Author Gabriel Tallent On His Difficult Debut Novel, 'My Absolute Darling'

Sep 21, 2017

Credit Alex Adams Photography

Novelist Gabriel Tallent knew that his debut novel would be difficult to read.

"What I wanted to accomplish with My Absolute Darling was a portrait of a young woman who's fighting for her own soul when the odds are murderously stacked against her,” Tallent says.

Tallent has been receiving a lot of attention for his book My Absolute Darling in part because it is so difficult. The book is about young girl named Turtle Alveston, a 14-year-old who lives near Mendocino, California, with her survivalist father, Martin. Turtle suffers abuse at the hands of her father. Sexually. Physically. Mentally. She knows she should get away from him, but part of her doesn’t want to.

"Turtle is a young girl who loves her father, who's deeply, deeply divided about the harm that he does to her," explains Tallent. "And I think many young people hold out hope that their parents will will be more than their wounds. And we can see Martin undergoing that struggle we can see Martin fighting to be a better person a better parent and he is characterized by moments of clarity. And I think the children of such hurt people kind of carry a torch."

Tallent says that in some ways, Martin was training Turtle to be independent, ferocious, and to think for herself--alternately skills that became most important in her resisting him. And while Turtle learned these skills, Tallent was forced to learn along with her, especially about area flora and fauna.

"I knew a tremendous amount about these places, just from growing up there," says Tallent. "I did a lot of sort of textbook research to try and figure out the names of the plants in bloom times and get everything right. Still, that was not enough. I had some local botanists contacts who were just utterly essential to me." 

Tallent's research didn't stop with the survivalist landscape. He also took it upon himself to research guns. 

"I felt that it was important to get Turtle's relationships to guns right, because there's a tremendous amount of misinformation out there," says Tallent. "A way that guns are used to aesthetically in various narratives that have nothing to do with the reality of guns. And I wanted that Turtle's use of guns to be real and the things that she could learn from everyday use of guns to be to be well-considered. I didn't want a crutch myself along on stereotypes."

The novel takes a light turn when two high school friends, Jacob and Brett, encounter Turtle in the back country. The conversation she overhears them having excites her. She finds their language skills exhilarating and dizzying; their topics well beyond her reach. Tallent leaned on his own background when forming these characters.   

"When I was a high schooler, I felt tremendous freedom to play around with the big ideas of philosophy and with the big books you know I loved Middlemarch as a kid. I loved The Iliad. I read a tremendous amount of Escalus and Plato and Sophocles and you know spent a lot of time reciting The Iliad myself because I wanted to memorize it," he says. "You know like look like I felt tremendous freedom about these ideas and in part that was the school and the culture of the place that I grew up."

The big ideas from his own past helped Tallent form the narrative, but he says that the boys' banter and conversations helped him illustrate just how difficult it would be to interact with Turtle.  

“Turtle is working out her relationship to other people and it isn't one of trust. It's one essentially of suspicion and misogyny and isolation," he says. "Sometimes misogyny and abuse--some of its most insidious and least talked about effects--is the way that it isolates you from other people and especially in the case of Turtle from other women and girls.”

Tallent says that he was cognizant at the time that he was writing a difficult book that would demand that his readers be courageous and broad-minded, and that he couldn’t make it an easier book for the sake of making it more accessible.

"I didn't know that if I would ever find readership but the readership that I cared the most about was some young woman whose story or some young man whose story had not been told and who felt alone with their experiences,  so I wanted to reach out to them.  And I knew that some of the things that I wanted to say to such a person would frustrate or concern other readers and I sort of just had to make the sacrifice," says Tallent. "And I have been very moved and so fortunate to find allies in the literary community who have gone to bat for this project.

One of those stepping up to the plate with unsolicited praise was Stephen King, who described My Absolute Darling as a book that will be remembered forever, comparing it to To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, and The Things They Carried.

"And that's an excellent example, right? He has no stake in my career. He doesn't know me. I don't know him--though, of course, I'm a reader--but he was willing to pitch for this difficult book," says Tallent. "I think that it is because I have found allies that I have found the readership that I have."

But Tallent is the first to admit that not all of his readers are allies.

"There has been some discussion of Martin as a monster, and as this is a book full of horror, and I think that that is true. But I think that it is important to remember that Martin is just a person and sometimes very hurt people do terrible things, do terrible harm" Tallent says. "And that's not an issue of existential horror, that is just the the facts on the ground in our society--that misogyny and violence against women are issues that need and ask us to reckon with them and we need to take up the project."

Tallent says that in grappling with this book, he's created a document that disturbs some people.

"But I hope that also it will help you see these issues more clearly and we'll see the plight of some folks tangled in this on either side more acutely."

Tallent will be in Wichita Friday evening for a reading at Watermark Books beginning at 6:00 p.m.