tartt looks like almost anything but what she is--a thoughtful, erudite author trying to remember how "The Little Friend" got started. "It's so long ago," she says, "but I think it began with the snakes."

Snakes, and snake handling, play pivotal parts in this novel. In one especially frightening scene, Harriet breaks into a house filled with a fundamentalist's caged serpents, "the hissing treasure chests of nightmare." This is where she steals a cobra--and where the book turns inexorably away from the world of children's fantasy and toward the dirty realities of drug dealing, paranoia and murder.

Upon publishing "The Secret History," Tartt enjoyed the distinction of being that rare writer from the South who very pointedly had written an entire novel on subjects that had nothing to do with where she grew up. So what sent her home for "The Little Friend"? "It took a lot of time living away from Mississippi to be able to see it clearly enough to write about it," says the author, who shuttles between a New York apartment and a farm in Virginia. "People think creative writing has to do with being swept away by emotion, but it's not, really. There has to be a coldness of observation in order to write."

Her patience paid off. "The Little Friend" gets all the little verbal tics just right: a boy talks of having his photograph "made," not "taken"; a man answers the phone: "Yellope"; a redneck names his German shepherd "Van Zant" (it's a Lynyrd Skynyrd homage). On a grander scale, she writes shrewdly about race and class, especially when the two subjects are entwined: "Families like Harriet's... would not tolerate for one moment brick-throwing at children white or black... And yet there Harriet was, at the all-white [private] school."

"The Little Friend" is about childhood, but there's nothing sentimental about it. As one of Harriet's aunts observes, "It's awful being a child, always at the mercy of other people." The novel reaches its climax when Harriet belatedly realizes how irrevocable life can be, and what a serious business it is. It is not, though, one of those cliched loss-of-innocence stories, except, as Tartt points out, that "all life is a loss of innocence. It's a loss of innocence to turn 60 and find out what that's like. It's a loss of innocence to be 80 and in a nursing home. Life is a long, hard process of disillusion." 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.

By now it should be obvious what Tartt's been up to since "The Secret History" came out: she's been slaving away on this extraordinary book. "I much prefer to write slowly," Tartt says. "It's like gardening, which I also love. I love to see things take shape in their own time." Writing is the way she makes sense of the world. "I wrote for years when I wasn't getting paid for it. I did it even as a child, the way some kids like to draw or play the piano. And I've kept meticulous journals since I was a little girl. It's like my life isn't real unless I make my journal entry every day." Now, through the alchemy of fiction, she's made her world indelibly real for the rest of us.