How Amy Gentry Sits Down & Writes
Amy Gentry shines a light on the dark underbelly of academia in 'Bad Habits'—an addictive thriller that will have you gripped until the very last page.
Claire "Mac" Woods—a professor enjoying her newfound hotshot status at an academic conference—finally has the acceptance and admiration she has long craved. But at the conference's hotel bar, Mac is surprised to run into a face from a past she'd rather forget: the moneyed, effortlessly perfect Gwendolyn Whitney, Mac's foil, rival, and former best friend.
When Gwen moved to town in high school, Claire—then known as Mac, a poor kid from a troubled family who had too much on her plate—saw what it meant to have. Money, sophistication, culture, the very blueprints to success. Mac had almost nothing, except the will to change. Change she did, habitually grinding herself to work as hard as straight-A Gwen, even eventually getting admitted into the same elite graduate program as Gwen. But then Mac and Gwen become entangled with the department’s power-couple professors and compete head-to-head for a life-changing fellowship. The more twisted the track toward success becomes, the more Mac has to contort herself to stay one step ahead—which deception signals the point of no return?
Jack-knifing between Mac's world-expanding graduate days and the crucible of the hotel and its unexpected guests, Bad Habits follows Mac's reckoning between her hardscrabble past and tenuous present. What, exactly, did Mac do to get what she has today? And what will she do to keep it? With taut, powerful prose, Amy Gentry asks how far we'll go to get what we want--and whether we can ever truly leave the past behind.
Bad Habits by Amy Gentry is perfect for fans of Jessica Knoll, Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins.
We got the chance to chat with Amy about journaling, finding the perfect writing spot, and why she wanted to poke fun at the world of academia.
Q: Where do you like to write the most?
I like to write outside on my screened-in back porch, when the weather's nice. Luckily, in Austin, that's nine months out of the year! But my favorite place of all to write is the Texas Hill Country. It's such a luxury, but whenever I've treated myself to a three-day writing retreat in Central Texas, the writing binges have been epic—once I wrote 12,000 words in a day! Something about fresh air, total quiet, and a house that's much cleaner than mine seems to do the trick.
Q: When do you like to write the most?
I write best in the morning, because that's when I'm thinking most clearly. Since my son was born, I have become used to waking up at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning to squeeze in a few hours of headspace before the day begins. But when I'm on deadline, on a retreat, or just unusually inspired, I can write all day long. It's a matter of having the time and space to do it.
Q: When it comes to drafting, do you prefer writing on a computer or freehand?
I draft on the computer, but I do daily journaling longhand in a notebook, and occasionally a scene will work itself out there first. Longhand is always useful when you're stuck. The stakes feel lower, and the hand-to-brain connection can lead to ideas that just wouldn't come out on a keyboard.
Q: Are you more of a plotter or pantser?
I'm a pantser who has learned plotting techniques to clean up the mess. After piecing together my first novel slowly and painfully by instinct, I read a handful of screenwriting books to get a better handle on the three-act structure I had arrived at intuitively in Good as Gone. I thought I had the second one all planned out perfectly. But it turns out I am a pretty dreadful outliner, at least in advance--I write to think, and the plots I come up with ahead of time tend to bore me, while the ones I discover as I write keep me intrigued. So I wound up doing just as much rewriting on Last Woman Standing, in half the time.
Q: Stephen King has a great line in On Writing that says “the scariest moment is always right before you start. After that, things can only get better.” That scary pre-start moment often inspires procrastination in writers. Suddenly, you have to clean your entire house, do the laundry and play Candy Crush for an hour before you can actually start writing. Is there anything you need to do before you can actually sit down and work?
I need to have space to myself—preferably alone in the house, at the very least alone in a room, or, counterintuitively, in a coffee shop full of strangers. Noise-canceling earbuds that drown out the world around me are a must. It helps to believe I don't have enough time to get very far—I can usually trick myself into starting if I believe it's now or never. And if I truly don't know what to write, journaling through that feeling always helps.
Q: Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what music? Is your choice of music inspired by the project you’re working on?
I pretty much always have to listen to music while drafting--some ambient and instrumental albums, others that I know like the back of my hand and which therefore disappear into the background. It's more about the rhythm and pace of the music, and what I need that day, than a specific mood. I have to be careful, though, because some of my favorite albums--Jazmine Sullivan's Reality Show, Beyonce's Lemonade, FKA Twigs's L1—have become permanent background music. I have listened to them for days and weeks on repeat, to the point where I almost can't hear them anymore. Mixes are a little safer. But when I'm really having trouble getting started, there's nothing like the opening bars of Jazmine Sullivan's "Dumb" to kick me into gear.
Q: Some writers believe you have to write every single day. Is that true of your process? How often do you write/how long for each session?
I would love to write every day. In my dream life, I do. But in my real life, I have family obligations, a kid whose early years I don't want to miss out on, friends I want to see. Plus, the time demands on authors in the social media age are real. That said, when I'm really rolling on an idea and I have a clear timeline in mind for accomplishing it, I can usually eke out big blocks of time. It winds up being 3-6 weeks of binge writing, with long stretches in between of just a day here and there. But I've learned that those long fallow stretches are necessary. They're when the ideas for the next project, or the next three, pop into your mind. I take copious notes in my journal even when I'm not writing, and that's a thing I make time for nearly every day, year-round.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give an aspiring author?
Get a couple other writers together and form a writing group. Commit to meeting weekly if you can. Writing a novel is a long process with a lot of discouragement built in. You will have ups and downs. A writing group can give you valuable feedback and even help you work through plot problems, but most importantly, they can be your cheerleaders, your own personal support group. And because you'll be doing the same thing for them, you'll never need to worry about lopsided obligations. A best friend or a spouse or a co-worker will read your novel once with good cheer, but you need someone who can read it over and over again, over the course of years, with minute changes in the drafts, and give you pep talks after every draft. That will wear out any relationship if it's not mutual. I'll say it again: writing group, writing group, writing group.
Q: Where do you normally find story inspiration?
Anywhere. Dreams. Random thoughts. Images from the news. There's usually a seed, which can be anything, even a word combination that comes to you when you wake up in the middle of the night. But then there has to be some soil for it to grow in--that's the context, the setting, the theme. Either one can come first. Usually, I'm carrying around a bag full of seeds and several pots of soil, and it's a matter of hitting on the right combination.
Q: What made you want to explore the politics of academia through the lens of a psychological thriller?
The seed was a dream I had, about a pair of old friends reunited by chance in a hotel lobby. One is getting married; the other wants to kill her. When I woke up, I started trying to figure out what could possibly have happened to these lifelong friends to set up this situation. And I'd been dragging around a pot of soil labeled "toxic academia" for years, ever since I graduated from a competitive graduate program with a PhD in English and decided not to pursue a job as a professor. I knew instantly that this was the right seed for that particular pot. Academia is a highly rarefied atmosphere full of super-smart people, many of whom come in with the best and purest of intentions. However, due to its rigidly hierarchical structure, it's also a system rife with abuses of power, labor exploitation, and boundary-crossing. Add in a job market that's been shrinking for decades and is now nearly nonexistent, and you have a real shark tank on your hands. What better setting for a thriller than one that actively encourages the worst behavior--and fails to punish abuse, more often than not?
Q: Bad Habits was hard to put down. Pacing makes turning the page so quick. How much does pacing come into play in your first round of drafting?
I have a fairly natural sense of pacing, augmented by my efforts to internalize three-act structure. I always know where the turning point midway through the book will be, and generally have a few points plotted out in advance. But there are always scenes that run long and throw the book off-balance in the first draft. I let myself get it all out. I have followed my instincts down a lot of rabbit holes, some of which led to dead ends, others to wonderlands. Pacing is for edits.
Q: There’s a twist at the end of the story that we won't give away, but did you know about the twist before you started writing? Do you write with the end in mind for your stories?
Yes and no. I can often see the climax or ending of a book perfectly, like a scene from a movie, but I don't know why the characters are doing what they're doing until I get there. In Bad Habits, I didn't know the exact nature of the twist--or rather, some part of me knew it, but I resisted it. I always knew it would set up the sequel, which I hope to write someday. But the particular way of making it work--that, I resisted for a long time. Then one day I had a come-to-Jesus with myself, figuratively speaking, and said, "Amy, write the unwritable scene." The unwritable scene is something a close friend of mine who is also a writer told me about way back in college. It's the scene you've been avoiding, because something about it cuts too close to the bone, reveals too much of the book's naked heart. Sometimes it's a character you don't want to kill off. Whatever it is, you're afraid of it and even if it doesn't stay in the novel, you have to write it out to keep yourself honest. To make sure you're not pulling any punches. When I wrote the unwritable scene, I immediately thought, yeah, this is the ending. Whether or not people like it, it's what the book is.
Q: It seems like you had a lot of fun building the world of The Program, especially all those Emerging Studies courses. Did you set out to poke a little fun at the competitive world of academia or is that something you found along the way?
Oh, I absolutely set out to poke fun at academia! It's impossible not to—academics themselves do it constantly. We used to riff on book titles, make up fake papers, imagine the professors as celebrity judges in a reality show where we, the contestants, were being eliminated one by one. It was a game we played to cope with the stress. But in Bad Habits, I allowed the barbed nature of those jokes, the panic in them, to come to the surface. In my courses, I was constantly alternating between a buzzy high--"I'm getting it! I'm really getting it!"—and a silent scream—"What are we even talking about? Is any of this real??" At the end of the day, I do believe most of it is real, but, unfortunately, the best ideas are often obscured by status-signaling language and taught to students very poorly or not at all. One revelation I had, after drafting much of Bad Habits, came when an article I use in the book as the symbol of academic obscurantism—Derrida's "Economimesis"—became suddenly useful to me in non-academic writing I was doing for my Tori Amos book [for the Bloomsbury Press 33 1/3 series]. I had hit my head against this article for years in grad school; it was my nemesis. I truly believed I was incapable of ever understanding it, no matter how many times I read it. But once I was out of that context, away from the status anxiety and compulsive need to please my advisors, with room to breathe and think, I actually did grasp it. A little bit. Maybe.
Q: Bad Habits is full of morally gray (and worse) characters. Was there any character in particular you felt could justify their behavior more than the others?
This is perhaps a controversial statement, but I think all bad behavior is both morally indefensible and, on some level best known to the perpetrator, perfectly justifiable. Villainy and victimhood are situational and complex; that's something I try to convey in all my books. The real villain in Bad Habits is the Program itself, maybe even the whole university—an institution set up to foster abuses, expel victims, and shield perpetrators from consequences. All the characters—certainly Mac and Gwen and the other grad students, but also Bethany and the other professors—would have behaved better under different circumstances. Mac's mom is probably the most complex character of all, though she doesn't get a lot of air time. Mac hates her. I want the reader to hate her. But I also want the reader to see that she has her reasons. That if she were telling the story, it would look a lot different. I think a more complex understanding of why people perpetrate crimes, and how chains of abuse reproduce themselves, both generationally and in the workplace through hazing rituals and the like, would be a lot healthier for everyone, as well as far more useful for reducing crime. But it requires taking a hard look at one's own capacity for bad behavior. Everyone believes they would be the hero who resists peer pressure, who finds legal ways of getting by, who fights the bad guys. No one wants to believe they can be ruthless. At one point near the end of the book Mac says, "Virtue is a luxury good," and even though she's saying it to justify morally repugnant actions, she's not wrong.
Q: Mac’s love of film is integral to the story in Bad Habits. Why did you choose this as her entry point into the world of academia?
Thank you for this question! Most people don't ask me about the film stuff. Mac's love of film bubbled up naturally in the book, from my own love of film I suppose, and then I started to make it a conscious theme. I think film represents the purest, most innocent form of Mac's longing for beauty. It caters to her hunger for a better life, but, as one character says near the end of the book, "At least these light shows know they aren't real." They're not claiming to represent reality faithfully; they arrive at a deeper truth through lying, one that's hard to grasp (and harder still to make a career out of). Early in the book, Rocky asks Mac bluntly why she doesn't just make films herself if she likes them so much, rather than studying them. I suppose that's a pretty clear nod to my own decision to leave academia and write novels. I've wanted to be a writer since I was in fourth grade, and wrote a novel for my senior thesis in college. I had no business in academia, really. Mac is the version of me who didn't figure that out, and had to start murdering people.
Q: What’s the last book that kept you up late reading?
Oh, that would be Ruth Ware's One by One. She's an author whose books I will always stay up late reading. They are just so delicious, and the writing is neat as a pin, in a way mine will never be. And the last audiobook I did hours of extra housecleaning to justify listening to was Megan Gidding's stunning debut, Lakewood. It's a paranoid thriller about medical research trials and race in America, couched in lovely—and quite funny—literary prose.