HORLA INTERVIEW – GABRIEL TALLENT (June 2018)
THE AUTHOR OF MY ABSOLUTE DARLING
EXCLUSIVE HORLA INTERVIEW
When Stephen King hailed My Absolute Darling ‘a masterpiece’ readers around the world sat up and took notice. The novel put its American author Gabriel Tallent firmly on the shortlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the world’s richest for young writers. On the night, ‘The Dylan’ went to poet Kayo Chingonyi. But in Tallent’s case it wasn’t bad going for a debut work by a writer only just into his thirties. Tallent didn’t make the award ceremony in Swansea, Wales, due to a prior commitment to a book tour which saw hiim in Australia. But he agreed to take some questions from Horla long distance. Those, and his answers, are here.
What fires you to write?
Almost anything – I don’t even know if I could put my finger on what exactly excites me about a story, but my storytelling interestS range widely and I have more projects than time. I like stories that hinge on the difference between what we believe to be true about the world and what is true, where the protagonist confronts finally his or her own blindness. I like sacrifice and hard work and diligence. And, like many fiction writers, I am interested in the entrenched and invisible injustices in our lives, but that is much of fiction, and to say that one is enlivened to write about injustice is perhaps only to say that one writes fiction, so perhaps it all rides upon how one writes about injustice. I want to write injustice so that it feels like an attack upon your very selfhood because I think that understanding proceeds from vulnerability. And I like compassion. Compassion is a problem knit up with the origins of the novel in English, and yet for all its troubled intellectual history, I think it is one of the few worthwhile literary projects.
Is there a single novel that has influenced you not just as a writer but as a person?
Moby Dick is an important book for me – maybe the most important. I read it as a teenager and wrote down all the scenes on index cards and spread them out on the floor of my cottage and used to lie on my bed hanging my head over the side looking at those scenes and trying to make sense of it. Of course that’s a doomed project, Moby Dick is too vast and tangled, too mad, ambitious, circuitous, and playful, too diverse and polyglot in its ambitions, too centrifugal in its language and thinking. As a young person I was drawn to clear and simple truths, to analysis, to philosophy, to explicable ideas of justice, and I just couldn’t unravel that book. It wants to be taken as a synthetic whole. But look – if you’re not reading Beloved and To the Lighthouse and The Bloody Chamber and Their Eyes Were Watching God and Butcher’s Crossing and The Golden Cell and Passing, if you’re not reading Anne Carson and George Eliot and Coetzee – it’s not the particular writers or works that matter exactly, but if you’re not reckoning with broad range of human experiences, then the one pivotal work does nothing to save you.
Similarly, is there a stand-out short story?
Yeah, maybe. In high school I used to re-write The Turn of the Screw – different setting, different characters, but trying to preserve the device, doing it all for practice and craft. That may be as close I come to a single story, if that’s a story. I tried with Indian Camp and Heart of Darkness as well, though with less success – you can see that I am preoccupied with the way fiction subverts a character’s mistaken view of the world, with the way narrative trades on what the character does and doesn’t see. But I think all this is misleading. I’m a believer in small print literary magazines. Young writers should read The Threepenny Review and Tin House. Those publications print jawdroppingly good contemporary short fiction all the time and a serious engagement with those pages will do more for you than any single stand out story. I’m also a believer in poetry. I spent a lot of time re-reading Homer and Ovid and Whitman. I like Rodin as well. If you want a piece of art that has preoccupied me for many years, The Gates of Hell and its abstracted figures such as Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone taught me a lot about fiction and have much to teach me yet.
Are literary events and prizes good / necessary / meaningful?
Yes. Don’t you think so? Most young writers should go to conferences whether or not they pursue degrees. And as for prizes, yes. I think literary prizes cast our attention to important contemporary work that deserve our full engagement, work that would too often go overlooked and unremarked otherwise. And perhaps prizes are important because––and I’m not entirely comfortable with this––recognition is important.
I have my ideals, you understand, my belief that the measure of a book is the teenager who years from now pulls it down off a dusty shelf and is galvanized by what she finds in the pages. The project is to write a book to makes a difference to someone’s life, and never mind the others. I had books like that – books that changed my life. But sometimes, you’ve got to stand up and say that you think that such and such piece of writing is an important contribution to the canon and to our lives. We need the space and the infrastructure to recognize that.
Fewer young people – especially young men – seem to read fiction (or at all). Why has this come about? How worried should we be? Is there anything we can do to alter this?
There are people who research and consider such questions professionally. Look, I think reading is desperately important. It’s important to me. But why is the reading of literature in decline? How worried should we be? What can we do? These questions deserve anwers grounded in research. I very quickly become uncomfortable when called upon to traffic in generalities, but there are people whose job it is to do this, to do it carefully and well. The very intractability of these problems means that we should try and be truthful when we address them. I am not in a position to do that, and don’t want to pretend to an authority I don’t possess. On this point, I will read and listen to others.
Your novel is shot through with fine nature writing which leavens the horror a great deal. Any nature writers you enjoy or admire?
I like Abbey (Edward Abbey, 1927-1989), even as I’m troubled by parts of Abbey. Though of course, the Utah he writes about isn’t the Utah in which I find myself. Where he talks about a single dirt road into Arches National Park with a wooden sign, there is now an intersection with a stoplight and a line of cars that backs up for miles. But the truth is that I don’t think I took to nature writing from nature writers––I took to it from books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, from the Odyssey, from Bernard Cornwell, from those long adventuresome treks in Tolkien, but mostly I took to it from endless days spent in the backcountry immersed and in love with the world I found there and wanting to bring that world alive to other people.
That moment when you read Stephen King’s approving words…what did they mean to you? Did you need oxygen?
We’d been climbing in Joshua Tree for a week and were driving out of the park late that night to try and catch Edchada’s, the Mexican place in 29 Palms, before it closed. It’s sort of our tradition, to drive out of the park for Victory Tacos. That’s not a particular kind of taco. It’s just that after a week of camp food and runnout granite climbing any taco tastes like victory. We were pretty ragged––sandy and sunburned and ready for margaritas. We got to the restaurant and settled at a booth and I checked my e-mail and it felt pretty surreal.
Anything you’d care / be willing to tell us about what you’re writing next?
An epic poem about a penguin that goes to work for the Environmental Protection Agency in DC, written in heroic couplets or perhaps in Sapphic stanzas. Or maybe a buddy novel about two friends living on the margins and climbing dangerous sandstone towers in remote parts of the American southwest (if any part of the American southwest is remote anymore) while one battles depression and suicidal ideation secondary to a traumatic brain injury. Or the story of an impoverished graduate student who takes to kayaking the wildest sections of the California coast and scouring the offshore islands there looking for something she lost a long time ago. Or maybe I’ll mostly be writing letters to my elected representatives.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (4th Estate, £12.99) is reviewed by Horla editor Matthew G. Rees elsewhere in these pages and can be found here horla.org/my-absolute-darling-gabriel-tallent/