"The Secret History" was published 30 years ago — and ever since, fans have been looking for a follow-up that delivers the same intoxicating blend of mystery, mythology, tight-knit friend groups and unreliable narrators.
Jenna selected Donna Tartt's debut novel, and veritable modern classic, for the last Read With Jenna pick of 2022.
“With a book as layered as ‘The Secret History,’ there’s going to be new revelations every time you read it. I feel like this is the type of book that needs to be reread every 10, 20, 30 years,” Jenna tells TODAY.com.
After 30 years, readers like Jenna have racked up quite a few questions. Below, Tartt answers a few of them, sourced from Read With Jenna members and Jenna herself.
Questions from Jenna
What has the response of the book over the past 30 years meant to you?
Donna Tartt: I love that it’s meant something to people — that readers have not only enjoyed wandering around in the imaginal space of the book but have kept returning to it. For me, writing a novel doesn’t feel like an address to an audience so much as a direct interaction with one other person — the solitary person who pulls the book off a shelf and reads it, whoever that happens to be — so I’m less concerned with the broader impact of the book than with how it reverberates in the lives of individual readers. If the book keeps someone company during a difficult time in their lives, I’m happy. I’ve had some moving letters from people in prison. I’ve also loved hearing from young people who have been inspired to study Classics after reading the book.
How has your life changed since the book was published?
On one level, the tasks that have fallen to me since publishing the book have almost zero to do with the factors that that enabled me to write the book in the first place, but I’ve had a life filled with travel (the book has been published in 40 languages) and it’s been more than wonderful to have a following and the freedom to write what I want.
Questions from readers
Did you imagine, back then, the impact the book would have?
I’m thrilled with how the book continues to resonate with readers — I couldn’t have wished for anything better. The people who connect with 'The Secret History' are passionate about it — it’s not a book for everyone but the responses to it, for better or worse, are seldom lukewarm.
Where do you get your ideas for fiction?
Everywhere — from travel, from history, from gossip, from true crime, from stories in magazines at the dentist’s office, from childhood memories, from rumors and songs, from dreams (I mean this literally — I keep a dream journal, and dreams often make their way into my books). I think the assumption is that novelists get some giant idea all in one piece, and then all they have to do is sit down and write it. And that may be true for some novelists but for me a book is a storm, a swarm, a party. Ideas don’t drop down on me singly, in monumental chunks, but flow in from thousands of different sources and tributaries evolving over a long period of time, and I think the texture of my books reflects that.
Have you ever re-read 'The Secret History'? If so, what was the experience like?
I re-read it about 15 years ago, and it was uncanny because it brought back to me with great clarity where I happened to be and sometimes even what I was wearing when I wrote certain passages. Other passages seemed foreign and as if someone else had written them.
How do the characters of the book still live on for you?
There’s no way to build a solid or realistic literary character without putting a good deal of yourself in it. With "The Secret History," my DNA is recognizably twined throughout all the characters — which is only to say that a gesture or a turn of phrase or an intonation of my own voice will unexpectedly conjure up Francis, say, or Henry, and the emotions and ideas that went into creating them.
Richard in 'The Secret History" lives on for me in a more practical way than any character I ever wrote, however. Richard’s voice, to start with, was an invented voice, constructed for the purposes of the story I wanted to tell, but because I spent so many years when I was young writing almost exclusively in Richard’s voice, his narration ended up influencing my own writing voice pretty profoundly.
We are forever looking for a book like 'The Secret History.' Are there any books you recommend as follow-ups?
Not really as follow ups, though I can direct people to some books that were important to me when I wrote "The Secret History" that admirers of the book might enjoy. I couldn’t have written or even thought to write "The Secret History" without "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", which is sharp and shocking as ever on the page—it’s a short novel, very tight and modern by 19th century standards.
- "Le Grand Meulnes" by Alain Fournier has a lot to do with the elegiac mood of the novel, the sense of a lost, magical past — so too does "The Great Gatsby."
- "Cold Heaven" by Brian Moore and "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson helped me to keep an open sense of what’s possible in a literary novel.
- It’s too bad that people mostly seem to know the film version of "The Talented Mr Ripley" because the novel, by Patricia Highsmith, differs in key respects and is and far superior.
- The books of George Orwell and of Evelyn Waugh were very important to me during the time I was writing "The Secret History" and still are. I was reading them obsessively during that time—novels, essays, letters, everything.
- The novels of Vladimir Nabokov are touchstones, as well.
- Anybody wanting to know more about the ideas behind the book should read "Bacchae" by Euripedes (I like the Richmond Lattimore translation) and "Phaedrus" and the "Apology" by Plato—a lot of people will be put off by the mention of Plato but these two dialogues in particular were life-changing.
- "Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice" by JF Martel had not yet been published when I wrote "The Secret History" but it articulates very clearly some of my ideas about art as a meeting place for ideas otherwise inexpressible and a conduit to realities beyond the human: “True beauty is not pretty. It is a tear in the facade of the everyday, a sudden revelation of the forces seething beneath the surface of things.”
Between 'The Secret History' and 'The Goldfinch,' what do you find most compelling about writing young characters in this general age? What qualities do they have in terms of development and plot that older adults don’t?
Younger characters tend to be more malleable than older ones because they are less determined by circumstance and have more space to grow. Though with older, more fixed characters, there’s more capacity for reversal and surprise.
What inspired the names of the characters? We couldn’t help but notice Charles and Camilla — like the current king and queen of England — feature prominently.
I can’t remember how Charles got his name, but Camilla got hers from Camilla the warrior maiden in the Aeneid — Virgil calls her “a sacred falcon” and there is a beautiful passage where the mothers of Italy gather to watch Camilla heading off to battle. I was reading the Aeneid for a class right around the time I started writing The Secret History. Camilla is as strong and heroic as any soldier in the poem, and her name stuck with me.
At some point after the book was published, my publicist Bogie telephoned me in excitement because “Charles and Camilla” had been mentioned prominently in some notable news feature as personalities of the year. But of course it turned out that they were talking about a different Charles and Camilla and not my characters.
Why aren’t you on social media?
I was warned off it early on. Years ago, in India, I was the only America at a big dinner where everyone was talking about social media, which at the time was very new. A few of us (including me) had never heard of it — I was trying to understand what it was and how it worked, but Becky Swift, Margaret Drabble’s daughter, was very emphatic: "You should never get social media Donna, it’s a terrible idea for you, it’s noisy and shallow and distracting and it will sneak into your reading and writing life in a thousand horrible ways and and be a monstrous waste of your energy and time. Promise me you’ll never touch it."
And I didn’t. It would be years before people started talking about how destructive social media was, or how insidious it would turn out to be on so many cultural, political and personal levels. So I’m hugely grateful to Becky for steering me away from it before I stumbled into it unawares — Becky died young, and I am sad I never got a chance to tell how much that conversation changed my life for the better.
Do you have any guilty pleasure books or TV shows?
Most television doesn’t appeal to me — a rare exception was “Better Call Saul.” I love the Rod Serling "Twilight Zone" episodes, and noir movies from the forties and fifties and old RKO or Universal horror films.
I don’t feel guilty about reading any book I enjoy or that keeps me interested, though sometimes I feel guilty about listening to an audiobook instead of reading the book on paper. That’s probably silly though because I listen to audiobooks at times when I wouldn’t be reading anyway, when I’m walking the dogs or ironing shirts.