March 3, 2014
I’m reading The Goldfinch, the 771-page behemoth by Donna Tartt, and enjoying it immensely. Reading a great novel makes me think about why I read and what it means to be a writer.
First, I’m gratified that The Goldfinch has hovered at or near the top of most bestseller lists since its release in October 2013. Many books that make it to the top aren’t necessarily the best-written or the most interesting of the zillions published every year. When a finely crafted and compelling novel is also a commercial success, striving writers feel validation – and hope. Tartt’s novel, praised as Dickensian, is the saga of a 13-year-old boy whose mother dies in a terrorist attack at a New York City museum. He escapes, takes a famous painting with him and eventually becomes embroiled in the underworld of stolen art.
I’m fascinated by Tartt, who at 50 has produced three novels roughly the size and weight of doorstops – all great reads. Her stunning The Secret History debuted in 1992, followed by The Little Friend in 2002. According to Wikipedia, The Goldfinch originally was supposed to come out in 2008, but was published five years later.
That means Tartt’s three books were birthed at least ten years apart, which seems to me a very long time to carry such a heavy load. My debut novel, Saving Texas, smaller in scope and much more compact at 262 pages, took me two years to write and revise. It required another year to find a publisher, sign a contract and see it published. Three years is a relatively short time frame in the publishing world, but most writers find that the process occupies most of their waking thoughts and takes over their lives. The prolonged gestation of Tartt’s three books sounds almost unbearable to me.
Did she work on her books every day? Or, did she carve out long swaths of time when she wasn’t working on anything? It’s impossible to know, because she’s a writer who doesn’t talk about her work much. She did tell The New York Times a few months ago, “The odd thing about it is that it’s so long between books for me that the publishing world changes completely while I’m out, so that it’s like I’ve never done it before.”
I greatly admire her perseverance, but carrying a book on my shoulders for ten years would be too long a journey for me.