The evening in the Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library begins with a sincere expression of enthusiasm on the part of the interviewer, introducing and welcoming the author.
Not rote expression of interest or distant admiration, but a sense of true excitement as Jared Bland takes his seat, and the author of The Goldfinch stands at the lectern to read from a segment near the end of the novel.
Donna Tartt first saw a copy of Carel Fabritius’s 17th-century painting in Christie’s in Amsterdam. For her, books come from a mood that won’t leave, and she simply has to work through it in fiction. The intersection between this experience in Amsterdam, with her fascination with New York City (New Amsterdam) and endangered art (like the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiwam in 2001), and a trip to Las Vegas (with all the connotations of luck, chance, fate and fortune) resulted in a 771-page novel.
The Goldfinch was born of the tension between majesty and fakery. Stylistically and structurally, the novel might have seemed an unfashionable work, had its author come upon it in the library she worked in as a teenager.
As a young library worker in a small town, she felt as though there was only room for minimalist realism on those library shelves, like Carver’s works about “grown-up horribleness”, suburban chronicles about marital disarray, the kind of novel which continues to dominate. And, yet, there is room for the Pynchonesque novel now, she says: a work like The Goldfinch “doesn’t feel as unfashionable now”.
The young Donna Tartt, earning $2.10 hour, found the arrival of new books in the library exciting, although the books themselves did not always appeal; perusing John Updike’s The Coup, she was unimpressed. It seemed puzzling, baffling. Nor did Mrs. Dalloway appeal. “Well, this is just crap,” the young Donna Tartt exclaimed, but when she re-read Woolf in her 30s, she realized that those observations said more about her as a younger reader than about Woolf’s fiction.
Both as a reader and a writer, Woolf is now a figure to admire, and she mentions her desire to find a streak of lightning just once on a draft page, even if it takes an entire page, just as Woolf described.
The influence of books and reading is fundamentally important to Tartt. In responding to an audience question about The Little Friend, the author observes that subconsciously her decision to re-read Harriet the Spy did impact the novel, but it’s hard to predict how reading will come out in a manuscript. If a book she loved as a child impacted the work, it was not a deliberate decision.
“If there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader.”
Between writing novels, she reads a lot. While on holiday some years ago, she read John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and her memories of Canada are now pressed in that book. Characters in her books are often bookish as well, with Harriet’s reading in The Little Friend playing an important role, and the overt influence of reading material in The Secret History (she steers clear of spoilers).
In this regard, the characters in The Goldfinch also present an abundance of cultural reference. Boris and Theo have an obvious interest in movies and music, whereas Andy’s interest in Japanese manga/comics was more apparent in scenes that remain unpublished.
In response to an audience member, Donna Tartt relucantly and laboriously chose the five books she would take to a desert island: the OED, Lolita (all about knowing one’s soul from the inside), Bleak House (Jared Bland grunted approvingly, which he does whenever someone mentions this novel), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (there’s some of it in each of her books), and The Great Gatsby.
“Books are a kind of medicine; we take them in and they change us; you are different, altered forever after you read a book.” It is the experience of another person’s soul, she explains.
Boris is one of Jared Bland’s favourite characters in recent years, he comments, and several audience members nod in understanding. The author speaks of the way in which her characters inhabit her, the way she takes notes from each character’s perspective. “Sad to say, they are my galley slaves.” Characters can occasionally surprise you, but generally they follow authorial direction.
As readers would guess, discussion of The Goldfinch leads to talk of art, even beyond the painting which inspires the story, but when reference is made to the Nietzsche quote “”We have art in order not to die of the truth”, the discussion wraps up. What can follow Nietzsche.
The evening ends with a rush of applause and polite nods and smiles, with Donna Tartt standing in thanks for Jared Bland’s thoughtful questions, followed by a quiet repetition of gratitude, inaudible beyond the front rows.
My current reading stack includes both The Goldfinch and The Luminaries. It seems ridiculous to even think of adding to it and, yet, I’m now eyeing The Little Friend.