Sirens & Muses, Antonia Angress’ forthcoming novel from Penguin Random House, follows the fates of four artists as each is unexpectedly thrust into the cutthroat New York art world. All must struggle to find new identities in art, in society, and amongst each other. In the process, they must find either their most authentic terms of life—of success, failure, and joy—or risk losing themselves altogether.
With a canny, critical eye, Sirens & Muses upends notions of class, money, art, youth, and a generation’s fight to own their future. We asked Antonia what it was like to get her book published through Random House and how she approached the process of writing it.
This turned out to be an insightful interview about the publishing world and how to navigate writing the contemporary novel. Read it below!
What inspired you to become a novelist?
I’ve loved reading and writing for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always been drawn to novels in particular — their immersiveness, the windows they offer into other lives, other ways of being. Reading a novel is, I think, the closest you’ll ever get to understanding what it’s like to be someone else. So I suppose my desire to become a novelist boils down to relentless curiosity about what goes on in other people’s heads.
Reading a novel is, I think, the closest you’ll ever get to understanding what it’s like to be someone else. So I suppose my desire to become a novelist boils down to relentless curiosity about what goes on in other people’s heads.
What story did you feel the need to tell in starting this novel, and did that change over the process of writing it?
My novel, Sirens & Muses, follows four artists caught in a web of rivalry and desire, first at an elite art school, and later in New York City. I began writing it about seven years ago, when I was 23. It began as a short story about an art school dropout and eventually evolved into a multi-POV novel following four very different characters’ struggles and emotional lives. The initial short story bears little resemblance, plot-wise, to the final novel, but most of its core themes have remained: coming-of-age, first love, selfhood and ambition, success and failure.
How did going through an MFA program interact with your novel writing process?
I’d already been working on the novel for a few years when I applied to MFA programs, but being in graduate school accelerated my writing process. My program was fully-funded, meaning I got paid a modest stipend to attend, so all at once I found myself with no full-time job and lots of free time to write. My MFA program absolutely gave me the financial and creative support I needed to finish, polish, and sell a novel. Without it, I would almost certainly not be in the position I am in today.
What is it like to write over several years on a contemporary novel that responds to world events?
Sirens & Muses takes place in 2011 and 2012, with several plotlines anchored around the Occupy Wall Street movement and some flashback sections occurring in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I didn’t have to respond to world events so much as do a lot of research on the various historical periods I was writing about to make sure I got timelines, events, and small details right. This was easier for the 2011-2012 sections, as I was actually alive then!
What was it like writing a novel over a long period while you were relatively young?
I started Sirens & Muses in my early 20s, when I was close to the age of most of the novel’s main characters, but I didn’t finish it until I was 30. As I got older, I think I became more compassionate toward my characters, but also more impatient with them. By the time I was done with the manuscript, I was certainly sick of writing about twenty-somethings! My next novel centers on two sisters in their 30s, one of whom is a mother, and it’s refreshing to write older characters with a broader range of perspectives and experiences.
What was your journey with finding an agent?
I met my agent at a writers’ conference. I told her a little about my book, and she later looked me up online, read an essay I’d published, and reached out to me. I sent her my finished manuscript a few months later, and she signed me right after reading it.
What range of services has your agent provided you?
My agent is very editorially hands-on. Before submitting my manuscript to publishers, she wrote me an editorial letter and we did a round of edits together. After selling the novel, her role became more managerial. She negotiates with my publisher on my behalf about things like the book’s release date, cover art, marketing campaign, etc. She is also in charge of selling things like film/TV rights and translation rights for my book.
How important was having an MFA to getting represented and published with a major publisher?
I don’t think the degree itself made any difference at all. Agents and publishers are looking for good books, and you don’t need an MFA to write a good book. What an MFA can give you, however, besides time and support, is community and professional connections, both of which can be enormously helpful: community because writing a book is a lonely endeavor, and it helps to have friends who are doing it with you; connections because publishing is a business of relationships, and it helps to know people.
What an MFA can give you, besides time and support, is community and professional connections, both of which can be enormously helpful.
What is it like having your book published with a major publisher?
It’s surreal! It’s a dream come true. The day I got the news that Random House wanted to publish my novel, I cried, then danced around my apartment, probably infuriating my downstairs neighbors.
What does the publisher do for you with respect to the book, and what responsibilities do you have?
The publisher is responsible for producing, distributing, marketing, and publicizing the book. This means they design the cover, print it, get it into bookstores, pitch it to reviewers, etc. However, in this day and age authors are also expected to do quite a lot of publicity work themselves. So while I’ll be assigned a publicity team at Random House who will work on my book’s behalf, l will also be expected to write and pitch companion essays, reach out to potential interviewers and blurbers, and promote my novel on social media.
What advice do you have for people wishing to set themselves up for success in the literary world?
Read widely and voraciously, especially in the genre you hope to publish in. Attend readings and other literary events in your area. You don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer, but taking an evening or online writing class can be a great way to hone your craft and meet potential friend and readers. The main thing, though, is just to keep writing. Writing and publishing a book involves a lot of persistence and rejection. A published author is simply a writer who didn’t take no for an answer and never gave up.
Writing and publishing a book involves a lot of persistence and rejection. A published author is simply a writer who didn’t take no for an answer.
What’s next for you as a writer and particularly as a debut novelist?
I’m currently working on my next novel, tentatively titled Feast Day. At the same time, I’m gearing up for my book’s launch in July 2022. I’m hoping by then in-person events will be possible, as I’d love to meet and talk to my readers. Fingers crossed!
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