Donna Tartt mesmerises at the Cambridge Union

Kenza Bryan 21 November 2013

We’ve waited ten years to see Donna Tartt this side of the Atlantic, and the same length of time to read something new of hers. The release of her new novel, The Goldfinch meant that avid fans were finally able to catch a glimpse of the author in person at the Cambridge Union last Wednesday.

It might have been the unexpected southern twang, maybe it was just the wood panelling of the room – but there was definitely something of another era about the evening, and when the evening finally drew to its close, it was only by giving the audience a small but dramatic bow that she could stem the flow of deafening applause, heightening the intensely theatrical impression she seems to give off.

The world renowned author of The Secret History spoke compellingly about her new book and how consumed by her characters she becomes during the writing process, still now occasionally jotting down thoughts as Theo, the main character of her latest novel.

Despite the evening’s apparent informality, that allowed a great deal of time for questions and answers, it seemed to me that when members of the audience probed at more difficult topics – like the spectre of addiction, her dislike of publicity – Tartt’s answers left much unsaid. Indeed, in terms of the themes that she covers, her cult-readership and modest aversion to publicity, it is difficult not to draw parallels with J. D. Salinger.

In answering the interviewer’s questions however, she displayed evident mastery in the art of storytelling, flitting effortlessly from modern day Las Vegas to the seventeenth century Dutch master Fabritius, only briefly returning to the room to lay a pair of cool eyes on the audience. Tartt described how she finds herself lost in colour-coded snow drifts of drafts and notes over the ten years it takes her to write a novel, but in person she came across as incredibly lucid, with a razor sharp bob and mesmeric clipped tones that waxed lyrical about the power of the written word: “To know another person’s soul from the inside: only books can do that.”