Tag Archives: Amy Gentry

An Interview with Amy Gentry

4 Aug
Amy Gentry's debut novel, Good as Gone is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel, the thriller Good as Gone, is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Amy Gentry

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Amy Gentry

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.

Michael Noll

Amy Gentry's debut novel GOOD AS GONE "draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance," according to a New York Times review.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel GOOD AS GONE “draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance,” according to a New York Times review.

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?”

Amy Gentry

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Amy Gentry

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.

August 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Turn Information into Scene

2 Aug
Amy Gentry's debut novel GOOD AS GONE "draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance," according to a New York Times review.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel Good as Gone “draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance,” according to a New York Times review.

When I was a MFA student, one of my professors liked to hold up a story and rip out the first three pages. “This is where it ought to begin,” he’d say, and he was almost always right. Our openings tended to be general information and backstory. The story started when the first scene arrived. If this is true, though, it poses a challenge to writers. How can you start in scene and introduce the basics of setting, character, and situation?

Amy Gentry does an excellent job of doing both in her novel Good as Gone. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you soon will. It’s getting a big national marketing campaign and big-time reviews—for good reason. The book is a thriller that is also thoughtful, with well-developed characters. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The story is set in Houston, which is information that must be conveyed quickly—not just the name of the city but the particular details of what the city is like and how it feels to be there. That information and more is introduced in the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Julie’s been gone for eight years, but she’s been dead much longer—centuries—when I step outside in the steaming air on my way to teach my last class of the spring semester. The middle of May is as hot as human breath in Houston. Before I’ve even locked the door behind me, a damp friction starts up between my skin and clothes; five more paces to the garage, and every hidden place sickens. By the time I get to the car, even my bent knuckles are sweating up the plastic sides of the insulated travel cup, and my grip sips as I climb into the SUV, throwing oily beads of black coffee onto the lid. A few on my hand, too, but I let them burn and turn on the air conditioning.

Here is the information delivered in this paragraph:

  • The situation (“Julie’s been gone for eight years”) and how that absence feels (“dead much longer”)
  • The temperature (steaming)
  • The narrator’s job (college instructor)
  • The month (May)
  • The city (Houston)
  • How the weather feels (“a damp friction”)
  • The exact location of the scene (outside the narrator’s front door and then in her SUV)
  • Something about the narrator’s mindset (“I let them burn”)

This is a tremendous amount of information, and one thing that beginning writers tend to do is dump it onto the page. Such info dumps are almost always tedious and boring—but this paragraph isn’t because it’s in scene. As a result, the passage has a sense of movement. Because it begins with situation, we want to know more about what’s going on. Because the setting is made palpable, we feel the narrator’s discomfort along with her. Because the narrator reacts to a detail in an unexpected way (“I let them burn”), we want to understand what’s going on in her head.

In short, Gentry manages to include an info-dump’s worth of detail and make it feel like story because of how she weaves it into the scene. If Gentry can make such mundane information come alive, you can imagine how exciting the book becomes once she’s working with the twists and turns of a thriller plot.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s turn information into scene, using Good as Gone by Amy Gentry as a model:

  1. Prioritize the basics of setting. For Gentry, this means city, month, and weather, but this is because those details are impossible for her narrator to ignore every time she walks out of her house. So, put your character into motion. Move her from one spot to another and find out what part of the setting affects her most acutely. If your character doesn’t notice the weather, then the weather doesn’t matter. What does the character notice about setting? What is the character’s attitude toward this noticeable detail? It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative, only that it’s charged.
  2. Give the character some necessary task to do. Gentry sends her narrator to work. The job isn’t pressing; it’s not like she’s a fire fighter rushing to a burning building. But it’s necessary for the narrator to go. This tethers the narrator to the world. Too often in drafts, characters are left floating in infinite space, thinking big thoughts. It’s almost always the case that no thought—no matter how deep or well-stated—is interesting if it’s not given context or background. So, before the character thinks, let the character do something she has no choice but to do. This task could be a job, or it could be some other essential task (household, community, family). You’re connecting the character to other characters and institutions, and these connections reveal small, yet important information.
  3. Be specific about setting. Gentry’s scene is set in Houston, but it’s also outside the narrator’s front door. Without that detail, we wouldn’t know if the narrator was leaving an apartment, a doctor’s office, a super-secret spy agency; we’d only know she was outside.
  4. Be aware of your character’s state of mind. Perhaps the best detail in the paragraph is the one about letting the coffee burn her skin. We begin to read into such a detail, making guesses at why the narrator would act that way. Once the readers begins to do that work, they’re hooked. So, put yourself in your character’s head; what is the single most pressing emotion or feeling in it? What is the source of that feeling? We already know that Julie is dead and gone, and so we can begin to connect that piece of information with the unexpected action. You can do the same thing. Let your character’s state of mind affect how she reacts to some small detail.
  5. Introduce the situation. The state of mind and reaction from the last step will make more sense if we know what’s going on. In this case, what’s going on isn’t the narrator going to work but the fact that Julie is gone. The situation is ongoing, not acute. The advantage to clearly stating the situation and how it feels (as Gentry does in the first sentence) is that is quickly orients the reader. Every new piece of information will be read in relation to the situation. I made this the final step because writers often don’t know what the situation is until they’ve gotten into their character’s head and seen the character react to the setting. Then, as writers, we’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”

The goal is to make basic information about setting and character interesting by putting it into scene.

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