I watched the ever-sparkling Kirsty Wark interview Donna Tartt one evening just before Christmas as I was preparing dinner. Soon I was watching, cooking and taking notes. I just love what she has to say about the qualities that she looks for in a book:
Reading’s no good unless it’s fun. But what I always want is…that childhood quality of just that gleeful, greedy reading, can’t get enough of it, what’s happening to these people, the breathless turning of the pages, that’s what I want in a book. But I also want something that’s well constructed too. I like to be able to drop down. Dickens goes so fast, he goes like lightning, but at the same time, any sentence you can lift up and it’s a marvel and a miracle. So to me, I want those two qualities, the two qualities of any great art: density and speed, density and speed.
I stood stirring dinner and having one of those light-bulb moments: yes, that’s what I want, to be swallowed whole, totally consumed by a book, just as the Biscuit is & just as I was at her age. And to not feel cheated at the end. There are books that colour the rest of your life while you’re reading them. Books that you don’t want to end because, while you’re still in them, the world seems different. Imagine having written one of them. I haven’t read The Goldfinch yet, but judging by the reactions I’ve read (here and here for a start) it’s one of those books.
For many years, I carried around a quote from the opening of The Secret History:
“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.”
It meant so much to me, and I think now of how young I was then. How, indeed, I could have had any number of stories to tell. This would have been 1996 or 1997; I was seventeen or eighteen, younger than Tartt’s narrator, Richard Papen. That scrap of paper in my wallet was a talisman that reminded me to make the difficult choices, to live the life that I wanted to live, to make sure that it was a story worth telling, to myself at least.