Q&A: Novelist Elizabeth Gentry

There's no getting around it—Housebound (Lake Forest College Press) is a very strange book. But the debut novel of Knoxville's Elizabeth Gentry casts a weird and magical spell over the reader, drawing you into its claustrophobic setting and then spinning out rewards as you travel through a handful of days with its 19-year-old protagonist Maggie, who is preparing to leave home for the first time.

If Housebound is a coming-of-age novel—which, in a sense it is—it's like no other one you've read. Maggie's family of 11 lives in a house on the edge of a forest that no one's allowed to leave except for one weekly trip to the library. That is, except for the father, who goes to work in the mysterious city every day. But as Maggie gets closer and closer to her goal, odd things from her past start popping up—a past she's completely forgotten.

This sounds like a cross between a fairy tale and a gothic novel, but Gentry's true aim is to explore the psychological interiors of her characters (including, briefly, a rat). It's a fascinating piece of writing, which is why she was awarded the Madeline P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize to finish the novel. We talked with Gentry, who works in both the University of Tennessee English department and law school, about her excitement to finally see her work in print.

I'm curious, what made you come up with the idea of this weird family with children growing up in isolation in this strange house?
Well, I was trying to capture a mood at the outset. But I guess the explanation for the idea is when I was in college, I'd go home with friends from college. And when I'd go visit other people's families, I was aware of how uncomfortable I was, or could be, because I didn't know the rules of the family. Which I think is a fairly common reaction. And I went to visit one of my friends in upstate, rural New York. She was part of a large family, and I guess I had some stereotypes about large families where I expected them to be boisterous and loud, but they were in a relatively small house with one bathroom, and probably as a result they had firmer boundaries than I had witnessed. They all seemed to be fairly introverted, there was not a lot of touching, that kind of thing. So the long answer is it just made an impression on me—the mood made an impression on me because it was so different from my family, which is pretty loud. So I guess I just like to think about the rules of family culture. That's where I got started.

How hard is it to maintain that sense of claustrophobia while writing, without holing yourself up in a hotel like the one in The Shining?
I can't experience it as a fresh reader would, but it may even be too claustrophobic for some readers. That was certainly the case for an earlier novel that an editor at Algonquin was interested in. And with other manuscripts, people have suggested that I open the world up—that they need to breathe. But for me writing it? It must be the world that I inhabit most of the time, in terms of my own thinking, kind of a claustrophobic world or a neurotic world, or whatever it is. Because I don't ever think about it. I'm writing it, and I'm not aware until people say it's claustrophobic, and I have to stop and think what they mean by that.

There are a number of secrets that slowly unravel throughout the course of the novel. Did you know when you were writing this how things would unfold?
I did not know. This is the fifth novel that I've written, even though it's the first that's gotten published, but for any of those five, I've never known. I would get bored if I knew what was going to happen.

So if this your first novel out of five to get published, how have you managed to stay motivated to keep writing?
Mostly, it's just because it's what I do. And there's nothing else that I want to do, and there's nothing else I'm good at. I don't really struggle with a lot of doubt about it. In most of the rest of my life, I struggle with doubt, but as far as my writing's concerned, I didn't have to battle too many internal demons. I assumed that I was learning, I assumed that I was getting better, and I assumed that one day, in some form or fashion, somebody would read something I've written.

So what is it like finally seeing your work in print?
I guess it will finally be real when people start buying it. Since I haven't had a lot of reader feedback, I guess it's still in that gray space in my head, as if it's a little bit unreal.

Knoxville has a surprising number of novelists for a town of its size. Do you consider yourself part of the literary community—or will you be part of it now that you have a book out?
Certainly, because I'm at the English department for my job, I feel like I know who some of the writers are. But I've been a part-time adjunct for 10 years now, which means I don't have health insurance with my job, my job is semester to semester, I teach and tutor something over 100 percent time, and so as far as how connected I am to the literary community in Knoxville, I'd say no, I'm not very connected. But just by choice or necessity, because I'm either working or I'm writing. And a lot of the people who read for me don't live in Knoxville—they're friends from graduate school, from my MFA, or they're friends from earlier in my life.