Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963. She was brought up in Grenada and cared for by her extended family, who instilled in her a love of nineteenth century literature. By the time she arrived at Bennington she was an arresting, individual figure, and she became part of a select group of literary friends that included the writers Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem and Jill Eistenstadt. Tartt was taught by Claude Fredericks, a brilliant but eccentric Classics scholar who took small, select classes. Although she has often denied a connection between Bennington and the fictional Hampden College in The Secret History, it is clear that university life was inspiring: she began to write The Secret History during her second year at Bennington.
The Secret History took eight years to write, and was finally published in 1992. It immediately shot Tartt to stardom; she sold millions of copies, and became an international sensation. For a while the world became fascinated by every detail of her life, from which cigarettes she smoked to where she bought her clothes (Lucky Strikes at first, then Marlboro Gold; Gap Kids, as she is 5ft tall and slim). Her second novel, The Little Friend, was not published until ten years later, in 2002. It too met with great commercial and critical success, and reignited interest in the writer. In 2003, The Little Friend won both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the WHSmith Literary Award. Rumour has it that she is now working on a third novel, about a young man stricken with guilt after the death of his mother, due to be published in 2012.
When asked about the slow pace of her writing (one book a decade) Tartt replied that she feels she has five novels in her, as William Styron also famously said. "I can't think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year. It would be hell." She denies having had writer's block, saying instead that she is simply a slow writer, "moving a comma round very happily for hours".