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Why Set Your Novel in Indiana, and How Comedy Isn't Therapy

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Alex Chambers: Tess Gunty grew up in the rust belt. South Bend, Indiana specifically. Later, as an aspiring writer, she realized she had never actually read a book set in the rust belt.

Tess Gunty: But, around the time I was kind of 20, 21, I started to realize that the absence of this fiction was a very good reason to contribute some.

Alex Chambers: So, she set her first novel in South Bend, and it won a national book award. This week, we revisit a conversation Violet Baron had with Tess Gunty about the Midwest, social class and women being protagonists of their own lives. But first, a chat Avi Forrest had with comedian Mohanad Elshieky about comedy and trauma. That's all coming up, after this.

Avi Forrest:  Thank you. Thank you, thank you. This is the Inner States show.

Avi Forrest:  I'm Avraham Forrest, and tonight's guest is comedian, Mohanad Elshieky, with musical guests from Universal Production--

Alex Chambers:  Avi, what are you doing?

Avi Forrest:  Nothing. Just recording audio for the comedian's story, the intro for the comedian's story.

Alex Chambers:  Oh. Okay. Cool. Go ahead.

Avi Forrest:  Tonight, on the Inner States show, I'm Avraham Forest, and our first guest is Mohanad Elshieky. He's had his own TED talk. He's been on Comedy Central, and some smaller shows, like Conan, but now, he's finally here. So, please welcome to the stage, Mohanad Elshieky.

Mohanad Elshieky:  Especially in the entertainment industry, people love to just give you a label and just be like "Be this guy." You're the trauma guy, the whatever guy, the immigrant guy, because it's easier for them to package it and sell it as a product. Because that's how they see you, you're just a product.

Avi Forrest:  Hey there, and welcome to The Comedians, a series about comedians. This time we're talking about Conan, Trauma, and what it's like making jokes when you're happy.

Conan O'Brien:  Please welcome, making his television debut with us this evening, the very funny Mohanad Elshieky.

Avi Forrest:  What was it like on Conan?

Mohanad Elshieky:  Oh, that was fantastic.

Mohanad Elshieky:  I mean, I would say, the first 30 seconds, I wasn't sure yet because, before you get your first laugh, you're not sure how that is going to go, because it's a different set-up. You have five cameras just pointed at you and you have an audience at 4pm.

Mohanad Elshieky:  You have Conan and Andy just sitting not too far from you, so that's not my everyday set-up when I'm doing stand up, and I also have five minutes, and it's TV, so I can't really riff or go back and say something again. But, overall, I loved it so much. I thought it went way better than I expected it to. Also Conan and the staff and everyone was very nice and supportive and they let you know what to do beforehand, and where to look, and all of that stuff, and they were, like, "Hey, well, you know, this is going to go great."

Mohanad Elshieky:  I felt like I was very well prepared for it, even though the process itself, of getting on Conan, took so long. I think it took over a year. It was just back and forth and talking and working on the set and arranging stuff, and, sometimes, I'm, like, "Oh, I have this new joke that I want to try instead of this one."

Avi Forrest:  Growing up, or just in your life in general, who were your comedic influences?

Mohanad Elshieky:  Comedic influences? I mean, honestly, when I first started tuning into comedy, I didn't even watch it. I remember my friend gave me a flash drive that had MP3 recordings on it, so some of the comedians I don't even remember who they are. I just remember listening to them and just liking the form of stand-up and all of that stuff. I remember one of the first people I'd see was Russell Peters, for example, just because he had so many videos on YouTube and stuff. I mean, a lot of the people, I wouldn't call them influences, they were just my introduction to knowing what stand-up is, and I've watched something like Defense Comedy Jam, and all of that, just to know what the form was. I can't say that I have specific people I can name in my mind about who are the influences, just the collective in general.

Avi Forrest:  What is your vibe as a comedian?

Mohanad Elshieky:  My vibe is that I'm just very dry on stage.

Mohanad Elshieky:  I'm originally from Libya, which is a place that shows up if you Google it.

Mohanad Elshieky:  And, you know, I'm very dry, and I wouldn't call it sarcastic, but that way. And I love doing a lot of building throughout my set, you know, just so I can do call backs and all of that stuff. I wouldn't call it observation with humor, even though it is, in a sense.

Mohanad Elshieky:  And I was driving my car and it got stopped at a checkpoint, and one thing you need to know about Libya back then, that it was mostly controlled by religious extremist militias. And then they searched my car up and down, and then, one of them looked at me and he was, like, "Well, who the fuck are you?"

Mohanad Elshieky:  But yeah, I mean, once I'm on stage I just try to be as confident as I could be.

Mohanad Elshieky:  "And, what are you doing here?", and I was, like, "Well, to be fair, I do ask myself the same question every morning. So I get it, bro."

Avi Forrest:  And, it's very intellectual, it's very political, which is, I wouldn't say it's a rarity, but I would say it takes some finesse to pull off.

Mohanad Elshieky:  Oh, absolutely, yes, because it's easy when I am in New York, LA, or even Bloomington, you know? Because you do have a lot of people who already agree with you. But, sometimes, I go to part of the country, like North Carolina and whatever, and you are not guaranteed to have a lot of people who politically align with you, or not as progressive as you are, and all of that stuff. So, I want to say it takes convincing, because it's not really that I'm trying to convince them of anything, but it takes a different arrangement and, maybe, not going on all heavy at first, and just taking them in slowly.

Mohanad Elshieky:  Have you guys seen opinions lately? Yes, they're really bad, and I also have opinions, but they're good.

Mohanad Elshieky:  So, even when you're saying stuff that they, maybe, don't agree with in their everyday lives, they still will listen and think it's funny and just enjoy it.

Avi Forrest:  When you're performing, would you say that you're a different person?

Mohanad Elshieky:  Yes. I mean, once I'm on stage, it doesn't matter what's happening in my life at that moment. Literally, the worst thing could happen an hour before the show, and then I can go on stage and just get into the mindset, and everything else I just put on the side. And I also know what I'm doing on stage, I'm very confident on stage. I have confidence on stage I don't have in my everyday life, because I know exactly what I have to offer, and I know exactly how things will work. So, it's 90% planned. I like planning and I like knowing where I'm taking stuff. So, yes, I feel like when I'm on stage I'm a whole different person. Sometimes, I wish I am that person who's on stage always, because that would make my life so much easier.

Avi Forrest:  Off set, would you say people think you're a funny person?

Mohanad Elshieky:  I hope they do, because I am on stage, how I am off stage.

Mohanad Elshieky:  So, I put my opinion out there and I believed in everything I said until that guy, Kevin, replied to me. Do you guys know Kevin from social media?

Mohanad Elshieky:  You know, I talk the same way and communicate the same way, so I believe that people think that. I mean, that's the reason I started doing comedy is because people kept telling me that I should do this on stage, whatever it is that I am doing in conversation.

Mohanad Elshieky:  Yes, he's there. Yes, Kevin replied to me, and here's what Kevin said. His reply was amazing. It was like poetry. He replied and said, "You fucking Muslim. I eat bacon 24/7", and I was, like, "Wow, what a hateful haiku. That's so cool."

Avi Forrest:  Why do you think people kept saying you should do comedy?

Mohanad Elshieky:  I don't know, but I feel like a lot of people do get that, though. You know, someone's who's funny in their office, they're, like, "Oh, my God, you should totally do stand-up comedy", even though they shouldn't. I think people just thought I had something to say, or the way I deliver stuff fits within the structure of stand-up comedy, because there are so many ways to be funny, but there are very specific ways to be funny within the stand-up comedy world.

Avi Forrest:  I've heard the sentiment that a lot of comedy is based on baring yourself to an audience, a lot of trauma, to an audience. Would you agree with that?

Mohanad Elshieky:  In a sense, yes. I mean, some it is deeply personal and all of that stuff. And I have stuff that's hard to talk about and all of that stuff, and I have to figure out how to do it in a way where it doesn't feel like-- And, also, it's a cliché of comedy plus time. When something bad happens I try not to talk about it on stage immediately, because there's so many emotions still attached to it, so you're not far enough from it to talk about it yet, but I'd also say that I have never written better jokes than when I was just happy.

Mohanad Elshieky:  Because I feel like the stigma with stand-up, especially with newer comics is that, somehow, you have to be miserable, and you're really going through it for the sake of art, and for the sake of this Van Gogh-like syndrome, where people just have to feel like they have to be this tortured soul in order to make content. And I'm just, like, "No, you don't have to be that, you can be happy and still make good observations, and maybe talk about painful stuff from the past, but it doesn't have to come on the expense of your mental health, and you don't have to feel like you have to keep suffering and going through it, just for the sake of content." I feel like that's just something that I would love to see gone from the stand-up comedy world, because it's just not fun for anyone involved.

Avi Forrest:  With that in mind, what is your process of writing jokes and making a set?

Mohanad Elshieky:  A lot of these jokes really just come up in conversation with friends and stuff like that. I would be telling them a story, or I'd be telling them something that would come to mind, and they laugh at it, and I just take my phone out and put the notes app on and just write a quick note, just to remind me to think about it more later. I'm not a person who sits down and write, or opens a notebook and starts writing. I don't really know how to do that, and it's not something I enjoy. So, what I do is, I really just take these long walks every day in the city, and I just talk to myself out loud, where I imagine myself just being on stage and I just perform it that way. So, by the time I am on stage I have performed it enough times, it just doesn't feel new to me anymore. Usually, when I have a bit, at first, it's always kind of longish. So, it was three minutes, because you have all of that extra stuff that you're not sure if it's funny or not, or you're not sure how to get rid of. But, I would do the joke over and over again, and every time I would change the structure, make it shorter, see what people laugh at. I don't think a joke really gets to it's final form ever, until you tape it for something, or put it on a special, so I always keep changing stuff.

Mohanad Elshieky:  Sometimes, you have an idea you really like and you try it on stage multiple times and it just doesn't work, even though you think it's funny. But then, I just put it on the side and, sometimes, a year from when I tried it, I finally figure out how to do it, you know, like I have another joke that just fits in well with it, or I have a story that this would be a good tag for. So, I never really get rid of stuff, I just put them on the side and eventually, find a way to repurpose them. I have jokes from three years ago that I, literally, just started doing again now, because I figured out how to do them.

Alex Chambers:  It's time for a break. We're listening to a conversation producer Avi Forrest had with comedian Mohanad Elshieky last summer, before he came to town for the Limestone Comedy Festival. When we come back, we'll hear more about turning traumatic experiences into jokes. One takeaway, don't rush it. We'll be right back.

Alex Chambers: Inner States, Alex Chambers, let's get back to Avi Forrest's conversation with comedian, Mohanad Elshieky.

Avi Forrest: For those things that are based on those more negative experiences, what's it like turning negative material into comedy?

Mohanad Elshieky: It feels good to just say stuff out loud, sharing them with people, and actually being able to talk, because once it's funny, it doesn't feel scary anymore. It doesn't feel as bad. It's still bad, but it's not as bad, once you can make fun of it. I get to a point where I start telling these stories and it feels like I'm talking about another person who is not me. You feel like you're separate from it, somehow, you're just watching from the outside. So, it does help you get over it, but, in the same sense, I would say that I don't think of stage as therapy, because I know comedians love saying that comedy is their therapy, and I just think therapy is therapy, and, maybe, people should do that instead, because the audience is there to enjoy their time and have a good time. They've probably got babysitters for their kids, and all of that stuff, and I'm just going to go up and use them as a way to process my emotions, so there has to be a balance there. You should be able to talk about whatever you want to talk about but, at the same time, do it in a way that does not make people just not enjoy it because you clearly haven't processed it on the outside world yet.

Avi Forrest: A lot of your work brings up, arguably, important topics and important perspectives, and, honestly, I would argue that humor can be activism.

Mohanad Elshieky: It's easier to do it within stand up comedy because it's packaged in the jokes, so people are more able to listen to them and they can relate to you, and all of that stuff. Humor does humanize you more so, in a sense, yes, it can be a form of activism. But, I say, at the same point, I'm in the mindset of, my goal is to make people laugh, to make people enjoy the show, and everything good that comes out on the side is, I'm glad if a positive change happens, but, I can't say that I sit down and write jokes and be, like, "Oh, this is what I want to happen", because you can never control how people take your material and jokes, and how they understand them, and how it resonates with them. Sometimes, you have a joke that has a really big impact on someone, and, sometimes, it's just a funny joke that they remember, so you can't really control that. You just hope for the best when you write them.

Mohanad Elshieky: One last thing. I had this really terrible thing happen to me a few months ago. I was doing comedy in the city of Spokane, Washington.

Unknown voice in the audience: Woo.

Mohanad Elshieky: Yes, one person knows that place. The rest of you, you don't need to. It sucks. The worst place on earth. It should be canceled, honestly. Can we do that?

Avi Forrest: More recently, you shared that experience about being taken off the bus by Border Patrol.

Mohanad Elshieky: And then, as I finished my set, I got on the Greyhound Bus to go back to Portland, where I live, because I believe that the best art comes from torture, you know? And, I was on the bus, everything was great. I'm just looking at my phone, just scrolling down. Like, I wonder what Kevin has been up to lately? And then, I see people wearing uniforms and they get on the bus, and they start asking people questions, and then, one of them looks at me, and he was, like, "Oh, you don't look like you're from here. Where are you from? Can we see your papers and everything you have? And let's step outside of the bus", and then, I learned that these people were Border Patrol, and it's obviously very disgusting, because they asked me to step outside of the bus based on the way I looked. You know? They looked at me and they were, like, "This guy looks too handsome to be from Spokane. He has most of his face." And then, they looked at my papers and they're, like, "These papers look fake. They're easily falsified", and I was, like, "Well, these papers have been given to me by you, so, maybe, do a better job, I don't know, that seems like your problem, at this point", and then, they were, like, "Okay, buddy, one more thing. Are you from Oregon or Washington?" And I was, like, "I support God." And they were, like, "What does that mean?" And I was, like, "I don't know man, that's how I talk to militias."

Avi Forrest: Are you ever afraid of being pigeonholed as someone who has had that experience, and people only want you to talk about that experience?

Mohanad Elshieky: Yeah, of course. You always feel that way, you're like, "Oh, this is the only thing people want to hear about, and all of that stuff." And I get it, because it's just, obviously, a big event and all of that, and, sometimes, this is how people got to know me, because this story was on the news. But, I think what helps me the most, is just because I get to do, usually, a full hour of comedy or so, and people come and see me, so they get to see other stuff as well, and that Greyhound story, for example, is four or five minutes out of a 60 minute set.

Mohanad Elshieky: So, they get to see the other aspects of me, and, sometimes, I don't even talk about myself, I just have silly observations about other stuff that truly is just stuff that I think are funny, so, I think it gives people more of a way to see you as a person who contains multitudes and is multifaceted, and all of that stuff, and more like them than anything, and that's just one story that you have.

Mohanad Elshieky: But, yeah, it's always a fear and, especially in the entertainment industry, people love to just give you a label and just be like, "Be this guy." You're the trauma guy, you're whatever guy, you're the immigrant guy, because it's easier for them to package it and sell it as a product, because that's how they see you, you're just a product.

Mohanad Elshieky: I think, just because of how social media is now and how there are so many ways to communicate with the audiences, there is more freedom now to package yourself the way you want it, which is just as a person, whatever you want it to be.

Avi Forrest: Seeing people of color and immigrants as not just their trauma and just this one thing that happened, and seeing them fully, and seeing that they're just people. They're not, like you said, they're not machines for money, or vehicles for traumatic stories, they're people.

Mohanad Elshieky: Exactly. Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, yes, that's the thing, and, I mean, that's one thing that stand up allows me to do, it allows me to, not just tell my story, but talk about myself and my personal life, and all of that stuff, but, on my own terms, and not having to do it through the way people want me to do, you know?

Avi Forrest: Yeah, I'm not an immigrant nor a person of color. I am trans and I, sort of, identify with this concept. I would feel weird if I was reduced to my traumatic memories, because I think transness is reduced to the dysphoria, and there is joy within it, and I'm really just a person.

Mohanad Elshieky: Exactly. Yeah. You just want people to be people. Especially if you're someone who is supportive of trans issues or you are an ally to people of color, and all of that stuff, it shouldn't come on the expense of them having to relive the trauma over and over again, just to prove that they are people. Because, people in general, just deserve to be happy and just live their normal lives without being reminded that they're different or need to do more work to be accepted or any of that stuff.

Avi Forrest: What are you afraid of most, as a comedian?

Mohanad Elshieky: The fear is always not connecting with the audience and bombing. I don't care if one joke bombs, but if the whole set is not going your way and you have to up there for an hour, that is not great, and also, this is more of an inconvenience, you travel all the way to a city but you do not get the turn out that you expected, so you had this really great hour, and, maybe, 15 people show up out of 100, or something, and you're, like, "Well, it is what it is, I just got to push through it." Especially, I guess that's a fear, an irrational one, where you have a writer's block and you're, like, "I don't think I can come up with jokes anymore. That's it for me."

Avi Forrest: What is something you haven't been able to achieve?

Mohanad Elshieky: I wouldn't say, "Not able", a lot of this stuff just takes time. I would love to have my own TV show, which is something I've been working on. It's just that stuff like that takes so long, and it's such a long process. So, I wouldn't say, I wasn't able to achieve, it's more like I just wish it can be achieved quicker, and, in my mind, I have a lot of clear goals and I have confidence enough in myself that I know that they will happen eventually. It's a matter of, when, and not, if. I just hate having to wait for too long.

Avi Forrest: What is something that you want people to know about you?

Mohanad Elshieky: I don't know if it's something I need people to know about me, but it mostly has to do with comedians in general. Just because you see someone on stage or you hear them on a podcast or something and you know so much about them, you shouldn't assume that you know them, I guess. Because, sometimes, I would get DMs on Instagram, or whatever, and people, because they hear you and they listen to you and stuff, they get too familiar, they get too comfortable, and it's, like, "Sorry, you don't know me that way." So, sometimes, it's weird when people try to, because I'm, like, "Yes, you know me, but maybe I don't know you in that sense."

Mohanad Elshieky: But, if there's anything I want people to know about me, honestly, is that I have two cats and I love them so much. If I am to be pigeonholed into any label, it's that it would be that I love my cats, because I do not mind that.

Avi Forrest: What are your cats' names?

Mohanad Elshieky: Their names are Una and Toonie. Together, we call them, Tuna. They're three years old and I love them so much.

Avi Forrest: I think that's going to be the focal point of this interview, honestly. There'll be some minor notes that could work.

Mohanad Elshieky: I would not mind it. I literally would not mind it if you even put their name on the headline, and not my name.

Avi Forrest: [LAUGHS] Yes, well, the show is called Inner States, but it's going to be called The Tuna Show, from now on.

Mohanad Elshieky: Perfect. Amazing. Yes, I love that.

Avi Forrest: Thank you so much. That's all I have for today. It was amazing meeting with you. I think your work is just so essential and I love your comedy.

Mohanad Elshieky: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Alex Chambers: Comedian, Mohanad Elshieky talking with Avi Forrest, who is still not the host of this show. But, who knows what the future holds? Mohanad came to Bloomington as part of the Limestone Comedy Festival in June. Okay, let's take a break, and then, hear about what was probably the first ever novel set in Indiana to win a national book award. Tess Gunty's The Rabbit Hutch. If I'm wrong about that, you can let me know on Instagram at WFIU Inner States, or through our website. We'll be right back.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Here's producer Violet Baron, talking last year with novelist Tess Gunty about her debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, the Midwest, social class and women being protagonists of their own lives.

Violet Baron:  Tess Gunty's debut novel, the Rabbit Hutch, got significant critical acclaim when it came out last year. And, I get why. It creates a world where each character is thoughtful and weird and chooses eccentricity over likability. It takes place in one apartment building where they all live out parallel lives, and that building is in the fictional Rust Belt town of Vacca Vale. Gunty modeled it in part on her own home town, South Bend. The books protagonist, Blandine, in young, smart, beautiful and seemingly going nowhere. She exits her body on the very first page. We see her and her town through the eyes of both old-timers and newcomers throughout the book. And, those interwoven stories explore themes of home, belonging, class, feminism, and the absurdities of life in our current moment. It also speaks honestly and devastatingly about what it's like to be a woman, or a girl just entering womanhood, in a world that seems to be taking as many steps backwards as forwards.

Violet Baron:  I spoke with Gunty via Zoom, to hear some of her why's and how's behind the story.

Tess Gunty:  I've been writing for fun ever since I was little. It was something I enjoyed doing. I continued doing it throughout high school and college, but I had never read a book that was set in the Rust Belt, and I think that when I was small I internalized this narrative that the lives that happened there are not worthy of external attention. I think it took me a very long time to understand the particular danger of that message. I think when you believe that the narratives around you and within you don't matter, you're divested of political will and, creative will. Around the time I was 20, 21, I started to realize that the absence of this fiction was a very good reason to contribute some.

Violet Baron:  You bring up this political aspect to this right away, and I'm curious if you see this book as part of that raft of stories we got in the last five years; Educated, Hillbilly Elegy, even The Glass Castle. These personal and family orientated stories about working class white communities that we don't hear about as much.

Tess Gunty:  I haven't read either of those books, but, I suppose I started writing this book the year I moved to Brooklyn. I needed about a year distance from my home in order to see it more clearly and one thing that came to me, during that time, was a new sense of protectiveness and tenderness towards the place, that I don't think I could feel free to experience until I was free of it. I did notice that there was a dismissal of this region that I think I felt when I lived there, but never saw it up close until I was out of it, and I was in more elite communities in coastal cities. I think that it was partly the frustration of encountering that dismissal that motivated me to write. I had already been writing the book, but I went to see a performance of Bolero at the New York Philharmonic and I sat next to this woman who was in furs and she looked like she never left Manhattan.

Tess Gunty:  When she asked where I was from, I said, "Indiana" and she gasped and she said, "I didn't know anyone was from Indiana. Did you turn the lights out when you left?" And it was the most cartoonist version of an attitude that I think I encountered in much more subtle ways. Not to say that I think this is the pinnacle of oppression, I just think it was interesting to me to encounter the dismissal.

Violet Baron:  Yeah, that sense of place and how different people respond to it is so palpable in the story. I'm curious how place acts as a device. The character Moses comes to Vacca Vale and he's responding to the smallness, or small townness of it. And you've lived in these big places like New York and LA. My story is the opposite, I came from New York to Indiana. So, in your mind, how is the placeness of Vacca Vale operating in the story?

Tess Gunty:  One of the reasons I wanted to set it in a fictional city was, if I had set it in my real hometown or any other city in the Rust Belt; Flint, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, all of which influenced Vacca Vale tremendously, I would feel immobilized by the task of doing it justice or creating an objectively true portrait of the place. Precisely because there are so few narratives that are visible on a national scale about these places, that I'd feel tremendous pressure to be perfectly accurate in every possible way, and I knew that was impossible for me. Setting it in a fictional city, allowed me to treat place more as an atmospheric challenge rather than a transcription challenge. What I was trying to evoke most strongly, was this purgatorial atmosphere that I encounter in my city and in any other city that I visited that had a similar history. I would feel that sensation of the after life, like a kind of waiting afterlife. I enter land between realms that was so palpable in all of these places.

Tess Gunty:  Really, the effort was to evoke the emotional sensation and then of course, I pulled on things that were real, some of the things I made up but, that was the main relationship that I had with creating a place.

Violet Baron:  It's super interesting. The idea of the place as sort of purgatory or purgatorial moment maybe between what it was when the factories and the companies were strongly present, and what it will be, or what new commerce might come. Did you feel that growing up in the state?

Tess Gunty:  Absolutely, I remember I didn't really learn much about the automobile company in South Bend's case, it was home to Studebaker Automobiles for about a hundred years, and then they abruptly closed in the 1960s, that was about 30 years before I was born. My family wasn't from South Bend, they had moved from elsewhere. In its heyday, Studebaker was the largest car manufacturing facility in America, but I didn't know that. What I did know was that I felt extremely haunted, from childhood onward, by something. I saw it everywhere, it wasn't just in my household it was everywhere I looked, and when I went to catholic school, when I was maybe 11 or so, this religion teacher introduced us to the idea of purgatory for the first time. She described it as a place of indefinite waiting, eternal longing and unquenchable thirst, and she said that, "You would never know how long you're going to stay there, and everyone went there." She said. [LAUGHS]

Tess Gunty:  So, she made us memorize this prayer to liberate a thousand souls everyday from purgatory, and she would keep a tally of all the souls that we had liberated in, so the whole exercise was fairly absurd but it was also, when she was describing the afterlife, I thought, "I recognize this place, and feel like we're already there." It gave a term to all of the longing, the waiting, this no man's land, that I saw in this book, emotionally and geographically, in terms of the landscape and architecture, but, in also people's expressions and postures.

Violet Baron:  That's very cool, I can tell you're a writer talking about that. I would definitely stick with me too. I'm curious if you know that that was a really deep description of place and how it factored into the story, but, do you see yourself, neighbors or friends growing up in some of these characters because they're so richly developed?

Tess Gunty:  I certainly see myself in all of these characters. I think even though none of them superficially resemble me, I feel very present in all of them, of course my emotional data is what I'm drawing on to evoke theirs. I find it very difficult to write about people that I know. I can translate experiences from my own life, or others, into fiction, but I feel like I'm violating someone if I transcribe their story into fiction, even with their permission it feels invasive. But I will say that I was really good friends with some of my neighbors, as a child. I grew up in a lower income neighborhood, and my family didn't have much income, but I did have a lot of resources that the people around me didn't have, and I was aware of that. I had two care givers that were present, I had access to education, my mother worked in school, so we got free tuition.

Tess Gunty:  A lot of my friends were dealing with things like domestic violence, substance abuse, and really extreme forms of inter generational poverty that I certainly noticed, and so the consequences of this structural neglect were very visible in my community. But also, I went to these catholic schools, they were more expensive, so most of my peers there were from very different worlds. They were from the suburbs, gated communities, high income lives, and it felt like we were experiencing two completely different places. And then also, I worked at a bakery when I was in high school and into college. We had a stand at the farmers market so I would go there three times a week and it was a really social environment, people would stop and talk and want to tell you about their lives, and especially the older people who visited. A lot of them felt very lonely and left behind by others, so they would sit and tell me their life stories, and all of those stories, none of them replicated in the book, but that was very much the emotional sound track that was present for me as I was writing.

Violet Baron:  I'm curious about gender and how gender factored into the story. You've some very strong, female characters and also some very strange female characters right, all of them are dealing with being a woman in various different ways. The main character, Blandine, is dealing with an abusive relationship that she was in when she was young, and she's still very young. The mother character, Hope, is dealing with postpartum anxiety in a very intense way, and her husband is supportive, but he doesn't know how to be fully supportive. The way we see perspective and agency in these characters does feel new to me, and I wonder if it feels new to you, and why you chose to invoke womanhood in those ways in the story?

Tess Gunty:  Yeah, this is one of those subjects that I can't not write about, because it influences the way that I inhabit the world. I'm the only girl in my family, I have three older brothers. My dad is a sociologist who's interested in the socialization of masculinity, particularly violent masculinity. And so, I grew up thinking a lot more consciously about masculinity, and my dad was always trying to rewire those socialization patterns in my own household, so he was always encouraging my brothers to express their emotions and cry, and to be thoughtful of others. I don't think I really started to think about the socialization of femininity, very consciously, until I was in my 20s and maybe teens and starting to experience a lot of extreme forms of sexual aggression and gendered expectations, gendered management of power, and then as the Me Too movement exploded, that was around the time I was beginning this book.

Tess Gunty:  It was making me re-assess a lot of experiences like so many women, people of all genders who are starting to re-assess experiences they had had when they were younger. One thing that really frustrated me about growing up specifically within the catholic communities in the Midwest which were extremely patriarchal, obviously, was how limited I felt, both the socialization of masculinity, and socialization of femininity, where all of us were told that we could only express a few qualities, and we could only fulfill a few roles, and I think this, specifically, frustrating to me is a woman, feeling like I was constantly reduced to my body and my appearance and male validation, rather than my mind, my interests, my other qualities.

Tess Gunty:  It was a wish fulfillment to write a young woman who was intent on defining herself through her curiosity, her intellect her mind, her interests, her activism. It really actively refused these efforts that the men around her are making to pull her into their lives as a peripheral character, she's insisting on being the protagonist of her life and she's insisting on defining herself on terms she can control, and terms that seem valuable to her.

Violet Baron:  It's funny because that's trending now as an idea, right, main character energy. I see that here. I'm also curious about the multiple character structure of the book. It's interesting how you use this line of the apartment building as a device to meet all of these different people in different places in their lives. How did you come up with the idea for that, and how do you think it operates in the book?

Tess Gunty:  It was a few things at once, I think. First of all, I was living in an apartment building that the walls were very thin, and I could hear all these lives playing out around me, and I was so intensely curious about what was going on. So, it was, again, a form of wish fulfillment to actually examine each life within a building. But as a child, that struck me very intently. Living nine feet away from the house next to mine, and I was friends with the girl who lived there, but I was always struck by how you could live in such close proximity to people and not really know anything about their lives, people across the street. That was happening. Have you ever heard of Building Stories by Chris Ware? It's like a collection of comics, some of which don't have any words but you can read them, you can experience them in any order, and it's about the residence of this apartment building.

Tess Gunty:  I found it so moving and it really activates your imagination in a thrilling way. That was really inspiring and I was drawn to polyphonic fiction at the time, I was reading a ton of contemporary polyphonic fiction and I loved the form, because it felt so much like an ecosystem where you could get lost, you were trusting the reader to develop their own experience in this place. It was like, structured with a dream associative logic rather than a straightforward, beginning, middle, end momentum. Very traditional plot structure. All of those reasons combined. I think I was also trying to find a way to resist this pressure I felt through social media, through history, everything, to be very self forward, to be persona forward. There's so much auto fiction that I love but I didn't feel like that was a form that I felt at home in, as a writer, so, this was a way to reach towards a more collective narrative rather than, narratives that enforce rugged individual or nuclear family America ideal.

Violet Baron:  The book has gotten a lot of buzz, it's really gotten a lot of critical acclaim, and people are excited about you as an author, and I'm curious, given what you've said, just at the very beginning of our conversation, when that woman was saying, "Oh, did you turn the lights off when you left Indiana?" How do you feel people are responding to the fact of the book as a story about the Midwest, and about these characters and these stories that we tend not to care about beyond the Midwest? As they turn their attention towards you, do you feel that, is it a dissonance or does it work?

Tess Gunty:  First of all, I am just surprised. [LAUGHS] Surprised is really an understatement, but I have so many friends who are writers, and I had extremely tempered expectations for what this was going to be like. It's nearly impossible to make a living as a literary fiction writer, and it's very, very difficult to get published at all, so I thought just getting published was my goal. The attention was extremely unexpected. I will say that I was most concerned about the reactions from people in the Midwest, I really wanted to make sure that I didn't violate. I guess you can't go about life as a writer worrying about violating anyone's narratives about their place, because there will always be someone who can find something to pick a fight about in your work.

Violet Baron:  It makes sense to want something that feels true to a majority, especially as you're telling those stories.

Tess Gunty:  Yeah, exactly. I really didn't. I think I did also want to resist any narratives that this was the definitive voice of anything of anywhere, of anyone. I didn't want to represent anyone but myself, this is one imagination that produced a narrative about a set of experiences that were really limited by my own life. I think, if anything, I hope that this encourages more fiction from places that are neglected and from people who are neglected, and in some ways, what's odd is that even though the Midwest, specifically the Rust Belt, is really under represented in art. It's over represented in politics. It seems to be the place all these politicians put on their phony accents to reach.

Violet Baron:  Iowa caucuses and stuff.

Tess Gunty:  Exactly. Yet, the person that they always seem to be addressing is a white working class man, and I really want to insist that the Midwest is home to so many different people, not just that man. In fact, it's more diverse than the US is on average, and there are so many narratives that I could not tell as a white person, that I hope people, politicians, artists, etc., start paying attention to.

Violet Baron:  As a follow up to that, as you move about the world and your LA life, do you feel like you're still bringing those narratives, that sense of place coming from the Midwest with you? Is it still present for you?

Tess Gunty:  Yeah, I think you can never really escape your childhood. The most formative of experiences of your life, and I think I find it very difficult. I found this to be true even before I started writing The Rabbit Hutch, that I would write something that was authentically set in New York, and then it would immediately get pulled back into the Midwest, and the next thing I'm working on is divided into three novella's and the first one definitely takes place in a city like mine. But the next two won't and I think that will present a new challenge. But, even when I'm writing about another place, I'm certainly influenced by the concerns, the images, the psychological landscape that developed for me there.

Violet Baron:  That was my next question. Your next project, is it also using these themes of the Rust Belt, and is it moving in new directions with that?

Tess Gunty:  It's in early favors, but it is a departure for me. The first novella in it is about concerns that would be familiar, I think, to those who've read this book. But, I'm trying to write more about, I guess this project began for me when I was trying to think about this toxic white nostalgia that is fueling so many contemporary politicians. And so, that's where it began but I think it's drifted toward quantum superposition and agriculture, and a woman who's stalked by someone who saw her in a performance, so I think everything will be wandering a bit from these concerns.

Alex Chambers:  Novelist Tess Gunty, in conversation with Violet Baron. Tess Gunty's novel, The Rabbit Hutch, which is set in Indiana, won the 2022 National Book Award for fiction. You've been listening to Inner States, from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or if you've got some sound we should here, let us know at If you like the show, you can review and rate us on Apple or Spotify and tell a friend. Okay, I've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers. Avi Forest is our associate producer. Our social media master is Jillian Blackburn, we get support from Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenaur, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young, our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge. Our theme song is by Amy Olsner and Justin Vollmar, and we have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Alright, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was Parking Garage with trombone. Recorded by Kayte Young, thanks, Kayte. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.

Author Tess Gunty

Tess Gunty's debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, won the 2022 National Book Award for fiction (Courtesy of Knopf)

Comedian Mohanad Elshieky came to Bloomington for the Limestone Comedy Festival in early June. He talks with producer Avi Forrest about why, after something bad happens, it’s important to wait before talking about it onstage, and how he tries to avoid being pigeon-holed as a comedian. Then, an Indiana author writes a novel set in Indiana, and it wins a National Book Award. WFIU’s Violet Baron talks with Tess Gunty about why it was important to set her debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, in her home state.


Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers. Avi Forrest is our associate producer. Our social media master is Jillian Blackburn. We get support from Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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