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

Tess Gunty was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana. It’s the inspiration for Vacca Vale, the post-industrial setting of her debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, which tracks the entwined fates of a multifarious cast – including a man who paints his body with the liquid from broken glow sticks and a teenage girl aged out of the foster system who is obsessed with female mystics – over the course of a single summer. At its center is a low-cost housing complex whose name provides the novel’s title. Inventive, heartbreaking and acutely funny, The Rabbit Hutch already counts Jonathan Safran Foer and Raven Leilani among his fans.

How did the novel begin?
I had just left the midwest, it was summer and I was living in Brooklyn and spending my time in Prospect Park. I would just take a notebook and some books and no electronics, and almost all the characters came to me then. It was so hot, I sometimes think they were heat hallucinations. They arrived with nothing but their most extreme qualities, and so the five-year task ahead of me was to make these eccentric behaviors not only believable but inevitable in these people.

What made you want to write about the midwest?
I’ve been writing fiction quite obsessively since I was a child, and when I was young I thought that the absence of the rust belt in fiction was a good reason to never put my own work there. I always set it in some imagined land or a city I’ve been to once. Then in my early 20s, I started to realize that the rust belt’s absence in fiction was a very good reason to put something there.

What does the rest of the world get wrong about midwest?
One of the things that frustrates me is that politicians seem to treat the midwest, especially the rust belt, as though it’s home to only one kind of voter with pain and rage who is easily exploited, and that voter is usually profiled to be a working -class white man who voted for Trump. In fact, the rust belt is extremely diverse; it’s much more diverse than the US is on average, and there are lots of different ideologies there. It’s a place that’s vast and mysterious.

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

What about now?
By the time I was 15 I started vehemently rejecting it, and my entry point into that rejection was a growing awareness of the patriarchal structure of it, and then all of the abuse scandals. I wanted to get as far away as I could from the Catholic church, so I was very surprised to see the presence of Catholicism in my work, especially as it wasn’t laced with nearly as much bitterness and resentment as I expected.

You’re able to capture whole characters through short lists of traits. How would you sum up yourself?
I suppose I’d start with the idiosyncrasies and the aberrations. I have to pace when I’m on the phone; I think chocolate is overrated; and I thought I’d be a mystic when I was a child.

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

You quote from Michael Moore’s Roger & Me by way of an epigram.
The documentary in general I just loved, but he finds this woman who sells rabbits – dozens and dozens in a cage – and she has this quote about how you have to castrate the males, otherwise they’ll attack each other. That image never left my mind. It seemed to perfectly encapsulate the kind of entrapment I was trying to capture in the book, the way that structural violence creates interpersonal violence. What these rabbits wanted to get free of was the cage, but they were attacking each other.

The climate crisis stokes background anxiety in the novel. Could you envisage writing a novel in which it didn’t feature?
I think it is such an omnipresent and terrifying force that even if I were writing historical fiction, it would probably find a way in. Humans have always been pretty catastrophic for their landscapes – at least colonial forces certainly have.

What books are on your bedside table?
I just started reading Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Colbert. Every beat is environmental catastrophe, so it’s actually terrible bedtime reading. And then I have a collection of poems by an indigenous New Zealand author, Tayi Tibble, called Poūkahangatus. I’ve read a few and they’re dazzling. For fiction, I just started reading The Taiga Syndrome, which is by Cristina Rivera Garza. It’s kind of a detective novel, but so far more than a meditation on discovery itself. It’s really good.

Which novelists working today do you most admire?
Most of my favorite contemporary writers are not strictly novelists, but two novelists I do really admire are Zadie Smith, just because she gives herself a completely new challenge with every book that she writes and she’s constantly refining her thinking, and Yuri Herrera, who’s a Mexican writer, and everything I have read by him is just perfect.

What was the last great book you read?
A poetry collection called Factory Girls by Takako Arai. She’s 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 I’m actually most drawn to. Contemporary poetry right now is so exciting, and it’s the work that always makes me want to write.

What do you plan on reading next?
Something Deeply Hidden, a book by a theoretical physicist named Sean Carroll. He’s addressing questions that are fundamental to quantum physics, and every time I learn something about that world I’m like, “Why isn’t this breaking news? We should all be talking about this!”

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

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