Portrait

Gabriel Tallent, writer of My Absolute Darling, discusses inspiration and motivation. By Sarah Price.

Author Gabriel Tallent

The protagonist lives, almost-feral, on the northern Californian coast, where bullet casings litter her front yard and wild animals lick the dirty dishes clean. Her nickname is Turtle. She is 14. During the day, she roams the wilds of her home with bare feet, eats scorpions, cracks raw eggs into her mouth and meticulously cleans her guns. At night, she is raped by her father. Turtle is fiercely tenacious, but she is addled. She calls herself bitch and wet-thighed slit and cunt.

Turtle’s creator, Gabriel Tallent, wanted to write a novel that dragged the reader along, that was both horrible and immersive. Every protagonist is lost and looking for the way forward, he says. His novel is about resistance. About finding the strength to resist, when resistance doesn’t seem possible.

This wasn’t the story Tallent originally set out to tell, it was the one he “stumbled” into. Anyone who grows up and is paying attention has personal experience of violence, he says. Young women are subjected to violence at staggeringly high rates. Feminism and the environment are intricately linked: we destroy the things that matter to us. His debut novel, My Absolute Darling, is a response to that, led by Tallent’s anecdotal experience.

When he talks about the novel, and about women and violence, Tallent is measured and confident. He speaks with intensity and exactness. “I experienced tremendous rage, and this felt like something I could do, that it might accomplish some small good. I thought I knew true things about hurt and what it is like to survive hurt, to endure it, and to try and coach yourself through clarity about that hurt. I wanted to put those true things in fiction. I thought if I could put those true things in a book, then someone might recognise that and be comforted.

“When we encounter someone who has been subjected to violence, there is a natural instinct to find out: What is different between us and them? Violence is dehumanising and we collude in that for our own comfort.So many people subjected to violence feel dehumanised, like something has been taken from them. I wanted to say: ‘No, this can’t be taken from you. Your innocence and your dignity cannot be taken from you.’ ”

Tallent says he was always encouraged to think in a different way. Raised by two mothers, one of whom is a writer and professor at Stanford University, he grew up with, “two great thinkers about gender and society. Feminism was something that was thought about, because everywhere isn’t feminist. I grew up in a household where we were thinking a lot about feminist ideas, and trying to understand the world in a sort of nuanced or granular way, a perceptive way.”

He started writing the novel in his early 20s, and spent the following eight years completing it. His process was to alternate between very fast, momentum-driven drafts and, extremely slow, meticulous drafts. He redrafted the novel 12 times. Each time he started again, Tallent threw out the former draft, to begin “with the dream of what had been”.

There was no one to point the way, he says. He didn’t have mentors or a writing group; he was the reader of his own work. When he realised he needed to develop a better understanding of the way people felt, he read Proust or Dostoevsky or Woolf, and transcribed long passages of their work. Living in Utah, and working in restaurant jobs, he “tolerated” being as poor as he could, so he could write as much as possible.

The novel is dark, Tallent admits. He grappled with lots of things. Not growing up with guns, but realising guns needed to be part of the story, he tried researching and conducting interviews. It didn’t help. When he couldn’t find the information he wanted, Tallent took shooting classes, purchased the guns he thought were suitable for his characters, and spent time cleaning and assembling them. He wanted to know: What is Turtle’s real experience?

“Cleaning the guns was this avenue for Turtle to teach herself about the world. Her father is a very careless person. He is a very wounded narcissist and he isn’t able to take care of things. He doesn’t have patience, he doesn’t have the ability to sit with discomfort. Turtle, through engaging with these guns, teaches herself something about integrity. A discipline like that – something that requires that much care, is instructive – it teaches you patience, it teaches you integrity.”

Stephen King has called the book a masterpiece, and compared it to Catch-22 and To Kill a Mockingbird. Celeste Ng described it as a “heartrending debut” that would “inspire you”. For Tallent, the novel was a risk. It felt daring. “It is a protracted story of child abuse, cut in with passionate descriptions of the environment, neither of which felt like a recipe for success in a conventional way. I knew the book was hard. People said to me: ‘If you want this book to be successful, it has to be less hard.’ But all I knew how to do was to write a story that I was passionate about.

“I knew people who had been hurt. Taking the hurt out of this book, adulterating that in order to make the readers more comfortable, felt like saying to those people: ‘You have lived through so much that you can no longer be a hero of a book, you have sustained so much hurt that you cannot be a protagonist, that we do not care, and that your story is untellable.’ ”

To believe that someone cannot be a protagonist because they have sustained violence of this kind is to give in to that dehumanising impulse, he says. It is to collude in it.

“My job isn’t to make child abuse seem delightful, or to make it seem like only a passing difficulty. My job is to write the entrenched, deep-seated problems in this kind of violence. I didn’t know how to engage in the metric of making the book easier. All I knew how to do was to write towards truth as I knew it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Tallent quest". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.