There's something deliciously creepy about reading a crime novel set in a city you used to call home—I discovered that and much more in Amy Gentry's debut novel, GOOD AS GONE. You can find my full review of the book here, but you can safely sum up my experience reading it by saying this: it was nothing that I expected it would be, in the best possible ways.
Today I'm thrilled to share my Q&A with Gentry, wherein she discusses her debut novel, the influence of Houston on her writing, what she's currently reading, and more! A big thank you to Amy for answering my questions, and to her publisher for facilitating this Q&A.
Buy links for GOOD AS GONE at the bottom of this post.
Crime by the Book: First things first: if you had to describe GOOD AS GONE in one sentence, how would you describe it?
Amy Gentry: A mother-daughter horror story, set in a city with a perpetual identity crisis.
CBTB: What first inspired you to write this story?
AG: I first thought of writing a novel about a returned child whose identity is in question back in 2003, when the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case was in the news. Many things about that case caught my eye, including the religious angle and the unusual way she was kidnapped. It was about ten years before I started working on it in earnest, though.
CBTB: As a former Houstonian, I was fascinated by your use of the city as almost another character within the story. Houston isn’t just the setting for this book—its culture, landmarks, and even its climate are woven inextricably throughout. This quality definitely isn’t typical of many crime novels. Can you share a bit about your decision to write a novel that’s so tied to its setting?
AG: I'm glad you enjoyed the Houston setting! I actually resisted setting the story in Houston for a long time. I needed a large, sprawling, urban setting where religion was woven into the backdrop, almost taken for granted, yet a liberal university professor like Anna could feel comfortable. And I needed a place where four family members could be living four totally separate lives, and only ever intersect at home. To me, that's Houston, but it felt like a cop-out setting my first novel in my hometown. So I kept moving the story from city to city, trying to find the right fit. (This resulted in a LOT of unusable material down the line.)
Then I got to the part where Jane and Julie hang out, and suddenly I just knew where Jane would want to take Julie--Montrose, where my high school friends and I went to pretend we were cool and not suburbanites. Once I just accepted it, the whole thing popped into relief. I loved how the idea of a zoning-free city like Houston played into the novel's themes of shifting identity. I also wound up writing a lot of scenes in cars, which was fun and true to Houston life. You spend so much time trapped in cars there, alone or with people. It's the perfect place to talk or not talk, get into a fight, or daydream; also, you're seeing the city, but you're isolated from it at the same time.
CBTB: When I started reading GOOD AS GONE, I expected that the missing daughter, Julie, would be the book’s main character. I was surprised (and very happy!) to discover that this story takes a more unconventional approach, focusing instead on Julie’s mother (Anna), and allowing the reader to learn the truth about Julie alongside her mother. Did you always have this structure in mind for the book? If not, how did you develop it?
AG: Anna's voice came to me first. From the start, the book was about that terrifying idea of a mother not being able to tell if it's her own daughter or not. Now that I'm older, I think maybe all mothers must feel some of that vertigo when their daughters grow up--like, who are you? Though of course with Anna it's a real question. When I realized Julie needed to have a voice in the book too, I was stumped about how to introduce her without giving her identity away. Then I stumbled on the idea of diving into her history backward, starting with the most recent events. That solved it for me, as well as providing the structure of the book.
CBTB: GOOD AS GONE is nothing if not full of ever-changing characters to keep track of. How did you keep your ideas organized while writing?
AG: So many different ways! I'm not naturally organized, so the method I use one day often looks like nonsense to me the next. I took notes in my journal, kept research files in Scrivener, sketched out provisional outlines and timelines. Once I even used the Enneagram. Whatever helped in the moment.
CBTB: This book deals heavily with religion: megachurches, individuals using religion for their own nefarious ends, and Anna’s deep-rooted skepticism all collide throughout the novel. As much as you’re comfortable sharing, how much or little did your personal experience with religion in Houston influence your novel? (I, for one, had never seen a megachurch before I went to college in Houston—I love your description of the Astrodome-turned-church! Very Joel Osteen.)
AG: My childhood church in Houston was big, but not a mega-church. It was benign and loving, and I was very religious as a child. As an adult, I identify more with Anna, who finds meaning in literature--although there are some problems with her worldview. The mega-church setting, which a friend in my writing group first suggested to me, appealed to me because it made so much sense with the milieu. And I got to visit Osteen's church for research, which was fascinating to me. I was so uncomfortable with it, but the message really resonated with some of the themes of the book (memory v. moving on, particularly), and I enjoyed amplifying and twisting that experience for fictional purposes.
CBTB: Before writing GOOD AS GONE, you’ve written widely—from a fashion column to book reviews to cultural criticism. Do you feel that one particular job or writing opportunity prepared you best for novel writing?
AG: Writing for an audience of any kind is great preparation, because it helps you think about novel-writing as communication, first and foremost. It doesn't matter how brilliant or meaningful the thoughts in my head seem to me; the words have to make some kind of meaning for someone outside my head. As a critic, I review mostly literary fiction, and I find that even the most challenging or experimental fiction will fail if it takes its own brilliance for granted and expects the reader to do the same.
Practically speaking, author profiles probably helped me the most--every single time I interviewed an author, I asked, "How did you do it?" And I listened! Hearing all their different paths to publication helped me believe I could do it, too.
CBTB: What kind of books do you read in your free time? What is the last book you read?
AG: Since I'm a book critic, my work and play reading kind of blend together. Lately I've been catching up on a backlog of crime fiction by women. I just read Vera Caspary's Bedelia, an amazing 1940s crime novel, and Megan Abbott's Die a Little, which was her first book. Now I'm in the middle of a novel about a female cult leader called We Are Incredible by the 1920s feminist writer Margery Latimer, while also doing research for a book about Tori Amos. So, lots of things, but mostly by or about women.