Donna Tartt on enchantment

“The Blue Issue” of Fairy Tale Review — now available in full online — includes Donna Tartt’s reflections on J.M. Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, writers whose work her Mississippi great grandmother read the young Tartt in “dreamy and gorgeous” nursery talk marked by vestiges of her own grandparents’ Scottishness.

“[A] few books we loved especially,” Tartt says, “and read doggedly again and again, almost as if they were religious texts, and chief among these was Peter Pan.”

Did I love it so because of the mysterious Scottishness that colored her voice as she read? Because she herself was of Wendy Darling’s generation, and because the book made tangible and comprehensible to me somehow her own lost girlhood? Or because we ourselves — so passionately close — had crossed paths in time so very strangely: she like Wendy at the end of the book, bent in the back and with white in her hair, and me still a child?… I suppose in the end Peter Pan was such an important book to both of us because it is ultimately such a dark book, about change, loss, aging, mortality, death: the very questions that hung so heavy between us.

And more:

Treasure Island and Kidnapped were the real bridge for me between the child’s world and the adult’s. Essentially, they were the books that turned me into a novelist, and they did partly through the beauty of the language and partly through the sheer gallop of story but mostly because they made me preoccupied with the kinds of questions that novelists ask. Why do smart people make foolish decisions? Why are honest people so vulnerable to lies, and trusting ones so susceptible to flattery and manipulation? If all people are fallible — a mixture of good and bad — at what point does the equation tip and a good person become bad and vice versa? Why is Mr. Shuan brutal when he’s drunk and kind when he’s sober, and Mr. Hoseason brutal when he’s sober and kind when he’s drunk? And why does Alan Breck — brave and generous as he is — behave so childishly sometimes?

The word romance has been used to describe (and to dismiss) Stevenson’s work for the last hundred years. But I’ve always wondered more critics don’t see that Treasure Island, despite its fanciful stage trappings (spyglasses, cutlasses, pieces of eight), is despite its many enchantments a work of frightful psychological realism. Like Barrie, he is a magician, with an uncommon power to charm; but where Peter Pan throws off a glimpse of something bright and unyielding and incorruptible that borders on the divine, Stevenson maintains the same enchantment and yet remains wholly human. And it’s why I’ve read his books obsessively over and over and over again throughout my life, so much that they’ve now become a part of my own character — and certainly a part of my own work as a writer.

See also Tartt on reading aloud.


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