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Photo credit: Darcie Burrell

Author Aja Gabel's debut novel, The Ensemble, is out now from Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House. KMFA sat down with her for a question and answer session about her book and the inspiration behind it.

KMFA: In The Ensemble, you’ve captured the ephemeral dynamic of the Van Ness Quartet over time—with romances and disputes and fallings out between its individual players. There has been a lot of literature written about romantic relationships, families, and individual friendships, but this novel was unique in its portrayal of the ensemble. What inspired you to focus on the quartet as the subject of your novel? And what was the greatest challenge in capturing this group dynamic?

Aja Gabel: What attracted me to the quartet as the subject was that it seemed like the most ultimate of love stories. I was drawn to the curiously unique relationship four people have to have to be in a professional quartet. It’s not only a financial and artistic collaboration, but an emotional one, too. It bore a lot of similarities to marriage, but amplified. You must grow together, you must tolerate each other’s weaknesses, you must make if not the same decisions, then decisions that complement the other’s. Sometimes, you must say goodbye and part ways. And you do all this with not just one other person, but three. For years and years. But you’re right, there’s a real challenge in capturing that collective. In music, you get to hear all the voices at once. But in writing, unless you’re doing something really experimental, you can only hear one sentence at a time. The challenge was figuring out how to give each of the voices proper air time. Not too much, and not too little, but just enough that at some point towards the middle of the book, you might hear the other voices in your head while you’re only reading one, like a reverberation.

KMFA: In Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, she writes, “Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?” I wondered if, in particular when it came to the relationship between Jana and Henry, who are the heart of the quartet—and for me, this book—you could speak to how you developed this relationship. Did the novel begin with their story, or did evolve in the process of revision into this familial and loving relationship?   

AG: That’s so wonderful you find that relationship to be the heart of the book! It definitely didn’t start that way for me. It really started with Brit and Daniel, what kind of pain it must be to break up with someone and be forced to remain musically intimate with them. But as I wrote and revised the book, it became clear to me that there was a powerful relationship with Jana and Henry. It was important to me that there be no romance with them, but a deep and abiding love and recognition of each other’s talent and drive. I think their experience is a common one, to become enamored in a non-romantic way with an enigmatic person when you’re young. You become entangled in intimate ways that don’t require the body at all. But then, as you grow, life events start to cleave the experience. So the relationship breaks or evolves. It was tough getting that evolution right in this book, but it’s perhaps the most symbolic of what it means to play in an ensemble: to find a way back to the sound of connection again and again.

KMFA: In Listen to This, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross writes that “The difficult thing about music writing, in the end, is not to describe a sound but to describe a human being.” Through the shifting perspectives and ambitious scope of this novel, you’ve transformed the idea of a classical music quartet into a tangible and deeply imagined human narrative across decades and different cities. Given your own background as a classically trained musician, I wondered if creating this work shifted your understanding of classical music. Did it change your conception of what the role of classical music is in people’s lives, or did it only amplify it?

AG: Thank you for that compliment! I love Alex Ross’s writing. I think I even wrote him a fan email once in college. He does exactly that, describes music as a human being. I always wanted to do that, and for a while thought I’d become a music journalist myself. I’d rarely heard quartet music talked about in human terms, but through playing it, I knew it to be very social and personal. I just didn’t think anyone would buy that story of the classical quartet. What we’re used to reading is program notes, a history of the composer, music theory commentary. What changed as I started to write this book and after I published it, is that I realized the human story is actually what people are interested in. It’s what I’m interested in. We can’t just look at classical music in a vacuum. It’s always coming from a person with a heartbeat and a history. Maybe they have a sore arm, or had a bad morning. Maybe the music is helping them transcend, or maybe it’s not and we can’t tell. This understanding of music on a human scale can make it tangible for many people, and now I know I’m not alone in hungering for that.

KMFA: What’s the best piece of advice you have received during your creative journey that might be helpful for writers, musicians, and artists who are at the beginning of their careers?

AG: When I was younger and learning how to write, I imitated a lot, which was a great way to learn, for me. But then for a while after that, I wrote the stories I thought other people wanted to read, because I hadn’t seen my own kind of story ever represented in fiction. One day, a teacher stopped me on a path in my college, and held up one of these stories and said, “This is great, but why don’t you write the story you really want to write?” Before that, it had never occurred to me to prioritize the kind of story I wanted to read when writing my own. The permission he gave me changed everything. That remains the best advice I’ve ever received: make something you want to read or hear or watch or consume. Don’t do it for anyone else, at least not in the beginning.

Aja Gabel will be in Austin for the Texas Book Festival October 27-28, with more details to be announced soon.

About Aja Gabel

Aja Gabel's short fiction can be found in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Glimmer Train, BOMB, and elsewhere. Her lyric essay, "The Sparrows in France," appeared in Kenyon Review and earned her an honorable mention in Best American Essays 2015. She has taught fiction, non-fiction, and literature at the University of Virginia, the University of Houston, Sweet Briar College, and Pacific University, as well as at undergraduate creative writing conferences and community workshop organizations. She earned her BA at Wesleyan University, her MFA at the University of Virginia and has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston.

Aja has been the recipient of awards from Atlantic Monthly and Inprint, as well as fellowships from the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she was a fellow in fiction 2012-2013.

She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Bear.