Interview with Aja Gabel
Aja Gabel’s novel The Ensemble follows the members of a string quartet as they navigate the intense and often ruthless world of music and the complexities of their relationships with one another. In this interview, Gabel discusses her experience writing and publishing The Ensemble, as well as her process as a writer and as an artist.
Emma and Margaret: How much of your own experience with music influenced your writing of The Ensemble?
Aja: I played music for 25 years. I played the cello and I played mostly in chamber and in music ensembles, but I never thought I was going to be a professional musician. There was a time I thought I might be, and there was a time it became clear that I wasn’t going to be. And when I really left it behind was when I really started this novel. One left and the other came in. And at that point, I thought the only thing I knew enough about to fill 300 pages was music. Now I know that’s not necessarily how you write a novel, but that was something that had been part of my life since I had memory, so that’s what I decided to write about.
E/M: Was there a specific character that you identify with most? Or do each of them embody a different aspect of yourself? Or nothing at all?
Aja: Certainly there are characters that I feel closer to. One of them is Brit. I feel very protective of her, so I always sort of say “don’t say anything bad about Brit!” She’s someone who sort of can disappear a little bit, and that was something that I felt was very easy for me to write, but I also feel is maybe a little bit difficult for people to read. I think the person who was probably hardest to write was Henry. He’s someone for whom everything comes very easily, and I was very interested in that in terms of artistry: what kind of challenges for someone who is a prodigy, what kind of challenges would that person encounter? So I was very interested in that character, but it was very hard for me to write him. But I think they all come from me, and I think I feel for all of them.
E/M: I know that you mentioned pieces of music in the book itself, but were there any specific pieces that influenced your writing?
Aja: Dvořák’s American Quartet is one that kind of starts the book and ends the book as well. And it’s a piece that really straddles being a student of music and being a professional musician. You can play it in both areas of your career or study and there aren’t a lot of pieces like that. I’d studied that piece for so long, so I was really interested in how that piece might change if you played it when you were younger then again mid-career. And I know that piece really well. And I love it. It is itself kind of a love letter which I was also very interested in as a theme for the book.
E/M: You mentioned that you never thought you’d be a professional musician, and now you’re a professional writer. At what point did you make that switch?
Aja: There is a period when you’re a teenager when you can decide to apply to conservatory or not. A lot of my friends decided to go and I decided not to. I instead went to college to study writing which is what I really enjoyed. So that moment was a real turning point in terms of what I was hoping to do with my life. I never stopped playing, I just realized that it wasn’t going to be a career for me. And that was really hard.
E/M: In your book you have a lot of really complex relationships between your characters. Is there a relationship in your own life that inspired any of the relationships in the book?
Aja: I am still really close with the people I played with when I was young. You spend so much time playing together during a formative time in your life, around 10 to 17 years old. And at the time you’re playing, you’re figuring out problems that are artistic, creative, and nonverbal. There’s a different kind of bond that’s formed. We’ve all spoken at each other’s weddings—four of them have married each other, you know, people who’ve known each other since they were twelve. I don’t know that those relationships are in the book, but that kind of bond inspired the kind of bond—the kind of intimacy—that I’m writing about with these characters.
E/M: Where do you keep your story and novel ideas? Do you keep them in your journal, your phone, your computer?
Aja: I’m very particular about having these Muji journals, they’re these really beautiful Japanese journals, they’re not expensive and I have a million of them and they’re all labeled as times in my life, like “Summer 2018”. I don’t journal but I write ideas or character diagrams, so that’s definitely where I keep those ideas. I wish I had a regular journaling practice but it already feels like I write so much anyways. The thought of sitting down at the end of the day . . . like I can’t even.
E/M: Did your process change over the course of your career? From student to professor to published author?
Aja: I will let you know! You just have more time when you’re a student and then you have less time when you’re a professor, but more time than you would have otherwise if you didn’t have an academic job. When you have a non-academic job—which I had—you have no time. I think the older you get the more domestic obligations you have, so I find that now I need to get away from home. I used to not rely on residencies at all, and now I plan them out. It’s really helpful for me to get into a different city and have no distractions and have a bunch of time. But when I was a student and did residencies, I was kind of like “Oh what’s the point? I have all this time at home and I’m around creative people.” I create a more purposeful space now. I think you have to inscribe the space with what you want it to do for you.
E/M: Do you listen to music when you write?
Aja: No. If I turned it on, I wouldn’t hear it. I would just be drowning it out. The way I did it for the Ensemble is by actually watching it on youtube so I could watch the quartet physically interact. I would do it probably 20 seconds by 20 seconds at a time and then write and then go back and look and then write. The only piece of music I can listen to when I write is a Keith Jarrett version of Handel’s Suites for Keyboard and it’s because I listened to it for twenty years so I’ve almost memorized it so I don’t have to think about it. Otherwise it would be distracting. It’d be like writing with the T.V. on for me.
E/M: As a writer do you think language and story are more important or character and plot? What do you like to focus on more?
Aja: I think that language, plot and characters are all really important elements. Thinking in terms of plot is really hard for me, but if you think about creating a world through the language, then if that word is real enough and rich enough, then plot happens in it. You might have to manipulate it more than I feel comfortable doing, but for me, if I focus on creating a world that is real and characters that are real, then the plot comes. That’s how I like to think of it. I might think of it differently in different projects, but definitely for The Ensemble that’s how I thought of it. I think it’s really scary for people to think about sustaining a plot for 400-500 pages; it’s hard to think of the long game and the big picture all the time. It’s much easier to think about the page in front of you and that’s not a bad way to write 400 pages.
E/M: What was your experience like getting your book edited and published? Was there anything behind the scenes that surprised you? You’ve worked as a fiction editor before, but how is the process different with a novel?
Aja: There’s one element of publishing a book where people respond to the book, the words, the story, the character. Then there’s a second, probably smaller, element of how they’re going to market you, who you are as a writer, what the brand of the book is going to be, what’s the market, how are they going to see it in the bookstore...That’s the part I wasn’t prepared for, that I didn’t know anything about. That part is less fun and kind of strange for a person who doesn’t think of herself that way. So for me that was difficult, but it is a necessary part of publishing a book. I guess when I was editing, like fiction editing in journals, it’s really much more focused on the writer, the words, the story because it’s not about what you’re selling. It’s not as market based and so I didn’t think that way.
E/M: How long did it take for you to get published after submitting your manuscript?
Aja: After I found the right agent, it was a pretty quick process to send it out. And I think it was quick just because I worked on it for so long. I spent three years working on the novel. Not full time on the book, but for three years it was a too-be-completed project. And I know that’s relatively fast, but it felt glacially slow to me.
E/M: Do you think becoming published is going to change your writing process or your revision process if you pursue other novels?
Aja: I’m trying to, but it’s hard to shut out the noise of reviews. Because suddenly something that was yours becomes everybody’s. That’s a really intense thing to happen to a private project. You live in the external world more, and when you really want to sit down and write something you have to be internal, so I’m trying to get back to that space. It doesn’t change the process very much, it’s just much harder to get back to that space.
E/M: When you read what do you want to experience and does that at all affect how you write?
Aja: [Reading and writing] are a hundred percent linked. I sort of tried and failed to write things since I wrote this book because I wasn’t linking those two experiences. You should always write the book that you want to see in the world and not the book you think other people want to see in the world, because it’s really hard to write a book, and if you aren’t obsessed with it and you don’t love it—and I mean like, love it and have love for it—then you can tell in a finished project.
When I read a book I really want to disappear in a world, so that’s why I spend time creating and drawing things out. If a book doesn’t have a world like that for me or characters like that for me and it’s just people in a vacuum, it’s much harder for me to get into it.
So yeah, [reading and writing] are very much linked and I think that for some reason writers—or maybe reviewers—don’t like to talk about that a lot. It seems like maybe a kind if dirty secret or something. You just want to have the same experience and create the same experience you love having. You’re not trying to create this intellectual mountain that other people can climb because you climbed it, you know? You just want to have a good reading experience, and it could be an intellectual mountain, but it has to be one that you desire and not just you showing off.
E/M: When was the first moment you remember wanting to be a writer and looking back, what’s a moment you should have known that you were going to be a writer?
Aja: I always wrote since I could write, but I didn’t think about actually trying to be a writer. I didn’t know that was a thing you could try to be be until probably after college. I was at work shops and I was talking to my college mentor who was Alexander Chee actually, and he asked if I had thought about MFA programs. I didn’t know about MFA programs, I didn’t know that was a thing. I had always written, but that was a moment where I thought, “Okay, maybe I’ll really try to do this.” I should have known I was going to be a writer when I had notebooks and notebooks and notebooks as a kid of stories and fantasies and imagination. I guess I thought everybody did, but I don’t think everyone does, and that’s just how I worked things out—in notebooks.
E/M: What’s the best thing you got out of your MFA program was it a worthwhile experience?
Aja: It was definitely a worthwhile experience. I think the best thing for me was finding a community of people who had the same interests as me, and who were more talented and challenged me. That was the best gift at that age, to find other people who also love writing. It changed how I thought about writing in a lot of ways, because it just was so lonely for so long.
E/M: Who’s your favorite author?
Aja: Zadie Smith.
E/M: Favorite novel?
Aja: Probably On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I also really love The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
E/M: Is there a book that you read when you were young that stuck with you?
Aja: Yes, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, that changed the way I thought about writing. I read that in college. It didn’t occur to me that you could write a sentence-based book—a book with beautiful sentences—until I read her. And then I realized you could do whatever you wanted.
E/M: Is there a book already published that you wished you would have written?
Aja: Sure. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is the best book I’ve read in a very long time and I wish that I wrote it. It’s so good.
E/M: What’s your favorite trope to read? Do you have a favorite trope to write?
Aja: I am interested in love stories. I am interested in all forms of them, and how different relationships can be thought of as love stories. So not just traditional love stories, not just “Women’s fiction” or “chick lit” but the different ways that love is in our lives. I like to think of them more as intimacy stories. And for a long time I was embarrassed that that was my interest. But now I’m not as ashamed of it, they’re fun to write.
E/M: Do you have a favorite guilty pleasure book or series?
Aja: I used to when I was younger, but now I find that everything I read affects how I write and so I try not to read writing that I don’t want to aspire to.
E/M: If the world ended and only one book was discovered by future inhabitants, what book would you want it to be?
Aja: I think it should be Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a really good book, and a sort of warning.