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What's Really Priceless? Art, Money And Fate In Tartt's 'Goldfinch'

Oct 19, 2013
Originally published on October 19, 2013 7:40 am

Theo Decker is a 13-year-old boy who, in an instant, gains a masterpiece, but loses his mother — who is also a kind of masterpiece.

Theo and his mother are looking at a special show of old Dutch Masters at the Met, and the little boy doesn't much enjoy it — "Dutch people standing around in Dutch clothes," he calls it. They see a painting of a little yellow pet finch, chained at the ankle, by an artist named Fabritius.

Then Theo sees a flash, and feels a roar: a terrorist's bomb has destroyed much of the museum. And a dying man gives Theo the painting, a ring, and a cryptic message that will take him from the wounded bustle of Manhattan after a terrorist attack to what the author calls the "hot mineral emptiness" of Las Vegas in foreclosure.

Donna Tartt tells Theo's story in her new novel — only her third in more than twenty years. It's called The Goldfinch. Tartt tells NPR's Scott Simon that Theo is adrift in the world without his mother, and afraid to return the painting. "Sort of the way, I don't know, when I was a child I would just keep putting off my algebra notebook until the last possible moment."


Interview Highlights

On weighing plot against character in a novel

If you have the right characters, the characters will take care of the plot for you. They will bring an energy to the plot, so character for me always comes first.

Of course you need to help steer them, but as a writer, you really need to — particularly when you're writing a big book — you need to leave yourself open to risk and surprise. If there's no surprise for the writer, there's no surprise for the reader. And sometimes, as you're going along, you can have everything perfectly planned out, and then just see something coming that you never ever ever saw. And I sort of think that if something like that occurs to me, six years into the writing of a book that I've been thinking about every day, the reader's really not going to see it.

On moving the action to Las Vegas

That was a marvelous accident, because initially, in the first two or three years of writing the book, it took place completely between New York and Amsterdam, and something was missing. And then, just absolutely by chance I happened to visit Las Vegas. And while I was there, I was in one of the casinos, I think it was the Bellagio, and there was an exhibition of French impressionists ... and when I saw that, bing bing bing bing bing bing bing, all sorts of things started to fire in my head. I began to think about money, about the movement of money, about how art is really very often connected with dirty money — it always has been — and about luck, and chance, and fate.

On the idea of "priceless" art

The word priceless is only really ever used in connection with two things, with art and with human life. No one ever speaks of a building as being priceless, or a car as being priceless. But human life is priceless, and paintings, they're the most valuable things we have, we lock them up in fortresses. They're under armed guard. And you know, there's a reason for that. When I was in Amsterdam, and was lucky enough to have a tour of the Rijksmuseum after hours, it was very eerie, because at one point the lights blinked out ... and the most extraordinary thing, I was standing in front of the wall of Vermeers, and it was as if they all were lit with a different kind of light from within ... you realized that these paintings were meant to be seen in candlelight, and that they gave off a light of their own. And you realize why these things have no price.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Theo Decker's a 13-year-old boy who in an instant gains a masterpiece and loses his mother, who's also a kind of masterpiece. Theo and his mother are looking at a special show of old Dutch masters at the Met and the little boy doesn't much enjoy it. Dutch people standing around in Dutch clothes, he calls it. They behold a painting of a little yellow pet finch chained at the ankle by an artist named Fabritius, who died when a huge explosion destroyed much of Delft, Holland.

Then Theo sees a flash and feels a roar. A terrorist bomb destroys much of the museum, and a dying man gives Theo the painting, a ring and a cryptic message that will take him from the wounded bustle of Manhattan after a terrorist attack to what the author calls the hot mineral emptiness of Las Vegas in foreclosure.

The "Goldfinch" is the new novel, just her third in 21 years, by Donna Tartt, whose previous best-sellers include "The Secret History" and "The Little Friend." She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DONNA TARTT: Very happy to be here.

SIMON: So without giving away any plot points, what keeps Theo from giving back the painting?

TARTT: I think that he is fearful and he doesn't know how to do it. He's afraid that he's going to get in trouble, as, you know, children are. He doesn't really have a good adult that he can turn to for advice. He can't go to his mother and say mother I did this. He's sort of a bit adrift in the world and he doesn't trust his father. And I think he keeps putting it off and putting it off.

I mean, sort of the way, I don't know. When I was a child I would just keep putting off my algebra notebook until the last possible moment and it would be the night before it was due, and, you know, six weeks of work and I would be in tears. I used to put things off like that when I was a kid and not really think about it; think, well I'll have the weekend, I'll have, you know.

SIMON: How do you weight plot against or with characters in a novel?

TARTT: Well, if you have the right characters, the characters will take care of the plot for you. They will bring an energy to the plot, so character for me always comes first.

SIMON: But this is, as so many critics who love the book have remarked, this is a big book.

TARTT: It is a big book.

SIMON: So do you, I mean, you don't need to help steer them?

TARTT: Of course you need to help steer them, but as a writer you really need to, particularly when you're writing a big book, I think you need to leave yourself open to risk and surprise. If there's no surprise for the writer, there's no surprise for the reader. And sometimes, as you're going along, you can have everything perfectly planned out and then just see something coming that you never, ever, ever saw.

And I sort of think if something like that occurs to me six years into the writing of a book that I've been thinking about every day, the reader's really not going to see it.

SIMON: Theo's adopted by a Park Avenue family.

TARTT: Yes.

SIMON: The Theo's father appears out of the proverbial nowhere. What inspired you to move the action to Las Vegas, to have Theo's father from Las Vegas?

TARTT: That was a marvelous accident because initially, in the first two or three years of writing the book, it took place completely between New York and Amsterdam and something was missing. And then just absolutely by chance, I happened to visit Las Vegas and while I was there I was in one of the casinos. I think it was the Bellagio, and there was an exhibition of French impressionists.

SIMON: They have an art museum in the Bellagio.

TARTT: They have an art museum in the Bellagio and it's real paintings. It's real Bonnards, real Villards, and when I saw that, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing. All sorts of things started to fire in my head. I began to think about money, about the movement of money, about how art is really very often connected with dirty money. It always has been.

And about luck and chance and fate. All these things just began to click and so that was really the thing that made the book come together.

SIMON: There's a section in the book when Theo was told that the painting he has is priceless and he says, as I'm recalling it, "Wait a minute. Rembrandts are $40 million but that's still a price."

(LAUGHTER)

TARTT: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: This is priceless.

TARTT: Priceless.

SIMON: Which, it raised the question, which means what when we're talking about art?

TARTT: Well, you know, the word priceless is really only ever used in connection with two things: With art and with human life. No one ever speaks of building as being priceless or a car as being priceless, But human life is priceless and paintings, they're the most valuable things we have. We lock them up in fortresses, they're under armed guard.

And, you know, there's a reason for that. When I was in Amsterdam and was lucky enough to have a tour of the Rijksmuseum after hours and it was very eerie because at one point the lights blinked out. It was about six o'clock in the evening and the most extraordinary thing. I was standing in front of the wall of Vermeers and it was as if they all were lit with a different kind of light from within.

It was like looking out a window. They transformed themselves in low light. You realized that these paintings were meant to be seen in candlelight and that they gave off a light of their own, and you realize why these things have no price, you know. Because books, we value books but there are many books, there are many copies of, you know, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but you know, there's only one Vermeer "The Love Letter," you know. There's only one.

SIMON: Donna Tartt, her new novel, "The Goldfinch." Thank you so much for being with us.

TARTT: Thank you, Scott. It was a great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.