Amy Gentry: Being Awake in Paranoid World

The author of the novel "Good As Gone" and the forthcoming "Last Woman Standing" on what it is to be woke in the age of #MeToo and #ownvoices

Amy Gentry is a novelist and critic whose debut novel “Good as Gone” was a New York Times Notable Book and Entertainment Weekly “Must List” Pick in 2016. Her essays have appeared in numerous outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, Salon, Te Paris Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Austin Chronicle. She is also the author of “Tori Amos’s Boys For Pele, a 33 1/3 book published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Amy has a doctorate in English and lives in Austin. “Last Woman Standing” will be available for purchase January 15 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I caught up with Gentry over lunch at Hopfields earlier this month, where we discussed the art of crafting feminist thrillers, living in a paranoid world, and the importance of structure.

Amanda Faraone: Both of your books are listed as “novels of suspense.” I know that elsewhere, you’ve talked about noir/thrillers going hand in hand with feminism. In an interview to the Statesman, you said that, “I think there’s a lot more awareness now of how women are already living in this parallel world where there is always the potential for violence.” I described your most recent book to my writer friends as “thriller-meets-literary fiction / feminist revenge fiction.” At what point did you realize your work was falling into that category? Did you start out intending to write suspense novels or was it something that happened naturally?

Amy Gentry: It happened naturally, actually. It was when I was writing “Good as Gone.” I started writing “Good as Gone” thinking it was a family drama, and I knew there was going to be a psychological component because of how the central characters were playing mind games with each other, but eventually as I kept writing it, I realized that even the premise — which involved a kidnapping — is a crime premise. I began to realize that it was in fact a domestic thriller and not just a family drama. It seemed really obvious once I realized that. I remember talking to my writing group about it and one of my friends kept saying, over and over again, “This is a mystery” and I kept saying, “I don’t read mysteries. I don’t know anything about them.”

But it was great for me to fall into that category. Frankly, it’s why the book sold really quickly, why I got an agent really quickly, and moreover, once I was in that genre, I realized that almost everything that interests me has some crime or suspense component to it. So even when I was in high school, I was really into Dostoevsky. A lot of the things that I love are psychological melodramas, which, if you crank up the stakes just one notch, they’re basically just that far away from being a crime novel anyway. There’s always some kind of psychological crime and then if you add one murder, now it’s a crime novel.

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AF: I noticed in both of your novels the importance of setting. One is set in Houston and your most recent novel is set in Austin (with some cameos of Los Angeles and Amarillo). What was the greatest challenge in writing about places you’ve lived in for quite some time? And how did the setting itself inform the direction of the narrative, if it did?

AG: I think it was kind of the opposite way. For “Good as Gone,” I didn’t know at first that it was going to be set in Houston. I had this whole story written and I kept trying and trying to get the setting to work, and it didn’t work until I set it in Houston. And it’s not just set in Houston, it’s almost in the neighborhood I grew up in, in West Houston. That was very personal for me. And some of the places I talk about in the book are very personal places for me.

Strangely, for the second book, set in Austin, it is a lot less (personal). I think my choice to set it in Austin was partly expedience. I needed a place for a performer to be from. Or at least, I needed a medium pond. Like LA is the big pond that she’s trying to get back to. Amarillo is the small pond that she comes from. And Austin is the medium pond — which she thought would just be a stepping stone on the way, but now it seems like it might become where she lives forever. I had to write this book relatively quickly, so I knew I needed a setting that was relatively familiar to me, so I tried Austin on for size. But it quickly became apparent to me pretty that it wasn’t really my Austin.

I think the way setting influenced the book was about new Austin vs. old Austin. She’s just coming back from LA, and while she was in LA, Austin changed. And she came back to find a place that was having growing pains and trying to be LA itself but not really succeeding. So, there’s a little bit of conflict between new and old Austin embedded in the book — and which one Dana chooses at the end. 

AF: So, you’re writing about an Austin that’s not really your Austin, and then you’re also writing about this stand-up comedy community, and you’re writing from a perspective of a woman whose different from you, and I was wondering if those choices were intentional as a way to give yourself more distance. How did you land on writing this character and this story?

AG: There are several big questions in there. But just to start with the comedy thing. I love writing about performers and performances. I’m a performer myself and have done some comedy. Stepped a toe into that community a little bit. It’s been a while — four or five years at least since I really did anything at all.

AF: I saw you sing at a literary karaoke event. You were amazing. You were definitely the best literary singer there.

AG: Thank you — that’s quite a compliment. I strive to entertain. I’m a shameless performer. If there’s one thing that’s my downfall it’s that I always take it to an eleven when sometimes it needs to be an eight. I don’t have an eight in my vocabulary.

My husband is a really great performer and writer of comedy, and plays as well, and has done improv and sketch in Austin for a really long time. I really got to sit in on a lot of different slices of the community. And even after I was out of the community, I was still on these message boards for women in comedy. These private groups that were specifically for women to make connections, jokes, and to bitch about the scene. So, I started seeing the same posts come up again and again. Something would happen to someone — some guy in town. And they would post anonymously about it, like “I had this happen to me this weekend, and I don’t ever want to see him again. What do I do?” And people would say, “Who is it? Please tell us. Please warn us.” Those posts really affected me really strongly. People would come out of the woodwork to talk about their own experiences. These posts would end up having threads that were 100 comments long.

When I was thinking about a milieu for talking about a particular kind of abuse and harassment that is thoroughly unremarkable, that women face in their friend circles, their professional circles, and their creative circles, this “social scene” harassment, that ends up dictating a lot of where women spend time and energy, that really popped to mind.

In terms of Dana, the main character, I assume you’re talking about her ethnicity. She identifies as Latina. Her mother is Mexican-American. Her father is Jewish — he’s long out the picture. She grew up with her mother in Amarillo. And doesn’t speak Spanish.

AF: I loved that detail.

AG: It’s an easy way out for me, I guess. I don’t speak Spanish — or any more than any other white person in Texas who incidentally picks up some. But I’ve also spoken to women who have this experience, who felt like they didn’t necessarily have that immersive identity to draw from. And so, for Dana, she has a strong relationship with her mother, but she also feels distant from her — for a lot of reasons, including her mother’s personality. And the fact that she can’t speak her mother’s language is just one facet of that.

In terms of choosing that character, it came out of a couple of things. There was a Latinx character in “Good as Gone,” who I really loved — he was one of my favorite characters in the book. The private investigator Alex Mercado. He popped into my head fully-formed. I didn’t question it. His name was there. I knew exactly what he looked like. But I did have an interview with a woman about that book, a Latina journalist who was very into that character and asked me some questions about his role in the story, and whether it could have been bigger. She was happy to see him, but also sounded disappointment that in a book written by a white woman he was always going to have a walk-on part.

And I took that to heart. I thought about it a lot. And when I was writing this character, who feels like an outsider wherever she is. I just started thinking about where in Texas she was from. I wanted her to be from a particular place and have a particular back story, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, I think she’s Latina. I felt a little hesitant about it. But then I thought, it’s either that or I’m just going to be writing white protagonists with people of color in secondary or tertiary roles forever.

I liked (Dana) so much. And I liked that she had to cultivate this thick skin because she was so unusual in that scene. It was also an experience that was not so unusual that I couldn’t find Latina comics, and go to their shows, and talk to them about their experience was like, both in Austin and LA. It felt like an accessible norm of difference. I tried to do my homework on it.

AF: I was just recently talking to another writer about this essay that Kaitlyn Greenidge, a writer in New, wrote as an Op-Ed for The New York Time called “Who Gets to Write What?” and it’s about her friendship with Bill Cheng, who wrote this book about lynchings in the South, and she writes about in her workshop, where people — including people of color —were saying, “You can’t write that. You can’t write about Black people being lynched in the South because that’s not your experience,” and she was just so angry, and she said that’s the whole point of writing, to inhabit someone else’s world, and maybe if you don’t do it right, you’re going to get feedback and criticism.

AG: I think there are really issues there. We tend to focus on how the representation comes out — like, is it good or bad? Is it nuanced or stereotypical? But the bigger issue is structural access to publishing. And that’s what #ownvoices is about. A lot of the irritation about white authors writing these types of protagonists is that if a Latina writer were to write this book maybe it wouldn’t be “Latina enough” or it would “too Latina” or it wouldn’t get published. My take is to help as much as I can in terms of gatekeeping. I also think, it may not be my place to write the character. I really don’t know. I think, though, as a writer, you try things.

AF: You take risks.

AG: It’s vulnerable. You’re always vulnerable to messing up. Not vulnerable in the way of being attacked but vulnerable in that I could do something really bad and embarrassing and be called out on it. I also write a lot about sexual abuse and domestic violence. And these are things that I have not personally experienced but had secondary experience when I was volunteering and just through talking to humans my whole life and there are issues that are really important to me to depict in a particular way. And I often worry about that, too. That’s a set of marginalized voices, as well. We do our homework, we do the best we can, and when people have criticism we don’t shut down or get defensive.

AF: I’m assuming that the nugget of this story for your new novel was developing for quite some time, but I was reading it during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and after everything that has been happening with the #MeToo movement, and it felt so timely but it also felt very risky to me. You’re playing with a lot of those lines and conversations about how far is too far. I was wondering if you were writing this during that political movement or if you were writing about something that’s been there for a long time.

AG: I think there’s a lot of books coming out right now that are #MeToo-themed. And they were all written before the hashtag became mainstream on Twitter. I started writing this book after the presidential election, but before the first big case, the Louis C.K. story had broken. And that was the first one and the Weinstein story broke a week later. But you know, the Cosby story had already broken, and I certainly thought when I was writing about that. I had chosen comedy and was naturally, like we have this one really high-profile example of a serial abuser. I took a lot of care to invoke that person without copying the details directly, but ultimately, I was trying really, really hard to nail this wide-scale pervasive pattern of abuse that I think we had just all been seeing all around us.

After the Weinstein stuff, people started getting held accountable in small ways. And for a minute, it seemed like this was going to cause a tidal wave. It’s interesting to read this during the Kavanaugh hearings, because to me, that almost is a bracket —an end bracket. I know that the movement is still going on, but I think we have our answer. When the question is, “Are things going to change?”, the answer is, “Up to a point and in certain arenas where it doesn’t matter as much.” So that’s grim. But it does want you to pick up something blunt and heavy and swing it at someone.

AF: Around the same time as I read your book, I was reading Rebecca Traister’s book, “Good and Mad.” And she talks a lot about the energizing power of anger and rage. She writes about when “Thelma & Louise” first came out and the transformative power that had on feminists who were growing up at the time. And that was one of the things I loved about this novel. I’m not going to say too much — I don’t want to give any spoilers — but it starts out and it seems like it’s maybe going to be a love story, and it ends up being a love story between two frenemies, who are in this destructive world together, but they’re each other’s best allies in the end.

AG: I’m really interested to see how people read that. I’ve already had people read the book and say this is anti-feminist because the relationship between the two women is not an uncomplicated ally-ship. In fact, it’s this really fraught relationship that has these moments of intense bonding but in the second-half it becomes different. Without spoiling it, the way the book ends is unambiguous. But even so, it’s not a happy ending. It’s not at all. And the main character is not really a good person at the end of the book. 

AF: She’s implicated in everything that’s happened.

AG: Strongly implicated. Yes. And part of the ending of the book, which I rewrote a bunch of times, was her sorting out where she stands and how she feels about what happened. What she feels guilty for and what she doesn’t feel guilty for. Part of that is when I set up the dyad of Amanda and Dana, the antagonist and protagonist, I wanted them to be, like in “Strangers on a Train,” doppelgänger figures — I wanted Amanda to represent everything that Dana has to repress to move forward with her life. She thinks she’s figured out how to function in the world as a woman, especially in this comedy world. It’s basically: you suck it up, you move on, you do it better than the boys, you lean in. And you don’t make a fuss, because we know that nothing will get better it, it will only get worse if you make a fuss.

Amanda is the polar opposite. She sees everything. She has this Cassandra-like quality. All rage. And the idea was to engage with the fear women have if they step a toe over the line. That if they start acknowledging everything that’s happened to them, they will lose control and become this monster. And the question throughout the book is if Amanda is really a monster or is she right? I’m just fascinated to hear what readers think. What’s the answer to that question for them. I think people are going to have very different opinions on it.

AF: My last question for you was about structure in your novels, because for me that is the most genius part of your writing. I don’t know if that partially comes out of using some tools from the genre and combining that with more literary characters. In your first novel, there’s a huge structural undergirding that results in a big reveal, and there’s a similar reveal and pacing in this book, although they function very differently. I think structure is one of the most undervalued things in writing. We have Alice Munro and some of these amazing writers who are the gods of structure, but in general, people think that a pretty sentence can forgive all kinds of flaws.

AG: I think I started caring about (structure) when I was a book reviewer, because a pretty sentence, when you’re reading books and you don’t have the luxury of putting them down if you don’t like them, doesn’t do anything. Almost no sentence is pretty enough. I became really interested in why some books kept me turning pages and others I wanted to throw at the wall.

When I was writing “Good as Gone,” I didn’t sit down to write it until I had the structure. There’s a backwards chronology and alternating characters. That solved a huge story problem for me. Plot had always been my Achilles’ heel. So, when I figured out that structure, I thought, now I can write the book because I know where it’s going and what it has to look like. For a first time, it was a lot, it felt really ambitious, and I’m not sure I would do it again, but it taught me a lot.

And after I had written it and it was already out, I started reading screenwriting books. I thought, surely that will help when I have to write this next book in a year. I wrote “Good as Gone” in three or four years and there was so much re-writing and cutting and arranging: it was like a quilt that you kept having to unstitch and re-stitch to make it fit. I also wanted the second one to be more straightforward in structure: a forward-moving chronology with one narrator. The biggest influence that helped unlock it for me was watching “Clouds of Sils Maria.” I noticed that the structure was a four-act structure, not a three-act. I could see that the duality of these doppelgängers was being represented structurally by this four-act structure, where there’s a real hinge in the middle. For me, when I started thinking about the theme of doppelgängers and doubles, which appear throughout the book, not just between Amanda and Dana, that gave me the sense I needed a strong mid-book reversal, and that the second-half had to be the mirror-image of the first.

I think that theme is really suited to a paranoid novel. There’s an idea that once Dana allows herself to see what Amanda is telling her, she starts seeing the world in this completely different way. It’s the same world but everything means something different to her. And I really wanted to capture that through the structure as well. I wanted not just her feelings about this or that person to change, but her entire worldview to feel like she’d gone through the looking glass.

AF: The quote from “Thelma & Louise” that Rebecca Traister talks about perfectly mirrors what you’re saying: “I can’t go back…I feel awake. I don’t remember feeling this awake. Everything looks different.” And that’s a turning point in the film.

AG: It’s also really frightening. “Thelma & Louise” has this exhilarating feeling to it. It’s a road trip movie, and that famous last scene is exhilarating even though they’re crashing to their death. This is not an exhilarating book. There’s a moment of feeling of free, but ultimately, it’s a paranoid thriller about what it’s like to realize that that’s the world we’re living in. And if that’s the world, what do you have to be to live in this world? You can be willfully blind to it, but you’re still being affected by it. What does it mean to be awake in that world? What are the things that you would do in this new world that you wouldn’t do in the old world?

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