Tess Gunty: ‘I was an almost oddly devout child’ | Fiction

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Tess Gunty was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana. This is the inspiration for Vacca Vale, the post-industrial setting of his first novel, The rabbit hutch, which follows the intertwined fates of a diverse cast – including a man who paints his body with the liquid of broken glow sticks and an elderly out-of-hospital teenager who is obsessed with mystical women – over the course of a only summer. At its center is a social housing complex whose name provides the title of the novel. Inventive, heartbreaking and extremely funny, The rabbit hutch already counts Jonathan Safran Foer and Raven Leilani among his fans.

How did the novel start?
I had just moved from the Midwest, it was summer and I was living in Brooklyn and spending my time in Prospect Park. I was just taking a notebook and a few books and no electronics, and almost all the characters then came to me. It was so hot that I sometimes think it was heat hallucinations. They arrived with nothing but their most extreme qualities, and so the five-year task before me was to make these eccentric behaviors not only believable but inevitable in these people.

What made you want to write about Midwest ?
I’ve been writing fiction quite obsessively since I was a kid, and when I was young I thought the absence of the Rust Belt in fiction was a good reason to never put my own work there. I always placed it in an imaginary country or in a city where I had been once. Then, in my early twenties, I began to realize that the Rust Belt’s absence from fiction was a very good reason to put something there.

What is the rest of the world wrong about Midwest ?
One of the things that frustrates me is that politicians seem to treat the Midwest, especially the Rust Belt, as if it’s just home to one type of pain and rage voter, easily exploitable, and this voter is usually portrayed as a working-class white man who voted for Trump. In fact, the Rust Belt is extremely diverse; it’s much more diverse than the average United States, and there are a lot of different ideologies there. It is a vast and mysterious place.

There is a vein of Catholicism that runs through the novel. Were you raised Catholic?
Yes, I was an almost oddly devout child. The kind of Catholicism that my mother practices is very supernatural, kind of signs and wonders, and her approach to religion was for me inseparable from my belief in magic, fairies and Santa Claus, so it made the world much more exciting. There was always this bridge that you could cross into another realm.

And now?
At the age of 15, I began to vehemently reject him, and my entry point into that rejection was a growing awareness of his patriarchal structure, and then of all the abuse scandals. I wanted to distance myself as much as possible from the Catholic Church, so I was very surprised to see the presence of Catholicism in my work, especially since it was not mixed with so much bitterness and of resentment than I expected.

You are able to capture entire characters through short trait lists. How would you sum up?
I guess I would start with the idiosyncrasies and aberrations. I have to walk when I’m on the phone; I think chocolate is overrated; and I thought I would be a mystic when I was a kid.

There are a lot of rabbits in this novel. Did you have a pet rabbit when you were a kid?
I did it. Her name was Elizabeth and she was black and white and I liked her very much. Rabbits evoke so many conflicting associations: Playboy and Donnie Darko, magic shows and the Easter Bunny. They’re edible but they’re also pets – we don’t have many pets like that. I was drawn to them for this novel because they gave me the opportunity to think about predators and prey, and also to see them as portals to other worlds, like the White Rabbit. Alice in Wonderland.

You are quoting Michael Moore Roger and me as an epigram.
The documentary in general, I just loved it, but it finds this woman selling rabbits – dozens and dozens in a cage – and she has this quote about how you have to neuter males or they’ll tackle. This image has never left my mind. That seemed to perfectly encapsulate the kind of trap I was trying to capture in the book, the way structural violence creates interpersonal violence. What these bunnies wanted to get rid of was the cage, but they were attacking each other.

The climate crisis stirs up background anxiety in the novel. Could you consider writing a novel in which it didn’t appear?
I think it’s such a pervasive and terrifying force that even if I were writing historical fiction, it would probably find a way in. Humans have always been pretty disastrous to their landscapes – at least colonial forces certainly did.

What books are on your bedside table?
I just started reading Under a white sky by Elizabeth Kolbert. Its pacing is an environmental disaster, so it’s actually terrible bedtime reading. And then I have a collection of poems by an indigenous New Zealand author, Tayi Tibble, called Pouukahangatus. I have read a few of them and they are dazzling. For fiction, I just started reading The taiga syndrome, by Cristina Rivera Garza. It’s a sort of detective novel, but much more a meditation on discovery itself. It’s really good.

Which novelists working today do you most admire?
Most of my favorite contemporary writers aren’t strictly novelists, but two novelists I really admire are Zadie Smith, simply because she challenges herself with a whole new challenge with every book she writes and constantly refines his thinking, and Yuri Herrera, who is a Mexican writer, and everything I’ve read from him is just perfect.

What’s the last great book you read?
A collection of poetry titled factory girls by Takako Arai. She is Japanese and grew up in a silk weaving factory. It’s about the brutality of industrialism and it’s breathtaking.

Do you read a lot of poetry?
It’s the thing that attracts me the most. Contemporary poetry is so exciting right now, and it’s the work that always makes me want to write.

What do you plan to read next?
something deeply hidden, a book by a theoretical physicist named Sean Carroll. It addresses questions that are fundamental to quantum physics, and every time I learn something about this world, I’m like, “Why isn’t this breaking news? We should all talk about it!

The rabbit hutch by Tess Gunty is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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