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A Debut Novelist’s Descent into Darkness

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

“It’s one of those books where you start reading and you can’t stop,” said Mr. Klay, whose story collection “Redeployment” won the National Book Award. “You get very attached to Turtle and desperate to see what happens, and it takes you to some very uncomfortable places.”

Mr. 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-plus-page novel in three days.


“It’s a first novel and he’s got everything working,” Mr. 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.”

Turtle’s story 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 — a self-taught philosopher and gun nut who teaches her that the world is a treacherous place and humanity is doomed. At 6, she learns how to fire a bolt-action pistol. At 14, she’s 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’s at home in the wilderness, but is failing at school and estranged from her peers and teachers. She’s 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 close-knit, Mr. Tallent seems to have arrived fully formed. A 30-year-old rock climber who lives in Salt Lake City, Mr. Tallent was waiting tables when he sold the novel to Riverhead in 2015.

But during an hourlong interview, it quickly became clear that Mr. Tallent’s splashy debut is far from an overnight success story. It took him about eight years to get the novel into a form he felt was publishable. His mother is the 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 Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mr. Tallent began writing the book during his senior year of college at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. 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.

Mr. Tallent was an only child, and his mother and father, a carpenter who now lives in Illinois, separated when he was 5. He was raised by his mother and her wife, an antiques dealer named Gloria Rogers. The two met and fell in love when Mr. Tallent was about 9, when he and his mother wandered into Ms. Rogers’s vintage store in Mendocino.

They lived on a 10-acre plot, in a little house that Ms. Rogers built, then moved to a bigger farmhouse north of Fort Bragg. He would spend hours alone outdoors, exploring the creeks and hunting for Pacific giant salamanders, garter snakes and wolf spider lairs. When Mr. Tallent was about 12, he started making up stories about eccentric characters. “He was always scribbling,” Ms. Rogers said.

He was more comfortable in the woods than in school. He struggled with reading and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. When he finally started reading fluidly, he began binging on pulp science fiction novels.

In high school, Mr. Tallent started taking weeklong trips in the wilderness with friends and sometimes alone. He brought philosophy books and plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus with him. In college, he studied 18th-century 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 Tallent, 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 wasn’t working, he’d write for 12 to 14 hours.

Three years later, he had 800 pages of a sprawling novel about the Pacific Northwest and the strange characters who live there — hippies, survivalists, pot growers, anarchists. He realized the seed of a more arresting story was there, scrapped the draft and wrote a much different novel, one that focused on Turtle’s experience and the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she endures, and her fight to overcome it.

“When I realized that was my subject matter, I was terrified,” he said. He considered abandoning the book. Elizabeth 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.

Writing from the perspective of an abused teenage girl was risky, and some readers and critics may fault Mr. Tallent’s handling of such a sensitive subject, or for attempting it in the first place. Mr. Tallent, who often spoke in abstract, almost academic language about his work, said he approached writing about Turtle’s abuse “with trepidation, and my trepidation had several valences.” But he was compelled to write about it in specific, unsparing language — in part because he feels that violence against young women is too often treated as a plot point in literature, rather than as a way to understand a victim’s experience.

“It can feel exploitative, and there’s a tendency for hurt young women to be symbols in literature and not characters in themselves,” he said. “I didn’t want Turtle to be a poster child or a stock case, I wanted her to feel like her own person.”

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

Riverhead quickly acquired the novel in a pre-emptive bid. Mr. Tallent quit his job as a waiter and started writing his second novel about a climber who has a traumatic accident. He’s been stunned by the praise that 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 health care professionals, so all of our conversations are about health care 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.”

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