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An Exclusive Q&A with Tess Gunty on The Rabbit Hutch

Posted on 10th August 2022 by Anna Orhanen

The Winner of the inaugural Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize and our September Book of the Month, Tess Gunty’s stunning The Rabbit Hutch follows the intertwining lives of the residents of La Lapinière Affordable Housing Complex in the imaginary post-industrial Rust Belt town Vacca Vale, Indiana. Blending stark social realism with mysticism, irresistible humour, emotional generosity and psychological precision, The Rabbit Hutch tells an immersive story about alienation, community, hope and heartbreak that asks searching questions about agency and responsibility. In this exclusive Q&A, Tess Gunty discusses her magnificent multi-viewpoint novel with Anna Orhanen.

Huge congratulations on becoming the winner of the first Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize with The Rabbit Hutch. Would you like to describe in a few words how you felt when you got the news?

At first, I believed that there must have been a mistake. I read the other finalists’ work before the ceremony—each novel awed and captivated me. Because of the wide aesthetic range of the list, I couldn’t predict who would win, but I felt certain that it wasn’t going to be me. So the news had a watery, unstable, dreamlike quality in which I’m still swimming. 

The Rabbit Hutch is populated by an incredible cast of characters. At the centre of the events is 18-year-old Blandine Watkins. Freshly out of the care system (as are the three boys she shares a flat with in the Rabbit Hutch), Blandine is brilliantly bright, ethereally beautiful and obsessed with female Catholic mystics. She has never left Vacca Vale but still in many ways seems like an outsider in her community. How did the character of Blandine come about? 

I began writing this novel the summer I was 23 years old. I’d spend most days in Prospect Park—a large expanse of miraculous vegetation in Brooklyn, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park—without electronics, reading and writing by hand. Most of the characters arrived on the doorstep of my brain in that hot and wild green world with a few vivid qualities. It was like detective work, receiving three clues and then puzzling backward. Evidence of Blandine arrived in the form of an image: I could see a teenage girl in baggy, thrifted clothes drinking a blue slushy in a gas station parking lot. She had the complexion of an insomniac, a permanent expression of focus and an otherworldly aura. What she wanted most of all was to achieve the kind of totalizing liberation that Catholic female mystics describe in the midst of divine ecstasy; that was immediately clear to me. I also knew that she wasn’t religious. Over time, I learned more about her backstory, her obsessions, her neurological particularities. But I did not see that she was the gravitational centre of the novel until my brilliant advisor at NYU, Rick Moody, pointed it out. By then, I had drafted about a hundred pages. As soon as he said it, I knew it was true. This knowledge helped me construct the subsequent pages.

Instantly, I loved Blandine, rooted for her, admired her. I seldom experience that response to a character I’ve invented, especially not to a young woman; in general, the more superficial similarities I share with a character, the more difficult it is to write her with compassion, to keep my own acidic self-criticism from corroding her portrayal. Any time I have written a character too similar to me, be it in first person or third, the narration itself tends to become hostile. Despite sharing an ecosystem of values and preoccupations, however, Blandine and I were sufficiently different from the beginning, and so she remained distinct, someone I could champion throughout. If anything, my attachment to her fortified as the drafts progressed. 

Blandine was the heroine I always wanted to see. From a young age, girls are socialized to believe that beauty is the most valuable currency they can possess. The myth is braced by centuries of reinforcement: it’s the currency accepted in every country and time period; it’s the only one that can reliably grant a woman economic mobility. We receive this message from parents, folktales, advertisements, news, social experiences. Of course, like all currencies, the currency of conventional beauty is a fiction, engineered to reinforce existing power structures. In America’s case, those structures include White Supremacy, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy. 

Blandine is offered this resource through no effort or desire of her own and yet she refuses to settle for it. Instead, she finds the currency repulsive and fraudulent. She vehemently rejects it, attempts to undermine it. Even as a teenager, she understands that “beauty” is counterfeit money with a short shelf-life, more immobilizing than mobilizing, more fracturing than strengthening. If it is a power, it’s one she merely rents from the people it purportedly afflicts (men), and if she doesn’t offer it to them as a plaything, they will snatch the power back from her and attempt to scourge her with it. The attention her appearance secures her — which is largely but not exclusively sexual — leaves her feeling horribly visible and wholly unseen. Blandine understands that rampant, relentless objectification is never desirable, flattering, useful, or fun. That statement is so self-evident, it seems absurd to type it out, and yet I constantly encounter people who challenge it. Blandine insists on deriving her worth from her intellect, her curiosity, her compassion, her activism, her resilience, her interests. She insists on being the protagonist of her own story. Others in her community may punish her for this behaviour, but she knows that investing in her mind is its own reward.

The city of Vacca Vale, whilst imaginary, stands as a kind of symbol of the economic decline of post-industrial Mid-West America, where you yourself grew up. It may be a ‘dying city’ – now facing corporate development plans – but to its inhabitants, it is home. How important were the notions of home and rootedness to you when writing this novel? 

I couldn’t write this novel before I left the Midwest and moved to New York, in part because I couldn’t see my city as home until I left it. Once I was free from the entrapment and isolation that had haunted me since childhood—the sensation of sitting on a metal chair in a beige, windowless waiting room whose low ceiling was always getting lower—I was free to see the jagged beauty, resilience, humility, work ethic, and kindness of the place. Suddenly, I felt protective of my home, and its many treasures revealed themselves to me anew. After I moved to Brooklyn, the intensifying attachment I felt toward my city corresponded to a deepening awareness of the injustices it had suffered. I often think of a line that Leslie Jamison wrote in her essay collection The Empathy Exams: “Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply: an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it is shown.” I think that’s the only way to properly love something—to show it an honest, attentive reflection of itself and its surroundings. The caring acknowledgement of a place or person’s flaws does not preclude love, but rather begins it. You love something by challenging it to reach its potential rather than settling for its failures. To love the post-industrial Midwest was to attend to its pain, blights, and glories as truthfully as I could. This definition of love is inextricable from my definition of home, and these are forces that compelled me to write the novel.

The campaign slogan of the revitalization plan in the novel is: Vacca Vale: Welcome Home. One of my characters, who never enjoyed the safety or connection one associates with home, watches the commercials over and over again and cries. Blandine, another character who’s never known a true home, steps into a magnificent mansion to babysit, overcome by its beauty and comforts and opulence, but moreover by the glow of familial wellbeing within. The only place where Blandine has ever felt at home is a forest that developers will soon destroy to build condominiums. When he’s alone, the co-owner of the aforementioned mansion wanders around his house with a sense of alienation, feeling like a man in a museum. For me, the chapter that most strongly evokes an atmosphere of home occurs between a young married couple taking refuge in a dreadful motel as their physical home floods. This is a novel about characters searching for home, struggling to define it but treasuring intimations of it, trying to generate security and community from the scant resources available to them.

Touching upon gentrification, poverty, ecological destruction and violence, The Rabbit Hutch is a powerful meditation on the lack of societal responsibility and the individual suffering it causes. The abuse of power is a pivotal theme in the novel, and we find it in the relationships between institutions and individuals as well as in the most intimate inter-personal ones. How much do you feel the former breeds the latter? 

South Bend, my hometown, made it on to a list of “Top Ten Dying American Cities” when I was in high school. The evidence of the causal relationship between structural and interpersonal failures was apparent in my neighbourhood. Structural racism, intergenerational poverty, a dying economy, the patriarchy, the environmental crisis—all of these factors inflicted intimate injuries on the people around me.

I’ll offer one sketch that’s tragically easy to envision. It begins with a young child. Imagine that her father was imprisoned for drug-related charges, a fate that was ordained by structural racism, a pharmaceutical company’s power abuses, the prioritization of Big Pharma profits over individual wellbeing within the American healthcare system, no routes to legally lucrative professions, and poor living conditions among communities that caused increasing demand for drugs. Imagine that this child’s mother died of a heart attack before the age of forty—a death that was preventable but occurred due to a lack of access to healthy food; a car-dependent culture that has been fostered deliberately over decades by the automobile industry; Big Tobacco’s successful campaign to make cigarette addiction a national coping mechanism among those who could least afford its manifold costs; environmental pollutants from poorly regulated factory pollution, pesticides for surrounding monocrops, and poor sewage management; a lack of healthcare that could have identified her risk factors and worked to mitigate them; a surplus of stress that resulted from poverty and single-parenting and the unprocessed trauma of domestic abuse in her childhood household, which in itself resulted from the socialization of toxic masculinity in her sexist culture; and epigenetic factors that get encoded into the body when generations of people are forced to survive inhumane conditions like these. Imagine that the child in question is then raised by her uncle, who has to work most of the time due to insufficient educational opportunities and a lifetime of stress bearing similar components to his sister’s, which means that he can only access jobs whose wages have been wildly outpaced by inflation due to national policy failures, which means that he has to work more and more hours in order to support himself and this child, reinforcing a pattern of intergenerational poverty and neglect. So the child is left to raise herself, which creates a deep loneliness, an inability to focus at school, poor nutrition, an addiction to television, and a willingness to accept the company of those who mistreat her. When she’s a teenager, she develops substance abuse issues, falls in with a crowd that eventually robs her uncle, and drops out of high school. At the end of his rope, the uncle kicks her out of the house. She takes refuge with a man who pressures her into unprotected sex. She’s not on another form of contraception due to inadequate healthcare and non-existent sexual education in her severely religious city. She’s not at liberty to refuse this man because she is dependent on him for shelter, and she has suffered the consequences of his rage before; he has been socialized to punish women who don’t give him exactly what he wants. She gets pregnant. She can’t get an abortion because abortions at any stage of pregnancy are now illegal in Indiana. The man who impregnated her is unwilling to take any responsibility for a baby, but is also unwilling to help end the pregnancy. And so another child is born into a set of similarly intolerable conditions, and the cycle continues. 

The lives of those in my community evidenced the positive feedback loop between structural and interpersonal neglect, and while the patterns may be visible in a spreadsheet of statistics, the consequences were singular, personal, and heartbreaking.

Despite the darker themes, the way you thread humour and light throughout the novel is singular and beautiful. I especially loved Elsie Blitz – a recently-deceased TV-star who deposits her life wisdom in the form of an online auto-obituary. She is funny and tragic, refreshingly frank and aware of her own flaws; she also in many ways represents a voice from another era. What inspired you in creating the character of Elsie?

Contemplating factories that once manufactured American goods made me think about the factories that manufacture American dreams, notably Hollywood. The brutality of the extraction economy is visible everywhere you look in Vacca Vale; I wanted to examine its effects on someone it ostensibly rewards. Elsie has won capitalism, by conventional American standards: she was born into a working-class family, her mother was an immigrant, but Elsie spent most of her life inordinately wealthy and famous. And yet she has also spent most of her life unbearably miserable. Something essential has been extracted from her, too, just as it has from the landscapes and bodies of Vacca Vale; the process emptied her. The machine plundered her, rewarded her, and ultimately left her hollow, unable to enjoy the material luxuries she so ferociously accumulated. None of our corrosive systems—the extraction economy, White Supremacy, the patriarchy, fossil fuel dependence, factory farming—truly benefit those they favour. They always inflict a spiritual, psychological cost, even whilst offering material or social rewards.

The presence of death and the question of what comes after it are prominent throughout the novel, as is the concept of purgatory. The conversations about death and afterlife between the characters are always permeated with the nagging suspicion that this current life might be the only one we’ve got. How important was the question of mortality to you in writing this novel? 

Mortality was an incidental concern; I suppose I was more interested in staging a world in which the people already believed they were dead.

The Rabbit Hutch is full of wonderful and disturbing insights into how the internet and social media are shaping human interaction – and the way we see ourselves. As a writer, what interests you most about the relationship between our online lives and our real ones? 

I’m interested in the way people choose to behave when they are free from the demands of inhabiting a body and an identity and a material world. What cruelties, confessions, jokes, and kindnesses does digital anonymity permit a person to reveal? What’s left when the selfish social incentives propping up decorum and niceness are dismantled? (I find the compassion that people choose to offer on these platforms despite their anonymity far more moving and interesting than the brutality.) A small number of people programme the algorithms, but how are the algorithms programming the rest of us? How does the internet mutate intimacy? How does it exacerbate and mediate loneliness? How does it radicalize people? What content is being amplified and why? How does this technology impact democracy and public discourse? All of these questions transfix me, and therefore they guide some of my fiction.
The Center for Humane Technology helps me think through such questions, and offers me more refined ones to contemplate; in their own words, they seek to “reframe the insidious effects of persuasive technology, expose the runaway systems beneath, and deepen the capacity of global decision-makers and everyday leaders to take wise action.” They’re the only organization I’ve encountered that’s meaningfully working to make the internet more humane, identifying specific problems and then offering actionable solutions. On their website, they have a tab labelled “ledger of harms.” There, you can find a curation of research that attempts to quantify the injuries that technology platforms have inflicted upon society. The Center for Humane Technology makes a podcast called Your Undivided Attention that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in these subjects.

There is also a wonderful visual dimension to the book. One of Blandine’s three flatmates, Todd, draws comics and towards the end of the book we see a stunning few pages of visual storytelling. I understand you collaborated with your brother on this part of the novel – can you tell us a bit about the process?

I had envisioned a chapter of Todd’s illustrations the first year I wrote the novel. I could see the climax of the book playing out as though it were something I was remembering rather than inventing. The scene was so chaotic and explosive with action that I had trouble clearly depicting it in language. I thought: Todd is a comic artist; what if he illustrated the action? Five years later, I asked Knopf, my American publisher, if they were open to the idea; they were wonderfully amenable.
 
There was no one in the world I wanted to hire other than my older brother Nick. I had originally described the idea to him years prior, and he had been enthusiastic at the time. He’s a musician now, but he has two degrees in visual art, and he’s worked across media and aesthetics. I knew he had the artistic range to create something in another artist’s voice, and I knew he had the emotional intelligence to enter Todd’s psychology. Nick was also my first friend in this world, one of the few people on Earth who speaks my native language, so I knew he would understand and improve what I envisioned. Fortunately, he agreed to the job. Originally, I asked him to create a fairly literal interpretation of the events at hand. He countered with an idea that elevated everything: Wouldn’t a figurative interpretation be more interesting? This approach made Nick enter into Todd’s perspective with a kind of compassion that ultimately enriched my understanding of one of my own characters, which is an experience I’ve never had before. In his earliest drafts, Nick identified the forces that were acting upon and within Todd and made them visible. He did a few rounds of mock-up illustrations, we tweaked things together through a few long phone calls, and eventually he made the final drawings with permanent marker. They still awe me, and I always notice something new when I see them. They attend to the dark matter of the scene so splendidly. So it was a very harmonious collaboration. 

What was for you the most challenging part of the book to write and why? And what was the most joyous?

The most challenging chapter to write is one that I ultimately removed from the book: a longform exploration of Blandine’s experiences in the Vacca Vale foster system. This was a tremendously painful section to write. It required me to study the experiences of children in American foster care, reading reports, watching video blogs uploaded by both foster parents and foster youth, listening to podcasts, reading essays and articles. I ultimately decided to remove the chapter for many reasons, chief among them was that I did not want Blandine—or any of my characters—to be read as a “product” of a system. To me, such a reading robs them of their sacred and mysterious individuality, flattening them into devices rather than people. At some point, in a letter she never sends to someone who has wronged her, Blandine writes: I am not so cause-and-effect. I don’t know anyone who is merely the quotient of their best and worst experiences. I never want to reduce people, fictional or otherwise, to the trauma they have survived. Trauma in fiction is like a black hole, pulling the rest of the book’s contents into it. Sometimes its depiction is necessary, but you have to be extremely cautious and intentional when invoking it.

Additionally, I didn’t want to suggest that Blandine’s singular childhood was emblematic of the foster system at large; while I did model her history on significant patterns that I saw emerging in my research, it also included events that were unique to her narrative and character. Every person who has provided or received foster care has a distinct experience, and I wanted to honour that diversity. Ultimately, even though I concluded that this particular chapter would deplete rather than enrich the novel, it was extremely important for me to write it.

All the internet passages were a joy to write. I find comments sections to be hilarious and revelatory landscapes. It was fun to replicate them.

You have written a breathtaking first novel, and we are all eager to know what is coming next. Can you tell us a bit about what you are currently working on?  

Kurt Vonnegut said: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” I’m trying to follow that advice and keep the novel warm while it’s incubating. But I will say that it follows three characters many years after they’ve survived an event that bound them together. And it’s interested in quantum superposition.

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