Exploring rural California’s contradictions

Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel tells the story of a tough teenage girl’s survival.

 

Utah writer Gabriel Tallent's debut novel My Absolute Darling has garnered lavish praise from readers. Stephen King wrote: “The word ‘masterpiece’ has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one.” Independent booksellers voted it their top recommendation on the Indie Next List for September. 

Tallent, 30, grew up in Mendocino, California, and attended college at Willamette University in Oregon, studying the cultural history of the 18th century. After graduation, he worked for the Northwest Youth Corps and at Salt Lake City’s Copper Onion restaurant. 

While working there, Tallent began to write My Absolute Darling, the story of a 14-year-old girl named Turtle who roams Mendocino’s forests and beaches, isolated with her abusive and paranoid father, Martin. Turtle knows how to catch, skin and cook a rabbit, shoot and clean a variety of guns, start a fire with a bow drill, forage for edible plants, and above, all, survive. When Turtle befriends some teenage boys, they inspire her to escape her abusive home. The resulting quest will draw on all her survivalist skills.

HCN contributor Jenny Shank spoke to Tallent by phone from his home in Salt Lake City; the interview has been edited and condensed.

HCN: When did you first want to become a writer, and when did you start writing My Absolute Darling?

Gabriel Tallent: I’ve always loved telling stories and always wanted to be a writer. But it seemed like a crazy profession. That’s a weird thing to say, because my mother is a writer. Still, I had great doubts about trying it. It seemed like a very uncertain future. I was drawn to being an academic, but when I graduated, I decided that I would take a year and write a novel and see if I could sell it. Six years later, I succeeded. My original intention was to write more of an idea-driven book. My Absolute Darling is very character-driven because I tried to pay sustained, meticulous attention to Turtle, without straining anything through a net of interpretation or judgment.

HCN: Martin has disparate qualities that might traditionally be divided into right- or left-wing — an avid reader and environmentalist, but also a survivalist and gun enthusiast. Do rural Californians embody these different qualities?

GT: Yes, very much so. Around Mendocino, we have these blazingly intellectual autodidacts who have never been to school or are a long ways out from school and have only gotten quirkier with that distance. A lot of times they are very persuasive about social or environmental issues, and they’ve done a lot of thinking. But because that thinking was done in isolation, it feels like it comes out of left field. I think that’s a thing we have in the West — characters who represent our spirit of independence, but in an intellectual way.

Martin is so damaged that he’s unable to see the world as anything but his own personal stage. He’s been blinded to the existence of other people except as stage props. That’s a fundamental thing that is sometimes wrong about our culture and the way we hurt people.

Gabriel Tallent
Michael Friberg

HCN: The passages of this novel that depict Turtle’s abuse are intense, disturbing and hard to read. Were they difficult to write?

GT: They were hard to write, and I felt very keenly the responsibility of writing them. I knew that people would find them painful or object to them. I was aware that by putting these things in, I was taking risks. I felt that it was worth it to take these risks if they made someone feel less alone.

Even as a child, I had never been interested in books that effaced tragedy or human vulnerability. Human vulnerability is a thing we all live with. Oftentimes, we grapple with it by denying it. Not only do we deny it, but we sort of act as if people who are vulnerable are somehow different than us, aliens of some kind. I thought that if I wrote about this character whose dignity I felt very keenly, and how she was hurt, and how she was not always able to prevent that hurt, I though that it would make someone who had felt isolated or alienated or cast out feel less alone.

I wanted those scenes to feel honest and urgent in the way that our real experiences feel honest and urgent and complex and difficult. That took a sort of surrendering of that kneejerk psychic thing that says, “This could never happen to me.” We withdraw our emotional understanding from those people as a way of protecting ourselves. It took surrendering that, and a great deal of patience. But I think sometimes — when we talk about how hard it is to identify with survivors — that has more to do with protecting ourselves than it has to do with the actual limits of our understanding.