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Love And Cruelty Are Bound Together In 'My Absolute Darling'

My Absolute Darling is Gabriel Tallent's first novel, and no less than Stephen King has called it a "masterpiece" to rank with To Kill A Mockingbird and Catch-22.

It's the story of a clever, resourceful, and lonely 14-year-old girl named Turtle Alveston. Her mother took her own life when Turtle was a child, and she's grown up in the woods of Mendocino County, Calif., with her father, Martin, who taught her how to hunt, shoot, and survive.

Martin is intelligent and principled — Tallent calls him a "charismatic autodidact" — but also abusive and deranged. He's built his life around his daughter, and that's the problem. But when Turtle meets a couple of friendly teenaged boys out in the woods, she begins to see her life in a new light.

Interview Highlights

On what's going on behind Martin's charismatic facade

Martin is a man who, however smart he is, he's a very damaged, a very hurt person. And this struggle is sometimes characterized by moments of great tenderness with his daughter, but it's also characterized by moments of great cruelty when he does terrible harm to her.

I think that no person is a monolith. And I think that he feels great love for her ... but such is the nature of his wounds that he sort of can't help himself. He's a terribly hurt person, and love, sometimes, in a wounded person, translates to great entitlement and possessiveness, and his inability to see her as anything but an extension of himself.

[Martin is] a terribly hurt person, and love, sometimes, in a wounded person, translates to great entitlement and possessiveness,

I tried very hard to write true things about the way that abuse and this kind of sickness creeps into these relationships.

On Turtle's new friends

I think that the boys are transformative to Turtle because they are entirely different from anything she's ever been a part of. Largely, she's felt hostile towards the rest of culture, and to other people, and she has felt herself to be an outsider. And they sort of show her a relationship that's very different to anything she's had before, a very different kind of friendship. And sometimes that's what other people are to us, they show us what we thought about the world isn't necessarily true.

On creating Turtle's story

I began with just a glimmer, a sort of intuition of who this character would be, and I pursued her for draft after draft, looking in each draft for honesty, and for what felt real. Comparing each draft to how a person feels in your life. And I did that until I arrived at the character you see finally on the pages today.

Samantha Balaban and Nicole Beemsterboer produced and edited the audio of this interview. Petra Mayer adapted it for the web.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.