Although Tartt, who started eight years of work on The Secret History while she was still a student at Bennington College in Vermont, has been romantically linked in the past to the writers Bret Easton Ellis and Nicholas Shakespeare, in public she has only ever expressed affection for her dog. 'I will never marry,' she once declared (in French).
She left Manhattan for a period, and reliable news more or less ceased to flow. Some tales of her love-life brought to mind a Shakespearean comedy of errors. About her boyfriends, she said little; about her dogs, quite a lot. One favoured pooch received this accolade: "My dog has a number of acquaintances of his own species – as do I – but it is abundantly clear to both of us that there is little company in the world which we enjoy as much as each other's."
It's tempting to just go on telling stories about Tartt, because she's a character—Mississippi bred, Bennington educated, a snappy dresser with an eccentric streak (she won't talk about her private life, won't even say if she's married: "As Mississippi John Hurt put it, 'Ain't nobody's business but my own' ").
In the mid-Nineties she spent time in London while going out with the English writer Nicholas Shakespeare. Acquaintances in London literary circles remember her as "unpretentious, funny and interested - the complete opposite of the picture of the self-obsessed writer", anxious to talk about anything other than what her next novel might be, or to address the enormous expectations, both critical and commercial, fostered by The Secret History.
What is, perhaps, curious about both The Secret History and The Little Friend is that romantic or sexual love is conspicuously absent from both books. The students in The Secret History - possibly uniquely among students the world over - seem almost totally devoid of a sexual life (Tartt has actually described it as a novel about repressed sexuality) and she avoids any romantic themes in The Little Friend, although she says that some people have detected a romantic undercurrent between Harriet and her little friend Healy, "although they're not drinking glasses of wine in a French restaurant and going to hotel rooms," she adds dryly.
But no, love is not a subject that she is interested in writing about. "I've noticed that I don't write about it, and I don't like books about it either," she says crisply. But if you're going to write about life, aren't you at some point going to bump into love and sexual desire? Tartt raises an eyebrow.
"I don't know. Jules Verne never came up against them. Melville - it doesn't seem to have interested him at all. Flannery O'Connor, a writer I very much admire, doesn't seem to have been engaged by this question?" I'm not sure how significant all this is, but it does seem that the things an author chooses not to write about can often be as revealing as the things they do write about.
When I tell Tartt that she strikes me as someone who is governed by ideas rather than emotions - self-contained, exacting, intellectually rigorous - she laughs and says "Sort of?" but adds that she can be "a wild romantic too", citing a love of poetry and Beethoven's symphonies. Tartt will not talk about her personal life, and perhaps the most revealing detail to be found in her own writing on this subject is contained in, of all things, a review of a book The Hidden Life of Dogs, written for The Daily Telegraph in 1994.
Tartt also, famously, detests any mention of her home life. Ever since the "Je ne vais jamais me marier" quote, journalists and fans have been trying to discover if Tartt really is celibate. Is the quote still true? She turns inarticulate for the only time during our meeting. "Um. I don't know. Now we're getting into kind of - I don't know." She laughs a woodpecker laugh. "Now I'm a little embarrassed. Basically I have nothing to talk about. I - I - I -" She gives a coy smile. Conversation closed. She isn't celibate, by the way - even I know of three men she's been out with, and there was even a rumoured engagement. They were all sworn to secrecy. There might be a boyfriend at the moment - at one point she says "we", quickly changing it to "I", although that could mean her dogs.
"The only really tense moment she and I ever had was in this writing tutorial where she'd brought the novel," Bret Ellis says. "It was just me and Donna and one other girl. At that point I'd read the first eighty to ninety pages of The Secret History. I thought it was beautifully written; I only had one criticism. I said, 'Here's this guy, the narrator, a freshman at college, and he has no sort of sexual feeling, no desire at all. It just doesn't seem realistic.' She gave the stoniest look I ever got. I almost wilted into my chair.
Yet apparently Ellis's early criticism of asexuality in Tartt's book took hold, however it may have stung, for in subsequent drafts the absence magically became a subterranean presence. "I mean, this is basically a novel about repressed sexuality," she says. "There's sex all in the book, but it's really pressed down. And that's basically the plot - it's like a water pipe with weak spots, and it'll kind of explode in different places. But it's very controlled.
"It's a way of giving events back their power that have been cheapened by over-use," she says. "Because these are the most powerful things we have - there's nothing more powerful. And we sap their power every day. You know, it's better to kind of keep them in reserve for when you really need them. Well, not necessarily better. But it's a way of looking at things."
I ask, musingly, if she ever intends to settle down and have a family. She shakes her head firmly. "Je ne vais jamais me marier." she says.
Suddenly she spots, with delight, a whirling flock of goldfinches. "Look at these goldfinches - do you see?" she cries. "Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They're the last to settle down - they just fly around and they're happy for a long time, and just sing and play. And only when it's insanely late in the year, they kind of break down and build their nests. I love goldfinches," she sighs, huddling tinily in the big car seat. "They're my favorite bird."