Hailed a "masterpiece" by Stephen King, Gabriel Tallent’s electrifying debut My Absolute Darling (Fourth Estate) raises big questions about abuse and civilisation, and is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston.
Set against the wilderness of the northern Californian coast, My Absolute Darling was acquired by Fourth Estate in 2015 following an eight-way auction.
Now, Tallent joins fellow debut authors Sally Rooney and Emily Ruskovich on the 2018 Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist.
How do you feel to be shortlisted for the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize?
I am humbled to be in such company, and admire the range of aesthetics and sensibilities represented on the list. I think it reflects the vitality of our literary moment.
What inspired My Absolute Darling?
Eight years ago when the novel was in its sprawling first draft, it was about global warming and environmental destruction in Mendocino. It dealt with the violence arising from the mistaken notion that the world and other living beings belong to us, that they’re ours. Draft by draft, the novel clarified for me its deepest focus, on Turtle’s struggle for her own soul.
The novel is quite intense and somewhat controversial - what are your thoughts on how divisive reception has been?
The objection I hear most often is that the book is painful. When I began writing, I knew that would be true. I took comfort that no one has to read a book, and that others would tell the stories I cannot. Nonetheless, I thought that to make this book easier, to tell lies about the hurt, or to take it out, would be to suggest that some people endure too much for their stories to be told. It was my hope that if I could write against this, if I could write her clearly and say true things about hurt, then the story might be important to someone. I think it is easier to see Turtle’s innocence, and to see her dignity, than it is to see those things in ourselves, and I felt that if I could show those things clearly, that story might be a solace to someone.
How was it grappling with incest in the title?
I wanted the title to embody the paradox of language that might deceptively resemble tremendous love but is actually profound violence done through endearment--in the guise of endearment, it’s a violation of Turtle’s integrity, and I wanted the tension of that paradox right there upfront and urgent.
It's a very cinematic novel, with quite a pulpy third act - did you envision the book as a film as you were writing it?
I never really watched very many movies. My pulpiness comes from reading on a noisy bus, from putting little Penguin Classics inside my textbooks and reading during class. I devoured Sophocles, Aeschylus, the Iliad, the Metamorphoses, William Gibson, David Gerrold, Aristotle, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Nicola Griffith, Walt Whitman, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath. I wanted urgency in stories. Of these, Morrison and Aeschylus cut the deepest.
What are the major themes you were keen to explore?
I find it tough to signpost my own work, in part because when you signpost it, you are making less of it than it really is, and my ambition is the opposite, I hope to render complexity clearly. Real people suffer. Real people lose their way. We should reckon with that as carefully and thoroughly as possible, and we should not make too many themes of it. But look––take other people in your life seriously. We are saved by compassion. That is a theme.
Northern California is very vividly represented. Was this inspired by your own experience growing up there?
Yes. I wrote from homesickness and I wrote from anguish and from a keep-you-up-at-night rage that we are losing these places. I wanted to pour my love of the wild onto the page in the hope that you would see it and that it would feel as urgent to you as it feels to me.
What are your other main influences?
Look, my main influence is probably nights spent alone, out in the wild, asking myself how to live a good life. Something happens when you are alone long enough, you can pore through your own mind. You have the time to grieve properly for the people you have lost and to reckon with their loss the way they deserve. You think about how you write, and how you live, in a world where people suffer.
Do you have a background in writing?
I studied cultural history in school. My interest was the discursive construction of social institutions, particularly marriage. That’s my educational background. But I owe it to my parents. Reading Dickens aloud around the fireplace of an evening was as good a preparation for storytelling as a guy could hope for.
How did it feel to be endorsed by Stephen King?
I think it’s illuminating that a writer who’s got a million things to do would take the time to read a complete unknown, and then to write this enormously generous blurb.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’m writing a novel about two friends climbing sandstone towers in the American southwest.
Finally, what was your favourite book of 2017?
I read too many great books last year, and met too many amazing writers, to give a full answer to that question. The truth is that we need them all. Literature is, and should be, resplendent in the diversity of its voices. A few of my favorites might be New People (Riverhead Books) by Danzy Senna, Chemistry (Knopf) by Weike Wang, and Little Fires Everywhere (Abacus) by Celeste Ng.
You can read about the full shortlist here.