About The Author
Gabriel Tallent was born in New Mexico and raised on the Mendocino coast by two mothers. He received his B.A. from Willamette University in 2010, and after graduation spent two seasons leading youth trail crews in the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest. Tallent lives in Salt Lake City.
His novel, My Absolute Darling, is a powerful debut about a 14 year-old girl's bid for freedom from her oppressive family set-up. Spare and gritty, the subject matter is not for the fainthearted, but the story is riveting, the psychological insight profound and the prose beautiful.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler spoke to Gabriel about why sometimes a good teacher can be the best ally a young person may ever have, how backstories may never completely explain what makes people who they are and why he would have been willing to let a central character in his novel die.
Author photo © Alexa Dams Photography
Questions & Answers
You’ve spent two seasons leading youth trail crews in the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest. How did your experiences during that time feed into your novel?
The young people I got to know were heartbreakingly brave and funny and curious. Even at their most wounded, none these young people could’ve been said to be a stereotype. I guess I felt emancipated from the necessity of writing generic teenagers –– that is, writing towards type and expectation, and freed to write them as their own particular people.
Was there a particular model for your troubled protagonist, Julia (known as Turtle)?
I had no model for Turtle. It never worked for me, to write from a model. I started with just an intuition, a dream of a person, and I pursued that dream until I felt I was telling a story that had true things in it, modelling each new draft on what had been best in the draft before.
How hard was it to get inside the head of this damaged teenager, the twists and turns of her feelings, her complicated response to Anna and in particular her father – ‘I hate him but I am unsure in my hatred, guilty and self-doubting and hating myself almost too much to hold it against him…’?
All writing takes patience and compassion, but Turtle is just a girl, lost, and looking for the way forward through dark circumstances. I think the idea that such people are especially hard to understand has more to do with our desire to put them out of mind than it has to do with the actual limits of our understanding.
For much of the time, Martin does a scarily passable job of appearing sane and reasonable, for example, during the meeting with the school Principal: ‘She will rise to whatever challenges the coming year brings. However, I am cognizant of your concerns and I can commit right now to finding more time to help Julia study…’ Does this at least partly explain why so many abused children fall through the cracks?
You’re certainly right that it’s one reason Turtle slips through the cracks, but very much more often the problem is the shame, collusion or passivity of other adults. Too often, survivors are not believed. But I’m leery of generalising –– some people work like hell to intervene, and they work with scant resources and against a social grain that discourages and punishes troublemaking. That is why teachers can be so important in a young person’s life. A good teacher can be the best ally a young person may ever have. Even just feeling seen sometimes opens the door to the outside world.
Is the hardest abuse for a young person to overcome the idea that ‘I am a girl things go badly for’?
Young people are embarked on the project of making sense of the world. It is difficult for anyone to cope with and recover from abuse, but with a child, it can damage the way they see the world forever. I think children want the world to be fair. But abuse makes no sense through such a rubric. Such an injury puts their personhood at hazard, and it can be a lifelong project, to see the world clearly after that.
‘Christ! How have I become this man I am now, set in my ways, scared like he was, set like he was, and I hate this, I never wanted to be this man.’ Martin is much more than a mere monster. You don’t give away all the secrets that have made him who he is, but how far did you have to drill down into his backstory in order to create such a fully fleshed, complex and believable character?
I did a lot of writing about that character and about his backstory, but there’s an element of simple realism here –– often, we just don’t know what made the people in our lives who they are. I feel that the kind of person he was, finally, matters more than whatever happened to him. I tried to render an honest portrait of that, I tried to be exact about his character. Sometimes backstory seems to explain a person. When a history of abuse is uncovered, it risks suggesting that the person was made into what they are, that they did not have a choice. But Martin should be left finally and wholly accountable for his actions. He would agree with that, I think.
All lives hang on chance: did you know at the outset how fundamental Turtle’s meeting with Jacob and Brett would turn out to be?
I always knew that meeting the boys would be important to Turtle, but have been unprepared for the way folks have seized on this as the turning point in Turtle’s life. Not because it isn’t, but because I was preoccupied with Turtle’s subtler, inglorious, more incremental project of self-work. However important the boys might be, they’d never have made any difference if Turtle had not already been hard at work, helping herself.
The introduction of Cayenne into the story adds a whole new layer of horror and complexity and is also the catalyst for the denouement. Was taking on responsibility for someone other than herself a necessary rite of passage for Turtle?
Turtle’s father is rarely able to see her as anything but an extension of himself, and Turtle likewise struggles to view the women in her life with anything but hostility and contempt. I think you’re exactly right, that it is important for Turtle to recognize the dignity and importance of another girl. But it may be misleading to call it a rite of passage. I don’t want Cayenne to be figured as a set-piece in Turtle’s drama of self-actualisation, and I think that ultimately, Cayenne’s interiority and survival matter more than Turtle’s personal growth. We don’t help others because it’s good for us to do so. We help other people because they deserve our help.
Her father is not the only thing that Turtle has to survive; accidents and even nature – though beautifully described – also wreak their fair share of havoc. Were you ever worried you were piling on more than she could survive?
I was willing to follow the story however things fell out. I wrote paying careful attention to Turtle and I felt very strongly that I would go wherever that led me. I allowed her survival be an open question for a very long time, that wasn’t something I was going to railroad forward. I thought that if her injuries became too much, if I thought she would do the wrong thing, then I would let her do the wrong thing and would let her die.