Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Austin's Amy Gentry turns to grad school for new thriller, 'Bad Habits'

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Austin author Amy Gentry sets her next thriller, "Bad Habits," in the competitive world of graduate school.

Claire thought she’d left the ugliness behind.

Fresh from delivering an address at a prestigious academic conference, she’s ready to enjoy the spoils of her evening – and then she sees Gwen.

Austin author Amy Gentry spins an irresistibly dark tale of academia’s toxic underbelly through these two women, once best friends and now estranged after a fateful night in grad school. “Bad Habits” (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14.99) is Gentry’s third suspense novel. She’ll launch it Feb. 2 virtually, via Bookwoman and the Writers League of Texas, in conversation with New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman.

“It’s about making a villain, but I really believe that villainy and victimhood are situational,” Gentry said in a phone interview. “They occur within a context. … Even the worst people behave badly for a reason.”

"Bad Habits" is a new thriller from Austin author Amy Gentry.

“Bad Habits” comes to us through Claire’s filter. For most of the novel, we know her as perpetually yearning Mackenzie “Mac” Woods.

As a teen, she’s forced to be hyper-responsible, living with a single mom struggling with addiction and younger sister Lily, who needs special schooling and doctors. When Gwen moves to town, she’s the new friend of Mac’s dreams – savvy, smart and well-off. The two quickly twine their futures, and eventually both secure admission to a selective graduate program.

“What better place for the making of a villain than graduate school?” quipped Gentry, who holds a doctorate in English from the University of Chicago.

World-building is usually a term reserved for authors in science fiction and fantasy, but it’s relevant here, too. Gentry pulls back the curtain on elite academic culture, scaffolded with pressure to perform and hidden vulnerabilities.

“On a good day, the reading left me buzzing with questions, but I quickly learned not to ask them in class,” Mac tells us. “Classes weren’t for asking questions. They were smartness competitions, chances to attract the attention of the professor and earn a reputation among fellow students.”

Gentry skates to the edge of satire – a takedown of a visiting professor’s lecture by other academics is painfully funny – but her story also is a deft exploration of a system built on alliances and a quasi-family structure.

“Deep down, (Mac) mostly just wants to be loved and cared for, and she’s never felt that she got enough of that,” Gentry said. “She’s just perfectly ripe for someone in that cult of personality to exploit her weaknesses and her desperate willingness to please.”

Enter Bethany Ladd, the charismatic professor nearly everyone wants to impress. Not only is she the queen bee of the Program (yes, with a capital P), she also is the gatekeeper for the coveted Joyner fellowship. Impressing Bethany becomes Mac’s sole goal, leading to dire consequences.

While Mac and Gwen are both white, Gentry shows how students of color are sidelined and gaslit. Her fictional examples mirror those she’s seen in real life: “It’s one of the ugliest parts of academia,” she said. Here, too, is evidence of the financial privilege often required to succeed in elite programs that leave little time for jobs that pay a living wage.

Those are universal challenges, and indeed, you don’t need to be part of the rarefied academic world to revel in “Bad Habits.”

“Anybody who's worked in any kind of toxic workplace will recognize the kind of dynamics at play,” Gentry said. “Anyone who's woken up with a knot of dread in their stomach knowing that they have to go to work today and face toxic coworkers or microaggressions or be talked over by some guy or manipulated by a passive-aggressive boss – I think people can relate to that feeling.”

Amy Gentry book launch

What: Book launch for “Bad Habits,” in conversation with New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman. The event includes a Q&A and discussion of craft, in partnership with the Writers League of Texas.

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 2

Cost: Free

Information and registration: writersleague.org or ebookwoman.com