Greenwood native Donna Tartt is best known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning 2013 novel The Goldfinch. Born on 23 December 1963 to Don and Taylor Tartt, Donna Tartt was raised in Grenada and educated at the University of Mississippi and Bennington College. A sickly child, she spent her childhood reading and writing and was doted on by a large extended family, as she details in her memoir, “Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine,” published in Harper’s in 1992. Tartt wrote her first poem at the age of five and published her first sonnet in the Mississippi Literary Review at the age of thirteen. In 1981 Tartt enrolled at the University of Mississippi, where her writing for the newspaper captured the interest of Willie Morris, who told her, “I think you’re a genius.” Although Tartt was seventeen and Morris was in his late forties, they became literary friends, a friendship detailed in Tartt’s poignant tribute to Morris in the Oxford American after his death in 1999. Morris encouraged her to enroll in Barry Hannah’s graduate writing workshop, but Hannah declared that she had already surpassed his graduate students, and the two men encouraged her to transfer to Bennington College in Vermont to further develop her talent. There she forged literary friendships with fellow students Brett Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt and began work on what became her first novel, The Secret History. That book and her other novels echo her childhood reading of classic adventure stories such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan, Treasure Island, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as well as evoke the major themes and questions of the Greek tragedies.
Tartt spent ten years laboring on The Secret History (1992), which launched her into literary stardom. She has subsequently maintained that pace, releasing her second novel, The Little Friend in 2003 and The Goldfinch in 2013. All three novels are haunted by murders, but Tartt describes herself as more interested in the “echoes and repercussions of the act [of murder] through time.” In The Secret History, classics majors at a northeastern college commit a murder, but the story’s real interest lies in the complicity of narrator Richard Papen, his role as an outsider, and the choices he makes once he becomes privy to the secret history.
In The Little Friend twelve-year-old Harriet tries to solve the mystery of her older brother’s disappearance and then avenge his murder. Set in Mississippi, The Little Friend meditates on classic themes of good and evil as well as perceptions of truth and reality. While The Secret History scrutinized the microscopic community at an elite eastern college, The Little Friend widens the lens to explore a variety of ages, classes, and races in the changing Sunbelt South of the 1970s, a time when the cultural, social, and economic norms were undergoing rapid restructuring.
Events in The Goldfinch, too, are set in motion by murder—in this case, a terrorist attack at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. After his mother dies in the bombing, thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker embarks on a worldwide odyssey that involves crime, drugs, and ultimately another killing before he finds redemption. The highly acclaimed story spent thirty weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Although murder is the central or initiating action of all three novels, they are not mysteries. Instead, Tartt explores how the act has a rippling affect on all those involved.
- Therese Eibeen, Poets and Writers (24 August 2007)
- James Kaplan, Vanity Fair (September 1992); Talk of the Nation, NPR (5 November 2002)
- Donna Tartt, Harper’s (July 1992)
- Donna Tartt, Oxford American (September–October 1999)