So excited to welcome another of my fabulous agent sisters, Amy Gentry, to the Deb Ball this week!
Amy Gentry is the author of Good As Gone, a New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice” and Entertainment Weekly “Must List” Pick. 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. Amy has a doctorate in English and lives in Austin, Texas. You can find Amy on Twitter @unlandedgentry or on her website AmyGentryAuthor.com.
Amy’s second novel, the feminist revenge thriller Last Woman Standing (already one of my top reads of 2019!) released this past Tuesday. Keep reading to find out how you can win a copy!
Share one quirk you have that most people don’t know about.
I really, truly enjoy cake decorating–not the minimalist, sculptural style that’s so hip now, where you use fresh flowers on rolled fondant, but the old-fashioned architectural style, encrusted with elaborately piped buttercream and icing roses until it looks like an 18th-century Parisian apartment. It’s called the Wilton style and you need flower nails and icing bags and an arsenal of shiny silver tips. When I was very young I stumbled on some Wilton “yearbooks” from the 1970s, from when my mom took a cake decorating class. She still had her Wilton beginner’s kit, which had twenty tips and couplers and some crusty old food coloring jars, and a stack of dusty forgotten magazines full of garish ‘70s cakes in harvest gold and brown, with instructions in the back. I read these magazines like they were comic books. I was obsessed. When I was bored, I’d read the directions for each cake design. (“Pipe 200 forget-me-nots, Violet 6 and Golden Yellow 29, Tips 20, 337.”) And eventually I started designing and making my own cakes. I made a piano cake, a Winnie-the-Pooh cake, a cake decorated like an issue of Seventeen magazine with my sister’s face on the cover. I made my brother a cake with Bill the Cat on top, from the comic strip Bloom County. I made cakes at the drop of a hat for a while. Sometimes I look back at the pictures and can’t believe that my mom let make all those cakes alone as a 12-year-old. But as long as I cleaned up the mess afterward, she was cool with it. I’ve made four wedding cakes, including my own.
What first inspired you to start writing?
Like most writers, I was inspired by things I read and wanted to copy. Throughout my childhood I tried my hand at writing whatever I was most into at the time–an Alice in Wonderland-type book, a Silmarillion-type book, and lots and lots and lots of fairy tales.
Then in fourth grade I had this teacher who was truly different from anyone I’d ever met. He was a hippie, but of course I didn’t know this at the time. It was the ‘80s, and he was clearly stuck in the ‘70s. He wore bellbottoms to class and had long hair and a beard. This was a huge stroke of fortune in my life, it changed me forever. I had all the makings of a little hippie but I didn’t know it. My parents were conservative churchgoers in stable professions, and I had no one in my world advocating for a creative life. The first week of class, Mr. Wainwright taught us what “free verse poetry” was, and then he passed out pictures cut from nature magazines and sent us home to write a free verse poem inspired by the picture. Mine was a polar bear slogging through some water, and I wrote this extremely grim and depressing poem about it. The last line of the poem was just the single word, “Alone.”
It must have been obvious that I was feeling that way myself. My family had just moved cross-country in the middle of the school year, and I didn’t really have friends yet. I started writing “free verse” poetry all the time, constantly. I was only 9 years old but I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
I tried to write a novel at that age, too. I think a lot of kids do. I typed it out on our IBM PC Jr and got maybe 5000 words into it. It was about a girl and a unicorn who get sent on these time-travel quests by a skeleton knight with flaming eyeballs. The first place they go is the Salem witch trials. I don’t think I really tried a novel in earnest again until I wrote one for my undergraduate thesis. That one was called A Clew of Thread and it was basically a mystery.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What kinds of things did you read?
Despite my current tastes, I read mostly fantasy and fairy tales as a child. My favorite book was Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. I read it for the first time in third grade and eventually memorized the first chapter from reading it out loud so many times. “The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and her mane was no longer the careless color of seafoam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night.” It’s such a gorgeous and funny and deeply humane book. I’ve gone back to it at every age, and I can still place it up there with my favorite books of all time, with Dostoevsky and Henry James and George Eliot.
I had fairly morbid tastes. My favorite fairy tales were Grimm’s “The Goose Girl”, which featured a talking horse-head nailed to a wall, and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” This was before the Disney version came out, so I grew up with the little mermaid turning into sea-foam in the end because she can’t bring herself to stab the prince, who doesn’t love her. The Disney film is very good, but the original story is excruciatingly sad and beautiful. I loved the long Christina Rosetti poem “Goblin Market” so much that once I tried to memorize it by recording myself reading it, then playing the tape while I slept. Who knows where I got that idea, but it was a bust. Nevertheless a lot of words like “dewberries” and “furze” are still stuck in my brain.
I also read and re-read Gone with the Wind, a thoroughly racist but incredibly readable piece of propaganda. Because I was always reading things that were a little too old for me, I kept my distance from the ideas presented in the books, and I think that helped me as a reader, even though it meant I didn’t always understand what I read. I knew that books don’t tell the truth. They tell something important, but it’s not the truth.
If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
If I could catch Amy at 23 years old, I would tell her that writing is a real, actual career, not a dream or a wish or a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. It’s art, but it’s also entrepreneurship. Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, it’s going to take an upfront investment. You’ve got to find a way to get enough money to live on while you’re doing it.
When I graduated college, I already had a completed novel under my belt and was working on a second. I moved to a distant city and got a waitressing job, on the theory that I could write on my days off. I did write–a lot! But I was worn out from barely making the rent, and then my job became unbearable and I quit and couldn’t get another one. This was during the recession of 2001, and the unemployment rate in my “hip” city for recent college grads was up around 10%. I spent my days alone, friendless and paralyzed, watching my bank account dwindle.
Around that time I put a lot of money (for me) into attending a local writer’s conference. I wish I could go back and tell me that it was an excellent idea . . . but not to put all my eggs in one basket! I sent my manuscript to one of the editors who had shown interest in my work, and then I followed up with a meeting. In the meeting he hit on me. His girlfriend had just dumped him and he was looking for someone to take with him on an exotic vacation and he kept hinting around that I should go with him. I left that meeting extremely confused. It wasn’t exactly traumatizing, but it was embarrassing. Had he ever liked my work, or was it a bait and switch all along? After that I threw in my cards and moved back home. I felt like I had failed.
I hadn’t, of course, but I had definitely run out of money. The only way you can take out a loan big enough to live on when you’re 23 is by applying and getting in to grad school. So that’s what I did. I took out an extraordinary amount of money for a single year of grad school, and then once I was there, I scored a fellowship and attended the rest for free. But sometimes I look at that amount sitting in the “debt” column of my financials, and wonder. I was already writing mysteries; I could probably have succeeded financially as a writer at that age if I’d just kept trying. But I didn’t know that a career takes starter money, or other resources. It takes mental resilience and physical sturdiness and money to live on and spare time and talent, in varying amounts. If you have less of one, you’ll need more of the others to compensate. I was trying to do it all alone, but you really can’t do it alone unless you have limitless resources. You need help and support. That’s why writing communities are so important.
My second novel LAST WOMAN STANDING deals with the struggle to pay rent and get started in a creative profession, except that the main character, Dana, is actually way more together than I was at that age–and what happens to her is much worse.
What does literary success look like to you?
A long time ago at a women’s breakfast in Buda, Texas, I met a crone who practically glowed with contentment. I asked her, “What do you do?”, and she answered, “Whatever the hell I want.” It made a big impression on me. To me, literary success looks like writing whatever the hell I want. I’ll know I’m successful when I can go to my publisher and say, “I want to write X,” and no matter how far out there it is, they publish it. But in the meantime, I try to write whatever the hell I want anyway, even if I’m not sure where or when it’ll get published. And whenever I’m feeling unhappy in my career, or off-course, that’s the question I ask myself. Am I writing whatever the hell I want to? Why not?
Retweet this post (make sure you follow @DebutanteBall too!) or share it on Facebook for a chance to win a copy of Last Woman Standing! We will contact the lucky winners on Friday, January 25th (US Only).
When aspiring standup comic Dana Diaz meets tough-girl computer programmer Amanda Dorn, the two bond over their struggles with harassment and assault in boy’s club professions. Amanda comes up with a plan: they should go after each other’s assailants, Strangers on a Train-style. But Dana finds that revenge, however sweet, draws her into a more complicated series of betrayals. Soon her paranoia begins to encompass strangers, friends—and even herself. At what cost will she get her vengeance? And will there be anyone left to trust?
In this follow-up to her acclaimed novel of psychological suspense, Good as Gone (“so gripping you might want to start to question your own family’s past”—EW), Amy Gentry has created a riveting, page-turning story that is Patricia Highsmith by way of Thelma and Louise.
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