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The Secret Historyby Donna Tartt
Author Q & A
Q: What is it about Bennington that has nurtured so many successful young novelists?
A: For one thing, it just happened that there were a lot of talented students there at the same time. For another, we had good teachers: Arturo Vivante, Joe McGinnis, Nicholas Delbanco, Mary Robison, and Jamaica Kincaid, to name just a few. They were all very different from each other and had different styles, which kept writing classes from being too formulaic and workshoppy. So instead of being rigorously schooled to turn out writing in one particular form or style (like the minimalist Carver style that was so popular in writing workshops in the 1980s), we students were seeing all kinds of work and hearing all sorts of theories, some of them contradictory, and we basically ended up learning what suited us each individually--with a lot of other disciplines thrown into the mix--and teaching ourselves to do the kind of work that we wanted to do. But, perhaps most important, the creative writing that came out of Bennington drew a lot of energy from other artistic disciplines. Jill Eisenstadt was a music major; Bret Ellis studied music, too; and Jonathan Lethem was a painter who read a lot and wrote a lot but (as far as I know) never took any creative writing classes at all. This is why the writers who came out of Bennington in the mid-eighties (and there are a lot of us) are all so different from each other in terms of style.
I can't speak for other Bennington writers, and am more akin to the Bennington poet Reginald Shepherd than to my fellow novelists in this particular respect, but as a writer who is very influenced by classicism and by the nineteenth-century novel, I personally learned a great part of my craft from literature professors like Claude Fredericks and Alvin Feinman and Georges Longree and Maura Spiegel and the late Richard Tristman. Back then literature at Bennington was taught in a way that was very immediate and relevant for young artists. It wasn't just the critical, analytical brand of comparative literature one usually encounters in academia. The literature and languages faculty were keenly aware that they were teaching young artists as well as young scholars. A lot of us wanted to learn how to make art--we weren't satisfied with pure criticism and interpretation. So there was a very practical feel to much of what we were taught: We learned how certain effects were achieved, the nuts and bolts of craft. One would come home from a class on Dante or Proust or Homer all excited about the technical lessons and processes that one wanted to put to use in one's own work. For all these reasons, I find the radical restructuring of Bennington that has occurred in the last decade and a half extremely sad. The intellectual atmosphere has been completely lost, as evidenced by the fact that young writers aren't coming out of Bennington anymore.
Q: It's been said that books have greatly influenced your life. As a writer, who are some of the authors that you admire?
A: Austen, Poe, Wilde, Stevenson, Kipling, Dickens, James (both William and Henry), Tolstoy, Conan Doyle, Conrad, Nabokov, Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Salinger, Borges, Yukio Mishima, to name just a few. Poetry also informs my work, and the list of poets I admire is actually much, much longer than the list of novelists above. Obviously, I'm also interested in classical Greek literature and philosophy. Not many people pick up on this, but The Secret History is actually quite influenced by a certain type of children's novel (such as Peter Pan, or Mary Poppins, or the novels of Enid Blyton) where children live in a world of their own, largely unsupervised by conventional adult authority. I'm also interested in memoir and biography, and particularly in true-crime narrative.
Q: The Secret History is your first novel . . . quite an astounding feat at five hundred plus pages.
A: Actually, it was a thousand manuscript pages before it was typeset. They printed the book so there were more words per page, so it seems shorter than it really is. I didn't understand this before I became a writer--a publisher can make a book longer or shorter depending upon how they decide to print it. It's all about marketing.
Q: You began work on it your second year in college. Explain the process. Did you ever think you'd actually finish such a massive manuscript?
A: When I started it, I didn't intend it to be a massive manuscript. But I continued to be interested in what I was doing, and the pages piled up.
Q: How long did it take you to complete the book?
A: Ten years. But it wasn't ten years of working every day. There were several years where I put the manuscript aside and didn't work on it at all. I have Bret Ellis and Joe McGinnis to thank for the fact that I picked it up again, and my dear friend Paul McGloin to thank for the fact that I was able to see it through to the end.
Q: Did you have an incredible feeling of accomplishment at the completion?
A: Well, the predictable answer would be yes, but the actual answer is no. I loved working on The Secret History, and I was rather sad when I finished it.
Q: The Secret History spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. What is it like to have your first novel be such a huge success?
A: An incredible surprise. I never expected it to be successful, and I still don't quite understand why it was, though certainly I'm delighted about it.
Q: The Secret History has been compared to a Greek tragedy; it certainly has all the components . . . beauty, unrequited love, betrayal, mystery, and murder. Simultaneously, it has been categorized as "Southern gothic" and "brat-pack."
A: I'm puzzled by how a novel set wholly in New England, with virtually no Southern references or allusions, could be categorized as Southern gothic.
Q: It has even been compared to Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rope. How would you categorize your book? Or would you prefer it not to be categorized at all?
A: Well, as evidenced by all these disparate comparisons, I don't think it fits into an easy or convenient category.
Q: Richard Papen, the novel's narrator, is an outsider who builds a fictitious life for himself in order to fit in. We can all relate to this sense of wanting to belong; was this a conscious effort on your part in order to make the reader sympathize with the character?
A: No, I didn't purposely cast my narrator as an outsider in order to make him sympathetic (I don't much care whether the reader sympathizes with the narrator or not--and, in fact, a lot of people don't sympathize with him at all). But it was a conscious decision to narrate the novel from the perspective of an outsider.
Q: Have you ever pretended to be someone else in order to fit in? I suppose in a sense we all do in some way or another--do you agree?
A: "Fitting in" has never been a big priority for me.
Q: The group of Greek scholars plants such a vivid image in one's mind that it is obvious why Richard is attracted to them. Why are they, in turn, attracted to Richard? Why is he allowed into their exclusive clique?
A: Well, he's observant and discreet. He's smart. He's different enough in his upbringing to seem exotic to the rest of the Greek class. I am currently reading the novel aloud, unabridged (for Harper Audio), which is an interesting process in all sorts of ways (not least because I haven't even glanced at The Secret History for ten years), but I guess the aspect of the novel that surprises me most in reading it again is Richard's caginess and control in his interaction with the other characters.
Q: Henry has almost no knowledge of popular culture; he is surprised to learn that someone walked on the moon! This seems to symbolize his otherworldliness. It is as if the group of scholars comes from a different era. Was this your intention?
A: Young scholars--from whatever era, from whatever discipline-- are generally held to be unworldly. That was as true in the fourteenth century as it is now. I've known young physicists and computer scientists who are so consumed by their work that they can scarcely carry on a conversation.
Q: Julian is shrouded in mystery from the onset of the novel. He inspires love and respect and even a sense of worship from his young proteges. He acts as a sort of Svengali. How much of the blame do you think he shoulders for the sad turn of events?
A: It's hard--if not impossible--for me to stand back from my characters like a judge and assign blame or praise. I just don't see the book in such terms.
Q: After all, he first discussed the Dionysiac ritual and the idea that "beauty is terror" (p. 40). He planted the seed of the Bacchae in the minds of Henry and the others.
A: Are ideas, and the free exchange of ideas, to be held responsible for acts that may result from their misinterpretation? That's a dangerous notion.
Q: All of the main characters come from dysfunctional families. Is this why they are so drawn to each other? To the "father figure" of Julian?
A: Well, that is a very mechanistic and deterministic way of looking at the story, and not at all the way I would describe it myself. I suppose that one could also describe Huck Finn and David Copperfield and Davy Balfour and Kimball O'Hara as products of dysfunctional families, driven by the search for a father figure. But to me this seems reductionist and absurd.
Q: "I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone's life when character is fixed forever: for me, it was that first fall term spent at Hampden" (p. 80). What was the "crucial interval" in your life?
A: Before I was ten.
Q: The Secret History deals with the inevitable loss of innocence. When reading about the idyllic days at Francis's country house before the downward spiral, the reader (along with Richard) finds himself wishing it could last forever. Why did you choose to let the reader know right from the start that this is not to be?
A: In classical literature, you have the idea of starting a story in medias res: in the middle of things. We are told, in the first few lines of the Iliad and the Aeneid, what these stories will be about. But the mystery is exactly how the story will unfold, and therein lies the suspense. Audiences of Greek tragedy were well aware of the myths or stories that the tragedies were based on. It wasn't any surprise to them when Klytemnestra murders Agamemnon. In fact, great tension is created in the play because the audience knows that Agamemnon is going to be murdered. So when Klytemnestra is behaving in a conciliatory and forgiving manner toward Agamemnon and Cassandra, and not much is really happening onstage, it actually makes the audience quite nervous, because everyone except Agamemnon knows she's going to kill them both shortly. Anyway, revealing the end in the beginning is a very ancient way of telling a story, which is partly what made it appropriate for this novel, but it is also a surprisingly effective tactic for building suspense; and unlike many tropes and devices of classical literature, it translates well to a modern audience, which is why one sees this particular trick of storytelling so often in the movies.
Q: Although the crime of Bunny's murder goes unpunished in the legal sense of the word, no one escapes. Is this a comment on what is just? From Richard's summation at the end of the novel, it is obvious no one ends up leading a happy life. Did they get what they deserved? Or do you believe it is psychologically impossible to live a normal life after committing such an act?
A: In terms of psychology, it's well-known that many killers go on to live "a normal life" after committing the most heinous crimes imaginable. But it's important to remember that not all murderers are sociopaths. Because the characters in my book have consciences, and are possessed of a moral sense, they suffer greatly as a consequence of what they've done.
Q: Tell us about your much-anticipated second novel, The Little Friend, due out in October 2002; there is much speculation about the plot. Why did you wait so long to release it?
A: In truth, it was a great luxury to take my time on my second book. I was fortunate not to have to hurry out a quick follow-up in order to pay my bills, as so many novelists are forced to do. I wanted to start again from zero, as if I'd never written a novel before, and write a big self-consistant and self-contained book that was rich and complicated and set in a completely different world from The Secret History.
Q: It has been said that the second novel is "easier" to write than the first. Do you think this is true?
A: It depends. If the second novel is a development of the first-- then yes. But in a way, The Little Friend was another first novel for me. It's so different from The Secret History that, when I was writing it, I felt that I'd never written a novel before. I wanted to speak in a different language, wake up in a different place, imagine everything anew. It's what Zen Buddhists call "beginner's mind"--emptying oneself of preconceptions and ideas, coming to the task afresh. And if one begins at the very beginning, there aren't any shortcuts.
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