Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Debut Spotlight: Amy Gentry

Today it's my pleasure to be shining the spotlight on author Amy Gentry and her debut novel Good as Gone which is out in paperback this Thursday.

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.

Good As Gone, her first thriller, is set in her hometown of Houston, Texas.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing journey? 
I started telling adults I wanted to be a writer when I grew up at 9 years old, but it took me a while to get there. After I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001, I moved to Portland, Oregon, having completed a novel for my undergraduate thesis and determined to write and sell the next one. After a year of waiting tables to pay the rent and writing in my spare time, I was burned out and exhausted. I abandoned my half-finished novel (not Good as Gone!), moved back to Austin, and applied to graduate school, having convinced myself, with charming naivete, that I could be a professor during the school years and write novels in the summers. Eventually I earned a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, but thankfully, the academic job market was miserable when I graduated and I had, by that time, figured out that the life of a professor wasn’t for me. It was my husband, whom I met and married back in Austin, who encouraged me to pick up writing again (non-academic, that is) after a decade away. For the next several years I wrote about books, films, food, and even fashion; I penned a weekly style column for the Austin Chronicle and reviewed books for the Chicago Tribune. Eventually, however, I quit all my odd jobs to focus on writing and finishing Good as Gone. 

I've read that you were inspired by the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, what was it about this case in particular that provided the spark to write Good as Gone?   
So many things about the story compelled me. There was the manner of her kidnapping—at knifepoint in the middle of the night, from inside her own home, while her sister watched (the only recognizable feature of the story that stayed in the book). There was the fact that she’d been hidden in plain sight within ten miles of her home for the duration of her captivity. And most of all, I admired Smart’s extraordinary strength. As I started to write Julie’s story, I wondered what would happen if a girl in similar circumstances were unable to hang onto her sense of self, eventually losing her identity altogether. How would she navigate the world? Would she stay permanently unmoored? How would she find herself again? I imagined how differently she would behave from the media-smoothed image of brave Elizabeth Smart. 

I began to think more and more about the how we perceive victims of sexual violence. Smart was in many ways the “perfect victim”: blond and virtuous, beautiful and brave. And yet, the compulsion to blame the rape victims is so strong in our society that even 13-year-old Smart was asked questions after her return about why she didn’t “try harder” to escape. I wanted to write the story of a girl who looked from the outside just like Smart, another “perfect victim”, but whose story was in fact complicated by all the things that don’t fit into a traditional narrative of the “good victim”: susceptibility to “grooming” and persuasion by her eventual abuser; secrecy and lies; failure to confront and out her abuser while he goes on to abuse other victims; her own sexuality; her survival through sex work, both voluntary and forced; her manipulation of people who try to help her; and above all, her belief that the assault was her fault.

If you had to describe Good as Gone in one sentence, what would it be?
A mother-daughter thriller about the violence that changes us, how we survive it, and whether we remain the same people afterward.

Eight years ago, thirteen-year-old Julie Whitaker was kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night.

In the years since, her family have papered over the cracks of their grief – while hoping against hope that Julie is still arrive.

And then, one night, the doorbell rings.

Psychogical thrillers are proving to be a niche market at the moment, what do you think is its appeal to both writers and readers alike? 
I can only speak to their appeal for me, which is that they’re high-stakes stories that probe the most important relationships in our lives, encouraging us to question our perceptions and assumptions about the world around us. Domestic thrillers in particular validate many women’s experience of navigating a hostile world in which we are far more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by a stranger.

Has your experience as a freelance journalist helped with regards to the writing/editing process?
My freelancing experience was invaluable for several reasons. First, writing for an audience was a game-changer for me. This may sound silly, but in all my years of huddling over my writing in private, it had never occurred to me that writing is simply a form of communication. My years in academia, if anything, actively discouraged this idea, since the goal in graduate school is generally to produce hundreds of pages of prose that only a few professors will ever read--and only because it’s their job! Once I started writing for print, I felt the rush of real readers who seemed to enjoy reading my work. This was both humbling and intoxicating. 

Also, I interviewed a lot of authors for my job, and I would always sneak in a question toward the end of the interview about how they first got published. Their answers surprised me with their diversity, and gave me, for the first time, the sense that novel-writing was an actual career that could be pursued in many different ways. Before that, I had never really had an example of what a career writing novels looks like. Freelancing gave me an abundance of examples to choose from.

Did you treat yourself to something special to celebrate your publishing deal? 
My husband and I went out for various celebratory dinners, but the main treat consisted of converting the ugly old shed in our back yard into a beautiful screened-in patio, where I sit and write most mornings. 

Have you anything exciting planned for publication day?
I plan to work on my next novel, since I’m under deadline! But I’ll raise a glass of wine at my writing desk.

Finally what can we expect from you next? 
I’m currently hard at work on my second thriller, due out in 2018. 

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