While some novels are politically motivated, they don’t always start out that way. But in the following email interview with writer Amy Gentry, she proudly proclaims that her new novel Last Woman Standing (hardcover, Kindle) is decidedly a response to what was — and, sadly, still is — happening with women in our culture.
I always like to begin with a plot summary. So, what is Last Woman Standing about?
Stand-up comic Dana Diaz is licking her wounds in Austin, Texas, after a failed stint in L.A., when she meets Amanda Dorn, a programmer who got dick-pic’d and harassed out of Silicon Valley. Over drinks, the two start talking about the men who have put them through hell. Together they decide to go after each other’s abusers. What could possibly go wrong?
I assume a lot, since otherwise there wouldn’t be a story. But I digress. So, where did you get the idea for Last Woman Standing and how did the story evolve as you wrote it?
I think a lot of women were feeling a lot of rage just after the 2016 election. The idea that men could harass and abuse women with impunity was very much in the air, and we had already seen some examples in the entertainment industry, including Bill Cosby, of prominent men whose abuse of women had been silently condoned for decades…though the biggest stories had not yet dropped. I was thinking a lot about the difference between justice and revenge. We like to think justice is reparative, but, as administered by the state, it more often than not plays out as the revenge of the powerful on the less powerful. When justice fails because it doesn’t perceive a problem, people start craving revenge. Remember Falling Down? The white man’s revenge fantasy for all his perceived frustrations, from traffic jams to custody agreements? Well, a lot of women need something like that right now. We are telling the world what we’ve been through, and it’s a lot worse than a traffic jam.
And how often have people asked if you got the idea for this from Throw Mama From The Train?
You’re the first!
But since that movie was a reimagining of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train, and so is Last Woman Standing, it makes perfect sense. I think there’s an inherently comical aspect to Highsmith’s original premise that Alfred Hitchcock picked up on in his famous adaptation, and that very much carries through to Danny DeVito’s dark comedy. The idea of this wild outsider character who represents everything you’ve repressed, just barging into your life and dragging all those nasty feelings you won’t let yourself feel to the surface, is something that’s been mined for comic potential many times. In my book, I try to connect the premise to some idea of solidarity among women, but I definitely used dark comedy in how the revenge plots play out.
It sounds like Last Woman Standing is a thriller. Is that how you see it, or are other genres, subgenres, and/or combinations of them that you think describe this story better?
It has some elements of satire as well. I was reading a lot of Muriel Spark while I wrote Last Woman Standing, and she wrote some of the nastiest, darkest satire around. Her book The Driver’s Seat is a comic thriller and social satire that ends on the bleakest possible note. That was my biggest influence — and my overall state of mind — while I was writing. I wanted to capture not just the horror but also the absurdity of these crimes, the utter weirdness of what women have to endure from men on a daily basis. The character of Betty, Dana’s feral alter-ego that she uses on stage, is very much at the heart of that element of the book.
There are some people who are calling it a “#MeToo thriller,” and that’s appropriate too. The past few years have spawned a subgenre of revenge fantasies by women about getting back at their attackers. These books were written before the hashtag went mainstream, but they capture the same zeitgeist that led to the #MeToo movement.
One of the main characters in Last Man Standing is Dana, who wants to be a comedian, while the other is Amanda, a computer programmer. Why did you decide to make Dana an aspiring comedian and Amanda a computer programmer as opposed to having them both be comedians or both being in tech?
It was partly just for contrast. I wanted Amanda to have a completely different worldview than Dana, from the start. As a stand-up, Dana is always alone on stage. She thinks of herself as an individual crafting her own story, narrating her life as a series of jokes. Whereas Amanda thinks in terms of systems and patterns. She sees the big picture. Programming gives her a leg up on the revenge game, too. It was also, as a writer, fun to imagine all the various ways a hacker could make trouble.
I also wanted to depict the kind of catch-22 of being a woman in these industries. You get the feeling Amanda’s sort of movie-star looks actually counted against her in the programming world. Whereas Dana, as a woman of color in entertainment, with a body type that is not idealized in that industry, has faced kinds of bias Amanda never has to deal with. Their harassment, ultimately, is of a piece; it’s their coping strategies that are different. I feel like the story Dana has internalized has a lot to do with her mother, a very self-sufficient Mexican-American immigrant who toughed it out and made good. Dana feels she has a lot to live up to in her mother’s story, and she feels a lot of responsibility to prove that her ethnicity and gender don’t matter. And they certainly shouldn’t. But, again and again, she finds that they do.
Is there also a reason why you chose comedy and technology as opposed to, say, sports or food services or, let’s be honest, any field? Because, sadly, women are harassed in literally every kind of job.
Well, I had to pick two to start with. I don’t have much experience in the sports world, but I have plenty in food service. So you can count on restaurants appearing in other books. The one I’m working on now takes place in academia, which is a hotbed of sexual harassment and abuse.
So when you started writing Last Woman Standing, did you set out to write something that would have a socio-political aspect, or did you come up with the plot and then, as you wrote it, the socio-political aspects just naturally came out?
They really go hand in hand, for me. I never think of a story separate from its socio-political aspects. A story that thinks of itself as apolitical still has a politics, it’s just blind to them. There are different levels, though, and in this book I tried to be more ambitious, think on a bigger scale, than I had in my first novel Good As Gone. The premise of the revenge swap came directly out of how I felt, how many women felt in late 2016, which was that we were absolutely disposable to many men, and that there would never be consequences for abuse, no matter how flagrant. Again, this was before the #MeToo movement got off the ground, but I think we’ve seen since then that the gravest consequences of that movement have been for men in the entertainment industry…and they’re not even all that bad. Whereas in politics, where laws are made and power is real, the movement hardly seems to have made a dent.
Interestingly, both Strangers On A Train and Throw Momma From The Train are explicitly about men getting rid of bothersome women. So when the idea to do my own retelling came to me, I had to ask what a gender-flipped version would look like. A bit like Thelma And Louise, is the answer. But this novel is ultimately a lot darker than Thelma And Louise. And that’s a heck of a thing to say about a movie that ends in a double-suicide.
True. Now, Last Woman Standing is your second novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on Last Woman Standing but not on your first book, Good As Gone?
Definitely Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers An A Train, and several novels by Muriel Spark, particularly The Driver’s Seat.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on Last Woman Standing?
I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I got a lot out of watching the Olivier Assayas film The Clouds Of Sils Maria. I was looking for ways for the book’s structure to reflect the themes of mirroring and doubling, and that film has a wonderful, interesting 4-act structure that felt very balanced between the two women. A 4-act structure is similar to a traditional 3-act structure but with a much stronger central hinge, after which everything reverses. So the reader gets the feeling of going through the looking-glass, watching everything turn upside down. I tried to cultivate that feeling again and again in Last Woman Standing. After the midpoint, the reversals start coming, and they never stop until the last page.
And this is my last question about influences. You’ve done book reviews for The Chicago Tribune, The Paris Review, and The Los Angeles Review Of Books. How, if at all, did writing all those book reviews influence Last Woman Standing?
My years of reviewing books taught me that unless you are one of maybe ten writers alive, story is where the stakes are. The main job of any written work is to be read. There must always be a reason to keep reading, and it is extremely rare for language to be so compelling that it alone can do the job. Even Henry James, whose sentences are gorgeous, weird, house-of-mirror labyrinths, relied on melodrama for his plots. The subject matter may be art or it may be murder, but the stakes are in the story. And if there are no stakes, the reader is going to want to throw the book against a wall. And if she’s reviewing that book and can’t throw it, that feeling is going to come out in the review.
I have a lot of sympathy with reviewers, even when they hate my books. I try to understand where their frustration comes from and learn from it, even if I don’t agree with what they say. Not every book is for every person, but my job as a writer is to communicate, so if people don’t get what I’m saying, that’s something I take note of. Of course, a review is also a kind of story, and it takes talent to write a good one. At their best, reviews are a real art form, and I can appreciate one that tells a good story, whether it’s favorable or unfavorable to a particular book.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have had an influence on Last Woman Standing. But has there been any interest in adapting Last Woman Standing into a movie, show, or game?
I would love to see it as a TV show. That’s because I can easily imagine the second season, but I don’t want to write a sequel. I’d rather throw it to a writer’s room and see what they do with it. I feel like this story belongs to more people than me, somehow.
If Last Woman Standingwas to be made into a TV show, who would you like to cast as Dana and Amanda and the other main roles?
For every part I have an actor choice and a comic choice. Gina Rodriguez [Jane The Virgin] would be my actor choice for Dana, but I love picturing local Austin comics like Linzy Beltran or Andie Flores in the part. To me Amanda looks like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, but Emma Stone [Easy A] would be the more contemporary actor choice. The comic choice for Amanda is Leah Rudick, she could do that kind of burning, slightly weird intensity. I can see Riki Lindhome [Another Period] as Kim, Dana’s deadpan best friend. And Fash, the asshole hipster comic, well there are a million possible options. Casting all the comics as walk-on parts on a TV show would be really fun.
Finally, if someone enjoys Last Woman Standing, what similar book of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
Oh my god, there are so many good female revenge books right now! There was a PWarticle recently called “Believe Women” that put several at the top of my to-read list, including Liz Lawler’s Don’t Wake Up and Alafair Burke’s The Wife. But in terms of what I’ve actually read: Robin Wasserman’s Girls On Fire, from a few years back, is an insanely gut-wrenching tale of girls who do or don’t have each other’s backs in an ugly world. Layne Fargo’s upcoming debut Temper features a fantastically twisted plot about abuse in the theater world. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister The Serial Killer had laughs, complicated female relationships, and gore galore. And for anyone looking for a kickass yet extremely complicated female heroine, I always recommend Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt books. They have a darkly comic tone that’s a good match for Last Woman Standing.
Books about abuse from the man’s point of view — but written by women — are also catching my eye. Wendy Heard’s forthcoming debut Hunting Annabelle is a truly twisted, gothy, serial-killer love story that will spin you right ’round, baby. The Witch Elm by Tana French is an absolutely masterful study in white male privilege that is so incredibly seductive, I found myself wanting to go back and reread it immediately.
One thing I’d love to see that I haven’t yet — maybe your readers have a recommendation for me — is a story of a man’s experience of abuse and harassment at the hands of other men. Ideally it would be written by a man. Brendan Fraser’s story of being harassed in Hollywood, which came out earlier this year, was so incredible, and I felt like it was a voice we had been missing.