An Interview with Antonia Angress – Chicago Review of Books


Being an aspiring artist can feel like an uphill battle: you look around and notice the world in flames, both literal (climate change) and figurative (everything else), and it’s hard not to feel hopeless about the future. It makes sense that so many contemporary novels feature disaffected, disinvested millennials being apathetically carried on the tide of their lives. Ambition starts to feel like a fool’s errand. 

But Antonia Angress’ debut novel, Sirens & Muses, which follows three students and their professor at an elite art school as they strive to make their way in the art world, is a captivating, deftly written, and ultimately hopeful story. Even as each character struggles—Louisa with her place in the moneyed world of art, Karina with the ruins of her family, Preston and Robert with the creative block and attendant anxiety all too familiar to practicing artists—they push forward against increasing odds. The stubborn hopefulness of each character insisting on their artistic practice is what struck me most, and it felt like a much needed bulwark against the current state of things. The world may be increasingly untenable for artists, but this book shows how much joy there still is to be found in the vocation.

I had the opportunity to speak with Angress over Zoom about “regional” art, real life influences, and being in it for the long haul.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

***

Eva Dunsky

Can you walk me through your journey from conceiving of the idea for this book through its publication?

Antonia Angress

I worked on the book on the side for five years while I taught elementary school Spanish. I eventually decided to apply for MFA programs and got into the University of Minnesota, a three-year program that offered me a two-year fellowship, which meant I didn’t have to teach my first two years. I jumped at that opportunity—I dragged my partner up to Minnesota—and it really changed my life. It gave me the time, as well as financial and creative support, to finish the book, which I sold in my last semester. From start to finish it was almost seven years.

Eva Dunsky

How did you approach rendering the detailed processes of these visual artists, especially as a writer used to working in a non-visual medium?

Antonia Angress

Part of it was just observing my visual-artist partner as he worked. I also interviewed other artist friends since everyone works differently. Finally, I read a lot of art criticism and art writing, but I knew I had to tread carefully because I was writing a novel (as opposed to a critical treatise, art history, or even art criticism), which meant my first duty was to the characters and the story. But I picked up a lot of descriptive tricks from reading art writers I admire.

Eva Dunsky

Were there any books that were especially formative?

Antonia Angress

Jerry Saltz, whose work and whose internet presence I really love, has a book called How To Be An Artist, and his wife Roberta Smith is also a wonderful writer whose reviews helped with my research. Hilton Als is another critic who writes really beautifully and accessibly about art. There’s a book called Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thorton, a smart but also soapy book about art world tea and the social undercurrents that animate the art scene. Mary Gabriel has a wonderful book about women abstract expressionists called Ninth Street Women. And finally, I took an undergrad class with an art history professor named Rebecca Molholt who tragically passed shortly after. She gave me a model for how to write about art in a non-alienating way.

Eva Dunsky

Let’s talk a bit more about process. It’s amazing how the plot unfolds non-linearly across the four perspectives of Louisa, Karina, Preston and Robert, and I wonder how you figured out which character would narrate each chapter. 

Antonia Angress

I wish I could say I had a plan, but a lot of it was through intuition and trial and error. I knew at points that I wanted the same event to be narrated from two different perspectives because I love when other writers use that narrative trick. I also did a lot of writing out timelines on an Excel spreadsheet to track what was happening to each character. I was initially worried that the storylines were too divergent and that it would read as separate novels smushed into one, but eventually I realized that I didn’t need to have all the storylines intertwining all the time; I just needed to ensure there were echoes between them even if storylines forked off in different directions. I worked on including either imagistic or thematic echoes so that the different storylines were speaking to each other even if they weren’t intersecting.

Eva Dunsky

Once you had the timelines and narrators set, how did you approach building out the characters behind the POVs? They’re so multidimensional, which is to say that they’re so sympathetic and yet so misguided in a lot of the choices they make, and I’m wondering how you approached creating such nuanced and hard-to-pin-down characters.

Antonia Angress

I think of it as similar to painting in the sense that it’s a process of layering. I certainly don’t start out thinking of my characters as fully formed people in my head; generally when I start writing they’re very schematic. As I get to know the characters by writing them, I layer in more information, new aspects of their behavior, or additional bits of backstory. Just like in a painting where each layer of paint builds on what was put down before, and how each layer adds more texture and nuance to the image, that’s how I think of each successive draft.

Eva Dunsky

I think sometimes we hear this idea that it’s de trop to write about writers or artists. But the question of how a person can live honestly as an artist in a society that does not value our work is a really pressing one, and fiction can be a great opportunity to explore it because no other art form is better at capturing nuance. I’m wondering how you approached such a well-worn topic that comes with so much baggage.

Antonia Angress

There’s sort of a meta aspect to this book—a lot of the ideas and anxieties it explores were ideas and anxieties I had as I was writing it. I picture the book as a problem I kept creating as I was trying to solve it, almost like an Escher drawing: a problem that falls into itself again and again and which you can’t climb out of because you’re creating it as you go. I think part of why it works is that I feel personally invested in these questions; they’re not just questions that matter to fictional characters. Another way I got around it was by focusing on the characters themselves. The fact that they’re artists is certainly important to the story and to who they are as people, but it was also important that they existed as people outside of their creative practice. My task then became to make these characters as interesting, layered, and complex as possible.

Eva Dunsky

Another thing I really appreciated about the novel is its tone. There are real moments of humor and the book doesn’t take itself too seriously, which I think can be the pitfall of a lot of art about artists.

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Antonia Angress

That was important to me too! There are a lot of aspects of the art world that are kind of ridiculous. It’s sort of like academia, which is also asking to be satirized.

Eva Dunsky

The multi-narrator structure of this book is such a powerful way of demonstrating how material considerations affect artists without having a ‘capital T thesis’ that you’re trying to drive home. I’m wondering what concerns went into this aspect of the book?

Antonia Angress

I wanted people to understand that there’s no one right way to be an artist: the right way is whatever allows you to live a fulfilling and satisfying life and maintain a creative practice. There’s this idea that art in the U.S. is really coastal, and if you’re an artist or a writer you have to be in New York or Los Angeles. I encountered this a lot living in New Orleans, which is a fantastic city for artists. But there’s this idea that art from that part of Louisiana is regional art, whereas art from New York is just art.

Eva Dunsky

The book does a good job of kind of taking apart that notion through Louisa’s art, which you based that on the work of an actual practicing artist. Can you tell me a bit about that collaboration?

Antonia Angress

I collaborated with Cayla Zeek, an artist who went to high school with my partner in Lafayette, Louisiana. She’s an important part of the artistic community and she’s really fantastic. In around 2016 or 2017, I went to a solo show of hers in New Orleans. At that point I had mostly figured out Louisa’s character but couldn’t seem to figure out what her art looked like. As soon as I went to Cayla’s show, I had this intense moment where I looked around at her art, which is beautiful and haunting and unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and had the thought that this is what Louisa would make.

Eva Dunsky

Louisa herself doesn’t really know what her art is going to look like at the beginning of the novel and she has a similar epiphany!

Antonia Angress

Right, exactly! So after I sold the book, I wrote Cayla a long letter about what her art had meant to me, and she responded really positively. It’s important to me to state my influences, especially when they’re visual artists. Another artist I acknowledge in my author’s note is Hannah Lutz Winkler—the bowerbirds nest from the book came out of an installation she did when we were both seniors in college. I was a bit afraid that these artists would feel like I was stealing from them, but what I discovered was that this is how art works: there’s a cross pollination of ideas and images.

FICTION
Sirens & Muses
By Antonia Angress
Ballantine Books
July 12, 2022



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