Tag Archive: Donna Tartt

Books That Should Have Been Illustrated: Part 1


This week, Scribbly Roo, our resident illustrator and design guru, and I have teamed up to bring you a curious list. We’ve been thinking about the lucky kinds of books that are bestowed with illustrations, and how vital those pictures often become, often so connected to the texts themselves in readers’ imaginations. Think of the famous illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland or the definitive scratchy sketches that first brought Ted Hughes’ Crow to life.


But there are many books that have always remained text-only, tantalizingly imageless. Now we think about it, there are so many possibilities that illustration could bring to our beloved classics, literary fiction that’s stuck to the page with the importance of its subject matter or gravity of its language, genres that have never traditionally been graced with pictures, like crime or history but could be so enlivened by an extra visual dimension.

Even as the future of print publishing changes and warps so that we can’t quite predict it, the market’s demand for beautifully bound books seems to be on the rise. Imprints are forming within well known publishers to publish special, extra aesthetically pleasing volumes, gift editions, limited editions, fancy papers and recycled covers, intricate bindings and illustrations – readers more than ever want to invest in a physical object to own, as the very idea of owning books is sort of slipping out of our hands.

So here are my picks, books I think deserve a good bit of illustration and why:

Donna Tartt by Beowulf Sheehan

Donna Tartt by Beowulf Sheehan

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I think The Goldfinch would make a fascinating illustrated book because its effect depends on its ability to surround the reader in a complex, realistic world, and the reader’s ability to attach and relate to the central characters – to illustrate this epic tale would be ambitious but would certainly offer us another level of engagement with the story and make its settings even richer.

The Goldfinch was a blockbuster hit last year, despite its door stopper size and intimidating scope. With its publication, the author, the enigmatic, one-book-every-ten-years author Donna Tartt, became even more of a household name, and introduced herself charismatically to another generation. The book itself also has a charismatic, enigmatic presence. With a hearty dose of traditional style in its epic, bildungsroman structure, plus a contemporary confidence in breaking the mold of what a modern novel “should” be, plus a nostalgic sensibility too, its settings and characters bringing a Victorian, antique air to contemporary New York, The Goldfinch’s illustrations could bring the whole novel together in a cool way.


As a glad literary descendent of Dickens, Donna Tartt’s work shares a decorative, flourishing quality in its long elegant sentences and, like many of Dickens’ stories, seems a perfect home for charicatures and adornments.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Miranda July’s first novel takes elements and inspiration from her work in other media, her visual art, her installations, videos, interviews, all of July’s aliases seem to combine in her written voice so that you can almost hear it aloud, almost view it on the page as a painting or a sculpture rather than just text in a paperback. I’d love to see how July would populate the world of The First Bad Man with pictures.


Illustrations of July’s characters could be so whimsical and beautiful. The obsessive rituals of protagonist Cheryl Glickman’s life could wallpaper their way through the novel in a sort of visual tirade, adding to the oppressive but deeply comic effect the prose already has on the reader.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel


Station Eleven made waves in the literary fiction world recently by bringing a new kind of dystopia into readers’ hands, pushing the genre out of the box of the YA label and into the open ground of “literary fiction,” and “contemporary fiction.” The world of the story, from recognisable New York to a new barren land where new-sprung civilisations haunt old relics and ruins of a destroyed environment, is so ripe for illustration.

The novel made me think a lot, but if there’s one thing that niggled me about it throughout it was a lack of visual clarity, which seemed to run contrary to the main character’s love of comic strips and sketching. The landscapes and textures of the book are often sweeping and vague. Kirsten’s secret world is made of these sketches, and they’re so vital to the surface of the prose that I kept wondering why there wasn’t more of a visual element to the volume itself, perhaps the whole thing could be presented in the form of a sketchbook or artifact.


The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein 

The Making of Americans was written by Gertrude Stein over a long period, between 1903 and 1911 reportedly, but wasn’t published in full until 1925, in a special limited edition batch. In fact the birth of this novel sounds much like an etching or a print; “the original” has such a mystique to it and even though the themes of the book are so big and universal, it also seems to resist mass production. Like many other works of modernism at the time, The Making of Americans was pushed and coaxed into being by a network of friends rather than a single publisher – it took a village to raise it, and so perhaps it has managed to retain that special handcraftedness that lends it to pictures.


The prose has Stein’s tell-tale repetition and abstraction but over the length of the novel there is a sense of development, of a collage of layers, generation laid over generation as detail begets detail, creating a dense texture that goes far beyond the abstract, into personal history. Stein’s strange mastery of the specific and the abstract together is wonderful food for illustration, I think. What would an artist make of these blank, full lines? What images could come to represent “The Americans,” these two quintessential families that are bound tenuously together by marriage?

Scribbly Roo will be carrying on the list shortly with her top books she’d love to see illustrated and why. Till then, tell us what books you’d love to see illustrated! Or if you’ve illustrated your own books, we’d love to hear about the process, too. Join the conversation on Twitter, below or on our Forums page.

Focus on Life Stories: The Life Novel

matthew wiebe

Trends in the mediums, habits and the objects of today’s writers are often easy to spot. Amazon, reading tablets, vintage typewriters, retreats to Paris. Trends in the actual writing, the shapes of novels, the styles of voices, are less easy to spot. They often become clear over time. When we look back, we see that a pattern has formed.

But one trend that has been collecting speed recently in the literary fiction world before our eyes is for novels that span a character’s life. These novels are full and complex with their life-shaped plots, allowing their authors to delve into and develop their character’s identities.

Not that every story should be molded to fit the life model, but for your particular novel, a life story might just be the right way in. Take a look at three things it could provide, inspired by three recent life story novels:

  • A natural structure

The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri begins at the birth of its protagonist. With a beautiful, sensory scene, Gogol is introduced as a weight in his mother’s belly as she cooks, trying to recreate a particular taste that she craves, even though there seems to be no more space inside her to put anything. From this introduction, Lahiri’s novel follows Gogol to his momentous naming, through his childhood as an Indian boy in America, to his adulthood, all scenes connected by the theme of his name and identity, but also just naturally connected, by time and chronology, so that the novel feels like a perfect whole.


  • Intimacy with your protagonist

Life stories can bring us closer to one character, whether the novel is told from that character’s perspective or from a distance, the intimacy of a life story can make characters seem like family. We go through the trials of life with the character, and losses seem that much more real. Take The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt for example; her novel follows the coming-of-age of a boy Theo, from the loss of his mother, through the painstakingly-depicted days that follow until he’s a grown man. By the end, the sense of familiary we have with Theo gives every detail added significance.


  • A sense of reality

The structure of a life story can also provide a provocative way of bringing real life to bear in our fiction. A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard is technically a memoir; the protagonist wears the author’s own name, and as far as I know, all the scenes and facts in the book are true, but it reads like fiction, the mixture of reality and a novelistic narrative creating a powerful hold on the reader – one feels obliged to listen, as if to a deciding argument in somebody’s life, in respect to the author.


How could you use the shape of a life story to enhance your novel? Or do you already know the entire life stories of your characters, even if you don’t follow them beginning to end? Let us know your crafty tips.

And look out for next week’s episode, about writers who’ve used their own lives as structures for their books.

Image: Matthew Wiebe

Portraits of Authors: What does your author photo say about you?

Donna Tartt by Beowulf Sheehan

Donna Tartt by Beowulf Sheehan

The author photo may be a commonly overlooked feature of the book jacket, but for authors and publishers, it means a whole lot. In a Daily Beast piece about the anxiety caused by author photos, novelist Jennifer Miller says that the two pieces of advice she received during the process of her first book deal were “be self deprecating” and “look cute.” For female authors especially, the pressure for the author photo to “add something” to the package is strong.

Another novelist, Jennifer Weiner, mentions in an interview with Hairpin magazine that you can tell what kind of audience the publisher is looking to attract by what you’re asked to do at the photo shoot. If they ask you to smile slightly, or cheekily, it’s a chick lit audience; if they ask you to look mysterious and severe, you’re probably appealing to a literary fiction crowd. If this is true, Donna Tartt‘s most recent author photo (above), on the jacket of her bestseller The Goldfinch, is letting us know that she is highly literary.

But it’s not just for marketing’s sake that the author’s photo is meaningful; in a society where “authenticity” is increasingly sought, the reader’s interest in how the author looks and acts behind the scenes is high and for actual paper book jackets, rare grails in a digital publishing frenzy, the author’s photo accentuates this rarity value.

At the National Portrait Gallery, the ground floor rooms are full of twenty-first century portraits, mostly of well-known figures from the worlds of politics, theatre, film and music. A large number are portraits of writers too, and though visitors tend to gravitate towards Judi Dench, the royal family, and Bobby Charlton, the writers provide a fascinating insight into the lives behind the world-changing books of the last century, and the public’s insatiable curiosity about the lives of writers.



This portrait of Lytton Strachey, writer, critic and biographer, depicts the dilemma of the author picture perfectly. The artist, Dora Carrington, has captured her subject in profile, absorbed in the act of reading. The composition is both distanced and intimate, because Strachey is ignoring the artist while lying under the covers in his private bedroom. It is clear that the curiosity of the portrait is focused beyond just the personality and appearance of the subject, it is most interested in the subject’s relationship to his work. There is a pressure between painting and viewer, an urge to find evidence of the writer’s mind or of the writer’s intentions, but, this being impossible, the portrait only intensifies the enigma of the subject.

What do you think about author photos? Would you prefer not to be reminded of the author behind the scenes while you’re reading? Join the conversation on Twitter or below!