Debut Author Snapshot: Aja Gabel

Posted by Goodreads on May 1, 2018
Aja Gabel
The Ensemble is a novel about a professional string quartet, the musical career they create, and the relationships in art they forge with one another. Jana, Brit, Henry, and Daniel are all different—one's a prodigy, one's an orphan, one's ambitious, and one's struggling to keep up. Some of them fall in love, some of them divorce, some of them have children, some of them question everything. It's about the family you choose, the peculiar bonds you make through the common dream of music, or art-making of any kind.

New author Aja Gabel played the cello for about 25 years, many of those years very seriously. "I'm one of five children, and my mom tried to make us all play instruments. It only really stuck with me. I started on violin when I was five years old and switched to cello at ten," says Gabel. "I had a brief affair with the upright string bass, but I'm way too short to handle that instrument. I spent most of my childhood and teenage years seriously playing chamber music and continued to study it through college and after, though I went down the writing path."

Gabel lives in Los Angeles, where she says she's trying to reintroduce herself to the Bach cello suites. "I forgot how impossible they are. It's good and humbling to start playing again, though. Something about the focused physicality of playing ignites all kinds of other creativity," she says.


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GR: What sparked the idea for The Ensemble? What drew you into the world of classical music?

Aja Gabel: I'd always been fascinated by quartets and chamber music. I studied and played more chamber music than orchestral music when I was young, and those people I played music with so many years ago remain my close friends today. I've spoken at their weddings, held their babies, and yep, a few of them even married each other. It's so rich, that relationship across the music stand, incredibly intimate but not necessarily romantic. Touched by ambition and jealousy and intensity and tenderness. I wondered what it might be like to do that your whole life, to have your life depend on those relationships. I didn't play professionally, and the experience changed me indelibly. I wanted to imagine how it would change you if you did play professionally. That's always what sparks any writing project for me: wanting to disappear into imagining something.

GR: Tell us about your research and writing process for The Ensemble.

AG: Unsurprisingly, I listened to a lot of classical music, as much or even more than when I was seriously playing it myself. I watched a lot of quartet performances on YouTube, too, especially the quartets who competed at Banff (which I lightly fictionalized in my book). You can learn a lot watching a quartet, studying how they move with or against each other, and how they look at each other or breathe together. There are tells and betrayals in it if you look closely enough. It gets even more delicious when you see a concert live! When I was writing sections where they're playing specific pieces, I would immerse myself in the music. I almost never play music while I'm writing, but I would play it right up to the point where I started writing, and then stop writing to listen or watch again. The immersion had to be seamless for me to really get it.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves in The Ensemble?

AG: I've been influenced by a lot of writers—Jennifer Egan, Deborah Eisenberg, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood—but for this book, I kept returning to Alice McDermott's After This and Zadie Smith's On Beauty. On the surface, those are two very different novels. But both share the common thread of conjuring a chorus of people linked in unusual, fraught, and ultimately profound ways. And they do it effortlessly. Those novels move from perspective to perspective, covering a lot of time, painting a community with vibrancy. I tried to do all of that with Jana, Brit, Henry, and Daniel. Writing a novel with four characters that covers a lot of time is not easy, especially not the first time you've ever tried to write a novel. Those two books were really important models.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut?

AG: Oh gosh, in general, I hope they take away what I hope everyone takes away from reading something I wrote: a feeling of being seen and recognized, even in some small way. But in particular, I hope readers see that the world of classical music is very often not stodgy at all, that it's full of people whose mad love for music determines every choice they make, heartbreaking as those choices might be.

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GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

AG: I just finished The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, which is as stunning an achievement and as breathlessly immersive a read as everyone says. I also just finished an early galley of Laura van den Berg's The Third Hotel, which was strange and beautiful, and haunted my nights for a week straight. Lately I've definitely been evangelizing for Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. A book hasn't felt that alive in my hands in a long time. I get excited when I get to recommend it to someone who hasn't already heard of it. I'm also very excited for the memoir Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom, which comes out in July, and the speculative fiction novel An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim, in June. Both galleys I've read, and they're knock-your-socks-off good.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

AG: Well, next I'm going on book tour! But I'm also working on something I'm too scared to talk about yet. I will say it's about another unusual kind of family, under some very curious pressures. I've already said too much, though.

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