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John Eccleston: How Donna Tartt almost changed my life

I've been writing since I was a teenager. I've always thought of myself as a writer. But I'm fifty-eight this year and have had nothing published. How come?

Am I not very good at writing? On the face of it, that's a plausible explanation, one that merits consideration. Certainly, my range of writerly interests was narrow; nor yet was I especially clever or sophisticated. Perhaps, if friends and acquaintances were encouraging, that just meant that they liked me; that they liked that bit of myself, that flavour, however naïve, I was able to get across in what I wrote. After all, it's difficult to be objective about people we know. John's stories, and that memoir of his (in this reading), were quite engaging, but not, really, all that good.

I'm drawn to this simple account. And yet… It doesn't quite persuade me. It's too glib, I believe. In my heart, you see, I know that I failed for another reason: I was lazy.

For years, I couldn't face up to this but, at last, almost grown-up now, I can write down the words: I was lazy. I didn't write enough and also, and much more importantly, I didn't try hard enough, when I did finish things, to get them into print. Given to enthusiasms, I was capable of intense effort; but only spasmodically. I let myself be distracted. I was a daydreamer. I read more than I wrote. (It was easier.) And, when I wasn't reading, I had a part-time job – just enough of a job to keep myself afloat – and I loafed. I strolled around the West End, pursuing little errands. I went to exhibitions. I saw many films of an afternoon when serious people were toiling at their desks.

I have not been a serious writer. And what of it? I can't see that as a moral failing. There are so many books in the world already. Even keen readers must feel this, in a library or bookshop: so many books; so many new books. Do we really need them all? Did the writers really need to have written them? Except, of course, that one feels that one's own book, were it ever to join the millions of others, would be a valuable, a unique, addition to this ocean of words.

So, it doesn't matter, then, that I'm unpublished. It's not, objectively, of great moment. And yet it makes me sad. I have been troubled, since my twenties, with the feeling that my real life – that of being an author – has not begun. Time has slipped through my fingers.

Could it be, then, after all, because I didn't publish anything, because I didn't actually write all that much, that I wasn't a writer? I mean: not really. Was my cherished identity a fake one? This suspicion troubled me; troubles me still. It has been a sort of ache from which I am never entirely free. It's not unlike my sensitive teeth: almost fine, or else wincingly painful.

The pain always makes me think: how can I change? Dismissing my efforts to date (always dismissing them) as insubstantial, how can I produce something worthwhile? How can I become, at last, a writer?

I have daydreamed about it. I longed for change to overwhelm me. Much influenced by a favourite scene in Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I liked to toy with the idea of a dramatic re-set. Lieutenant Mamiya had been trapped at the bottom of a dry well. I too would find such a place, of existential terror, where a pitiless light would burn off the useless attributes I had accumulated, like so much dead skin. And then, I would return to the world, born anew...

Of course, nowadays, I would still have many domestic duties to perform. These sort of daydreams were so much easier before I married. Back then, it seemed to me as if a friendly universe was always nudging me, reminding me that I was supposed to be a writer. I saw things, read things, heard things; I was given signs – messages that were just for me – to renounce indolence and devote myself to writing, once and for all. I was chastened, encouraged, and sometimes I did try harder. But, looking back, it's clear to me that I never really changed.

Just once, perhaps, I might have. Thirty-one years ago, in 1992, I finished reading a book, a wonderful book, and for half an hour everything was clear to me; for half an hour I had a plan. The book that almost changed my life was Donna Tartt's The Secret History.


I was twenty-seven. I was working as a bicycle messenger in London, three or four days a week. It wasn't mentally taxing. I saved my energy for writing. I wrote short stories. Or rather, I was supposed to be writing short stories. Somehow, with alarming ease, six years had slipped by since leaving university, and I'd not been productive. But everything was about to click into gear. Soon I would be embarking on the writing of a novel. It wasn't, perhaps, entirely clear to me what that novel would be about but I would have to write it, wouldn't I? You had to write a novel, to make your mark on the world.

I'm not sure what my friends thought. I was a bit of a character, I suppose, an odd and lively conversationalist, without a proper job, who said that he was writing. On the whole, they believed in me, I think, because I seemed to believe in myself.

A friend from university, Steve, and his partner, Maria, were the people I saw most of. I lived in Brentford, they in Shepherd's Bush. If I had a last delivery which took me that way, to Virgin on the Harrow Road, say, or the BBC on Wood Lane, I'd often drop by afterwards. In those days, before the mobile phone, this wasn't uncommon.

Our circumstances weren't so different then. I had a modern studio flat, which I couldn't really afford. They rented a one-bedroom flat. The garden backed on to the tube tracks. This was the basement flat on Richford Street, before they pulled away from me, before marriage, the kids, the terraced house in Harrow, before, eventually, big houses with kitchens that my whole flat could have fitted into.

They always welcomed me, if they were in, though sometimes you'd think that they might have been looking forward to a night by themselves. They were kind. I lived alone and had few friends. I suppose that I was a reasonably entertaining guest; certainly, I was talkative. I'd been to films, visited exhibitions, read books; and I wanted to tell them all about it.

I was part of the furniture for a time. They'd launch off into terrific rows in front of me; it was all a bit tempestuous. It was alarming to be there on the sofa if it all began to kick off but endearing too: they didn't seem to mind me being there.

Anyway. One Monday, I turned up at their door just as Maria was about to watch a crucial episode of a soap opera that she followed. This was awkward because I was in a phase of not watching TV. I didn't have a TV at home (in fact, I lived there for almost twenty years and never did get one) nor would I watch the box at friends' houses. Instead, I sat in the kitchen, reading, until it was over. They were used to this sort of awkward behaviour from me. Perhaps they even liked it. As La Rochefoucauld says, we love our friends for their faults as much as for their virtues.

Steve left me with something to have a look at. His mate Simon had just returned from New York with the first edition of a book by a much-hyped new author, Donna Tartt: The Secret History.

I had been reading about Donna Tartt in yesterday's Observer. Her novel had taken eight years to write. This was the dedication that I aspired to. There was a striking photograph. She was a severe pixie, immaculately dressed. She'd had a few drinks with the interviewer, Andrew Billen, and had seemed to get on with him. She had a waspish sense of humour, and was, evidently, a charmer. And here was the American first edition of the book, such a beautiful hardback, with a transparent dust jacket. I began to read...

On Tuesday morning, I came in to work early, to be at Foyles' bookshop when it opened. I bought the Viking trade paperback, with the Clarence White photo on the cover: "Nymph and Faun".

Messenger-ing is a curious, unpredictable job. Some days you hardly stop; other days it's a three-hour lunch break. This was one of those days. I read and read, lingering over a dribble of cold espresso.

Eventually I was given a job, to get me moving again, but the afternoon was not a busy one. I can see this from the spine of the book, which I have in front of me now. I'd been reading outside, between deliveries (I remember a long spell on the steps of a church, All Souls, in Langham Place), and it was cold, and there's a dark band on the spine where I'd been turning the pages with be-gloved fingers; and the gloves were dirty.

I read more that night, until I fell asleep. I read again, between jobs, the next morning. It was another quiet day. I finished reading in a café at lunchtime. I had read books intensely before. One Friday teatime, as a teenager, I had sat down to re-read The Lord of the Rings and had finished the 1,000 or so pages by Sunday evening. So, too, I had chomped my way through C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and been all but mesmerised by things that I'd studied at school, such as Macbeth and To the Lighthouse. But nothing had struck such a chord with me before. I was dumbfounded. It was... delicious, from the first page to the last.


Our hero, Richard, hails from Plano, in nowheresville California. He escapes from his working-class origins to make a new person of himself at an ultra-fancy liberal arts college in Vermont. It's far too expensive, but by force of will he gets the financial assistance he needs to make it possible. (Just.)

Once there, at Hampden College, he becomes attracted to an elite within the elite: a group of posh classicists, studying under legendary aesthete, Julian Morrow. They read Greek and scorn the vulgar modern world. Richard works his way in. His new friends become his true family. And yet. He fears expulsion. He's an imposter, only pretending to have the same moneyed background as the others. Trying to fit in is stressful. What sort of cufflinks should he wear? What sort of blazer? Nonsense of that sort.

We know, from the first page of the prologue, that something has gone wrong within the group, because five of them have ganged up to kill the sixth, Edmund, who is known as Bunny. The book explains how this came about. It's a whydunit. It explores the workings of guilt.

The book's focused. One narrator; one plot. (I follow David Mamet's line that getting the story right is hard, so writers do the easy thing of adding layers of interest, back stories, descriptions, multiple narrators, etc. etc). Here, simply, Richard is our narrator, and he says: "This is the only story I will ever be able to tell." He's droll and insecure. I like him. He muses about the classical world (about the nature of the classical mind versus the modern one); he whips up the suspense. (There's a manhunt! An FBI investigation! Crazy stuff with poison and a gun!). There's also unrequited yearning and campus comedy. It's a book I always read in a hurry because of the expert plotting, and yet, as an afficionado, I savour details on every page. There's posh druggie Cloke Rayburn, for example, or airhead campus queen Judy Poovey. My favourite these days, perhaps, is the saturnine detective, Sciola, most kindly and dangerous of investigators. (I could, I think, read it every year.)

Back then, I left the café in a daze. I walked in Soho, and, as I walked, anonymous, a terrible thought came to me. Since leaving university, I had, literally, just been wandering about; Donna Tartt had been sitting at her desk writing. If my time were up tomorrow, what would I have to show for it? My stories? Few of them were finished, few of them any good; none of them were published. They'd not even been sent out.

I resolved, there and then, to change my life. But how? A grand, self-denying gesture was required. This life of mine, in London, which I had so much wanted (I came from nowhere in the Lancashire countryside) had failed. I must give it up and go somewhere to write. I must commit to writing. Now. But how to do that, without money of my own or a wealthy patron? (Ms Tartt had her own Maecenas, as I read in her acknowledgements.) There was only one answer. I must return whence I had come: all the way back to my parents' house.

My bedroom there was unoccupied. The front room downstairs was unused. There was a table in the window for my typewriter. Mum and Dad would be puzzled, knowing how much I loved London, but they would welcome me, whether it was for six months or six years. All that remained was to tell them. Once I'd told them, I would feel committed.

I could see a phone box up ahead. In a minute I would be inside, making the call that would change my life. I leant my bike against the phone box. I opened the door but, even as I stepped in, I had another thought. I wasn't changing my mind. I wasn't wavering. No! And yet... Before I called Mum, perhaps I should call Jane first.

Jane was my best friend. We'd met at university, where we were inseparable. But she was a little older than me, and much more worldly. She had another life beyond the campus, friends and boyfriends that I caught only glimpses of. I'd had an all-consuming, unrequited crush on her, which had only gradually subsided. I told her that I would write a book about it one of these days; a tell-all that would flatter neither of us. She had replied, selflessly: "Write it all." Of course, given that I was proving to be such a slacker, it cost her nothing to be encouraging.

Thinking of her, I became troubled as I stepped into the phone box. Separation would be traumatic – for me. This change, the new dedication to writing to which I was about to commit irrevocably, took on a darker aspect. Writing would become a sort of bondage, even if it were self-imposed.

What would she make of all this? It didn't matter, not in the slightest, and yet I wanted to tell her. I had to tell her first. The subtext (plain to see now but hidden from me then): Jane! You didn't want me! And so (not unlike one of my heroines, Karen Blixen) I would renounce life to become a writer.

I called her at work. Reception put me through. I could hear her extension ringing, up there on the fourth floor of the block at the top of Tottenham Court Road. The phone rang on and on. She didn't pick up.

Given the urgency, it was tempting to go round and try to briefly interrupt Jane's day in person. Once or twice, with less cause, I'd done that. I could be there in five minutes. But I'd lost impetus. And then, even as I was thinking about all of this, I heard my controller's voice over my walkie talkie.

Because I didn't tell Jane, I didn't tell my mum that afternoon. I didn't tell her that night, either. For a few days, I was resolved to tell her when we talked at the weekend. But that was enough time for second and third thoughts to creep in. The moment had passed, in that phone box in Soho. I stayed in London. Next year, resurrecting my grand idea, but only in a bastard form, I spent most of a summer at home, trying to write; but it was a failure. Fortunately, I hadn't given up my flat in London.

I remained a dilettante.

Had Jane answered, I might have found the discipline within me, the staying power. But, then again, probably not. At last, one has to look at oneself. I'm fifty-eight. I had several goes, but I never wrote a novel. I never will write a novel. And so, if I regret that unanswered phone call, which I do, in a way, it's only because a long and unsuccessful stint at home might have saved me time. I might have realised earlier that I was a minor sort of fellow, and settled down to that, happy to accept my limitations.

So, to summarise, Donna Tartt's The Secret History almost changed my life but didn't. Instead, I was momentarily distracted, and ten years slipped through my fingers.

Stroll forward ten years. Mum's dead. Dad's struggling. Soon he will be unable to live by himself. What have I been doing? I've made countless urgent deliveries in Central London, of legal documents, share certificates, forgotten keys, and, of course, and most screamingly urgent of all in terms of economic importance and the progress of human civilization, bags of sample clothes sent from PR companies to fashion magazines. I've also seen a few hundred films and read a few hundred books. And: I've been writing. I guess. In the end, for example, I wrote a pithy memoir about my relationship with Jane. My artless style was interesting but would be too bludgeoning at any length, wrote the kindest of the literary agents who rejected my sample chapter and synopsis.

Anyway, it was 2002, and then, to remind me what real, substantive effort was, Donna Tartt published her second novel, The Little Friend. She was interviewed, in advance of publication, by Katherine Viner in the weekend Guardian.

I was feverishly excited. My friend Tadeusz and I bought tickets for her appearance at The Institute of Education. I'd buy my copy there, and have it signed by the great woman herself.

But then, seeing a stack of copies in the window of Foyles very early on Monday morning, two days before the event, I went in to buy one. I read steadily that day. I took the next day off, to finish reading it and so that I could be dressed in civvies (not my cycling clothes) for the reading that night.

The Little Friend is a rich slice of Southern Gothic. There are wonderful descriptions; exciting scenes. It's structurally more complex than The Secret History. A child is murdered in the prologue; and, spoiler alert, the murderer is never discovered. One switches back and forth between the viewpoints of the victim's young sister, Harriet, obsessed with finding the murderer, and various other characters. There's ripe humour at the expense of trashy poor white folk, some of it grotesque. There's touching business between Harriet and her grief-stricken mother. Her father is largely absent. Harriet is really brought up by her aging great-aunts and their aging black servant. The racial dynamics are especially interesting, in fact.

I remember it now (I never reread it) as a very good novel, deeply felt. But I didn't fall in love with it. I struggle to put my finger on why. Perhaps it just didn't rush on as her first book had. Descriptions seemed a bit laboured over, whereas so much was accomplished, more entertainingly, in the voices of the earlier book's characters. It may simply be that I was less interested in a child character; I felt closer to the older protagonists of The Secret History.

Perhaps, too, it was simply that my Tartt idolatry was beginning to waver.

On the radio that week, I heard an exchange between Tartt and the British novelist Magnus Mills, whose third novel had just been published. This was on Radio 4, one morning. The subject was the productivity of the novelist. Tartt was a slow worker; mythically so. Some clever news producer had come up with the idea of pitting her against a much faster one.

Tartt, while not laying down the law, said that for her it just took time, and what did it matter if she only wrote a few things? Authors published too much. She agreed with Styron that most authors only have five books in them; if they publish more it's likely to be a case of repetition. Why not publish less? Why not take the time to get those five books right? In any case, pithy modernity wasn't her thing; she liked the scope of a Victorian-style novel, with a grand plot and room for interesting minor characters to round out the story. She worked for as long as it took to get a book right.

Mills said that he would get bored, taking so long over something. He didn't even write full time. He was driving buses just then. Of his (to me, excellent) novels, he would only say: "I like to get on with them. I've already started my fourth. I work on them during my lunch breaks."

It was a fantastic bit of radio. Two literary entertainers, but with entirely different manners. Tartt was witty but earnest; focused; a touch fanatical. Mills was breezily pragmatic; happy to give the impression that he didn't take his output too seriously; as ironical and stylish as his fabular novels.

I brought my copy of The Little Friend with me to the reading. I would have much preferred to get my copy of The Secret History signed, but that seemed a bit off, somehow. A bit fan-ish. Of course, I was a fan but it seemed pushy. However, I had brought something else with me.

In the Viner interview, Tartt had spoken of being given a present by a young Finnish man, a ring which she now always wore. It symbolised for her the idea of serendipity; of going out into the world and meeting people. Encouraged by this, I had brought along a copy of one of my stories to give to her, one of my collaborative efforts with Tadeusz. He'd given me a title and an illustration and I'd written a short story to order. We'd printed it up as a pamphlet, a stylish little thing, notwithstanding a few glitches and errors that had crept in because of our amateurish proofreading. Tadeusz has a good eye for design.

I imagined that Ms Tartt would find the story amusing. She'd want to meet the author and his friend the artist. She would drop us a line at some point, and we'd all meet up for a drink in The Coach and Horses.

Come the evening of the reading, the lecture hall was full. There was a terrific buzz as Ms Tartt took the stage. She gave a reading (one appreciated again what an excellent stylist she was; how it came off the page so easily) and was then interviewed by a literary worthy. Then there were questions, and my hand was one of the first to go up.

I blush to think of it now. It wasn't a bad question, but a bit, you know, tortured. It went something like:

I'd read the book and found it very good. But I had wondered about the different elements. There was the superstructure of the adventure plot, and then the domestic situation; pages that I'd found very moving, very interesting. It struck me that those pages could almost have floated off on their own. I wondered, in short, if, in the future, she might write a book without a big "plot" of adventure or crime?

This question comes up a lot for her. She batted away my suggestion easily. Always, always, there would be, as it were, a big plot. She would never write a book to please the highbrow critics who thought her too popular; the literary shoegazers who wondered if, after all, a story was important in a modern literary novel. She would remain true to the inspiration of her idols such as Stevenson and Dickens. She would write for the reader.

At the end Christopher Foyle, presiding, thanked Ms Tartt. He said that she had been busy signing books earlier, until her hand hurt, and that these books we might now purchase.

Ah. A dagger thrust. So much for the serendipity of meeting readers. I wouldn't get to hand over my story.

Irritably, Tadeusz grabbed the story off me. He is a man of affairs. He marched down to the front. Ms Tartt had already left, but he caught the attention of Mr Foyle, who took the story and said that he would give it to her.

Now we made our way to the tables at the back. Doubtless, I would buy another copy of The Little Friend, a book I had doubts about, a signed copy, even if it were not signed to me.

I picked up a book and opened it. Ms Tartt hadn't been signing actual books. She'd been signing sheets of stickers, which an assistant had then stuck into the books. That must save a lot of time, but is, in my view, morally reprehensible. I shut the book. Tadeusz and I went out to look for a pub.

I never saw Donna Tartt again. Or, at least, not close up. Some years later, around the time of The Goldfinch, I glimpsed a very stylish someone, in tailored clothes, with a severe haircut, in Marylebone. It might just have been her. That would seem like the right sort of place to possibly glimpse her.

I occasionally wonder what became of my story. In my heart of hearts I think that she read the first few lines, knew that it was awful rubbish and tossed it in the bin. My stories at that time were awfully fey. Tadeusz and I liked them, though.

I wonder now if, even given the most propitious of circumstances, Ms Tartt and I could ever have been literary pals. I read an interview, you see, in which, incredibly, when asked about her taste in music, she chose the White Stripes over The Strokes.

After all, we are very different people.

But I do wonder if Ms Tartt will ever read this. Perhaps this essay will be published, however obscurely, and, at last, as if magically, come to her eyes. And so – because I write to beguile the hours – I hereby renew my invitation: to have a drink with me in London. I like The French these days, or the The Red Lion, near the library.

Sitting at a desk on my own, in the back of my living room, or in the library, up there in Literature, at that lonely, rather draughty desk, just inside the doors at the top of the stairs, my writing life is as solitary as ever. It seems that I seldom even show my work to anyone these days; and yet... I hope still to find a reader; to write something that makes contact between one heart and another.

John Eccleston was born in Preston in 1965. He came to London and never went back. He worked as a bicycle messenger and dabbled in photography. Retired now, he writes stories and plays cricket, sometimes with his son. He was recently diagnosed with NETs, cancer of the endocrine system, which has given him a burst of creative energy. His family and friends still tolerate his many enthusiasms. Early next year he aims to self-publish his memoir, Garlick.

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