Sunday, December 4, 2022

Alex Kenna

Alex Kenna is a lawyer, writer, and amateur painter based in Los Angeles.

Before law school, Kenna studied painting and art history at Penn. She also worked as a freelance art critic and culture writer. Originally from Washington DC, Kenna lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and giant schnauzer, Zelda. When she’s not writing Kenna can be found nerding out in art museums, exploring flea markets, and playing string instruments badly.

Her debut novel is What Meets the Eye.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

What Meets the Eye is a murder mystery with a heavy focus on art forgers, so I wanted a title that would get readers thinking about the distinction between appearance and reality. The title also applies to the two main characters, Kate Myles and Margot Starling. Margot is a rich, beautiful, and wildly successful artist. But under the glitz and glamour, she struggles with trauma and mental health issues, and is in a significant amount of pain. Kate is a down-and-out PI who struggles with addiction and lost custody of her child. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that she’s a very strong person working hard to rebuild her life.

The close runner up for a title was Memento Mori, which is an art historical term for a symbol representing the inevitability of death – like a housefly on a beautiful Dutch still life.

What's in a name?

I didn’t have a symbolic reason for choosing names. As a character, Kate Myles is smart, practical, and no-nonsense. As a person, I thought she would probably opt for a short utilitarian nickname, and Kate felt accurate. I’ve also always liked the name. For Margot, I wanted something a little more glamorous. My friend’s husband is very artistic, and his last name is Starling, which I stole for the character. When I got an offer on the book, I told her that I borrowed her husband’s name. I’m not sure she knows yet that the character gets murdered, but she’ll find out soon enough.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenaged self would be shocked that I wrote a book at all, because I started out as a visual artist. I was doing figure drawing in my early teens in this ramshackle place above a garage. Then I fell in love with painting and ended up majoring in art and art history. It wasn’t until my thirties that I started seeing the parallels between art and writing, and decided to try something different.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Honestly, it’s the middle that I struggle with. Beginnings are pretty easy for me. I spent many years confronting a blank canvas, so I don’t feel intimidated by a blank page. Beginnings are exciting and you get a sense for the book’s potential. I also usually have an idea of where I want to end up. But I am constitutionally incapable of organizing or writing an outline, so I often have to go back and rethink the middle chapters to make sure that everything holds together. Sometimes on a second reading, I notice loose threads that need to be addressed or a scene that seems to come out of nowhere.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I can relate to the two main characters in my book in different ways. Kate is a hardworking but disorganized introvert, who struggles with a lot of self-doubt. Those are definitely traits that I share. When the book picks up, she is trying to regain a sense of self after losing her career and her family. I wrote the book after leaving a job that I loved. It was during COVID and I was stuck at home self-isolating with a relatively high-risk pregnancy. So, the idea of suddenly losing part of your identity really resonated with me.

Margot is outwardly very confident and audacious, but underneath, she hates herself in a lot of ways. Personality-wise, I don’t have much in common with her. She’s also cruel, and I’m not. But her way of thinking about art and her dark sense of humor are similar to mine.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My book was very influenced by contemporary art, and there are a lot of specific cultural references in there. I tried to think about who Margot’s influences would be and made sure to include them. As a painter, she’s a realist, but also intellectual and interested in art history, so she would have had a wide range of inspirations. In the book, she talks about Artemisia Gentileschi, Spanish Baroque artists, Sophie Calle, and K├Ąthe Kollwitz, among others. But in thinking about what her art would look like, I thought about other artists, including Trevor Paglen and Stefan Sagmeister.

There is another artist in the book, Jason Martinez, and I got the idea for his painting style after seeing a beautiful piece in a small random gallery on LA’s West Side. I really wish I’d gotten the artist’s name to give them a shout out.

Outside of art, I’ve been a criminal prosecutor for almost a decade, which has given me a sense for how prosecution, white collar crime, and police investigations work. That experience has been invaluable in writing about crime.
Visit Alex Kenna's website.

--Marshal Zeringue