Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Talking with Amy Gentry about Her Thriller "Good As Gone" and the Culture of Victim-Blaming



Amy Gentry's debut thriller Good As Gone opens with a bang: a beloved daughter returns home eight years after her kidnapping—and eight years after her mother assumes she's been murdered by her abductor. But eight years is a long time. Is Julie really Julie, or is she an imposter taking advantage of a wounded family?

Amy Gentry-Good As GoneWe picked Good As Gone as one of the best books of the month, and I said in my review: "Amy Gentry doesn't pull her emotional punches as the chapters oscillate between maybe-Julie and Anna, and it's soon clear that the truth is not what it seems. But the truth might not be what you think it is either."

We spoke with Gentry about her new novel, the impulse behind victim-blaming, and the likelihood of child kidnappings:

Amazon Book Review: What was your inspiration for this plot of a kidnapped daughter who returns to her family after being missing for eight years?

Amy Gentry: There were many sources of inspiration at different times in the writing of the book, but the first was the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case of 2002-2003. Smart was recovered after months of captivity and abuse by a child predator, and even so, she had to endure questions about why she didn't try harder to escape. I think her case was so high-profile in the first place partly because of how perfectly she fit the societal idea of what a victim of sexual violence should look like (young, innocent, white, blond, beautiful), and it's telling that some still hinted she was somehow to blame. At the time, words like "victim-blaming" or "rape culture" wouldn't have been on my radar, but I think even then I was interested in exploring the false binary between good and bad victims.

As far as the question of Julie's identity goes, I was also reading a lot of Henry James at the time, and fell in love with his intensely psychological plots that are really just convoluted mind games. In books like Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, characters manipulate each other in ways that are often harmful, but the manipulators themselves are rarely demonized. Instead, James seems to understand their desperation, and how genuine love can be mixed with other motives. And I love how many of his characters—especially young female characters, like Daisy Miller and Maisie in What Maisie Knew—toggle back and forth between innocence and experience. That was a central theme for James, the unknowability of another person's mind and motives, and whether innocence was a real moral state or just imaginary. James was a man of his time in many ways, but he seemed genuinely to empathize with the plight of young women, including the social and moral expectations they faced.

ABR: Child kidnapping isn't extremely common, but Julie's kidnapping puts her in a new set of statistics: How many children survive an abduction. Please tell us about the research you did for this novel.

Gentry: Child abduction is not so uncommon, but the abductors are usually parents or other caretakers. I have at least one friend, probably more I don't know about, who was abducted by a parent. These are serious, often traumatic situations with potentially tragic outcomes as well. But abduction by a stranger is much, much more rare, which is why, perhaps, it feels particularly upsetting when it happens. I researched crime statistics the way most people do—using the internet—but the most important thing for me was to understand those statistics through Anna's understanding of them. So, in character as Anna, I fixated on two things: first, how rare Julie's kidnapping was (and therefore, to Anna, proof that the universe is random and cruel); and second, the fact that if a kidnapper is going to kill his or her victim (which the vast majority aren't, because they're looking for ransom), it is most likely to happen within the first three hours. Both of these statistics, I believe I found on an educational video put out by a police task force on child abduction. Anna assumes that since Julie's abduction was already an anomaly, that makes it more likely that the abductor was planning to kill Julie. The fact that Anna puts these two statistics together in that way is evidence that she's not really as perfectly rational as she thinks she is.

ABR: You move back and forth between the thoughts of maybe-Julie and her suspicious mother, Anna. They are very different people with very different experiences. How did you put yourself in their heads?

Gentry: I related very strongly to Anna from the beginning, because I was so intrigued by the idea of not knowing your own daughter, of having these doubts and being unable to voice them for fear of seeming like a monster or a terrible mother. It's strange, because I was actually Julie's age at the time I first had the idea, but Anna's voice was in my head even back then. It was only years later, when I started to write it for real, that I realized Julie's voice would be equally important in the novel. It took me longer to get a read on Julie. I think I was resistant to entering her headspace partly because her character has been victimized so much. It's an uncomfortable thing to identify strongly with a victim of sexual violence. That is why there is so much victim-blaming in our culture, I think. There's an instinct to separate yourself, to say, "This could never happen to me." 

Of course that was one of the main things I wanted to overcome in writing the book. It's true I was working with victims of sexual violence as a volunteer at the time, but I did not consciously use their stories—instead, I had to go all the way back to the beginning with Julie, find out who she was before these things happened to her, before I could move forward. Compared to skeptical, cynical Anna, Julie is actually very emotional and sensitive, a romantic and a born believer. Even though her backstory is revealed backwards in the book, her tough shell only started to crack for me as a writer when I followed her journey chronologically, and tried to understand and empathize with each step she made and why.

ABR: Tension always bubbles between Anna and her younger daughter, Jane, who lived through the aftermath of her sister's disappearance. Why is Jane an important character for you?

Gentry: I adore Jane. She's a drama queen, like me. She witnessed something so horrifying and tragic as a child that she should really have been put in therapy right away, and Anna and Tom were too blinded by their own grief to see it. Because of this, Jane is very good at holding it together and taking care of herself, but she acts out for attention, especially with her mom. She's also the book's eyewitness, and her sight remains in some ways the clearest in the book, even if she has trouble communicating it. I often wish I could have spent some more time with her in the book—maybe read some of her diaries or gotten her inner monologue. She so clearly wanted to have a voice, and I, like Anna, just kept shoving her to the side so I could focus on Julie! At the end, I gave Anna a throwaway line about Jane maybe changing her major to creative writing so she could write her memoirs—I think I really wanted to imagine that she got her voice heard, someday.

ABR: Good as Gone is your first published novel. Is it also the first novel you wrote? What was your path to getting Good as Gone published?

Gentry: It's basically the first novel I completed as an adult. As an undergraduate many years ago, I wrote a novel for my senior thesis, but even then I knew it was only for practice and would never see the light of day. I then moved to Portland hoping to write a publishable novel and got about three quarters of the way through it before life got in the way. 

Now I know that 3/4 or 2/3 point is the critical stage where so many novels die, as life and self-doubts rise up to try and shake your commitment. Finishing is scary; you have to examine a lot of things you've been hiding from yourself subconsciously. I think when push came to shove, I didn't really believe that writing novels was a viable life choice. I always thought I'd get back to it someday, but I convinced myself that in the meantime it made more sense to go to grad school and get a PhD in English, thinking that would at least lead to stable employment. When it didn't, my husband encouraged me to go back to writing, and I did, first as a freelancer. Then I met my wonderful novel-writing group, and had no more excuses not to try.

ABR: You're a book reviewer as well. What books have recently caught your attention?

Gentry: There are a lot of titles coming out this fall that I'm excited about, but haven't had time to read yet—Kelly Luce's dark mystery Pull Me Under, Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, and The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride's follow-up to A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Earlier this year, I found Helen Oyeyemi's story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours enthralling. And of course there's a new Tana French Dublin Murder Squad book coming out in October—and if I'm honest, what I'm doing in my tiny bits of free time right now is gobbling up her back catalog as fast as I can.

ABR: What's next for you?

Gentry: I'm working on my next novel of suspense as well as a nonfiction book on Tori Amos for the fabulous 33 1/3 series. I'm very excited about both!

 


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