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Amy Gentry on Toxic Workplaces, How to Construct the Perfect Plot Twist, and Why Grad School is the Perfect Place to Become a Villain

by Brendan Dowling on February 19, 2021

Amy Gentry’s engrossing Bad Habits digs into the dark recesses of academia, pulling apart the long lasting aftershocks of a toxic relationship among a dynamic professor and the two star students in her graduate program. When we first meet Mac, she’s living a seemingly glamorous life in academia, headlining conferences and on the verge of interviewing for her dream job. Yet she’s brought up short when she unexpectedly runs into her former best friend Gwen at a hotel bar. The two haven’t spoken since Gwen left their graduate program nearly a decade earlier, and the reunion stirs up dark memories of the past that Mac has long since suppressed. As high school students, they formed an intense bond over their shared appreciation of beauty and art, despite coming from wildly different backgrounds. Mac’s childhood was marked by her mother’s struggles with addiction and financial issues, while Gwen came from a world of near unimaginable wealth. Later as doctoral students in an elite graduate program, they fell under the thrall of a brilliant professor, Bethany, whose iron-like grip on her students’ lives shapes the ultimate fates of both Gwen and Mac. With spiky humor and exquisite plotting, Gentry crafts a twisty tale that explores the surprising and brutal ways a person’s past may bump against their present life. Of Bad Habits, Laura Lippman said, “It is almost impossible to find the words for a truly original novel such as Bad Habits, a primal scream of a book that could be written only by this author at this time. Amy Gentry is in utter control of this anaconda of a story as it twists, squeezes and lashes out at the reader,” while BookPage raved, “Amy Gentry’s new novel Bad Habits is so much fun to read that it feels like you’re cheating somehow.” Author photo courtesy of Matt Valentine.

You have a PhD in English. Can you talk about how you moved from the world of academia to writing?

I had always wanted to write novels. In fact, I actually wrote one for my undergraduate thesis and moved to Portland to write my next one and become a famous novelist, which is I guess what people do in Portland, right? That just shows how much I knew about it. (laughs) Pretty soon I lost my way and I ended up bouncing into grad school, so I think there’s a good argument for the case that I never really belonged there in the first place. However, I did complete my Ph.D., and I was on the professor track. The first time I went on the job market was in 2009, which was a rough year for everybody, but the academic job market had been completely decimated. By the time I defended, I had decided I would not be going on [the academic job market] a second time. I had no idea what I was going to do, and started trying to figure it out. I had just met my husband, he knew me in college, and he said, “Why don’t you just write the novel you said you were going to write back when I knew you?” And I was like, “It’s not that easy!” (laughs) And it wasn’t. I had a lot of part-time jobs. I was looking for full-time employment, but couldn’t really find anything.

I had started to freelance and in addition to all my other part-time jobs, I was trying to find ways to write for money. That was really the key turning point in pushing me toward the path that I wanted to be on for a couple of reasons. One, it opened up a whole new world for me in terms of people wanting to read what I had written. When you’re in academia, you spend all your time writing, but even the three people who are paid to read your work don’t really want to read it. Sorry, that’s harsh but I think it’s fair. (laughs) You get used to writing as something that only exists to exalt your status or to get you a job or something. You don’t even remember that writing is about communicating, and in an ideal world someone wants to hear what you’re saying. When I was freelancing, I did a couple of book reviews, and then started reviewing fairly regularly. I started doing cultural literary events coverage for local blogs, and in the end I wound up being a weekly columnist at my local alt-weekly. The whole time this was happening, I was thinking, “This is my new career. I’m going to be a columnist, and a freelance writer, and a journalist. This is where I’m going.”

Meanwhile, people were finding me through that stuff. One of the people who read my work and got to know me that way invited me to join her writing group where they were writing novels. Eventually I started writing my first novel in that group. It was an idea that I had long before graduate school but had never really devoted time to. Being in the writing group gave me a place to do it. Like a support group, I guess, for the long haul that is writing your debut novel. By that point freelancing had had liberated my writing a little bit from the academic chokehold that was on it. Plus I interviewed a lot of writers and I asked them how they had published their first novels. That helped too. I would do it on the sly. The very last question would be, “How did you get your start?” I would pretend it was for the interview but it was mostly for me. (laughs)

Why is the world of academia so ripe for a book where the worst parts of a character emerge?

I think there’s a lot of reasons. I will say until I went to graduate school—which again happened almost by accident, if that’s possible—I had never been in an academic environment, or indeed any environment, that could be described as highly competitive to the point of being cutthroat. I wasn’t prepared for what that environment does to people, including me. Academia, in one sense, is sort of a toxic workplace, right? But in another sense there’s something really special about the kind of toxic workplace it could be. I think it’s partly the rigid hierarchical structure that’s been institutionalized in which there’s hardly any other analog for, outside of academia. I think it’s partly much like Hollywood or other culture industries, it’s also framed as a passion: your work is you, you are your work.

The value system that comes with that can be really warped and warping. When there are no boundaries between who you are and what you produce under this system, it’s a situation that’s ready to be abused. It really encourages other boundary crossing and a total disregard for the health and well-being of the lower-tiers, really of everyone. But graduate students and adjuncts—who I don’t even talk about in the book because there just wasn’t room—their labor is exploited. Gaslighting is a word that’s overused these days, but [in graduate school there’s] a way in which students are told over and over again that nothing about their lives matters except for this. It’s the highest good and everything else should be subordinate to it; your happiness, your family life, your health, just doesn’t matter. There are all kinds of little moments in the book where I have characters voicing those sentiments. They’re not even the main plot—it’s the environment, it’s the air that you’re breathing.

It’s one reason why it’s very hard for people to leave, because there’s this indoctrination almost. It’s hard to even describe how it happens, but you believe that there’s nothing that important that goes on outside of this tiny, narrow, little place. It just becomes your whole world and you take it for granted it’s the highest good. (laughs) Everybody else around you has this disdain for things that happen outside, to the point where people who do write novels and are academics—because there’s another big overlap there, people who want to write novels and are in academia—people would have come in with these outside accomplishments that were really something and would almost have to hide the and downplay them. Professors would keep the novels they had written off their CV, because the idea is that anything that doesn’t track with this very, very narrow and specific idea of success or status is sort of worthless.

Even though the story is very dark, a lot of the book is a very sharp satire of academia and very funny. For you, what role does humor play in your writing? 

It cuts pretty close to the bone in this book. Most of the satire is barely heightened—you don’t have to do much work with academia, it’s just kind of lying right there. In fact, academics themselves are the first people to constantly be making fun of themselves and other academics. All my writing tends to be funny even when it’s dark. I don’t think a lot of people notice that, because I’m writing about murder and trauma, but it just comes out that way. I don’t really try. I think I’m probably funniest when I’m not trying to be.

With this book especially, the humor is really part of the bleakness, right? When I was a graduate student and we were sitting around in the bar, we’d be riffing on this stuff, making up our own fake academic papers and talking about our program as if it were an elimination-style reality show. We had these elaborate fantasies and riffs about grad school as a coping mechanism, but in the book I tried to locate the undercurrent of panic that’s underneath those jokes. This is an Alice in Wonderland world, an upside down world, for the main character. She’s just trying to make sense of this world into which she’s put herself.

It almost doesn’t matter what they’re actually studying, this is what it sounds like to her. I tried to leave open the question of if there’s actually a “there” there. I tried to put off a bit and not answer, because I think the important thing is how does Mac experience it? She experiences it like the teachers in Charlie Brown, who are like, “Wah wah, wah wah.” She tries and tries to make sense of it, but it always comes out that she’s talking to the Cheshire Cat or somebody. The question about how to balance that was really tricky. I worked with my first editor, Helen Atsma, on that a lot, because she rightly pointed out that it was going to be hard to keep this as coming across as inside baseball.

Part of that was eliminating extra pages. The first draft, I just let myself go, I had so much fun writing all this ridiculous stuff. Part of it was cutting that out, narrowing it down to what needed to be there. In the end I found that making it a little more absurd was better for the tone. In finding little ways to signal to the reader, it’s a wink, you don’t have to be following this. In fact, the point is that you’re not following this. While keeping it close enough that a person who is an academic and has the environment is going to get more out of it, sidesplitting tear wiping laughter, but a reader who hasn’t been in that environment will still be able to access how absurd it is.

The book takes so many twists that I truly didn’t see coming. In terms of crafting the story, did you have all of these twists designed beforehand, or were there ones that you discovered along the way?

I always start with a feeling of where the story’s going. I often have certain scenes in my head. I tend to have certain points plotted along the way, where I’m like, “How am I going to get from here to there?” Often I don’t even know why people are doing the things in the scenes, I just know the emotional dynamics and maybe the set piece that happens, so there’s a discovery process, as I’m writing.

I more or less follow a three-act structure. After my first book, I read a bunch of screenwriting books to internalize and learn three-act structure, so that instead of feeling it intuitively, I can take a look and analyze what I’ve written and see how it falls on a general arc. But I am terrible at outlining and plotting in advance, so even though I know what points I have to hit, if I try to outline those in advance it’s just a failure. There’s one big twist you’re probably thinking of that did take me a really long time to figure out. It’s so funny, I kind of knew what needed to go there. When I happened on this one, it just gave me an electric jolt. I was like, “I don’t know, can I really do that?”

I’m always nervous with a big twist because I know there are going to be people who are like this is just or shock value or this is unbelievable, and to that I say, have you ever read a thriller before? I think the genre supports it. But also even when I have those voices in my head, if something delights me so much, I don’t even care if it’s believable or not. This is a book, I get to make it up. I say it happens. It just ticks every box for me, and made a lot of other things make more sense, rather than less. That’s another kind of metric writers use when working out twists: does it make the book make more sense? Are there threads that it picks up? If the answer is yes, you got yourself a twist. (laughs)

I’m struck by you talking about reading screenwriting books, because this book has almost a film noir-like quality. Has your love of cinema affected your writing?

I think it absolutely has. The screenwriting books were purely to ingest the mechanics of plot, because there aren’t a whole lot of prose writing books out that are strong on teaching plot. I hope I don’t get reamed for saying that, there are some good ones. (laughs) But honestly the people who have boiled three-act structure down are the people who teach screenwriting. I had always loved films, and had times in my life when it was almost all that I did have in terms of an artistic practice, where watching tons of movies was really important in my life. Depending on where I’ve lived, there have always been video stores that have felt like oases to me, hence my affectionate portrait of one in the book.

Reading all the screenwriting books and taking a few tries at adapting my own work for screen has made me view movies differently. For a long time, my viewings of film were only as an odd spectator, not as a consumer. I never imagined myself taking part in it, I was never able to even parse them as objects, because I just didn’t know enough. Reading the screenwriting books also jumpstarted something in my brain about the structure of how they’re put together. Over the past five or ten years, I’ve been watching them in a slightly different way to be more attentive to the formal aspects of film.

Mac’s love of cinema plays a huge role in the boo, particularly in her fascination with “The Earrings of Madame De. . .” How did that part of her personality make its way into the book?

Mac’s interest in film is in some ways the healthiest outlet she has for her aspirational love of beauty. It awakens something in her, to see that first film, “The Earrings of Madam De. . .,” and it becomes in some ways  the peep through the keyhole in Alice in Wonderland. She sees the film come to life and literally she feels like she’s seeing colors that are beautiful and unearthly. It gives her this sense that there is something out there that she could touch just a little bit by watching these films. It’s not until she meets Gwen a few months later that she finds the catalyst to really take that and make it concrete. She ends up putting all that on Gwen, so that Gwen is going to be the one  who’s going to take her into this world of beauty. And the first thing they bond over is movies. Anyone can watch a movie. I think that’s what it boils down to, anyone can watch a movie. If you can get your hands on it, you can experience it. There’s something really powerful about that, that Mac immediately feels it as a leveling between her and this distant, perfect, wealthy, super smart girl who she’s decided to become friends with.

This book focuses on the triangular relationship of three women: Mac, Gwen, and Bethany. Was there a specific character who was the entry point for you in the novel?

Gwen was definitely that character for me. She was the person who walked into my head and made the novel happen. Like all ex-academics, I’d been carrying around the setting of grad school for quite a while, but a setting for me is not really enough. I actually had a dream shortly after my first novel was published. I was actively on the lookout for new ideas, and I had this dream that was basically the opening, the frame narrative, that happens where two women who used to be best friends but are now estranged reunite in a hotel lobby by chance and one of them is getting married and that drives the other one into a murderous rage.

I thought there’s something about that verticality in the dream that was unusual, and it made me think of ladder climbing. I just wanted to know who these two characters were and what had happened to make these best friends suddenly turn into these mortal enemies. I thought, “Well, I think it’s going to have to happen in grad school! Where else can someone really become a villain?” (laughs) I don’t know a better place to transform into that. The point of view of the dreamer was the murderous one, so I really had this visceral sensation that it would be me, the first person character, who would change and become this sort of monster.

The book takes place in December 2021. How did the pandemic affect the outcome of this book?

It was a giant pain. The book was already in copy edits by the time the pandemic happened. In fact, I had just finished the first round of copy edits and there would be one more [round] early in the pandemic. One of the things that my copy editor had pointed out was that there were a lot of timeline issues. I’m terrible with timeline—whether it’s season, day of the week, or the year that the backstory happened—I am constantly messing that up. She had already told me, “You need to get this stuff in line,” and then here came the pandemic. I think it was set to be December 2020, and it became quickly apparent that that was not going to [be realistic]. I don’t think readers care that much about stuff, but it was really awkward. Ideally I wanted to pull it back before the pandemic, but there were a few of those other dates that I could not square. So I was like, “Well, let’s just cross our fingers that December 2021 will allow for in person conferences again, and we’ll just say all these people are avoiding the topic of the pandemic because they’re sick of thinking about it.” (laughs)

It was very comforting to read a book that takes place in the near future where in-person events are possible. It’s weird to think of your book as a comfort read, but in that way, it was for me.

It is for me! (laughs) This is the kind of book I love to read. I’m not actually very good with light, fluffy books. Especially in times like these, I have a hard time focusing on books that are really light. I kind of need something really weird and dark and high stakes, preferably suspenseful, just to keep me paying attention. This was true especially early in the pandemic. I could not read anything unless it was actual horror. All of my friends were trading recommendations for different comfort reads and romance novels that they love. I was like, “I will try those another day, but for now I must read this brutal horror novel.” I just need it to be worse in the book than it is in life. (laughs)

I saw in a previous interview that your thesis focused on Henry James, so I was curious to know who have been the writers that have been influential to you?

I say this in all my interviews and I feel more and more like a fraud ever time I say it, but Henry James actually has been a huge influence on every novel, especially the first one and Bad Habits. The whole reason I ended up in grad school was because I developed a Henry James addiction and thought that that made me belong. I really, really love the intense interpersonal dynamics, the crazy psychologizing, the manipulation. Those books are just wonderful. I’m basically always trying to write a Henry James novel but failing, what I end up with is what I turn into my editor. My other really significant influences—influences sounds so pretentious—Patricia Highsmith obviously. Another big influence for this one specifically because I thought of Mac as a Talented Mr. Ripley character who would go from place to place in future books and continue to be an imposter and cause trouble. Muriel Spark is an extreme favorite of mine, who also wrote one of the wickedest campus novels of all, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In terms of people writing now, I have my favorites but I think Kelly Lenk is someone whose work always astonishes me. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—I would be lying if I said it did not influence my first novel in the way that it was told. Tana French, Sara Waters, I could go on. There’s a lot.

I’m actually putting together a list of dark academia novels for CrimeReads so I’ve been doing the legwork gathering all of the campus novels in crime and suspense, and I think there’s really been an acceleration in them. Elisabeth Thomas’ Catherine House, which has just been nominated for an Edgar. Nina Revoyr’s A Student of History, which is an incredible book. Micah Nemerever’s These Violent Delights. I feel like I’ve seen a surge in the last couple of years in thrillers and mysteries set on campuses. I obviously could not be more happy. (laughs) I think there’s something comforting [about the campus novel]. If we were lucky and privileged to go to college, there’s something really special about that time of your life and being a student with a lot of freedom and latitude and not an actual lot of real world repercussions. It takes you back to memories that are high drama memories of your own youth, in some ways. I’m really excited for the dark academia trend.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.