Just back from a rock climbing trip last year, Gabriel Tallent ’10 was sitting in a Mexican restaurant in the town of Twentynine Palms, California, when a curious email popped up on his phone.
Out of the blue, Stephen King — perhaps the most popular writer of this age — was emailing with an offer to write a promotional blurb for Tallent’s debut novel, “My Absolute Darling.”
King called Tallent’s novel “a masterpiece” to rival “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Things They Carried.”
“I was totally shocked,” says Tallent. “I knew nothing about the community of writers because I had never been a part of this community.”
The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Financial Times and other media joined in the love-fest, describing Tallent and his work as “prodigiously talented,” “breakout debut of the year,” and “a gripping read, written in beautiful, brutal prose.”
Despite such heady praise, Tallent followed a path to literary stardom that was far from straightforward. After graduating from Willamette with an English degree, Tallent worked with a program that leads high school students on trail restoration projects throughout the Northwest. Then he moved to Salt Lake City, where he worked as dining room staff at a ski resort. During those five years, Tallent wrote multiple drafts of a different novel that ultimately became “My Absolute Darling.”
The novel’s main characters are Turtle, a 14-year-old girl, and her father, Martin. Their relationship is fraught with abuse and hatred, but also intense love. Tallent aimed to show how people like Martin could hurt the people and places on which they depend. In addition to examining human relationships, Tallent wanted his book to confront the mistreatment of the planet.
“I wanted to write about global warming,” he says, “and why we destroy the things that are important to us.”
Mendocino — Tallent’s hometown — provided the perfect backdrop for this concept. Tallent’s familiarity with the California area’s sweeping meadows and rugged overlooks was crucial to developing Turtle’s independence and grit.
Tallent’s studies and experiences at Willamette helped him through the difficult process of writing the novel. He credits Professor Mike Chasar’s poetry classes and Professor Gretchen Moon’s first-year colloquium on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” as turning points in his writing education. His study of poetry inspired the prose in his book that critics later praised.
Tallent read widely at Willamette, and he cites Louise Gluck and James Thomson as key influences. He also worked as a consultant in the Writing Center, and met his wife, Harriet Greenlee ’11, at the library.
After his graduation, Tallent’s mother, Elizabeth (who is also a writer), encouraged him to pursue his desire to be a writer. He recalls, “She told me if I didn’t take the chance, if I didn’t take that risk, I’d always regret it.”
It looks as if the risk has paid off. Tallent’s working on his next novel, about climbers tackling dangerous sandstone towers, and he’s proven that he’s willing to take risks. Plus, he knows now there isn’t any secret to writing a good book. “I worked like hell and did a lot of writing,” he says. “That’s not going to change.”
This article was originally published in the spring 2018 issue of Willamette magazine.