Breaking Free of the Cult of Academia: An Interview With Amy Gentry

April 1, 2021   •   By Halley Sutton

AMY GENTRY LIVES in Austin, Texas, and holds a PhD in English from the University of Chicago. She is the author of Good as Gone, a New York Times Notable Book, and Last Woman Standing.

Her most recent novel, Bad Habits, is a literary psychological thriller about reckoning with the consequences of unchecked ambition, set in the cutthroat world of academia. Set in alternating timelines, one tracing Mac’s path to a mysterious, and deadly, grad school program, and the other set over the course of one night’s chance meeting in a hotel bar, Mac is forced to reckon with the consequences of her choices — and who she has become.

Gentry’s work often tackles systems that enable criminal behavior, whether that’s “big box” evangelical churches, or the underground comedy scene, and Bad Habits is no exception, highlighting the ways that academia’s too-insular coven can contribute to racism, sexism, and rampant abuses of power. Like Megan Abbott, Gentry’s work, too, is concerned with female friendships, ambition, and exploration of desire — and the way that, together, the repression of these combustible elements often causes unpredictable, and fascinating, eruptions.

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HALLEY SUTTON: From page one of Bad Habits, there’s this interplay between the setting in academia and the psychological manipulation of the characters. What made you want to set a thriller in the landscape of academia?

AMY GENTRY: That’s at the core of everything that I’m always trying to produce in my writing, that sense of having two or three or four central characters locked in this game of trying to guess the other’s motives, psyching each other out, and trying to outplay each other. And that’s one reason I loved your book so much, because it’s really got that going on in spades.

My experience in academia was almost accidental. I wound up in a highly competitive PhD program, almost through the back door. I had missed the MFA program deadline, so I was like, Oh, I’ll apply for PhD programs. I came into the PhD program at Chicago feeling like a scrappy underdog, and quickly had to adjust to an atmosphere that was so much more competitive than I had been used to. I certainly had a lot of fun in grad school. But I had also never been in a place before where the stakes of maintaining one’s status were so high. It’s a very insular world, with its own highly specialized language, and norms, or lack of norms.

One thing I think about when I think about why abuses are rife in academia, is that it’s a place where people are not expected to abide by the same professional norms you would be elsewhere. There’s a sense that it’s a calling, it’s a high-minded kind of career. I found that there were so few of the boundaries that you would expect to be in place between students and faculty.

Mac goes to the program because she wants to become somebody; she has ambition and needs a place to foster it. And that makes her very ripe for the influence of her manipulative grad school advisor, Bethany. How did you pair these different characters, Mac versus Bethany versus Gwen (Mac’s best friend and rival), to manipulate and influence each other?

Academia really is a cult of personality in a lot of ways. And I think that’s one of the main things about why Bethany is able to turn Mac’s head. When I was coming up with the character of Mac, I did draw partly on my own experience, but I had some strong passionate ideas about some things, unlike Mac who really has almost nothing but naked ambition.

I created this backstory for her to show you why she walks around, sort of hollow, waiting for something to fill her and make her better. And Gwen is the person who comes into her life that gives her a model for how to be. You get the sense that if it were somebody else, then she would have ended up taking a totally different path.

So when Gwen is interested in grad school, specifically in this highly competitive program, Mac flows in that direction. She’s already decided that whichever way Gwen goes, she is going to go. But when she gets there, she sees, right away, the difference between herself and Gwen, because Gwen already knows the landscape before she even gets there. The second she’s there, Mac realizes she doesn’t fit.

Getting the attention of this charismatic, older professor who’s a woman, we learn that she’s a lot like Mac, and once Bethany’s gaze turns toward her, Mac is almost powerless to resist. From then on, she’s finding ways to fool herself into thinking that she’s in control of the situation. But in fact, she’s being played, and not just by Bethany, but by multiple people for their own ends.

People keep saying to Mac, over and over, “You’re ruthless. You’re ambitious. That’s what you are, and I see it.” And it’s interesting, because we’re with Mac’s viewpoint so closely, that as a reader, you can see her ambition, but you’re still surprised by how it escalates. How did you develop that?

That’s one of my favorite small things about the book. People keep telling Mac that she’s ruthless. Every time Mac hears it, she is completely stymied by it. She feels like she’s just struggling to stay afloat. It was in my plan from the beginning that Mac would end the book as a villain, basically. And maybe that’s because, in a way, this is my dark fantasy of what happens if I stayed in grad school. I finished my PhD but didn’t go into the job market and become a professor. I left academia, which was extremely good for my health.

I think the ambitious portion of Mac, the part of her that responded so strongly to that sensation of power and status is absolutely something that I responded to in grad school. I think that feeling is human, but it’s also kind of scary, right? It makes you think, Who could I have become if that was really what I cared about and chose to prioritize? That is a thread that goes through all of my books, where I’m interested in what makes people behave badly, as it’s much more the systemic factors and the environmental factors than anyone being purely good or evil. I just don’t think that’s a thing. People who are trying to behave well end up behaving badly. Nobody goes into academia wanting to stab backs.

It’s very noir, the way that the institution creates these opportunities to be bad. Part of what works so well is the structure of the book, in that we meet Mac at a certain moment, and then we go back in time and see how she developed, so we’re already on her side. How did you decide on the alternating timelines?

We meet Mac at the pinnacle of her success. But when I first started writing this character, I did not write that scene. I did start with her monologue, her this is who I am story. And I actually expanded it at my editor’s request. When I was working with Helen Atsma, who is just a fantastic editor, she said, We need to really see what happened to Mac, we need to see her difficult story with her mother and her sister, this situation where she had to grow up way too fast and take care of the family way before she should have.

The actual alternating structure of the book starts in this hotel and Mac is successful, then it flashes back to her origin story all the way through grad school, and what happened in the program with Gwen. And so you know, from the start, that she is successful, so that was another challenge to maintain suspense, despite the fact that you know she’s going to win.

The idea of that hotel scene that starts the book actually came to me in a dream, which is just a terrible thing to admit. It was the image of this encounter in this hotel where Mac’s feeling betrayed that she hasn’t been invited to this person’s wedding, and she becomes increasingly hostile, and perhaps even violent, as the night goes on. And then when I woke up the next morning, I was writing about it and trying to figure out, who could these people be? And grad school just lent itself as the natural environment. I knew right away that the real story was in grad school, and that this frame story happens over the course of a single night. It’s a way of framing what’s essentially a long character study of Mac. Mac has this malleability to her, which is another thing I’m interested in, with many of my characters. She has this ability to adapt.

She reinvents herself as Claire, now. She’s not Mac, she’s Claire.

Yeah, she’s changed her identity. She now goes by Claire, and you get the feeling that this character would do that again, and again. And that is, I think, for a lot of people an inherently sympathetic quality, or at least an appealing quality. But survivors aren’t always the best people. Sometimes they’re cockroaches.

A thing you do so well in the book is Mac is constantly saying, “When I was with Bethany, everything would make sense. But then I would go look at my notes. And none of it made sense. Surely I’m just not getting it.” When really, it makes no sense.

You know, there are actually people who write about academia as a cult and lay out some variously convincing arguments. I would say there are some big differences. However, the point is that there are enough similarities in terms of how people are made to feel. You’re often isolated from the real world for a substantial amount of time. And you’re given the impression, sometimes outright told over and over again, that what happens outside of academia isn’t important.

If academia is the only important thing, then you should be willing to work 24 hours a day, you should be willing to go without meals, right? You should be willing to worship at the feet of these big personalities. The alternative is to be cast out, to be a failure. There’s a whole genre called “quit lit” that’s about people telling the stories of leaving academia. It sounds so extreme, and it certainly is a very rarefied way of being caught up in something. But I think all that’s really true. I mean, instead of writing my quit lit piece, I wrote a whole book about what if someone stayed, and the logical conclusion is …

Murder?

Exactly. The logical conclusion to all this is murder.

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Halley Sutton is the author of The Lady Upstairs. Follow her on Twitter @halley_sutton.

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Banner image: "Main Quadrangle, University of Chicago" by Luiz Gadelha Jr. is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been blurred.