This article is part of our series “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” in which we profile some of our favorite Dixie ladies and the things that make them awesome. Got an idea for a fabulous femme we should feature? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! (Alliteration optional.)
Born: December 23, 1963, Greenwood, Mississippi
Profession: author, recluse, genius, style icon
Reasons she’s awesome: Words cannot express how much I love Donna Tartt. Her first novel, The Secret History, came into my life at a very particular time (age 17, loaned to me by a boy), and it has stuck with me ever since. I get lost in the language and the story, which takes its time, until it doesn’t and I find myself unable to put it down no matter how many times I’ve been down that road (by my count, my next reading will be my fifth). I feel like I know Richard and Bunny, Henry and Francis, Charles and Camilla. Their stories have worked their way into my bones, and it’s one of the few books I can go back to again and again and still be just as enchanted as on my first reading.
Tartt is a careful writer, steeped in the classics (she often draws comparisons to Dickens and Dostoevsky). She also gets lumped in with another Southern female writer, one Harper Lee, since both have a tendency to make readers wait a long time between novels (Ms. Tartt’s decade-long breaks are still dwarfed by Ms. Lee’s 65 years). The Secret History came out in 1992 and was an immediate sensation. But rather than get swept up in the fame that scrambles to cling to a dazzling debut novelist with astute sartorial sensibilities and cheekbones that could cut glass, she took her time and maintained an iron grip on her privacy (which, of course, only increased the intrigue around her, and left the public clamoring for crumbs of insight into her world). The Little Friend arrived in 2002, its Southern tale narrated by a young girl a stark contrast to the Vermont college cohort of The Secret History, but with some similar themes of death, intrigue, coming of age, and identity. In 2013, Tartt released her most recent novel, The Goldfinch, which tracks the misadventures of Theodore “Theo” Decker from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again after a terrorist attack on an art museum sends his life reeling. The book earned Tartt the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, to which she said she was “very happy and very delighted. And surprised.”
Given her tremendous success and skill at crafting captivating tomes chockablock with richly imagined eccentrics, it is perhaps no surprise that Tartt’s roots are Southern. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and raised in nearby Grenada (population 13,000), Tartt still has a Southern lilt that infuses her readings (the audiobook of The Secret History is illuminated by her drawl). Not much is known about the upbringing of the extremely private writer: She was raised by a businessman-turned-local-politician father unhappily married to a secretary mother, she has one sister (younger), and as a precocious young bookworm who memorized poems and short stories for fun, her life’s ambition was to be “an ar-chae-ologist.” In 1981 she enrolled at the University of Mississippi, joining the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. Her writing quickly caught the attention of professors, who admitted her into a graduate-level short story writing course as a mere freshman. She soon transferred to Bennington College in Vermont, where she would meet classmates Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, and Jill Eisenstadt. Nowadays, she splits her time between Manhattan and the Virginia countryside, and rocks crisp white button-ups and black blazers with enviable aplomb. As the New York Times put it, “Donna Tartt is the kind of writer who makes other writers, in the words of her fellow Southerner Scarlett O’Hara, pea green with envy. She is so thoroughly well read that she is known to quote entire poems and passages from French novels at length in her slight Mississippi twang. In photos, she projects a ghostly mystery, her porcelain skin and black bob suggesting a cross between Anna Wintour and Oscar Wilde. And her self-confidence is so unshakable that it wouldn’t occur to her to fret that her novels, all three of them, only come out every decade or so.” Given her track record, we have another 8 years at least to wait until her next book hits shelves. So in the meantime, you can find me scouring the internet for interviews, lusting after her bob, and rereading The Secret History, again.
Favorite quips and quotations:
“The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”
“I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” (The Secret History)
“Even if it meant that she had failed, she was glad. And if what she’d wanted had been impossible from the start, still there was a certain lonely comfort in the fact that she’d known it was impossible and had gone ahead and done it anyway.” (The Little Friend)
“When you feel homesick,’ he said, ‘just look up. Because the moon is the same wherever you go.” (The Goldfinch)
“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.” (The Goldfinch)
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.” (The Secret History, exactly two pages into the book, and it gives me chills every time)