It's one thing to be a 30-year-old debut novelist. It's another to be a 30-year-old debut novelist whose book is published by the prestigious Penguin Random House, has received advance rave reviews from renowned booksellers, critics and fellow authors, and is the cause for an 18-city national tour.
- Alex Adams
That's the situation in which Salt Lake City writer Gabriel Tallent finds himself with My Absolute Darling, a chronicle of a young girl's reckoning with her abusive father. Stephen King called it a "masterpiece," and said that it, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Catch-22, is one of those books that "we remember forever."
The novel has its roots in Tallent's Northern California childhood and adolescence, but the novel came to fruition in Salt Lake City, where he moved with his wife for her to attend graduate school at the University of Utah.
Born in New Mexico and raised by two mothers, Tallent grew up on the Mendocino coast. One of his mothers is acclaimed short story writer and Stanford professor Elizabeth Tallent, author of Mendocino Fire.
"I spent a great deal of time outdoors, roaming around," he says of his upbringing. "It was an endlessly explorable home base."
Tallent's novel reflects an appreciation for where he grew up. Set amid the Northern California forests and coastline, My Absolute Darling follows 14-year-old Turtle Alveston as she navigates an isolated existence between the home of her survivalist widower father, Martin, and the natural world where she's free to test her skills as she chooses. Certain that the world will end soon, Martin is given to elaborate rants and unpredictable cruelty, alternately professing his love for Turtle and breaking down her confidence so that she will never leave him. When Turtle meets Jacob, a high school boy from town, she begins to suspect that there might be alternatives to the way she lives with Martin, and that the hard lessons she's learned might be used to save herself and others.
"This is the story of one strong-willed and determined young woman searching for the tools and the strategy of resistance when resistance seems impossible," Tallent says.
The novel is intense in its depiction of physical, emotional and sexual violence. A scene in which Turtle is suspended over an unsheathed knife and forced to do pull-ups is especially harrowing.
It's also notable in its descriptions of the flora and fauna surrounding her. Whether investigating a tide pool, hiding or hunting in a forest or tending her own garden, Turtle sees more lush detail in her environment than any other character in the novel can manage.
Tallent, however, bristles slightly when asked whether it was difficult to write from the perspective of a teen girl. "I think when people overstate how difficult it is to sympathize with these characters, it is an attempt to put them out of mind, and has little to do with the limits of our compassion and understanding," he says.
"She grows up in my culture," he adds. "She's not a psychological foreigner."
In contrasting his former and current residences, Tallent notes that Mendocino is a town characterized by its extreme liberal counterculture. Compared to Salt Lake, he says, "There's a much stronger presence of old communes and hippie roots, and a much stronger fringe liberal element."
In Utah, his experience has largely been in the outdoors. Among his first stops after relocating was International Mountain Equipment, where Tallent outfitted himself with rope, harnesses and other items needed take up rock climbing. Now he climbs three or four days a week. "I'm self-taught, which I don't recommend," he jokes.
"Most of the people I hang out with here are athletes," he adds. "They are politically involved, but not to the same extent [as in Mendocino]. Conversations are generally less political, and focus more on the environment and personal projects."
Having been raised by parents affected by California's Proposition 8—the same-sex marriage prohibition supported by the LDS church and receiving significant financial support from Utah donors—Tallent admits he had "tremendous reservations" about moving to the state.
"I found that my reservations were outsized in comparison to my experience," he says. "Which has been that Utahns, though very different from [Californians], are generous and hardworking and open-minded."
Even as the cross-country book tour gears up, Tallent is at work on a new novel, one set closer to his current home. It's about climbers, including one who suffers a horrific head injury.
No matter what he writes next, he sees the value of fiction in divisive times. "Political discourse is increasingly deadlocked," he says. "Perhaps storytelling is one of the few ways we have to communicate across differences, seek consensus and heal misunderstandings."