Best Books of the Year: Gabriel Tallent on His Debut, "My Absolute Darling"

Sarah Harrison Smith on December 14, 2017

Tallent.jpg"What did you think of My Absolute Darling?" That's the question on everyone's lips. This debut by young American novelist Gabriel Tallent is much lauded for its breathtaking pacing, emotional story, and evocative, detailed nature writing. But it's also controversial. Some readers, like writer Roxane Gay, object to Tallent's graphic depiction of the abuse suffered by his resourceful teenage heroine, Turtle, at the hands of her paranoid, survivalist father.

Here at the Amazon Book Review, it was our top pick for September's Best Books of the Month, and later it landed in the twelfth slot of our Best Books of 2017 list. So, in answer to the question, "What did you think of My Absolute Darling?" it's fair to say we loved it. Gabriel Tallent spoke to us a few months ago at Book Expo, and we've distilled the highlights of that conversation for you here.

THE STORY OF "MY ABSOLUTE DARLING": The book follows Turtle Alveston, who is a young woman growing up in Mendocino, California. She is sort of an explorer, a wanderer through the woods, a solitary child, suspicious of a lot of the other kids in school, suspicious of her teachers, very isolated and very much trying to figure out who she wants to become. And her father, as you may have heard, is abusive, and this abuse is inscrutable to Turtle. She can make no sense of it, and it divides her within herself. It divides the part of herself that values her humanness against the part of herself that loves her parent. It’s a terrible predicament for a child to find herself in and she ends up having to make a series of decisions that no one should have to make.

WHAT DROVE HIM TO WRITE THIS BOOK: It was the longing to write a book that would be about a character who was this divided. It was the longing to show a soul at hazard, and in that, I got to speak to issues that I think are particularly troubling, issues of entitlement and misogyny and sometimes our failure to take other people seriously.

HOW HE LEARNED TO WRITE: I was practicing by writing this novel. I wrote 15 or 16 successive versions of this book. Start to be finish, just deleting everything, and I think that was a process that  taught me, that and reading each of my drafts and seeing where my weaknesses were. I pursued reading the authors that I thought spoke to what my weakest points were. So I did a lot of teaching myself through writing.

BOOKS THAT MEAN A LOT TO HIM: I get leery about this because I have private relationships to these books. I really like Anne Carson, Toni Morrison, I really like Sharon Olds and I have to revisit Aeschylus and Sophocles. These are books that are deeply important to me.

HIS LOVE OF READING: I started reading very late and people were worried about me. I was very, very far behind in my classes, I was very, very far behind in my reading level. It was a struggle for me. I got taken out of class and read to. I was a long time learning how to read.

When I finally learned to read it was like this explosion of independence. I started to read pulp sci-fi novels. I found a copy of Alan Dean Fosters’s Alien and taught myself how to read, reading that book.

HIS LOVE OF HIGH-STAKES WRITING: Growing up, books that had high stakes meant the world to me. They weren’t all pulpy. I read a lot of Plato but that was because I felt like Plato was speaking to things that were important in my life.  I always was drawn to books with stakes.

HOW HE CAME TO LOVE PHILOSOPHY: I was always a very ethical child and very concerned with philosophical problems and I was in the library one day and I found a copy of Plato. I was like, “This is great! How come you never hear about this guy?” So I kind of got off on my own track.  I think writers should do that. I think writers should cut their own path through the wilderness. You know we do a lot of prescribing of what writers should read but I think people are hunting out books that speak to their own private curiosities.

WAS HE LIKE THE FUNNY, PRECOCIOUS TEENAGE BOYS IN THIS BOOK, JACOB AND BRETT?: I was a dreadfully serious child. I transcribed all of Marcus Aurelius into a journal and when people brought up their problems I would find the appropriate Marcus Aurelius quote. That playfulness they have, that sort of wonderful playful quality, is a quality that I admired in some of my peers. It’s not a quality that I possessed. I was a demon hard worker, I regimented myself. I got up really early in the morning and then ran 6K, before going to school, and then at lunch I was studying Greek in the library, and then I went running again after school. I was driven and largely solitary as a child.

RESEARCH: I had to learn Mendocino anew. I had tramped around in my own way. But that’s not Turtle’s way. I mean, it’s the same gulches, but it’s a different person.  

ABOUT ALL THOSE GUNS: I had to do a tremendous amount of research on guns. I found that the only way to do research on guns was to go out there and do it. Reading doesn’t suffice. I wanted the guns to feel real. I felt that if I relied on things I thought I knew, it would feel like things you had read before.  I want authors to have insights that I do not have. I don’t want authors who are reading the books that I am reading and creating an amalgam. I wanted someone who had their own spring of knowledge; they’re bringing up water from somewhere new.

ON TURTLE’S FATHER, MARTIN, AS A MISANTHROPIC PHILOSOPHER:  He’s sort of a recognizable type of the coast. There are a lot of people who are sort of brilliantly intelligent, outside of academia, philosophically minded, possessed by problems of ontology and philosophy of the mind. Descartes is a troubling figure for him, but these are largely things that are grounded in the theoretical. So, the distinction between Turtle’s way of seeing the world, which has a tremendous attention to detail and to particularity, is contrasted with her father’s tendency to fail to see the particular and instead see the type.

DOES MARTIN HAVE ANY REDEEMING QUALITIES?: He raised a daughter who is actually ferocious and independent and creative and in some ways self-assured. And you don’t do that without doing some things right. He’s capable of being very loving and imparting skills and self-confidence, talking her through problems. If you don’t have some of that love then you raise a child who isn’t like Turtle, you raise a child like Martin — someone who is never going to recover. Someone who is so damaged that they live every day locked in that dysfunction.

So yeah, Turtle is in some ways the product of Martin’s best self. And you can see him struggling to be his best self for his daughter. That’s the greatest thing that he accomplishes—that he raises a daughter who is such a cantankerous young woman, and cantankerous in ways that create problem for him, but that’s a kind of success that I think you have to give him.

ON CERTAIN REACTIONS TO THE BOOK: There are problems of the paucity of representation that get put on this book. I’m sure that I will meet people who are like “Turtle doesn’t represent me!” and I hope that there are other books being written that will speak to that person. And I think we need those books.

Sometimes hurt people are effaced from literature because their stories are so hard to tell. Or they’re not effaced. Sometimes they’re used as the figureheads and the side characters and the reason that an actual person does something. For the most part, I think we have a hard time understanding the lives of people that have been hurt.

ON BEING THE WRITER CHILD OF THE WRITER ELIZABETH TALLENT: I’ve always just had a tremendous sense of support from Elizabeth. I’ve always had this sense of unconditional love.

I allotted myself a year to write this book. I was like, I’ll try writing for a year and if I can’t write a book in a year then maybe it’s not destined to happen. And that year came up, and I was working at a ski lodge in Alta, and I thought, I’ve got find a career, because I’m 3 or 4 more years out, working on this book. If it doesn’t pan out, I’m not going to have what I want for my life. I don’t even really like skiing that much!  I’ll be a ski bum who is ski bumming in order to write.

[Elizabeth and I] do not talk shop a lot, but I called her and I expressed it in climbing terms: “I’m feeling a little run-out above my bolt, and I don’t know where the next one is” -- which just refers to when you’ve climbed out into dangerous terrain and you don’t know when it’s going to become safe again. Do I keep climbing, when if it doesn’t happen for me, I’m going to die?

She was like, “You have to take the risk. It’s not like climbing. If you fail, all you’re going to be is poor.” And that was true.

WHAT HE’S WORKING ON NOW: I’m working on my second draft of my next book. I suspect it will be the same number of drafts. It’s a lot easier now. My life has more infrastructure for writing. I was incredibly lucky to have the restaurant jobs I had. I loved them. But yeah, for the moment, I’m not doing that, and it gives me a lot more time to work with.

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