My Life In Books: Tess Gunty
My Life In Books: Tess Gunty

My Life In Books: Tess Gunty

American author Tess Gunty recently won Waterstones’s new Debut Fiction Prize for her novel The Rabbit Hutch. Set in a fictional city in Indiana, the book follows a group of characters whose worlds collide over the course of three hot summer days. To mark its success, we asked Tess to share more about her reading habits, favourite authors and top book recommendations…

All products on this page have been selected by our editorial team, however we may make commission on some products.

What Are You Reading Right Now, Tess?

Olga Tokarczuk’s mythical novel Primeval and Other Times, and An Immense World by Ed Yong, a fascinating non-fiction book about the animal kingdom. I love poetry, so I’m also reading  by Valerie Mejer Caso, and I’ve been savouring both Frank O’Hara: Selected Poems published by Knopf and Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil over the last year. 

Is There A Book From Childhood That Will Always Stay With You?

Tatterhood – a collection of folktales from around the world featuring female protagonists who defy the misogyny of their contexts. My father read these stories to me as a child. The title story is a Norwegian folktale about two twin princesses, one fair and meek, the other headstrong and untameable. Tatterhood, the latter, was born wearing a filthy hooded cloak, wielding a wooden spoon, and riding a goat. She’s the bane of her mother’s existence, but the twins share a very close bond. After trolls invade the castle and replace her sister’s pretty head with a calf’s head, Tatterhood embarks on a voyage to retrieve the real head. It’s a rollicking good read.

Any Other Children's Books You Sometimes Revisit? 

The Little Old Lady Who Wasn’t Afraid of Anything is an illustrated book I like to revisit every few years. My parents say I was so obsessed with it as a four-year-old that I memorised it, and my teachers mistakenly concluded that I could read! An elderly woman, walking home through the woods one autumnal night, is stalked by an enormous pumpkin whom she refuses to acknowledge, let alone fear. She’s the hero of a lifetime, really. I also loved Weslandia as a child – an illustrated book about a bullied kid who’s rejected by his peers and parents alike. He’s relieved from his misery when a mysterious plant species sprouts from his suburban backyard. He lovingly cultivates it, discovering its life-giving properties. He lives in it, eats it, fashions clothes from it, and uses it to invent a sport. In an unlikely twist, this feat of prowess makes everyone around Wesley repent for mistreating him. 

What Books Made You Want To Write?

I’ve been obsessively writing stories since I was a child, and nearly all the books I read throughout my youth made me want to sprint to the geriatric desktop computer my father rescued from his work. He installed Microsoft Word on it and set it up in my room so I could write. I spent many afternoons in childhood typing away on that machine, daydreaming at school about the scenes I would develop when I got home, and I was always inspired by library books. I loved fantasy as a child, and lots of my stories in those days were inspired by the genre. However, the books that made me want to pursue fiction as a profession were Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I read both when I was 17. I was bewitched by the prose and psychological insight of the former and the social project of the latter.

When And Where Do You Read?

Always and everywhere. But I prefer reading in natural landscapes, far away from any electronics. In Brooklyn, I’d read in Prospect Park, and in LA I read in a meadow at a nearby reservoir, or the Huntington Botanic Garden if I’m up for a drive. 

Where Do You Buy Books?

When I’m in LA, I go to Skylight Books, a great independent bookshop. It has a small ‘literature in translation’ section that introduces me to books I wouldn’t have found otherwise. I also like to buy online – is my go-to. I have to read in print, Kindle just doesn’t do it for me. 

How Do You Choose What To Read?

I follow my instincts but also take recommendations from friends, booksellers, librarians and podcasts. There are certain publishers – like Dorothy, Graywolf, and Action Books – whose taste is so compatible with my own, I often go to their websites and purchase books at random. When I’m about a quarter of the way into a new book, I ask myself: is this book lighting up my brain? If not, why? Is it because I’m not giving it what it’s asking of me? Or is it because the book is bad? Or is it because the book and I simply lack chemistry at this point in time? If the first, I try harder. If the second, I give it a few more chances to prove itself, then stop if it fails to. If the third, I put it on the shelf and return to it at a later stage. I think books find you when you need them. 

Do You Have A Favourite Author?

I am intensely attached to Anne Carson.

I loved FANTASY AS A CHILD, and lots of my stories in those days were inspired by the genre. However, the books that made me want to pursue fiction as a profession were FRANNY AND ZOEY by JD Salinger and THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck.

What's Been Your Favourite Read Of 2022 So Far?

A Sand Book by Ariana Reines, which nourished my writing more than anything else I’ve read in recent memory. It’s a poetry collection as long as a novel, but it contains not a single dud. I’d also include John, a contemporary play by Annie Baker that my cousin Max gave me for my birthday. I read it in one sitting during a rare storm in LA that caused my kitchen to flood. I had to stay nearby to manage the water and kept myself company by reading it out loud to myself. It taught me a lot about dialogue, of course, but more specifically about what you can reveal via concealment. Also, it’s wonderfully spooky. 

What One Novel Will Always Stay With You?

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. Those novels are so immersive, convincing and propulsive. You remember them as experiences you lived rather than as fiction you read.

Favourite Biography?

Hildegard of Bingen: A Woman of her Age by Fiona Maddocks. She was a remarkable 12th-century Benedictine abbess who was a saint, composer and poet.

Favourite Non-Fiction Book? 

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, although I return to a few of the essays in that collection far more often than others.

Do You Read Poetry?

Yes – it’s my most consistent source of fuel as a writer. I recommend: Yusef Komunyakaa, Ada Limón, Tracy K Smith, Ariana Reines, Tommy Pico, Morgan Parker, Joyelle McSweeney, Tayi Tibble, Ocean Vuong, Natalie Diaz, Safia Elhillo, Jess Rizkallah. Most recently I adored Factory Girls by Takako Arai and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Abdurraqib. 

What Book Would You Give As A Gift?

It depends of course on the recipient, but I love to gift books that are not strictly books, like Nox by Anne Carson and Building Stories by Chris Ware. These are tactile works of visual art. I’ve gifted Citizen by Claudia Rankine to a few people – another work of linguistic art that incorporates images.

What Was The Last Book That Made You Cry?

Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong.

Any Recommendations For Laugh-Out-Loud Books?

Most books by Joy Williams, especially her sublime short story collection The Visiting Privilege and her novel The Quick and the Dead. I also laughed through No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Until the second half of it, which made me weep. Luster by Raven Leilani is also frequently hilarious – one of its infinite virtues.

What’s Your Favourite Film Or TV Adaptation Of A Book?

Station Eleven – I read and loved the novel seven years ago, pre-Covid, and watched the adaptation this past spring, almost exactly three years after the pandemic began. The miniseries is an astonishing work of art in its own right, and perhaps even more impressive when you examine the artful adaptation decisions that its team made. It’s perfectly cast, too. The novel and the film both succeed because each maximises the unique tools and energies of its format: the novel revels in language and interiority; the series revels in cinematography and performance. Both are remarkable atmospheric achievements. In the end, the series makes the most persuasive and dazzling argument for art at the end of the world that I’ve ever seen.

Are There Any Books That Have Helped You Through Difficult Times?

Bluets by Maggie Nelson has sailed me through the stormy waters of heartbreak. I read Wuthering Heights during a very lonely period as a teenager, and it introduced me to the medicinal company of a fellow lonely mind. Middlemarch helped me revise my novel before submitting it to my agents and it also kept my brain alight during the darkest periods of lockdown. 

POETRY is my most CONSISTENT SOURCE OF FUEL as a writer. Most recently I adored Factory Girls by Takako Arai and The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Abdurraqib."

Favourite Literary Character?

She’s not strictly a literary character, because many believe that she was inspired by a historic figure, but I love Gudrun Osvifrsdottir, the protagonist of the Laxdoela Icelandic Saga from the 10th and 11th century. She married four times, exercised power despite being female in Medieval Iceland, had prophetic dreams, saw ghosts, sought revenge, behaved badly. She was a great strategist, known throughout her community for her wisdom, determined to steer the ship of her own life. I wrote a paper on her when I was 21 or so; I’m obsessed with her. The Icelandic Sagas don’t have much in the way of interiority, so you’re left to guess motives as characters embark on absolutely wild behaviour, which makes for an entertaining read. 

What One Book Should Everybody Read In Their Lifetime?

I truly believe that the answer is different for every person. That’s what I love most about reading and writing: the unique chemical reaction between two imaginations that you can’t predict in advance. But if I had to answer, I would urge everyone to watch Cymbeline – an underrated Shakespearean tragicomedy. 

Do You Have A Favourite Book Of All Time?

Probably Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson if I had to choose just one. But it’d be tied with The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera and NW by Zadie Smith. 

Tell Us A Bit About Your Own Book…

The Rabbit Hutch takes place in a fictional dying city called Vacca Vale, Indiana. It follows a group of characters over the course of three hot days one summer as their lives violently collide. At the centre of the novel is a young woman named Blandine. Magnetic and cerebral, she recently aged out of foster care and longs to become a mystic. 

I wanted to see if prose could evoke the powerful purgatorial sensation I experienced in my hometown and other ‘dying’ cities in the post-industrial Midwest; I wanted to create a multi-textured portrait of a place; and I wanted to fashion art from the wreckage of a poisoned, industrial wasteland. I’ve been a ravenous reader since childhood, but I seldom saw a city like mine represented in fiction. It’s a region of America that’s home to millions of people, but it’s vastly underrepresented in the collective artistic consciousness. I wanted to insist that these neglected landscapes and their people are worthy of literary attention.

You Recently Won Waterstone’s Inaugural Debut Fiction Prize – How Does That Feel?

I still can’t quite believe it. I read the other finalists’ work before the ceremony – each novel 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.

Finally, What Are You Working On Next?

Another novel, this one titled Honeydew. It’s structured as a triptych and it’s interested in quantum superposition…

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty (Oneworld, hardback £14.99) is out now. Visit 

Inspired? Read Tess’s Top Picks Below…

DISCLAIMER: We endeavour to always credit the correct original source of every image we use. If you think a credit may be incorrect, please contact us at

Fashion. Beauty. Culture. Life. Home
Delivered to your inbox, daily