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Amy Gentry: On Writing Thrillers and Following Your Gut

Thriller author Amy Gentry shares her experience writing her latest novel, Bad Habits, and why it's important to take full ownership of your work.

Amy Gentry is the author of Good as Gone, a New York Times Notable Book, and Last Woman Standing. She is also a book reviewer and essayist whose work has appeared in numerous outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, Salon, the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Austin Chronicle. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago and lives in Austin, Texas.

In this post, Gentry shares her experience writing her latest novel, Bad Habits, why it’s important to take full ownership of your work, and more!

What prompted you to write this book?

It started with a dream about a pair of old friends reunited by chance in a hotel lobby. One of them was getting married; the other wanted to kill her. Why? I wrote down the dream and mulled it over. Ever since graduating from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in English in 2011, I’d wanted to write about the cutthroat environment of a highly competitive graduate program. I decided that whatever happened to split these best friends apart, it must have happened there. Writing the whole story gave me a chance to explore the boundary-crossing and sometimes abusive behavior I witnessed in academia, as well as to probe at the inequities—based in race, class, and gender—that riddle the system. It was also tons of fun to return to that environment as an outside spectator, marveling at the bizarre and rarefied atmosphere.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

I had that dream in 2016, soon after the publication of my first book, Good as Gone. I was already contracted to write a different novel (which became Last Woman Standing), but I loved the idea so much that I managed to write about 60,000 words before even starting my second book. Then I put Bad Habits on the backburner for almost two years. So really, this novel was five years in the making. The idea and basic structure didn’t change at all during those five years—all that changed were nuances of execution. That’s not to say I knew everything from the start—I always allow some questions to remain unanswered in my own mind almost to the very end of the first draft. It makes for a lot of revision, but it keeps me interested.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I have learned one monumental lesson from this book’s publication: what it means to take full and complete ownership of my work. My first two books were written under one contract and published very quickly. It felt like a whirlwind. After years of writing alone, suddenly I had so many people on my team. I was grateful to be published and genuinely eager to learn from people who knew the business side, but I felt so borne along by the process that I barely had time to think about what I felt was right for each book.

Perhaps because the subject matter felt so personal to me, Bad Habits was different. For the first time, I pushed back against editorial changes that didn’t feel right. (Being wonderful, my editor listened.) Early in the promotional phase, I identified a niche audience with potentially huge buy-in—ex-academics and current academics who felt suffocated by the system, as I had—and actively networked with them in order to get the word out. Rather than waiting for my hardworking publicist to arrange interviews, I started reaching out and setting them up myself. Using the (very real) excuse that all bets are off during a pandemic, I took bigger risks than I had done with the other books. It’s been more work than the other books, too, but I feel so proud of how this one came out that I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. And for the first time, I really understand what seasoned authors like Laura Lippman told me from the beginning—that at the end of the day, it’s my book, and nobody cares about it as I do. Harnessing that passion is powerful.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The biggest and most pleasant surprise was that writing exactly what I wanted—and letting the story sprawl in any direction it wanted, before reining it in during revisions—would be so incredibly rewarding. I started this book with a dream, a grudge, a dinner party scene, and a character’s voice: Mac, the ambitious girl from a struggling family who decides, based on her rich best friend Gwen, that academia is her ticket to a better life. Early on in the process, I took a couple of writing retreats and let the words pour onto the page. Binges of 10,000 words a day required a lot of revision down the line, but the passion of those binges is still in the book, and it still gives me a thrill. When writing my first two books, I was so eager to please my editors and learn the ropes of the business that I took editorial direction very easily and made changes as quickly as I could. I wanted to be one of the good authors, the ones who kill their darlings without complaint. For this book, I listened to my gut and let the darlings make their case for their existence, even when I didn’t know why they had to be there. The darlings came through, in the end, and I have the book I want. That’s everything.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Almost everyone has had a soul-crushing job at one point or another, a job where you wake up every day with a knot in the pit of your stomach, dreading the toxic boss or the passive-aggressive co-worker or the impossible demands. At its core, Bad Habits is about the particular nightmare of feeling like the job making you miserable isn’t just a job, it’s your entire life, and you can’t leave, because you would be worthless without it. Bad Habits explores what happens when you let that kind of thinking win—not only the dangers of what can be done to you but also the dangers of what you might do to others, who you might have to become in the process. My highest hope is that it gives a few people the courage to leave exploitative or abusive jobs, or at least to see their situations more clearly while giving those who have already left a sense of validation and a modicum of healing.

And, of course, I hope everyone who reads it enjoys a laugh at how extremely ridiculous academics can be.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

It’s your book, and nobody knows it as you do. Listen; learn; take feedback to heart. But your book has a voice, too, and at the end of the day, that’s the voice the reader will hear when she’s all alone with your book, flipping the pages. It’s what sets your book apart and come publication day, that’s the voice you’ll want to amplify with a bullhorn. So make sure you’re listening.

BY ROBERT LEE BREWERת Senior Editor of Writer’s Digest, which includes editing Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market, and Guide to Literary Agents. He’s the author of Solving the World’s Problems, Smash Poetry Journal, and The Complete Guide of Poetic Forms: 100+ Poetic Form Definitions and Examples for Poets. He loves blogging on a variety of writing and publishing topics, but he’s most active with Poetic Asides and writes a column under the same name for Writer’s Digest magazine. First published on https://www.writersdigest.com/be-inspired/amy-gentry-on-writing-thrillers-and-following-your-gut February 12 2021