Excerpted from The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Copyright © 2002 by Donna Tartt. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Donna Tartt, Author of THE LITTLE FRIEND
A: About what?
Q: That you can finally tell people your novel is done.
A: Actually, I enjoy the process of writing a big long novel. Melville came up with the best metaphor for it: a deep-sea dive. “I love all men who dive,” he says. “Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he dont attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plumet that will.” He’s talking here not about Moby Dick, as you might think, but about writers—about “thought-divers,” as he calls them, “the whole corps that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.”
Anyway, it gets into one’s blood, this long lonely way of writing, like a long sea-voyage. Men used to come back from three-year whaling voyages sunburnt and emaciated and vowing never to go on another one, yet something would draw them back to the water again. And it’s the same with me. I’ve written only two novels, but they’re both long ones, and they each took a decade to write. It’s a slow, quiet, gorgeous drift, with its own pleasures and difficulties and dangers, completely removed from whatever storms are going on up on the surface, and there’s a slight sense of decompression when I come back up and into the regular old noisy world again. So I’m rather anxious to get back to work on something else. Not preliminary dives—not the little shallow ones, where you’re only getting ready—but the kind where you don’t come up again for years.
Q: It’s been ten years. Inevitably, people are going to ask, why so long?
A: There’s an expectation these days that novels—like any other consumer product—should be made on a production line, with one dropping from the conveyor belt every couple of years. But it’s for every writer to decide his own pace, and the pace varies with the writer and the work. The Little Friend is a long book. It’s also completely different from my first novel: different landscape, different characters, different use of language and diction, different approach to story. Taking on challenging projects is the way that one grows and extends one’s range as a writer, one’s technical command, so I consider the time well-spent.
When I was young, I was deeply struck by a piece of advice that John Gardner gave to beginning writers: “Write as if you have all eternity,” he says. This is the last thing a publisher or an agent or an accountant would tell you, but it’s the best advice in the world if you want to write beautiful, well-made books. And that’s what I want to do. I’d rather write one good book than ten mediocre ones.
Q: Like its predecessor, THE LITTLE FRIEND opens with a murder and deals ostensibly with crime and punishment. Why are you fascinated with these subjects?
A: I’m interested less in the act of murder itself than in what drives people to it, and the echoes and repercussions of the act.
Q: What prompted you to adopt the point of view of a young girl?
A: Actually, the novel isn’t from the point of view of a young girl—a good deal of the novel is seen through her eyes, but by no means all of it. We also see into the hearts and minds of her grandmother, her mother and sister, her best friend—and we see too across town, into the hearts and minds of the people who are her sworn enemies. It’s the viewpoint some critics call “authorial omniscient” and for reasons which are probably obvious, it’s much more technically difficult to write than first-person.
I think that any writer will tell you that it’s extremely hard to write about children, but the trick is to resist the temptation to make them “lovable.” Children have very sharp powers of observation—probably sharper than adults—yet at the same time their emotional reactions are murky and much more primitive. They see things quite clearly, but they don’t entirely understand what they see, and they don’t understand the full consequences of their actions.
Q: Ultimately, THE LITTLE FRIEND is an adventure story in the vein of classic tales by Stevenson and Dickens.
A: Well, Dickens didn’t really write adventure stories, not the way that Stevenson did. They are very different writers, though something they share is a sharp visual perception and an even sharper eye for human nature, the character-betraying detail. But what mainly makes them both so delightful is that they are natural storytellers who have a wonderful command of style—even though their styles are very different.
Storytelling and elegant style don’t always go hand in hand. The storytelling gift is innate: one has it or one doesn’t. But style is at least partly a learned thing: one refines it by looking and listening and reading and practice—by work. When one finds the two together—storytelling and style—it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to me. These are the books I never tire of. Too often, writers only think that one aspect or the other is important. If I was forced to choose between the two of them, I would have to choose style: I love Proust, who’s an exquisite stylist, but sometimes a lax storyteller. Whereas I’m not so crazy about a writer like Theodore Dreiser, who’s a crack storyteller with no sense of style at all. But the books I love best marry the two elements, and I try to marry the two in my own work.
Q: Did the work of Dickens and Stevenson exert any influence over you while you were working on THE LITTLE FRIEND?
A: In a subliminal sense, mostly. The books I loved in childhood—the first loves—I’ve read so often that I’ve internalized them in some really essential way: they are more inside me now than out.
Q: How prominently do innocence and the loss of innocence figure in THE LITTLE FRIEND?
A: That’s not really an issue of the book, as far as I’m concerned—which is to say, I don’t think about abstract concepts such as “innocence” or “loss of innocence” while I’m working. That’s something that readers come in and find (or don’t find) in the finished work, much later. It doesn’t figure at all in the making of the work.
When I’m writing, I am concentrating almost wholly on concrete detail: the color a room is painted, the way a drop of water rolls off a wet leaf after a rain. Then—once one captures the detail itself—there’s the work of getting the sound right, the particular rhythm of a sentence or a paragraph or a line of dialogue. But almost never, in writing a novel, do I find myself thinking about themes or symbols or things of that nature. They either occur naturally within a story—which is to say, spontaneously and unconsciously, as they do in a dream—or else they seem a bit forced.
Q: Do you feel that you are a Southern writer?
A: People always want to call me a Southern writer but though I grew up in the South, I don’t feel that the label quite fits my work. My first book was written in New England, about New England. And I’m working on two projects at the moment—one a novella, the other a new novel—neither of which has anything at all to do with the South. So I’m not a Southern writer in the commonly held sense of the term, like Faulkner or Eudora Welty, who took the South for their entire literary environment and subject matter.
Q: What was it like for you to write a novel so immersed in Mississippi culture? Was there a lot of research involved, or did you draw more from personal experience?
A: Well, this is the nice thing about being a novelist, as opposed to a non-fiction writer (who has to do a lot of research) or an autobiographer (who relies on personal experience). The job of the novelist is to invent: to embroider, to color, to embellish, to entertain, to make things up. The art of what I do lies not in research or even recollection but primarily in invention. If a novel is merely a presentation of documentary facts then it isn't very interesting reading. You might as well read a travel guide or look at old photographs.
1. The prologue offers glimpses of the household before Robin’s body is discovered. What do the descriptions of Charlotte, Edie, the great-aunts, and Ida Rhew show about the individual characters and the family dynamics? Do the reactions of Charlotte and Edie to the tragedy simply reinforce an established pattern or does a more profound change occur? How do their stories about Robin—their “exquisite delineation of his character—painstakingly ornamented over a number of years” [p. 19]—differ from their embellished and often improvised memories of life at Tribulation and other family stories?
2. Tartt writes “From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a slightly distressing presence in the Cleve household. . . . Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact” [pp. 27–28]. Does Harriett live up to this description? Does she change over the course of the novel?
3. “She did not care for children’s books in which the children grew up, as what ‘growing up’ entailed (in life as in books) was a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character” [p. 157]. How do the adventure stories Harriet prefers inform her notions of what “growing up” entails? What does her choice of books reveal about her perceptions of how the world works and the things she will need to survive? Does she have a greater understanding of the adult world than most children her age?
4. The elderly Cleve sisters all have clear places in the family’s self-portrait. Edie, for example, “was both field marshal and autocrat, the person of greatest power in the family and the person most likely to act” [p. 28]. Do the other sisters fall as easily into general characterizations? Are Charlotte, Allison, and Harriet contemporary versions of the older generation? How do Tartt’s descriptions of minor characters like Mrs. Fountain [pp. 33–35] and Hely’s mother [pp. 212–14] help to bring the central female figures into sharper focus?
5. “Because her father was so quarrelsome and disruptive, and so dissatisfied with everything, it seemed right to Harriet that he did not live at home” [p. 68]. Why does Harriet see her father in such a stark, uncompromising way? What insight does this offer into Harriet’s approach to her emotions and her experiences? Are there incidents in the novel that present a different, more sympathetic view of Dix?
6. Harriet pieces together her case against Danny Ratliff from conversations with Pemberton Hull [pp. 105–108] and Ida Rhew [pp. 143–50], information she’s gleaned from local newspapers, and “random little scraps she’d picked up here and there over the years” [p. 119]. Does the evidence Harriet collects provide convincing proof of Danny’s guilt? What factors contribute to Harriet’s confidence that she has solved the mystery of Robin’s death? What makes Harriet decide to track down Robin’s killer? Does Harriet understand the emotions that trigger her need to find Robin’s killer? Why is she so sure that Danny is guilty of the crime? How valid is her reasoning and where does it fall apart?
7. How do the physical settings help to establish the social landscape of the novel? Why does Tartt call Tribulation an “extinct colossus” [p. 43], for example? What is the significance of the mounting chaos and disarray in Harriet’s own home? What does the new housing development, Oak Lawn Estates [pp. 165–66], represent?
8. The account of Harriet and Hely’s attempt to steal a poisonous snake from Eugene’s apartment and their confrontation with the Ratliff brothers [pp. 300–330] is almost unbearably frightening and intense. What devices does Tartt use to build and sustain the suspense?
9. A collection of misfits, fanatics, and criminals, the Ratliff family seems to embody Edie’s view of the white underclass: “The poor white has nothing to blame for his station but his own character. Well, of course, that won’t do. That would mean having to assume some responsibility for his own laziness and sorry behavior” [p. 146]. Do the portraits of the Ratliff brothers reinforce or belie Edie’s assumptions? What redeeming characteristics do Danny and Eugene have and how does Tartt make them apparent? Why has Tartt included Curtis in the family? How does his presence add to our understanding of the family?
10. A strong matriarch presides over both Harriet’s family and the Ratliffs. What qualities do Edie and Gum have in common? How does each exercise her power? To what extent are their approaches to life defined by their social status and personal experiences? Does Gum’s own life, for example, justify “the main lesson she had drilled into her grandsons: not to expect much from the world” [p. 357]? In what ways do the lessons Edie imposes, either explicitly or implicitly, reflect her own strengths and weaknesses? What comparisons can be drawn between Danny and Harriet’s families and, in particular, between Danny and Harriet themselves?
11. Why does Ida Rhew play such a critical role
in Harriet’s life? How does Ida’s position in the household illuminate the shortcomings not only of Charlotte, but of the other adults in Harriet’s life? How do the family’s reaction to her departure and Ida’s response to being fired [pp. 357–67] undermine Harriet’s vision of her world? In what ways do the emotions she experiences reflect both her perspective as a child and her emerging awareness and acceptance of adult uncertainties and moral ambiguities?
12. What do you make of the end of the novel? Hely thinks, “The mission was accomplished, the battle won; somehow—incredibly—she had done exactly what she said she would, and got away with the whole thing” [p. 624]. Harriet decides “She’d learned things she never knew, things she had no idea of knowing, and yet in a strange way it was the hidden message of Captain Scott, the part of the story she’s never seen until now: that victory and collapse were sometimes the same thing” [p. 544]. What do you think of these two very different assessments? How do they reflect the natures of the two characters? Does it matter that Robin’s murder remains unsolved or do you accept, as Libby says, that “the world is full of things we don’t understand” [p. 140]?
13. The Little Friend explores the relationships between blacks and whites in Alexandria from several perspectives. The blatant racism of the Ratliffs is clearly shown in such incidents as the shooting at the river [p. 142]. In which ways does Harriet’s family also exhibit a deep-seated, if more subtle, strain of racial prejudice? Is Harriet’s shocked reaction to Ida’s story about the church burning [pp. 146–47] a sign of her naiveté or does it reveal a sense of morality that distinguishes her (and by extension, her peers) from past generations?
14. The novel begins with stretches of long, languorous prose but later the pace quickens. What techniques does Tartt use to achieve this?
15. The term “Southern Gothic” is often used to describe writing set in the American South, from Tennessee Williams’ and Carson McCullers’ tales of families shaped by tragedy, insanity, and alcoholism to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Are there elements in The Little Friend that can be described as Southern Gothic and, if so, what are they? Were you reminded of other literary styles or authors while reading the book?
16. The novel’s epigraphs come from St. Thomas Aquinas and Harry Houdini. Why is this rather odd coupling of a religious scholar and saint and a magician appropriate to the story Tartt tells? What lesson is implicit in both quotations? Has Harriet gained “the slenderest knowledge of the highest things” by the novel’s end?