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Author Spotlight: Antonia Angress, Sirens & Muses

College on its own is stressful, but debut author Antonia Angress wanted to take it up a notch — an elite art school, where pretentiousness and unflappability run amok in its students. Louisa, Karina, and Preston are all enrolled in Wrynn College of Art, but with vastly different personalities and dynamics — Preston wants to break free of his class upbringing, and Louisa and Karina, roommates, are entwined in lust and competition within their art. A third point of view comes with professor and semi-retired artist Robert Berger, who is unsettled by and familiar with Preston’s ambition.

In this debut, the lives of all four collide, break apart, and find each other after long stretches of time and places, giving the reader a journey through art, capitalism, and finding yourself out at such a young age.

We sat down with Angress to discuss her debut, her writing process, and the messiness that comes with college that no one prepares you for.

Congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel for it to finally be out?

Kind of surreal. I worked on it for such a long time without knowing it’d actually be published, so hearing from people who read it and connected with it has absolutely been a highlight.

What I was most impressed with was how well-crafted it was: every chapter seemed purposeful and in the right place to advance the story. I imagine actually putting it together was a lot harder than you made it seem.

[Laughs] Yes, it was a lot harder! I mean, I’m always thinking about whenever I read a book I’m impressed by, where it just seemed like it appeared out of thin air, I always have to tell myself, if it feels incredibly natural, like it poured out of someone, it probably took a lot of work and frustration to get it right.

I wrote this book over the course of seven years, so there was a lot of throwing drafts away, trying again, making Excel spreadsheets, mapping out the book beat by beat, chapter by chapter and character by character. So it wasn’t an easy feat, but I also didn’t make it easy for myself by deciding to write a four-POV novel for my first book. My next book is one-POV. It took so much out of me to make it work.

The novel is about the art world in college, but also the outside world, with some of the characters dropping out. What made you want to combine the two?

A lot of that came from my own experience leaving college, and going out into the real world. I began writing this book when I was just out of college, 22 or 23, and I was teaching elementary school at the time. That was a very jarring transition, to go from a college environment, a really intellectually vibrant college environment, to being around little kids all day and not having any adult conversations until I went home at the end of the day.

I went through this period of mourning, I think, where I really missed being an undergrad, even though in many ways it had been really hard for me. I certainly don’t think back to college as the best years of my life; I think I was a mess back then. But I began writing this book almost as a way to will myself back into this environment.

The very first seed that emerged was a short story about a young painter who has just dropped out of school, who deals with the aftermath of that decision. And that was a very real reflection of the sort of loss I felt — not only the loss of this environment and all the friends I had made there, but also of the person I had been and no longer was. Over the years I worked on this book, and I got older, and the gap between my age and the age of many of the characters I was writing about widened, I became interested in exploring that transition from an insular bubble of school — art school, in particular — into the real world. And especially when you have a very idealized or romanticized idea of what your life is gonna look like after college and how that collides with reality.

Totally. I just graduated from college —

Congratulations!

Thank you! But I’m at my parents’ place, waiting to move. So I was reading the book, noticing our similarities. But that transitioned into something I wanted to ask — I appreciate how you didn’t frame the college experience as this perfect thing, that sometimes people drop out for a multitude of reasons. It really enhanced the story.

Yeah, and I think part of that came from my own experience. It certainly was not perfect, and I wasn’t happy all the time. Certain parts of that experience were categorized by a lot of despair and self-doubt and feeling like I didn’t fit in, and really struggling. I think that’s true in particular of really elite colleges. You’re told that you’re really lucky to be there, and you’re special because you’re there, and you’re human, right, so you’re gonna get bad grades and have conflict with your friends and shit at home is gonna drag you back to the person you used to be. So I was interested in exploring how soul-crushing and lonely those really elite environments can be sometimes.

There’s all this pressure to be happy, but you’re not fully formed yet. You’re still figuring yourself out. That involves a lot of growing pains and being full of self-doubt. All this to say, good years are ahead. 

I love all how all the characters are so different in personality and their approach to art. Namely with the kids, Preston is pretentious and disruptive, Karina is a little rude, and Louisa is insecure with being from a smaller place. How did the ideas for them start to take shape?

So I started with Louisa. She was the first character that I wrote. She’s from Louisiana, which is not a place that I’m from, but it’s a place where I’ve lived. My partner’s from there, I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I have a lot of love for Louisiana. It’s a really unique region in America.

I sort of began with a character who was in many ways, quite passive. And I think that remains true even in the final draft. Louisa is not a particularly active character — she has a lot of fear, self-doubt. She’s very inward-facing and introverted. You know, you can have a passive character driving a story, but it’s really difficult. Some of the advice I got from early drafts said that, you have this passive character, but all these really intriguing characters surrounding her, like Preston and Karina and Robert. One reader in particular said, ‘What if you gave these characters points of view? What if you got in their heads?’ Because they’re really interesting, but there’s a limit to how much the reader can access when they’re being perceived from the perspective of a passive character. So I wrote some exploratory chapters from their points of view, and I really liked them. It really worked. It unlocked this part of the novel I hadn’t been able to access before. So I decided to have four points of view, not to write them in first person, but stick to a close third POV. Even though I was writing in third person, which allows me some narrative distance, it was still important that their voices and interiorities be distinctive, so as not to read as the same consciousness filtered through slightly different shades of glass.

I love that Louisa is connected to her Southern upbringing and uses it in her art, which I feel was an opportunity for you to have some fun. What inspired the bird women series of paintings?

That was inspired by a Louisiana artist named Cayla Zeek, who I actually know personally. My partner is also a painter, and they grew up together in Lafayette, Louisiana. So when I was living in New Orleans right out of college, she was someone sort of in my social circle, but I didn’t know her very well. I was working on the novel, at this point for a couple of years, and I had this character, Louisa, who I had mostly figured out, but there was this giant piece missing, and it was what her art looked like. I just couldn’t figure it out. One night, I went to White Linen Night, an arts festival in New Orleans, and Cayla had a solo show. I walked in, and I had this very immediate reaction to her work, which I loved. It’s very much inspired by the flora and fauna of Southern Louisiana, and also mythology. I had this very visceral reaction, which was ‘This is what Louisa’s art looks like. I found it.’ Again, this was sort of a moment that unlocked a bunch of stuff for me in the book. In many ways, it directly inspired storylines in the novel. For example, [Louisa’s] bird woman painting in the novel was based on a real painting by Cayla Zeek called She Sits, She Waits, and that painting inspired a whole storyline that’s pretty pivotal to the novel.

So I felt really grateful to Cayla, and after I sold the book, I wrote her a long letter about how much her work meant to me. She ended up collaborating with a publicity campaign, which was really cool, getting a real artist involved with the promotion of the book.

That’s so cool! Did she design the cover art?

No, she didn’t, that was somebody else. But we did a preorder campaign that involved giving away a print of that painting.

I loved the rivalry between Preston and Robert, old school and new school clashing. Why do you think Preston got on Robert’s nerves so much, resulting in a battle of the thinkpieces?

I think in many ways, they’re the same person, but several decades apart. Obviously not the same exact person, but I think Preston is in many ways, who Robert would have been had he come of age in the Obama years, rather than the 60s. For Robert, that recognition is really disturbing. His animosity is marbled with admiration, which is disturbing to him, too. He has this begrudging admiration towards this person he can’t stand, but he sees glimmers of himself in. He can’t quite admit it to himself, but his feeling of being drawn to Preston is, in many ways, animated by that recognition, and I think the same is true of Preston. His need to antagonize this older man is driven by a sense of grudging admiration, but also deep frustration with the decisions that Robert has made in his life and career. I think on a subconscious level, Preston is maybe afraid that he’s seeing a future version of himself.

Karina and Louisa’s relationship was stressful because a lot of it was based on misunderstandings, but the reader has the benefit of knowing everyone’s mindset. Do you think that everything was made infinitely more stressful just by the fact of being at school, and suddenly moving to New York?

Yeah, that’s part of it. I think what they feel towards each other is complicated. Obviously, they’re attracted to each other and they feel admiration towards each other, but at the same time, each feels envious of and threatened by the other in different ways. That is a particularly fraught dynamic, that I think sometimes, in my own experience as a queer women, between queer women who want to be together, but in some sense, want to be each other. I think there’s a lot of that going on between Louisa and Karina, where they’re drawn to each other, but there’s a sense in which one wants to be the other, which makes things really complicated for them.

I did some snooping and saw you were detailing the timelines of your second novel, which seems much more complicated. How is that going, and is this the main project you’re working on right now?

Yeah, I am. I’m working on a second novel about an elementary school Spanish teacher in New Orleans. It’s still sort of in flux, it’s still very early stages, but it’s a love story about language and untranslatability. 

Sirens & Muses is available now.

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