Author pho­to by Dena Denny

Art is pow­er,” observes one of the four pro­tag­o­nists of Anto­nia Angress’s debut nov­el, Sirens and Mus­es. At Wrynn Col­lege of Art in 2011, cre­ative achieve­ment dom­i­nates all aspects of life. Louisa Arce­neaux, a wide-eyed trans­fer stu­dent, is drawn to her wealthy, aloof, and tal­ent­ed room­mate, Kari­na Pio­ntek. The college’s artist-in-res­i­dence, Robert Berg­er, strug­gles to make paint­ings that feel mean­ing­ful in the dig­i­tal age, while Pre­ston Utley — Karina’s brash some­times-boyfriend — seems poised to gain ever more pop­u­lar­i­ty with his blog, The Wart

In con­ver­sa­tion with Bec­ca Kan­tor, Angress dis­cuss­es the ways in which Sirens and Mus­es sub­verts assump­tions about the artis­tic process; the Jew­ish his­to­ry that under­pins the novel’s themes; and how, despite being not a par­tic­u­lar­ly visu­al thinker,” she has craft­ed a book as vivid as her char­ac­ters’ best work. 

Bec­ca Kan­tor: A few months ago, you made a won­der­ful post for JBC’s Insta­gram about Still Alive, an inter­na­tion­al­ly best­selling mem­oir by your own grand­moth­er, Ruth Klüger, who was a Holo­caust sur­vivor. I’d love to begin there. How did your grandmother’s expe­ri­ences or work influ­ence you as a writer?

Anto­nia Angress: My grand­moth­er loomed large in my life, always. I don’t real­ly remem­ber a time when I was not aware of the Holo­caust and her expe­ri­ence of it. My grand­moth­er was born in Vien­na and lived there until the Anschluss. She was deport­ed when she was about nine or ten, lived in a ghet­to for a while, and then was trans­port­ed to a camp, ulti­mate­ly end­ing up in Auschwitz. So she spent most of her ado­les­cence in the camps. 

I also always knew my grand­moth­er was a writer, and I became inter­est­ed in writ­ing when I was quite young. I remem­ber her teach­ing me to write a lim­er­ick when I was sev­en or eight. She was incred­i­bly encour­ag­ing of me. She would buy me books. She was one of the first peo­ple who told me, You’re a real­ly good writer. You should keep doing this.” When I was ten or eleven, she bought me my first com­put­er. I grew up abroad in Cos­ta Rica, and my grand­moth­er lived most­ly in Cal­i­for­nia, spend­ing some of her time in Ger­many. So I saw her maybe once a year. But through­out my entire child­hood and up until my ear­ly thir­ties when she passed away, we had a rela­tion­ship con­duct­ed large­ly by email.

I first read her book when I was thir­teen, which in ret­ro­spect might have been too young. But by then I was famil­iar with the broad con­tours of her sto­ry. I knew she’d gone through hor­ri­ble things. I knew she’d almost starved. I knew she had num­bers tat­tooed on her arm. What struck me when I read the book was what a phe­nom­e­nal thinker she was. And how fun­ny, too. She had a dry sense of humor, and the way it comes through in her book some­times sur­pris­es people.

BK: Before I read your book, I didn’t antic­i­pate that it might have Jew­ish con­tent until I came across an inter­view you gave for Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture. In it, you say: I think home, to me, is more peo­ple than it is a place. Added to that my fam­i­ly is Jew­ish, and my grand­par­ents were Holo­caust refugees. Jews are noto­ri­ous, his­tor­i­cal­ly, for being this state­less, root­less peo­ple — this eth­nic group that’s always hav­ing to flee and is nev­er able to put down roots.” 

I’m curi­ous as to whether that lega­cy of migra­tion also influ­ences the Jew­ish char­ac­ters in Sirens and Mus­es. In par­tic­u­lar, does it affect their impe­tus for mak­ing or col­lect­ing art? 

AA: My work in gen­er­al is pre­oc­cu­pied with belong­ing and home, and what it means to live in a place, put down roots in a place, or leave a place. That cer­tain­ly has its ori­gins in my own fam­i­ly’s his­to­ry of expul­sion and migra­tion, and also in my own expe­ri­ence grow­ing up in a coun­try where my par­ents were for­eign­ers but where I large­ly could pass as local unless I told peo­ple that I was­n’t. I felt like I exist­ed between worlds. Even though I’ve lived in the US my entire adult life, there are still ways in which I feel like an out­sider, still things that bring up flick­ers of cul­ture shock. 

In Sirens and Mus­es, that theme actu­al­ly shows up most explic­it­ly in one of the non-Jew­ish char­ac­ters, Louisa. She is Cajun, part of anoth­er eth­nic group that expe­ri­enced expul­sion and per­se­cu­tion. She’s the char­ac­ter who is most con­cerned with what it means to belong to a place and to a land­scape. But in terms of the two Jew­ish char­ac­ters: Robert is the son of Holo­caust refugees. This is men­tioned almost in pass­ing — there were ear­li­er drafts of the nov­el in which it was a much more sig­nif­i­cant part of the nar­ra­tive arc, but I end­ed up par­ing it down. And then there’s Kari­na. This is some­thing not a lot of peo­ple pick up on, but Kari­na’s half Jewish.

BK: Yes! I was so intrigued by the casu­al men­tion of her bat mitz­vah mon­ey. And we learn that Karina’s father, who is an art col­lec­tor, will some­times spot paint­ings that his fam­i­ly used to own before the Holo­caust in museums.

If I could pull Kari­na out of the book and ask her, I don’t think she would iden­ti­fy first and fore­most as Jew­ish. But there is a sense in which the Holo­caust lurks in her back­ground, in the tex­ture of her upbringing.

AA: His grand­par­ents were also art col­lec­tors and they lost their col­lec­tion to the Nazis. Yes. If I could pull Kari­na out of the book and ask her, I don’t think she would iden­ti­fy first and fore­most as Jew­ish. But there is a sense in which the Holo­caust lurks in her back­ground, in the tex­ture of her upbring­ing. Which is how it was for me. There was an ambi­ent sense of loss, which I didn’t dwell on all the time — I didn’t wake up every morn­ing think­ing about the Holo­caust — but was an inex­tri­ca­ble part of who I was and how my fam­i­ly came to be.

BK: Did you set out to include that spe­cif­ic type of Jew­ish rep­re­sen­ta­tion in your book? Or did Karina’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty come about organ­i­cal­ly, as a reflec­tion of how you see Amer­i­can Jews liv­ing their lives today?

AA: Part of it was that. Both of my par­ents are Jew­ish, but my cousins, for exam­ple, are only Jew­ish on their dad’s side, and they don’t iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish as far as I know. It’s cer­tain­ly a part of their fam­i­ly his­to­ry, and it’s not some­thing that they deny or are ashamed of in any way. But it’s not a cen­tral part of their iden­ti­ty. I think that’s true of a lot of peo­ple I’ve encoun­tered over the course of my life with­in the Jew­ish Diaspora.

Until I went to col­lege, I did not know many Jews out­side my imme­di­ate fam­i­ly because I grew up in a very Catholic coun­try. I think I iden­ti­fied strong­ly as Jew­ish because it was some­thing that made me dif­fer­ent from most of the peo­ple there. But there was also a way in which I felt like an imposter, espe­cial­ly when I got to col­lege. For the first time in my life, there were tons of Jew­ish peo­ple around me, and they all had had a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence of being Jew­ish. I grew up in a Jew­ish house­hold, but a sec­u­lar Jew­ish house­hold. They’d gone to Hebrew school and had bar and bat mitz­vahs. Their knowl­edge of Judaism was not as piece­meal as mine. And there were ways in which I felt like, Oh, I am not Jew­ish enough? 

Kari­na was always half Jew­ish to me. That’s how she emerged in my mind. And I knew from the begin­ning that Robert would be the son of Jew­ish refugees. I pulled that direct­ly from my dad’s sto­ry. I knew I want­ed to have a cou­ple of Jew­ish char­ac­ters in Sirens and Mus­es because it felt weird to me as a Jew­ish writer to write a book in which Jew­ish char­ac­ters are entire­ly absent. 

BK: Turn­ing to anoth­er aspect of Karina’s life: soon after her friend­ship with Louisa becomes roman­tic, she claims that Any painter can seduce their mod­el, His­to­ry is full of artists bang­ing their mus­es.” Louisa is tak­en aback — she sees the pow­er dynam­ic between them quite dif­fer­ent­ly, part­ly because they are both women. How would you define a muse? How does Kari­na and Louisa’s rela­tion­ship sub­vert what we might think of as the clas­sic artist – muse relationship? 

AA: In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, the muse is a pas­sive fig­ure. She — and I feel like the muse is almost always a she—pro­vides the inspi­ra­tion. She’s lit­er­al­ly an object, the object of the artist’s gaze. Cer­tain­ly when I was younger, I saw the muse as a fig­ure who is twist­ed into a reflec­tion of the artist’s own desires and ideas, and then is dis­card­ed. There’s a John Berg­er quote I love: Men look at women. Women watch them­selves being looked at.” I think this is ingrained in how we think of the artist – muse rela­tion­ship. We have this pre­scribed nar­ra­tive of what this het­ero­sex­u­al dynam­ic between the artist and the muse is sup­posed to look like. Because cul­ture has bom­bard­ed us with depic­tions of it. His­to­ry is full of exam­ples of it. If you’re in a het­ero­sex­u­al artist – muse rela­tion­ship, it’s easy to fall into a role that’s already been writ­ten for you.

If you’re in a het­ero­sex­u­al artist – muse rela­tion­ship, it’s easy to fall into a role that’s already been writ­ten for you.

One of the things that I want­ed to do with the rela­tion­ship between Louisa and Kari­na was to unteth­er the muse – artist rela­tion­ship from the male gaze. In the dynam­ic between two women that Sirens and Mus­es depicts, there’s much less of a pre­scribed nar­ra­tive. There’s much more free­dom, much more nego­ti­a­tion of pow­er dynam­ics. There’s more reci­procity. Kari­na asserts her­self and par­tic­i­pates in the mak­ing of the art­work. At a cer­tain point, Louisa becomes wor­ried. She’s like, What if I can’t make art with­out this per­son who’s been col­lab­o­rat­ing with me? What if she is essen­tial to my work? One of the things that I want­ed to show about the female gaze, at least as it appears in Sirens and Mus­es, is that it takes for grant­ed both wom­en’s agency in a way that the straight men look at women” nar­ra­tive doesn’t. I watched the movie Por­trait of a Lady on Fire just as I was fin­ish­ing the final draft of my nov­el. It had a deep effect on me in part because I felt that it echoed what I was doing in Sirens and Mus­es. It illu­mi­nates an alter­na­tive artist – muse rela­tion­ship that does not involve objec­ti­fi­ca­tion, or rather in which the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion grants the muse agency.

BK: Can the rela­tion­ship between a muse and an artist ever be platonic? 

AA: It’s fun­ny, I was just asked this ques­tion at an event I did at a uni­ver­si­ty a cou­ple of weeks ago. One stu­dent asked me, Do you think artists and writ­ers need a mus­es? Do I need a muse?” And I said, No, absolute­ly not. But you need a sub­ject. You need an obses­sion. It does­n’t have to be a per­son. And if it is a per­son, that per­son does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be some­one you’re sleep­ing with, or want to sleep with. But you do need a subject.” 

I also told the stu­dent that you need an edi­tor. Or you need some­one who is will­ing to col­lab­o­rate with you, and for writ­ers, that per­son is often an edi­tor. There is this idea of the soli­tary artist or writer who works in com­plete iso­la­tion and pours forth their genius onto the page or the can­vas. My own expe­ri­ence of being a writer and pub­lish­ing a book is that that is not at all true. There’s an enor­mous amount of col­lab­o­ra­tion involved. My hus­band is a painter, and even though I’m not a visu­al artist, he con­sults with me on his work. And I think that’s true of many work­ing artists and writ­ers — there is a lot more col­lab­o­ra­tion hap­pen­ing than meets the eye of the out­side view­er. I want­ed to illu­mi­nate that kind of col­lab­o­ra­tion in Sirens and Mus­es because it’s essen­tial to mak­ing good art.

BK: Anoth­er pow­er dynam­ic you explore is between the artist and the col­lec­tor. In addi­tion to being an artist and a muse, Kari­na is also a col­lec­tor — and a steal­er — of art. Unlike most of the oth­er col­lec­tors in her world, she doesn’t want art just for its mon­e­tary val­ue. For her, pos­sess­ing a work of art is emo­tion­al or even erotic. 

AA: Art — visu­al art in par­tic­u­lar — has always been entwined with mon­ey, right? If you look back to the Renais­sance artists like Leonar­do and Michelan­ge­lo, all of them had patrons. I think that sys­tem of patron­age has trans­formed in var­i­ous ways. Today, one of the big patrons of the arts, cer­tain­ly in terms of writ­ing, is the uni­ver­si­ty. A lot of writ­ers teach or do work through uni­ver­si­ties. That’s how they fund themselves.

I did research into the eco­nom­ics of the con­tem­po­rary art world, and it’s a pret­ty wild world. In the 1980s, there was an enor­mous boom in the art mar­ket. You start­ed see­ing artists, espe­cial­ly con­tem­po­rary artists, sell­ing work for eye-pop­ping prices. Art began to func­tion almost like a stock. You would buy a paint­ing by an up-and-com­ing painter in hopes that that painter would blow up and you could flip the paint­ing a few years lat­er and make a ton of mon­ey. This is a whole indus­try now. You hear of wealthy col­lec­tors who have ware­hous­es full of Picas­sos and Warhols. The art isn’t hang­ing on their walls. It isn’t being enjoyed by any­one. It’s just sit­ting in a ware­house. That’s one type of col­lec­tor that’s emerged in the present-day art market. 

I do think, how­ev­er, that for a lot of seri­ous col­lec­tors, like my grand­par­ents on my moth­er’s side — so not Holo­caust sur­vivors, but chil­dren of Jew­ish immi­grants who col­lect­ed art, although at nowhere near the lev­el of Kari­na’s par­ents — it was almost a reli­gion, at least the way my moth­er describes it. Sur­round­ing them­selves with these aes­thet­ic objects was a way of achiev­ing tran­scen­dence. And I think that’s true for a lot of peo­ple who either make or col­lect art or have built lives in prox­im­i­ty to it. It takes the place of religion. 

Kari­na is a lit­tle bit in both camps. She does­n’t view mon­ey as a dirty word. She does­n’t think it’s a bad thing for a piece of art to be valu­able, and she’s not afraid to say that. But there’s also a sense in which she draws a spir­i­tu­al val­ue from the art­work her par­ents have sur­round­ed her with since birth. She feels enti­tled to a cer­tain paint­ing that has always hung in her room, even though she does­n’t tech­ni­cal­ly own it. She steals it, but she does­n’t see it as steal­ing. She’s like, No, I have a deep emo­tion­al con­nec­tion to it. It’s mine.

BK: Anoth­er trend in the art world you address that seems more rel­e­vant than ever is the use of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. Preston’s exper­i­men­ta­tion with AI brings up the ques­tion of inten­tion ver­sus exe­cu­tion in the cre­ation of art. To be con­sid­ered an artist, is it enough to have the ini­tial vision, or do you phys­i­cal­ly have to cre­ate the art your­self? At what point does it stop being your own work? 

AA: It was wild to watch the AI art boom hap­pen when I was writ­ing Sirens and Mus­es. Since the book takes place in 2011 and 2012, I had to go back and do research to make sure that I was­n’t writ­ing any­thing anachro­nis­tic. The AI art that exist­ed at that time is like what I depict in Sirens and Mus­es, which is basi­cal­ly Pre­ston feed­ing a neur­al net­work thou­sands of images, and then ask­ing it to repli­cate those images or make images in a sim­i­lar style. Some of the art­work that those neur­al net­works cre­at­ed was very cool, but it did not look human-made at all. It was glitchy and mot­tled. It looked like com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed work.

The AI art that’s being cre­at­ed now is astound­ing. Recent­ly, my hus­band was play­ing around with DALL‑E, and he said to me, This is going to put artists out of busi­ness.” In addi­tion to being a visu­al artist, he’s also an archi­tect, and in his archi­tec­ture work he actu­al­ly uses AI to cre­ate archi­tec­tur­al ren­der­ings that give the client a sense of what the build­ing is going to look like. So it’s very use­ful in some ways. 

Now, the flip side is that AI art is pos­si­ble because those net­works have been trained on real peo­ple’s art. Human beings’ art. And those human beings were not con­sult­ed. They weren’t asked for per­mis­sion. That is a problem. 

BK: I’m also curi­ous to hear your thoughts about AI and writing.

AA: When it comes to writ­ing, that is a whole oth­er inter­est­ing ket­tle of fish. I am with the vast major­i­ty of writ­ers in that it scares me, and I don’t want my writ­ing to be used to train these pro­grams. I don’t want any­one else’s writ­ing to be used to train these programs.

Every book is like a win­dow into some­body else’s brain, right? Maybe I’m hope­less­ly naive or way too opti­mistic, but I remain skep­ti­cal that an AI pro­gram can repli­cate the weird­ness that hap­pens in my brain! Maybe that’s arro­gant of me. And maybe this will change down the line — maybe one day AI will be able to sin­gle-hand­ed­ly write a great nov­el with­out any human inter­ven­tion or edit­ing. I don’t know. I will say that I’ve used Chat­G­PT for my writ­ing, inso­far as I some­times use it for research. I’m writ­ing a book right now that’s set in the area of Cos­ta Rica where I grew up. Some­times I’ll have ques­tions like, What are some par­tic­u­lar plants that grow here and their sci­en­tif­ic names? and I’ll have Chat­G­PT tell me about the flo­ra and fau­na of that loca­tion. I always dou­ble-check the infor­ma­tion it gives me, though.

BK: Were there cer­tain pieces of art that inspired the book? How did you go about assign­ing dif­fer­ent styles or media to the dif­fer­ent artists – or did the styles come to you as inher­ent parts of the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters in the same way that Karina’s Jew­ish back­ground did?

AA: With some char­ac­ters, I knew from the get-go what kind of art they were going to do. I always knew that Pre­ston was going to be an inter­net artist doing the Tum­blr and Vapor­wave stuff that I saw a lot when I was in col­lege. And I always knew that Robert would be a polit­i­cal artist who’d had a more tra­di­tion­al fine arts back­ground. Kari­na’s work is loose­ly based on the work of Lau­ra Owens, who is an abstract artist I’ve been a fan of for many years. She plays with all dif­fer­ent styles and media — she’s hard to pin down. And that’s what I want­ed Kari­na to do in her work. I want­ed her to be end­less­ly inven­tive, and to play with all sorts of ref­er­ences to art his­to­ry. I want­ed her to be an unde­fin­able artist the same way that Lau­ra Owens is. 

Now Louisa was the char­ac­ter whose work took me a long time to fig­ure out. I had a serendip­i­tous moment in maybe 2015 or 2016, when I went to a show by an artist named Cay­la Zeek who grew up with my hus­band in Louisiana. When I lived in New Orleans in my ear­ly twen­ties, we were in adja­cent social cir­cles, but I’d nev­er tak­en a close look at her work. I heard she was hav­ing her first solo show at a pret­ty young age, and I hap­pened to go to the open­ing. As soon as I walked in and looked at the work, I thought, This is what Louisa does. This is her style. 

As soon as I walked in and looked at the work, I thought, This is what Louisa does. This is her style… It was almost magical.

There are so few moments in writ­ing a book when all these prob­lems you’ve been hav­ing are solved in one fell swoop. It was almost mag­i­cal. Once the book was sold and get­ting ready for pub­li­ca­tion, I reached out to Cay­la and explained how much her art had inspired me. And Cay­la actu­al­ly end­ed up par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pub­lic­i­ty process for the book. We had a pre­order cam­paign where my pub­lish­er ordered post­cards with a paint­ing by Cay­la that had inspired me of a woman who’s trans­form­ing into a bird. And we did a give­away with those. When my book came out, my hus­band and moth­er-in-law actu­al­ly com­mis­sioned a paint­ing from her as a pub­li­ca­tion gift for me. It was so cool to not only get a major source of inspi­ra­tion from an artist who I knew, but also to have her take part in the pub­li­ca­tion process. A full-cir­cle moment. 

BK:So cool. Espe­cial­ly giv­en what you said about col­lab­o­ra­tion ear­li­er. If your writ­ing could be rep­re­sent­ed visu­al­ly, what style or medi­um would it take?

AA: Oh my gosh. Okay. I think my ide­al visu­al adap­ta­tion of my book would be a TV minis­eries. Every author wants their book to be adopt­ed into a movie or a TV show, so I’m not unique in this regard! But Sirens and Mus­es is such a visu­al book — not only in that it depicts lots of dif­fer­ent art and styles, but also in that it describes the mak­ing of art. The set design­ers would have a lot of choic­es to make, in terms of How are we going to rep­re­sent this par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter’s art? What is it going to look like? 

BK: That atten­tion to the mechan­ics of cre­at­ing beau­ty also reminds me of Por­trait of a Lady on Fire

AA: Yes. In that movie, you also get to see the process of build­ing a paint­ing. You see the artist mak­ing the ini­tial stud­ies and sketch­es, and then paint­ing it lay­er by lay­er on can­vas. It’s a painter­ly movie in the sense that it visu­al­ly depicts the way a painter’s mind works and then shows you exact­ly how that paint­ing comes to life. I think Sirens and Mus­es is doing some­thing sim­i­lar, and I would love to see that on the screen.

BK: That would be amaz­ing. When I first start­ed to read your book, I saw it as a cam­pus nov­el, but when I was mid­way through and the pro­tag­o­nists leave their col­lege for New York, I wasn’t so sure it could be called that. Do you see Sirens and Mus­es as a cam­pus novel? 

AA: I love the cam­pus nov­el. It’s a genre that I will always, always love. So if peo­ple say it’s a cam­pus nov­el, I am sold. It’s a cam­pus nov­el and also a post-cam­pus novel. 

I start­ed writ­ing the book when I was right out of col­lege, when I real­ly missed the life I’d had as a stu­dent. My first job out of col­lege was as an ele­men­tary school Span­ish teacher, and I did that for five years. So I went from an envi­ron­ment where I was around lots of peo­ple my age, where every­one was extreme­ly inter­est­ed in what­ev­er course of study they were pur­su­ing, and where I was hav­ing lots of deep-into-the-night con­ver­sa­tions with smart peo­ple — I went from that envi­ron­ment to teach­ing very young chil­dren. Teach­ing was reward­ing in a lot of ways, but I would some­times go home and real­ize I hadn’t talked to an adult all day. I felt my life had been neat­ly and com­plete­ly cleaved away from the life that I had led before. When I sat down to write this cam­pus nov­el, there was a lot of nos­tal­gia involved. It was a kind of mourning. 

I spent the bulk of my twen­ties writ­ing this book; I start­ed when I was twen­ty-two or twen­ty-three, and I did­n’t fin­ish until I turned thir­ty. By the time I was near­ing my mid- to late twen­ties, I had worked through my griev­ing process. I did­n’t have the same job any­more. I’d moved a bunch of times. I had grown up a lot. And I’d had a lot of time to reflect on my own process of grow­ing into adult­hood. At that point I decid­ed that I want­ed the nov­el to have two halves. The first would be set in an insu­lar cam­pus envi­ron­ment. One of the things that makes the cam­pus nov­el inher­ent­ly inter­est­ing to me is that it’s a closed envi­ron­ment where peo­ple are exper­i­ment­ing with all dif­fer­ent ideas and step­ping on each oth­er’s toes in var­i­ous ways. And then, in the sec­ond half, I want­ed to expand the nov­el into the real world and explore what that tran­si­tion can look like for dif­fer­ent people.

BK: Do you see Sirens and Mus­es as being in con­ver­sa­tion with oth­er cam­pus novels?

AA: I read a lot of cam­pus nov­els as part of my research and tried to learn from what their authors did. There are many cam­pus satires that I admire. One of them is Dear Com­mit­tee Mem­bers by Julie Schu­mach­er, who was actu­al­ly my the­sis advi­sor in grad­u­ate school. Anoth­er clas­sic is Lucky Jim by Kings­ley Amos. There’s a rea­son that there’s so many aca­d­e­m­ic satires; in a lot of ways, acad­e­mia is an envi­ron­ment where ridicu­lous things hap­pen and are tak­en seri­ous­ly, which some­times results in sit­u­a­tions that are over the top. But I want­ed to take acad­e­mia seri­ous­ly as an envi­ron­ment that incu­bates young adults.

BK: Sirens and Mus­es also reminds me of cam­pus-based nov­els like Real Life by Bran­don Tay­lor and Brideshead Revis­it­ed by Eve­lyn Waugh in how it address­es eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ty and queer relationships. 

AA: I love that you touched on both of those top­ics. In terms of class and mon­ey, anoth­er inter­est­ing thing about the cam­pus is that it is a place where peo­ple of many dif­fer­ent socioe­co­nom­ic class­es come togeth­er, maybe for the first time. Cer­tain­ly for me, col­lege was the first time I came into con­tact with peo­ple from real­ly wealthy fam­i­lies. I remem­ber my sense of shock when I real­ized how vast the chasm was between how they had grown up and seen the world, and how I had. The cam­pus is a fas­ci­nat­ing envi­ron­ment in which to explore those class divides. Art in par­tic­u­lar is huge­ly informed by class in ways that we don’t always want to talk about. I was inter­est­ed in explor­ing that, both from the per­spec­tive of some­one from a very priv­i­leged back­ground and from the per­spec­tive of some­one who’s from a hum­bler back­ground. Real Life by Bran­don Tay­lor is anoth­er book that does that phenomenally. 

I inten­tion­al­ly set out to write a bisex­u­al nov­el. I iden­ti­fy as bi, and it’s a type of nov­el that I don’t see a ton of, even though we’re liv­ing in a gold­en age of queer literature.

In terms of the queer con­tent, I inten­tion­al­ly set out to write a bisex­u­al nov­el. I iden­ti­fy as bi, and it’s a type of nov­el that I don’t see a ton of, even though we’re liv­ing in a gold­en age of queer lit­er­a­ture. So I want­ed to write a nov­el where that par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of queer­ness was explored. I think one of the things that the book does is to cap­ture the way that being attract­ed to a man and being attract­ed to a woman are dif­fer­ent experiences. 

Bisex­u­al­i­ty can be a weird kind of lim­i­nal space, espe­cial­ly for bi peo­ple like me who are straight-pass­ing. I am mar­ried to a cis man. My sex­u­al­i­ty isn’t some­thing that peo­ple know about me unless they’ve read my work or unless I’ve told them. So I want­ed to write a book with explic­it­ly bisex­u­al char­ac­ters who were nav­i­gat­ing that lim­i­nal space. One of the real­ly inter­est­ing things about writ­ing this nov­el and talk­ing to read­ers in the year and change since it’s been pub­lished, is how many women in par­tic­u­lar are in this exact sit­u­a­tion, qui­et­ly iden­ti­fy­ing as bi but not being seen that way. They are nav­i­gat­ing a world where they don’t always feel like they belong in queer spaces, but they don’t feel straight, either. I’m some­one who has spent a lot of time in lim­i­nal spaces because of my upbring­ing. I’m sort of com­fort­able in those spaces in between. 

BK: I have one last ques­tion for you, which is inspired by a piece in the cur­rent issue of Paper Brigade. Do you think in words, images, or abstract con­cepts? How does your style of think­ing affect you as a writer? I’m espe­cial­ly curi­ous to hear your response because your nov­el is so visu­al­ly evocative. 

AA: I’m absolute­ly the first kind. Since I can remem­ber, I’ve had an inter­nal nar­ra­tive. As a child, I would nar­rate it to myself in the third per­son. I’d be going about my day and think, She opens up her math note­book and solves an alge­bra prob­lem. As an adult, I’ll some­times think about a scene and work through the lan­guage in my head until I can get back to my com­put­er and write it all down. Oth­er times I’ll take in my sur­round­ings and won­der how I would put them into words. Espe­cial­ly if I’m hav­ing a non­ver­bal expe­ri­ence — like eat­ing some­thing that tastes unusu­al to me — in the back of my mind, I’ll think, How would I describe this ver­bal­ly? 

I am not a par­tic­u­lar­ly visu­al thinker at all. So part of the chal­lenge I set for myself with Sirens and Mus­es was, could I write a book about a high­ly visu­al art form? Could I pull this off as a non-illus­trat­ed piece of work?

BK: Well, you def­i­nite­ly succeeded!

Bec­ca Kan­tor is the edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and its annu­al print lit­er­ary jour­nal, Paper Brigade. She received a BA in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and an MA in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia. Bec­ca was award­ed a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to spend a year in Esto­nia writ­ing and study­ing the coun­try’s Jew­ish his­to­ry. She lives in Brooklyn.