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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Patrick Pascale

Donna Tartt: Physical Writing Process

Updated: Jun 24, 2018

Donna Tartt (Image courtesy Airship Daily)

Literary Talismans

Literature as we tend to conceive of it exists in the realm of the mind, represented by little markings that are easily reproduced (the written word) and endlessly spread, whether on paper or electronically. But my goal in this series was always to explore the physical roots, the paper on which the words were originally carved.

I'm also exploring what an English professor of mine once called "literary talismans" - tangible objects left behind by creatives. She mentioned this at her surprise that I was interested to see her signed copy of a book of Allen Ginsberg's poetry. She showed it to me in her office one day - her name and his on a page of arabesquing sunflowers all drawn by Ginsberg's hand.

Being so much rarer, these literary talismans can be difficult to track down. I'd read Jack Kerouac's On the Road when I was younger, but I didn't fully immerse myself into the world of Kerouac until just after the original scroll finished its tour of the United States - much to my disappointment, as I'd still love to see it in person.

The same thing just happened to me with The Goldfinch. At the end of last year the world of arts and letters was abuzz with Donna Tartt's most recent novel, but I only just got around to reading it. The novel goes hand in hand with the ideas I had in starting this series, since it explores themes related to the near immortality of physical things such as paintings or antique furniture. The 775-page tome was inspired by a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, a Dutch master who died young in a gunpowder explosion, leaving behind only a handful of works. His painting, "The Goldfinch" was serendipitously exhibited at the Frick Collection in New York at the exact same time Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch was released. It'd be great to see the painting that's so reverently described in the novel:

"The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever."

And while it's entirely possible I walked uncaringly past the Frick Collection while the painting was there, "The Goldfinch" finished its exhibition in New York at the beginning of the year, and after a brief stay in Italy, has returned to its home at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, so unfortunately, I missed it - for now.

"The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius

Donna Tartt's Writing Process: Multicolored Pencils & Polychrome Paper

On the topic of interesting things you might unknowingly walk past in New York, Donna Tartt did most of her research and writing for The Goldfinch at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, in the Allen Room. She prefers to write by hand with plain ballpoint pens in large college-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks. She likes her work to be portableand keeps notebooks to write in all the time. Some inspiration for the novel actually began twenty years ago, based on notes she wrote in Amsterdam (She first saw "The Goldfinch" as a copy at Christie's in Amsterdam).

As she explained to Omnivoracious, she had stacks of different notebooks by the time she was late into the composition of The Goldfinch:

"In the fall when the school supplies are in the store, I'll tend to buy lots of them so I can get just the kind I want: silly patterns and colors are, for me, an important aide memoire, a mental filing system. When I was finishing Goldfinch, I had a series of notebooks that had covers from Beatles albums, and when I was looking for something, it was easier for me to think: 'Oh, I wrote that in the "Hard Day's Night" notebook' or 'I wrote that in the "Sgt. Pepper" notebook' rather than 'I wrote that in the blue notebook.'"

She has a color-coded process for her revisions. She uses red, blue, and then green pencil to make the palimpsest easier to read and keep track of which revisions were written when. She'll also staple index cards onto the notebook pages when needed.

When the notebooks are "too tangled-up to read," as Tartt likes to say, she types them up and prints them out, but even here she uses a color-coded system to stay organized. She mentions having a pink draft, a grey draft, and a blue draft of The Goldfinch to easily know which stack of paper is the newest version. "My French teacher, many years ago, told me this, and it actually works," Tartt says. She takes about a decade per novel, so it seems ideal to keep everything meticulously organized over that span of time.

We often think of escapism as readers getting lost in books, but in these decade-long excursions, Tartt finds escapism as a writer: "I don’t want to write about my own life, I want to write about someone else’s, to live someone else’s life."


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