Amy Gentry lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two cats. After graduating in 2011 with a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, she began a freelance writing career, writing book reviews, cultural criticism, and, for one strange and wonderful year, a fashion column. She frequently reviews fiction for the Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row Journal, and her writing has appeared in Salon.com, xoJane, The Rumpus, the Austin Chronicle, the Texas Observer, LA Review of Books, Gastronomica, and the Best Food Writing of 2014. Good as Gone, her first novel, is set in her hometown of Houston, Texas.
To read an exercise on turning information into scene based on Good as Gone, click here.
In this interview, Gentry discusses the importance of POV choices, writing toward what is missing from a story, and layering big ideas within a plot.
When I started the prologue of the novel, I didn’t know if I’d be able to read it. Perhaps it’s because I’m a parent, but I find stories about bad things happening to children difficult to read. And yet the horror of the opening chapter was both sharp and muted at the same time. Bad things happen, but what we actually see is the prelude to the bad things rather than the bad things themselves. It’s not unlike the novel Room in that way. When we see the worst things in the novel, it’s through a crack in a closet door. Did you experiment with other points of view? Were you consciously trying to balance drawing in the reader with conveying the horror of what was happening in the scene?
That Room comparison is so flattering, thank you! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I think the muting or distancing effect you’re talking about comes not only from the closet-door perspective, but–as in Room–from the child’s perspective. In theory, it’s terrifying to imagine seeing this as a child, so you get the horror on a conceptual level. But on a more literal level, there’s an alienation effect, because nobody reading this novel is actually ten years old (I hope).
The closet scene was among the first I imagined, but I wrote it last, because the point of view presented a huge challenge for me. Jane was not supposed to be a POV character in the novel at all; for a long time, I had Anna describing Jane’s role in witnessing the abduction (“I picture Julie as Jane must have seen her, drifting down the hallway. . .”). But the sense of urgency was completely missing. No matter how beautiful or tragic someone’s thoughts are, they’re still just thoughts, and they are never going to feel as important to a reader as action. Julie’s kidnapping was the central trauma in the book, and it had to feel like a tear in the fabric of this family’s reality. It was too important for exposition. But Jane was literally the only one who could tell the story.
In the end I justified the POV shift by making it a prologue. What I like about that scene now is that Witness Jane is only just past the age where fact and fiction blur; her night terrors have only recently started to fade. She’s a little on the old side for nightmares, but I thought, well, the family has moved recently, they probably started up again when she got her own bedroom. That dreamlike quality helped me reconcile the POV shift, and hopefully adds an element of uncertainty to what Jane really saw.
The novel has an interesting structure. It’s divided into, basically, two points of view: the mother and the daughter, Julie. The mother’s POV moves chronologically and Julie’s moves in reverse, so that it moves backward in time from the first chapter. This is an interesting way to think about tension, about the desire to know what happens next, because in the daughter’s chapters, next is almost always the revelation of some piece of information. How did you approach Julie’s chapters?
When I started writing this novel I felt pretty hopeless about plot. I’d never tried to write something that required this much tension and required so many reveals. Plus I had this character Julie, or better yet “Julie”, whose identity was in question. I knew her POV had to be in the book, but I couldn’t give away her identity. How do you write from her POV without saying who she is? I knew her lies were going to start showing up, one by one, in the present-tense plot. So I got the idea to alternate those little revelations with chapters that peeled back the layers of her identity one by one, starting with the most recent. It bought me time, logistically speaking; plus it rang true with the ideas about trauma and identity formation that were already in the book. Trauma kind of forces everything else in your life to exist in relation to it. It rewrites the whole narrative of your life, even what came before. Trauma does not obey chronology.
When I was actually writing “Julie”, though, I had to do it chronologically. At first I thought I could write those parts in the order they appear, but I quickly found that she was such a liar, I couldn’t really get to the bottom of who she was and what happened to her that way. I didn’t know who she was in the present until I went through all that stuff with her in the order it happened. I approached each episode of her life trying to use what had most recently happened to her as a guide for what she’d do next. Which was tricky, because when you’re reading it in the book, you sometimes don’t understand why she starts a chapter the way she does until you get to the end of the next episode, and by then you may have forgotten. I’m totally fine with that, because her identity is meant to be unsettlingly fractured. But the connections are there.
One of my favorite moments in the book is the scene between Julia and a housekeeper at a hotel. (I won’t say more to avoid giving anything away.) It’s a moment when our perception of Julie changes pretty drastically. Did you always know that scene would be in the novel, or did you find yourself writing it and thinking, “Oh, this is interesting?”
That was a scene I had to write because I was reworking the chapters in a late draft and needed one more episode. When I asked myself what was missing, I realized immediately that I had put Maybe-Julie in a lot of very extreme situations–not unrealistic for someone with her story, but I wanted to show her doing something more mundane and boring to survive, just the good old back-breaking labor of cleaning. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t like it. Most people don’t. I also wanted to add another chance for her to make what most people would call a “good” choice, and have her reject it for reasons of her own. Whether the reader sympathizes with that or not, I hope by that point in the book s/he’s starting to get the idea that Julie’s priorities are survival first, survival second, survival third, fourth, fifth and so on; “good” behavior might be in there somewhere, but it’s pretty close to the bottom. I think that’s a realistic way that agency plays out under conditions of duress, with someone who’s had a lot of trauma. So the more opportunities I had to put that in, and the more I was able to identify with those so-called “bad” choices, the more her character spoke to me.
One of the characters in the novel is a preacher at a mega-church that meets in the Astrodome, which just so happens to be similar to an actual place with an actual church run by a quite-famous preacher. That said, your preacher looks quite different from the real guy, different enough that it’s clear that they’re not the same person. And yet I wonder if you received any pushback on this.
At a certain point in the book, religion started coming out as a theme, and I just heaved a big sigh and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” Thinking about Houston, it made so much sense to have a mega-church play a big role. When I was growing up in Houston, First Baptist was what we meant by a mega-church. These days the non-denominational mega-church Lakewood is almost twice the size of First Baptist and meets in the former Compaq Center. Because the dates worked out, I got to fantasize about an even bigger mega-church meeting in the former Astrodome, a gargantuan Houston landmark now utterly abandoned.
I was also careful to differentiate my fictional pastor from Lakewood’s real pastor via appearance, mannerisms, and of course motive—I’m not out to impugn Joel Osteen. However, his theology—that I have no problem impugning, especially from the point of view of Anna, who finds it morally repugnant. Anna is not big on religion of any kind. Her religion is the life of the mind, and she believes, rightly or wrongly, that it gives her everything she needs to understand the world. My fictional preacher’s theology, which is only slightly amped up from Osteen’s “prosperity gospel”, really upsets her, because it’s so focused on erasing or denying the bad things that have happened to you and are still happening. There’s no sin, there’s no suffering, and ultimately, there’s no memory—optimism is the only virtue.
In grad school I got interested in the American religious tradition called New Thought, which I think is pretty clearly a part of prosperity gospel, and which started up around the turn of the 20th century. The most recognizable form it takes today is something like The Secret. That stuff is always big in America because we love the individualism of it, the idea that you have control over your destiny. But there’s a dark side to it, because it gives you far too much agency. It puts the blame for bad stuff happening to you on you, because you must have attracted it somehow. And in a book that’s so much about rape culture, that was a message I was very interested in fighting.
The fun part is that I went to the Compaq Center and took notes as if I were Anna, who is even more cynical than I am. As Amy, I could instantly see why that type of church is so popular. It is a gigantic music and laser-light show, totally free, with child care and wall-to-wall programming for every demographic, even financial planning classes. In the absence of a social safety net, these churches offer a ready-made, big-tent community. As Anna, though, I could just revel in how tacky and appalling it all was. She sees Nuremberg, and I don’t entirely disagree with that either.