It’s hard to imagine a better reception for a first novel than that Tess Gunty receives for “The Rabbit Hutch.” The Los Angeles author’s book, published in August by Knopf, is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction, which announces the winner Nov. 16, and it scooped Barnes & Noble’s Discover Prize.
But if Gunty had taken the advice of well-meaning people who know the publishing industry, none of this would have happened.
“I got a lot of advice from people telling me to try and do something a little safer, a little less risky,” she recalls. “That was advice that I found incredibly depressing for a long time because I didn’t know how not to be myself or how not to be weird.”
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Gunty’s novel follows the residents of the La Lapinière affordable housing complex in the fictional Vacca Vale, Indiana, a town that has been economically hampered after an auto plant closes. There is Blandine, an 18-year-old woman who lives with three young men who, like her, have become too old for the reception system; she is obsessed with medieval mystics and tries to stop the construction of a luxury condominium building. Likewise, tMeet Joan, who moderates comments for an obituary website, and Hope, a mother who has developed a fear of her baby’s eyes.
These characters, and others, do their best (or not) to deal with anxiety and fear as they navigate their way through a city that’s on its heels. Gunty, who will appear with Michelle Huneven on November 2 at Barnes & Noble The Grove in Los Angeles, answered questions over the phone about her novel. This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
I spent most of my life in South Bend, Indiana, which is a small post-industrial town in the Midwest, and I had just moved to New York. I had been living there for about a year, and I found that all my writing went back to this place. I realized that the Rust Belt is just vastly underrepresented in the American imagination, and I wanted to write something specific and specific and just witness a place that I felt was pretty overlooked.
Q. Is Vacca Vale based in South Bend?
I wanted to make it a fictional place so I could draw inspiration from a number of towns in the Rust Belt. I was specifically thinking of Flint, Michigan and Gary, Indiana and Youngstown, Ohio, but of course also my city.
One difference between my town and Vacca Vale is that in South Bend, the University of Notre Dame is there, and is now the main employer there. So when the Studebaker automobiles – which were the city’s main source of identity and a huge generator of prosperity in its heyday – closed, there was this other source of economic prosperity that could absorb some of the economic shock.
But in a way, Vacca Vale was a thought experiment: if that other employer hadn’t been there, what would have happened? And of course, even with Notre Dame present in South Bend, many people have been left behind, because not everyone can simply transition from a job in a factory to a job at a private university.
Q. There is this undercurrent of Catholicism that runs through the book. Was all of this influenced by your childhood in the hometown of America’s most famous Catholic university?
Yes. I was raised really Catholic, and South Bend is a very Catholic town. I only attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through middle school. I went to Notre-Dame, and my father worked there, and my parents were also very Catholic. My mother was in a convent at one time; my father was seriously considering the priesthood. So it permeated everything from my childhood. And even though I started moving away from those ideological systems when I was about 15, and I don’t really identify as Catholic anymore, that was kind of the language I was raised in, a system for interpreting signs and symbols and numbers. But he definitely influenced every aspect of my life, and so he found his way into the novel.
Q. The novel obviously follows a variety of characters. Was there one in particular that came to you first?
Joan came to see me first, actually. The first section I ever wrote was the one between Joan and Penny, which ended near the end of the book. But I had recently listened to an interview with someone who moderated comments on an online obituary website, and I just couldn’t help but think what this work could do to the brain of a person over time and how that might influence the way they think about things outside of work.
Q. A large part of the book is centered on Blandine. Was there a particular inspiration for this character?
She kind of appeared to me. I could almost see her. I just had this image of a teenage girl in oversized clothes, who looked like she hadn’t slept in a while, and she had this otherworldly glow. She was standing in front of a gas station and drinking this blue granita. And I felt like I knew she wanted to be a mystic but she wasn’t religious, and that was all I knew about her. There was something about his unlikely pursuit of mysticism, in its particular context, that I found compelling. So I just started there and followed it.
Q. Did you share Blandine’s fascination with what she calls the She-Mystics?
Yes. I think growing up in this highly patriarchal religion, even as a child, we were offered so few female figures to look up to or even identify with. But from time to time [in Catholic school] we would learn more about these medieval mystical women, who claim to have some kind of divine experiences of divine vision or ecstasy. I really bonded with Hildegard Von Bingen, who was a 12th century Benedictine abbess and polymath and a truly incredible historical figure. I was particularly drawn to his fierce curiosity and intelligence. She had this unusual intellectual firepower in addition to her spiritual visions and writings. So she became the heroine of my heroine.
Q. There is a lot of humor in the novel, which might surprise some readers, given its subject matter. Do you think it’s important to have these kinds of elements in a novel that deals with serious issues?
I think humor is somehow inseparable from darkness, and tragedy and comedy are so inextricably linked. When I try to write about something painful, humor almost always emerges. It’s not really planned; it just happens [when you’re] witness the absurdities of everyday life. I’m really interested in how humor can reveal otherwise hidden truths. I read Joy Williams a lot at the time, and she is one of the funniest writers for me. She’s often funny because she does what all good writing does, which is to take something familiar and twist it a few degrees so that it becomes unfamiliar.