SOUTH BEND native Tess Gunty describes the neighborhood where she grew up near the University of Notre Dame’s campus as being a mix of new houses and those of people who had been there for generations. “My friends came from extremely different backgrounds and were dealt very different hands,” she says.
That’s reflected in the characters in her first novel, The Rabbit Hutch, being released August 2 from Knopf. In the book, Gunty’s prose ricochets between the lives of the residents of an apartment complex in fictional Vacca Vale, Indiana. It’s a swirling novel where the question of how and why 18-year-old Blandine Watkins in apartment C4 will “exit her body” coexists with the postpartum identity crisis of Hope in C8 and the couple in C6 dealing with dead mice being dropped onto their balcony. It’s a book where a chapter can consist of a letter, a newspaper story, funeral guest book entries, or even just illustrations. Descriptions from reviewers won’t come easy, but among those offering early quotes of praise, Everything Is Illuminated author Jonathan Safran Foer (Gunty’s former professor and NYU teaching colleague) called it “a profoundly wise, wildly inventive, deeply moving work of art.”
And it’s all deeply rooted in Indiana. An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Gunty observed, “I never saw a town like South Bend presented in fiction. As a child, I just assumed that my town wasn’t suited for fiction. So I never set my own writing there while growing up.” Later, she realized, “an absence of post-industrial Midwest in literature was a very good reason to set my own work there.”
After earning a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from Notre Dame, Gunty moved to New York for an MFA from NYU. There, she earned a research fellowship to Paris to write the novel that would become The Rabbit Hutch.
Working on the novel for five years, she was leery about submitting the book to potential agents. “You accumulate rejection,” she says. “You become a little bit timid. I had written other things far more experimental and heard advice from people who knew the industry saying, ‘This will never sell. Make sure your first is not too risky.’” Tempted to revise the novel into something more conventional, she decided instead to write a new one rather than compromise.
But writing “something nice and normal” proved challenging. Eventually, Gunty gave in to the idea of submitting The Rabbit Hutch to agents. Reaction was positive, an agent was scored, and a preemptive book offer came quickly thanks to an editor at Knopf who happened to be a former professor of Gunty’s. A deal for a second novel was included as well.
Earning attention for a first novel is a challenge, especially an experimental one. But Gunty has resisted using social media much to promote the book as so many first-time writers do.
“I never had Twitter,” she says. “I deactivated Facebook. I find that the use of social media is antithetical to me as a writer. I don’t like the way it trains my mind. It’s not like a stove—it has its own agenda. It’s not a neutral technology. It’s pushing our behavior toward its own profits. I feel really fortunate to be with Knopf because they didn’t push me to be online.”