Breakout novelist wanted to give up

Rock-climber Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling has drawn ecstatic blurbs from writers such as Celeste Ng, Phil Klay and Stephen King.
Rock-climber Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling has drawn ecstatic blurbs from writers such as Celeste Ng, Phil Klay and Stephen King.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Gabriel Tallent had considered abandoning My Absolute Darling, which he rewrote many times over eight years

NEW YORK • With its unconventional heroine and unflinching portrayal of an abused girl's fight to save herself, Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling seems poised to become the breakout debut of the year.

The novel has drawn ecstatic blurbs from writers such as Celeste Ng, Phil Klay and Stephen King, who declared the book a "masterpiece" on a par with Catch-22 and To Kill A Mockingbird.

King, who gets so many requests for blurbs that he has a teeming pile of books in his office that he calls "the guilt table", offered an unsolicited endorsement of My Absolute Darling after he tore through an advanced copy of the 400-pluspage novel in three days.

"It's a first novel and he's got everything working," King said. "When I read it, the first thing I thought was, I couldn't do this, and I've been doing it for 40 years."

The story of the fierce, vulnerable, semi-feral Turtle Alveston unfolds on the coast of northern California, in the lush, untamed forests, gulches and tide pools around Mendocino.

She lives with her paranoid, survivalist father, Martin - a self- taught philosopher and gun nut who teaches her that the world is a treacherous place and humanity is doomed.

At six, she learns to fire a boltaction pistol. At 14, she has become an expert sharpshooter and hunter who can navigate the forests in the dark, identify edible plants, make fire with a bow drill and shoot, skin and roast a rabbit over a fire of dried grass and twigs.

She is at home in the wilderness, but failing at school and estranged from her peers and teachers. She is alone except for Martin, a sadistic monster who would sooner kill her than lose control over her.

In a literary world that can sometimes feel claustrophobically closeknit, Tallent seems to have arrived fully formed. A 30-year-old rock-climber who lives in Salt Lake City, he was waiting tables when he sold the novel to Riverhead in 2015.

But during an hour-long interview, it quickly becomes clear that his debut is far from an overnight success story.

It took Tallent about eight years to get the novel into a form he felt was publishable. His mother is fiction writer Elizabeth Tallent and he grew up in a literary household, where for nightly entertainment, they read aloud to each other from classic novels by Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle.

Gabriel Tallent began writing the book during his senior year of college at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. At the time, he was profoundly homesick for the wilderness around Mendocino, where he grew up and had what he describes as an idyllic, "free-range" childhood.

He is an only child and his mother and father, a carpenter who now lives in Illinois, separated when he was five. He was raised by his mother and her wife, an antiques dealer named Gloria Rogers.

In high school, he started taking week-long trips in the wilderness with friends and sometimes alone. He took philosophy books and plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus with him. In college, he studied 18thcentury literature and began working on a sprawling novel set around Mendocino, which featured Turtle and Martin as part of a much larger cast of characters.

After graduating, he cycled through odd jobs, before moving to Salt Lake City, where his wife Harriet now works as a nurse in a thoracic intensive care unit. He got a job as a waiter at a ski lodge. On days he was not working, he would write for 12 to 14 hours.

Three years later, he had 800 pages of a sprawling novel about the Pacific North-west and the strange characters who live there - hippies, survivalists, pot growers and anarchists.

He realised the seed of a more arresting story was there, scrapped the draft and wrote a much more different novel, one that focuses on Turtle's experience, the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she endures and her fight to overcome it.

"When I realised that was my subject matter, I was terrified," Tallent said.

He considered abandoning the book. His mother convinced him to keep writing. He started over and the story got darker. He felt it was critical to write explicitly about the sexual abuse Turtle is subjected to, without letting it define her.

It took him five more years and another dozen drafts to finish the book.

Riverhead quickly acquired the novel in a pre-emptive bid. Tallent quit his job as a waiter and started writing his second novel, about a climber who has a traumatic accident.

He has been stunned by the praise the novel has received. "I've seen these incredible acts of literary citizenship from people who owe me nothing," he said.

All the attention feels remote to him from his home in Utah, where he spends much of his free time rock-climbing.

"I live among climbers and healthcare professionals, so all of our conversations are about healthcare and climbing," he said.

"Books are this thing I secretly think about when everyone's talking about what sick lines they're going to sink tomorrow."


•My Absolute Darling is available for pre-order at S$22.62 from Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'Breakout novelist wanted to give up'. Print Edition | Subscribe