Amy Gentry’s 2016 debut, Good As Gone, focused on what she calls “an extremely exceptional and rare type of assault”: sexual abuse so horrific that it’s unfathomable for most readers. But it’s the murkier, less sensationalized, all-too-common assaults—the kind many women experience—that fuel Gentry’s second novel, Last Woman Standing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 15). Set against the backdrop of the Austin comedy scene (which Gentry briefly dabbled in), the book centers on two women who, tired of the small and large injustices they’ve faced, decide to take matters into their own hands. The #MeToo revenge thriller exposes the limits of self-preservation and shows the power of female alliances and retributive justice.
TEXAS MONTHLY: When did you start writing this book? With the #MeToo movement, the timing seems so on the nose.
AMY GENTRY: By the time the Harvey Weinstein story came out—and actually comedian Louis C. K.’s story had started to emerge—I pretty much had a full draft. In terms of what informed it in the “ripped from the headlines” news sense, the Bill Cosby allegations had made a big splash around the time the draft was finished. I know I’m going to be answering this question a lot because of the timing of it, and so are a lot of other novelists this year. The fact is, it’s just been in the air for several years.
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TM: Tell me a bit about the Aaron Neely character.
AG: I call him a “comic’s comic.” He is a beloved figure who finds and mentors younger comedians. Certainly when I was creating him I was really trying to split the difference between several different cases I had heard of. I didn’t want him to sound too much like any one specific person. But unfortunately, the behavior is so prevalent in the comedy world that no one can accuse me of basing him on any one person because I didn’t.
TM: Does writing a revenge thriller allow you to take the conversation further because it’s about deciding, in a fictional world, how abusive men should be punished?
AG: I don’t actually think of it that way. I don’t think there’s a conclusive answer in the book in terms of what should happen, and maybe that will be irritating to some people. For me, the book was actually more about how women deal with these things. It’s not about how men should be punished but how the victims deal with it. Dana, the main character, her MO has been “Stuff it down and move on. It didn’t really happen. It wasn’t a big deal.” And that’s a coping mechanism that a lot of women use to great effect. Because the truth is, if you sit and think about it too much, you could spend a lot of time very upset.
TM: There’s a point in the book when you grapple with the fact that in our current climate, women seem to be surviving, but men get to live.
AG: There’s an idea that calling rape “rape” and assault “assault” will enable women to take advantage of their status as victims, but really, most women who have had these experiences prefer not to think about them. They just move on because if you stop to look at every situation, you won’t get anywhere. When someone picks open the wound, so much comes pouring out. That can be very retraumatizing for people. It’s not a pleasant experience to be triggered.
TM: Why do you think the conversation stalls when we discuss what happens to abusive men?
AG: I was just listening to a podcast where this question came up, specifically about filmmakers. This woman was like, “Well, I guess it would be great if there was some island we could just put them on, and they would just stay there.” We do theoretically have a place where we put people who commit crimes: jail. It’s not a great place. It’s pretty horrible. But we have punishments that are really out of proportion with the tiniest crimes. We don’t really hesitate to throw people in jail, but not certain people, and not for this kind of abuse.
What I really want is for people to realize that the behavior is bad and not do it. I think there’s a huge contingent of men who are waking up to the idea that a lot of what they’ve been taught is normal is actually really violent. If the opinion on those things changes enough, then at least people will not be able to deny to themselves what they’re doing. I don’t really know if that’s going to happen, but it seems like we’re in a moment of reflection for a lot of men.
TM: The main character of Last Woman Standing, Dana, is Latina. As a white woman, what responsibility did you feel to the Latinx community when writing her?
AG: Depicting any character who’s different from you means doing your homework, talking to people in the community and listening to what they say, but this is not a fail-safe. Doing the research and trying to make the characters true to life and not stereotypes is a baseline responsibility. And then a second responsibility is, once a thing is out in the world, listening respectfully to people who bring criticism and being willing to learn from them and not become angry and defensive or, worst of all, tearful . . . Just be like, “Well, I chose to do a thing that was high stakes, and I’m going to see it through.”
TM: What draws you to the thriller genre?
AG: I think that the stories that I like telling are mostly pretty dark. I really don’t care that much about happy stories. I’m interested in the nastiest and messiest emotions that people have and, specifically, that I have. I think if you ask a lot of crime writers why they’re interested in the genre, they may say something similar. I’m not very good at squashing negative feelings in myself. I find that the more I try to, the less happy I am. So I really like to dig in and muck around in that stuff.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Evening the Score.” Subscribe today.