Alumna Tess Gunty wins National Book Award for debut novel

Author: Josh Weinhold

National Book Foundation Awards Ceremony. (Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan)
National Book Foundation Awards Ceremony. (Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

University of Notre Dame alumna Tess Gunty, class of ’15, has won the National Book Award for fiction for her debut novel, “The Rabbit Hutch.”

Born and raised in South Bend, Gunty majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. In the novel’s acknowledgments, Gunty thanks Notre Dame faculty Joyelle McSweeney, Orlando Menes, Steve Tomasula and Anne García-Romero.

“My writing professors from Notre Dame uprooted my literary preconceptions and planted far better ideas in their place,” Gunty wrote. “I cherished their generosity as an undergraduate, and I continue to cherish it now.”

Gunty will return to South Bend and Notre Dame for two public events in the coming weeks — “From South Bend to Vacca Vale: A Conversation with Tess Gunty” at the Eck Center Auditorium on Nov. 30, and “An Evening with Tess Gunty: The Rabbit Hutch” at the St. Joseph County Public Library’s main branch on Dec. 1.

Described as surreal, haunting, wickedly funny and full of heart, “The Rabbit Hutch” weaves together the lives of people residing in a low-income apartment complex in the fictional Indiana rust belt town of Vacca Vale, which has never recovered from the collapse of the Zorn Automobile factory. Gunty’s novel explores contemporary malaise, dives into medieval Catholic mysticism and loops through multiple narratives with verve, acuity and deep care.

Leah Greenblatt of the New York Times called “The Rabbit Hutch” “mesmerizing” and “a novel of impressive scope and specificity.”

The Rabbit Hutch Cover
“The Rabbit Hutch” by Tess Gunty ’15

“One of the pleasures of the narrative is the way it luxuriates in language, all the rhythms and repetitions and seashell whorls of meaning to be extracted from the dull casings of everyday life,” Greenblatt wrote. “[Gunty] also has a way of pressing her thumb on the frailty and absurdity of being a person in the world; all the soft, secret needs and strange intimacies. The book’s best sentences — and there are heaps to choose from — ping with that recognition, even in the ordinary details.”

While at Notre Dame, Gunty spent her sophomore year in Angers, France, studying French language and culture at l’Université Catholique de l’Ouest. On campus, she tutored at the Writing Center, and her play “Taxidermy” won an ND Theater Now Award. During her senior year, the Department of English nominated her for four awards; her poetry collection “Radish Beds” won the Ernest Sandeen Award.

Gunty has written for Notre Dame Magazine both as a student and as an alumna, including an interview with McSweeney, a Notre Dame professor of creative writing, after the faculty member won a Guggenheim Fellowship this year.

Tess Gunty
Tess Gunty

Upon graduating from Notre Dame, she began an MFA in creative writing at New York University, where she was a Lillian Vernon Fellow. There, she taught undergraduates, helped coordinate the Emerging Writers Reading Series and received a graduate research fellowship to develop her novel in Paris. Throughout graduate school, she volunteered as a mentor at Still Waters in a Storm, a reading and writing sanctuary for children in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

After earning her MFA, she worked alongside her former professor Jonathan Safran Foer, providing research and writing for his book of nonfiction about the climate crisis, “We Are the Weather. As a freelance writer, editor and research assistant, her experience also includes documenting the history of the Notre Dame Center for Social Concerns; contributing a history of an area of Atlanta to an urban revitalization plan by Thadani Architects + Urbanists; creating science content for the American Museum of Natural History; editing Bruce Rits Gilbert’s debut book, “John Prine, One Song at a Time,”a tribute to the folk musician written in the wake of Prine’s death; and working as a fact-checker on “Mysteries of Mental Illness,” a PBS docuseries about the history of psychiatry in America.

Originally published by Josh Weinhold at al.nd.edu on Nov. 17.