Recently, Donna Tartt and Allan Gurganus visited the 92nd Street Y as part of an author event, which included a question and answer segment with the audience. The pair discussed their habit of taking a decade to write a book, their inspirations for their novels and what growing up in the south offers writers, amongst other subjects. These were the choice bits of the Q&A:
Audience Member: You both take a long time to write your books. Your books have about a decade between each of them. How do your characters benefit from that sort of committed immersion?
Allan Gurganus: You know, those of us who take our time are proud of that and don't feel inadequate. We're perfecting sentences, like the ones you just heard from Donna and I tonight, and we're living with the characters. You get to know these people in a way that is profound and consequential. You feel responsible for them, for their flaws and also the possibility for some kind of transcendence. Living with them makes for a kind of luster, a kind of depth that you don't get when you've lived with somebody for just six weeks or six months. I'd rather have five amazing books that are written at 10-year intervals than 70 books that are expendable at the end of a summer. That's my goal.
Donna Tartt: Well, hear, hear. I feel exactly the same way. There's a sense of richness when you spend a certain amount of time with characters. It's impossible to fake. There's a depth that you can't get any other way. Also, I mean, in this book particularly, it takes place over a 10-year span of time, and the real time is in the book. Ten years had passed. I'm a different person now than I was at the beginning of writing it. That passage of time is inherent in the book. You come out in quite a different place than you began from. It's impossible to fudge. Time, as with furniture, as with wine and with so many things, is so much more beautiful in its old age. To have the passing of time in the telling of the story does, I think, increase the richness of the story an awful lot.
Audience Member: Donna, where did the idea to blow up The Met [in The Goldfinch] come from, and once you had the idea, did you hesitate about going through with it?
DT: You know, it wasn't my idea. It was the Taliban's idea. The pebble in my shoe, the thing that I was thinking about that somehow came out in fictional form, and I can't explain exactly why, but was the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. It was a horrible thing to see. It happened before 9/11. I began writing this book before 9/11. But the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was the horrible pre-shock before the big shock.
… It was the horror of that event, of someone deliberately doing it. It took six days to bring those down. They drilled holes. It wasn't something that happened in a moment. It took them a long time. I can't say why or how. I never know why or how. It's why I'm a fiction writer. I don't process my conscious thought too closely, and it comes out in the form of fiction. But that was definitely the germ. That was the event that made me want to write about endangered art.
Audience Member: Allen, this one is for you. Do you feel a responsibility to the residents of Falls [where the majority of your books take place]? Do they feel betrayed when you even look at folks from other towns?
AG: I value loyalty, even to my figments. It's an odd fact that Thomas Wolfe's famous quotation is, "You can't go home again." It's predicated on the fact that he told so many terrible stories about so many people that helped him as a child. He literally couldn't go home again.
I have a very different vision of how to treat the people in the town, and I can go home. There is actually a life-size painting of me in the library. It's kind of corny to admit this. I wish I could say I don't go there every six weeks just to keep track of it. He doesn't look anything like me, but I still respond with a gesture.
But, yes, I do think there is a kind of richness is finding a territory and going deeper and deeper as an archeologist.
Audience Member: What does a southern writer have that other writers don't?
DT: An accent? [Laughs.] I don't know. For me, one of the things about growing up in the south is that it's a great oral culture. It's a great culture of storytellers. I grew up hearing amazing stories. I grew up hearing people talk and tell fantastic things. This was something that would happen all the time. I would go with the housekeeper to the grocery store, and there would be all these people, all this gossip. They think you're not listening as a child, but you are. One of my favorite things to do as a child was, when my relatives were talking, was to bring my coloring book into the middle of where they were and to lie on the flooring coloring. But I wasn't really coloring. I was listening to what they were saying. Learning how to tell a story is something that we do have in the south.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
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