Everything from genius to gimmicks contributed to success of 'Secret History'

November 22, 1992|By George E. Curry | George E. Curry,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- At 28, Donna Tartt has had the kind of extraordinary good fortune that most first novelists can only imagine. Her book, "The Secret History," was auctioned to publisher Alfred A. Knopf last year for $450,000. Paperback rights to the novel brought in $500,000, foreign rights another half-million dollars, and filmmaker Alan J. Pakula optioned her work, while still in manuscript form, for $500,000.

Ms. Tartt has quickly become New York's latest publishinphenom and is being mentioned in the same breath as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, literary giants from her native Mississippi.

The story of Ms. Tartt's meteoric rise, on the basis of a single manuscript, represents a rare convergence of talent, connections at the highest levels of publishing, a bidding war, a powerful agent, enrollment in the right schools, media hype and a publishing house that is virtually unrivaled in its ability to transform an unknown author into a literary superstar.

Knopf discourages publicity about how it orchestrated the publicity surrounding the most-talked-about book in New York publishing circles.

"You've probably seen articles about how carefully orchestrated this was," said Paul Bogaards, director of promotions for Knopf. "You can't orchestrate something like this. It's like trying to take credit for Secretariat. When you got a thoroughbred, you let it run. That's what we did with Donna."

Indeed, Ms. Tartt has been running fast. Knopf sent her on a

monthlong national tour that started in September and included book readings and signings in New Orleans, Miami, New York, Washington and Chicago, and finished with stops in Seattle, San Francisco and Denver.

By the time "The Secret History" had arrived in stores in mid-September, publicists had already arranged for stories in the all-important Vanity Fair, Time, Esquire, Elle and Mirabella magazines, among others.

The Elle story noted, "It's nice every now and then when the vast hype machine that is modern publishing actually delivers on its promise."

A story in Mirabella said, " 'The Secret History' earns its credibility from the way Tartt plays the sublime off the phenomenal, grounding her prose in the real world of the senses."

"The Secret History" has made it to the best-seller list, but not without a lot of influential people opening gates through which Ms. Tartt could sprint.

As a freshman at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, Faulkner's hometown, Ms. Tartt met Willie Morris, the former editor of Harper's magazine and author of "North Toward Home," who was writer-in-residence. Mr. Morris immediately proclaimed her a "genius" and recommended that she enroll in a fiction-writing class taught by another respected Mississippi novelist, Barry Hannah.

"She was quite the prodigy here," Mr. Hannah said. "I remember Donna's tremendous felicity with a sentence. Her prose was so sweet and clear, near perfect. Sometimes it was so good, I would just clap."

At Mr. Morris' urging, Ms. Tartt transferred to Bennington College in Vermont, a school with a reputation for turning out fine writers. There, she would make still more connections that would become important in the sale, and success, of her first novel -- a thriller about a charismatic classics professor and his small circle of students, set in a small college in Vermont.

In the mid-1980s, Bennington's student body included five future novelists known as the Brat Pack. Their interest in literature and good writing seemed to feed on itself, as they exchanged stories and dreams of making it big in New York. Ms. Tartt, one of the Brat Pack, became good friends with perhaps its best-known member, Bret Easton Ellis. Mr. Ellis published "Less Than Zero" after his third year at Bennington, followed by "The Rules of Attraction" and "American Psycho."

It was Mr. Ellis who, after reading Ms. Tartt's incomplete novel, introduced her to his agent, Amanda "Binky" Urban, one of the most powerful literary brokers in New York. Two years later, in 1991, Ms. Urban circulated the completed manuscript to a few publishers to whet their appetites and pave the way for the inevitable bidding war over rights to the book.

"Basically, when Gary [Fisketjon, a Knopf editor] bought the book, everybody in-house realized he had something special," Mr. Bogaards said. "This was a manuscript that created a buzz before we actually owned it. This wasn't just a manuscript that was being talked about at Knopf, it was a manuscript being talked about all over New York. There were a lot of publishers that wanted this book."

Indeed, there was fierce bidding among eight publishers. At the end, it was Knopf against Random House, both subsidiaries of the Newhouse communications empire. That point was not lost on a rival editor, who watched the publishing siblings battle as though they were independently owned.

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