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In ‘My Absolute Darling,’ a teen girl must survive her own father

Author Gabriel Tallent says he set out to tell the story of a young woman's fight for her own soul when the odds are "murderously against her." In "My Absolute Darling," a 14-year-old girl knows survival in the wild, but little of social interactions, and lives with a charming but abusive father. Tallent sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss his much-acclaimed debut novel.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: A first-time author has written a gripping, but disturbing novel.

    Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A 14-year-old girl nicknamed Turtle lives in the woods of Northern California with her father. She knows how to forage for food and hunt, but little about normal social interactions. Her father is charming, protective, but also a monster who abuses her psychologically and physically.

    The new novel, "My Absolute Darling," is a story of survival, a powerful tale that is getting enormous attention and acclaim.

    And it is the debut novel by author Gabriel Tallent, who joins me now.

    And welcome to you.

    GABRIEL TALLENT, Author, "My Absolute Darling": I'm glad to be here.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I called it a story of survival. I wonder what you set out to do. Is that how you came to see it?

  • GABRIEL TALLENT:

    I set out to tell the story of a young woman's fight for her own soul when the odds are murderously against her.

    You know, I — when I'm out with friends talking, the stories that I value most is when they tell you something that they went through, and they walk you through every strategy, every thought, sort of each tactic that they employ and how that worked. I love those stories.

    They make me feel less alone in my own thinking about my life, and I love that entrance into a character. And so I set out to do that here.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Where did this character, Turtle, come from? Was she fully formed, or was — she come through as you were writing her?

  • GABRIEL TALLENT:

    She was a glimmer. She was an intuition that was pursued draft after draft, and each draft saying, like, is this as complex, is this as difficult as a real person? Am I treating this character with integrity and honesty?

    And so, no, she was arrived at through a process of compassion and hard work.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But this also means you're writing from a perspective of a teenage girl. Is that difficult to do? Were you worried about taking it on? Were you worried about how others would look at you for taking that on?

  • GABRIEL TALLENT:

    Yes, I'm writing across a gap of privilege that must be acknowledged.

    And I took it very seriously and tried to engage in those problems with attention and integrity. I felt very seriously the responsibility of writing that character. I will say, like, I think that Turtle is just a girl who is lost and who is searching for the way forward.

    And if you start there, she's not as alien as she seems to some people, right? I think that, occasionally, we make people in Turtle's situation out to be more difficult to understand than they really are. And I think that has more to do with our desire to put them out of mind than it has to do with the actual limits of our compassion.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This goes to some very difficult places.

    The father, Martin, who is the one big factor in her life, a kind of survivalist himself, protector, but also tormenter, including sexual abuse.

    Was there a point when you kind of realized what you were writing and perhaps had second thoughts, or what am I doing here, or where am I taking this?

  • GABRIEL TALLENT:

    Yes, so I set out to write about some of these themes, and because I'm very interested in why we destroy — like, problems about feminism and environmentalism seem intricately linked to me.

    Like, these seem like human rights issues, like social justice issues.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    How are they linked?

  • GABRIEL TALLENT:

    How are they linked?

    They are linked in the fact that we destroy things that matter to us. Like, they are linked because we are not taking women seriously in culture. They are linked because we are not taking the environment seriously as something more than a stage on which we play out our human dramas.

    And I think that when we fail to do that, everyone suffers. Like, this culture of callousness and destruction and hatred of women is common to us all, and a grievous issue that we need to take on. And so I was interested in writing about those issues.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, I mentioned this is your first book, and it came. And you seem to have appeared out of nowhere for many of us.

    But this book came with out-of-the-world praise and blurbs. Stephen King calls it a masterpiece, compares it to "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Catch-22."

    Now, that's pretty heady stuff, right?

  • GABRIEL TALLENT:

    It has been incredible.

    I wrote a challenging book, and I was aware writing it that it was a challenging book, right? And I sort of knew no other metric, but than to follow what I thought was true. Like, my ambition was, I thought I had good observations. I thought I knew some true things about this predicament.

    And I wanted to put them in fiction, so that someone might feel less alone. But I knew that the book was going to be challenging because of that, because of what the project is.

    And I have found allies. And that has been amazing. And it has been so incredible that people like Mr. King and Celeste Ng supported the book, when they have no stake in my career.

    It has been profound to witness those sort of acts of literary generosity. And it has made for an eye-opening entrance into this community.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the new novel, "My Absolute Darling."

    Gabriel Tallent, thank you very much.

  • GABRIEL TALLENT:

    Thank you.

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