A Conversation with Aja Gabel

The novelist discusses the inspiration behind her vibrant debut and weaving music into her beautiful prose.


In Aja Gabel’s heart-skipping, musically tinged portrait of a novel, The Ensemble, we meet Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry, four people who would never have been friends if they hadn’t needed each other. They certainly wouldn’t have become family without their mutual love for music.

Brit is the second violinist, a beautiful, quiet orphan; on the viola is Henry, a prodigy who’s always had it easy; the cellist is Daniel, the oldest, an angry skeptic who sleeps around; and on first violin is Jana, their flinty, resilient leader. Together, they are the Van Ness Quartet. After the group’s youthful, rocky start, they experience devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty. Following these four unforgettable characters, Aja’s debut novel gives a riveting look into the high-stakes, cutthroat world of musicians, and of lives made in concert.

Recently, Aja spoke with Read It Forward’s editor Abbe Wright about the enmeshing bond that music provides, how she worked true-life personality traits into her characters, and why a cello’s the most human of instruments.

Read It Forward: What was the initial nugget that inspired this novel? Did it begin with the group of friends, the music, San Francisco, or something else?

Aja Gabel: It began with the group of friends, for sure. I spent so much of my time during my childhood, teenage years, and early 20s playing chamber music, thinking about it, or listening to it. A group of about seven to 10 of us all played together for most of those years. None of us went to the same schools, so we were only bound by these outside-school rehearsals. When I think of high school, I don’t think of the classes I took or the friends in English class, but the rehearsals I raced to after class and the concerts on the weekends.

It was so exciting and so rich, what we were doing: forming these intense social relationships while also making music, failing at it, succeeding to various degrees, competing with each other, supporting each other, all at a very formative age. And all of us—every single one—remains crucial friends to this day. I’ve spoken at their weddings, held their babies, and a few of them even married each other. It absolutely shaped who I am, and how I approach every collaborative and creative thing in my life. I never properly saw that experience represented anywhere in media. Maybe that film, A Late Quartet, comes close. But I wanted to write a novel about these particular, curious relationships, complicated and not necessarily romantically intimate, but very specifically intimate; the kind of intimacy that comes from making art together.

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RIF: How much of your own life did you draw on to craft this novel? Did you actively work to keep your own experiences and those of your characters separate, or did they ever blend into one another?

AG: They absolutely blended, though I wouldn’t say any one person is based on a single person I know. Many of the career details I borrowed from famous quartets, like the St. Lawrence (whom I studied with at Stanford for a couple of summers), the Emerson, the Juilliard Quartet, the Eroica Trio, and the Tesla.

The character traits were extrapolations of what I understand those musical positions to be. A first violinist is generally forthright, a natural leader—but what if that need to be the loudest and brightest masked some other needs? A second violinist is supportive and subtle—and what if that passivity paralyzed her life? What would she need to do to break out of it? A violist is the butt of many jokes, as so many viola parts are underwritten—what if that butt of all the jokes was actually a prodigy, and what if none of it caused him any angst? What if he simply got everything he wanted? A cellist is a foundation, stable and steady, also a leading voice—but what if he struggled to compete with the natural leading voices in his quartet? What if his ability to provide stability in music wasn’t echoed in his personal life, and his anxiety about that plagued everything he did?

I’ve known people who possess all of these traits. There was one violist I played with who was definitely a prodigy, and who now conducts the Santa Cruz Symphony and is an apprentice at the Met. Some of Henry is based on him, and I bet he’ll be able to tell, but I’ll never admit it. He’ll enjoy it, though. He is, after all, a prodigy—used to being the center of attention.

RIF: You’ve managed to build an insanely impressive writing portfolio, much of it while still performing as a competitive cellist. How did you balance your two artistic passions? Did you have writing days and music days, or set hours for each?

AG: Aw, thanks! When I was a kid, I didn’t think about it. I just did everything. I took lessons and played in symphony orchestra and chamber orchestra and quartet. I taught myself piano and guitar. I read obsessively and filled notebooks with stories. When I was 14, I wrote a novel on my MS-DOS computer about a violinist named Bennett. I had a crush on a 16-year-old named Bennett. I remember printing it out, but I can’t find it now. I continued that same rhythm of doing it all through college, and it got a lot harder, being a double major in music and English. I was constantly running from one study session to a rehearsal and back. To be honest, if I had to choose between writing and practicing, I usually chose writing.

RIF: Tell us how you got started playing the cello.

AG: I don’t remember asking to play, though my mom says I did. But I remember very early Suzuki violin lessons when I was about six. I played violin for five years, and when I was 10, I told my parents I wanted to progress to bigger and bigger instruments until I played the biggest one possible. I think I thought if I played the biggest, I would be the best, too.

When I was 10, no one told me about the viola, so I went straight to the cello, and I loved it, so much more than the violin. I always felt like the violin was too small, which is crazy because I’m not a huge person with huge arms or hands. But something about having the cello in front of me was comforting. I loved the physicality of playing, how it required and challenged my whole body. It was also the first time we could afford private lessons for me, so I learned one-on-one to fall in love with it. I remember my cello teacher, who remained my teacher for a decade, told me that the cello has the most human range, being shaped like a human body, and that’s why people respond to it.

My parents had an entire room of our house that only housed records and a record player. They collected them, all kinds, but were partial to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and anything classical. This is kind of where Henry’s record collection came from. So music was huge in my family, and I think my mom wanted every one of us to play, but it only stuck with me.

RIF: Your characters struggle with decisions to stay in the competitive classical music world. You were part of that world for years, before making the decision to step away. Was it difficult, or did it feel like the right moment?

AG: This is a tough question I’m not sure I’ve ever honestly answered. Don’t tell my mom I said this, but being the daughter of an Asian mom, there’s some weight of expectations and intense fear of failure. I think I could never live up to how good she wanted me to be—and how good I wanted to be. Just physically or whatever it is, I didn’t have it. I think Daniel in the book has this: a strong desire and love, but it doesn’t come as naturally to him as it does to everyone else. So he’s had to choose this life where it’s going to constantly be a struggle. And when it came time to choose whether to apply to conservatory or to college, I imagined that scenario. I could have done it—played professionally and competitively—but it would have been such a hard life, full of anxieties, doubts, and lots of failure. I wouldn’t be able to ascend as high as I wished, ever. And writing came so much more naturally to me. I don’t love the loneliness of writing, but I love how good I am at communicating via writing. I’d never be able to say half the things with music that I say with my writing. I never feel like I made the wrong choice.

Lately, I’ve had this strong urge to buy a piano, especially as I move to make writing more of a full-time thing. It’s a good break for me, when I’m frustrated, to sit down and play something clearly, to be able to figure out a different but equally artistic puzzle. When I used to run a lot, I would listen to the music and imagine it arranged for different instruments in my head. Playing is now a good stress relief for me. But if I do it, it can’t be cello. That’s got some heaviness associated with it. My MFA teacher, Chris Tilghman, told me that it’s good for writers to have a second art, one in which to work out all the anxieties of your main art. I think I’m gonna get an electric piano.

RIF: How did you decide what music to incorporate into the novel?

AG: I tried to make the programs as realistic as possible—something light, something heavy and classic, something that pushed the audience a bit. The pieces that I featured in each section represent for me the mood of that section. So, the first one, they’re struggling with moving from student to professional—the Dvorak American is very much a piece on that bubble.

The second section is full of tension and personal transition. No composer better illustrates internal struggle than Shostakovich. In the third section, they’re all mourning something (family, relationships, the past), and the Tchaikovsky Andante Cantabile is such a sad, nostalgic piece. In the final section, they return to the piece they began with, the American, and also play an octet—they become bigger and pass something on. They create something new with the commission.

RIF: Did you find it difficult to write the musical, technical parts, or did they come easily? You write the musical parts in such a way that isn’t isolating for a non-musical reader to immerse themselves in, even if they don’t know the exact technical terms or can’t bring the tune into their head. Was this a conscious writing decision, or did you have help from non-musical proofreaders?

AG: That’s really good to hear! I think it came easily. I’ve read a lot of bad program notes, and I always wanted to write good program notes. The stuff people actually wanted to know; the sort of emotion a certain piece is intended to evoke, the story of a melody.

RIF: Do you have a character you feel most connected to? Or a character you found the most fun to write?

AG: The character I’m most connected to is Brit. Not because I’m like her, but because I understood how one might become like her. She frustrated me because of her passivity, but I understood everything that happened beneath her surface. Getting her to speak was always hard. The most fun character to write was absolutely Henry—pure musician wish-fulfillment fantasy. I’ve always wanted perfect pitch.

RIF: Conversely, was there anyone whose personality was harder to draw out?

AG: Jana was really hard, because her personality was so hard. I found it much easier to get into her when she was alone, so it was a struggle to put her in scenes with the others. Actually, the scene where she talks with Brit in Griffith Park at night was a breakthrough scene when writing her. Like, “Oh! She can be soft, but only when the worst day has happened to her.”

RIF: Do you have any wild on-the-road drama from your musical past? Hotel bar fights, inter-quartet love triangles?

AG: Hmm…what am I allowed to say? That hot tub scene that’s recounted in the redwoods was something I definitely heard of happening. I never heard of a hotel bar fight, because I think musicians are very careful about their hands. They would never punch someone, which is why what Henry did was so foolish.

RIF: Did you have any pre-show rituals or traditions? 

AG: I had those hand-warmer packs runners use because concert halls and churches are always freezing. My cello teacher had me visualize playing it before I did it, the way athletes do. It always helped. I know people have very different opinions on whether or not to play a piece all the way through the day of, or to save it for the stage. I’m a save it for the stage person.

RIF: What’s your favorite piece of classical music to play? And to listen to?

AG: I love Brahms! He writes such incredible bass pieces, so much rich cello in them. I love the Brahms “String Quintet No 2 in G Major.” The addition of the extra viola gives it a lot of texture, and as the only cellist, it’s easy to stand out. I also love the Schubert Cello Quintet. The Bach Cello Suites were what I played as a student, and also Shostakovich Cello Sonata. I have a soft spot for Shostakovich because of his story, and how strongly it comes through in his pieces.

RIF: How about non-classical music—what’s your guilty pleasure pop jam?

AG: Lately I’ve been obsessed with Francis and the Lights. Like, in an unhealthy way where my friends ask me to stop talking about it. I tend to do that—become very obsessed with an artist and devour them until I ruin it. I think that obsessive nature makes me a good writer? I love Robyn, Sia, Fleetwood Mac. I love Fleetwood Mac. Talk about a crazy story in an ensemble.

I will sing every word of Sia’s “Chandelier” or “Elastic Heart” and mean every word. The same with “This Must Be the Place by Talking Heads,” “Piano” by Ariana Grande, and anything Pat Benatar. I will cut someone for Bruce Springsteen. And when I need to feel good about myself, I play Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” really loudly.

RIF: Do you have a favorite pop-culture foursome?

AG: I’m supposed to say The Beatles, but I never listened to them! I played “Eleanor Rigby” and “Fool on the Hill” a ton in chamber music (for weddings), but I don’t think I’ve ever heard either of the original versions. So I know the tunes, but not the lyrics. My boyfriend hates this about me.

Veep just won best ensemble at the SAG Awards. That show is incredible, but in that every single character in that ensemble hates each other. The Obamas? There’s four of them, and they’re the best.

RIF: Share five fun facts people may not know about you!

AG: 1) I once played Yo-Yo Ma’s cello.

2) I used to sneak backstage at rock concerts all the time. I met Dave Matthews three times and Marilyn Manson once (by accident!). Also, Jewel and Fiona Apple and Blues Traveler and Ben Harper. My mom told Ben Harper I should play the cello for him. He was like, “Oh…sure.”

3) I’m named after the Steely Dan album, but I really, really, really don’t like that song.

4) My friend MJ calls me a “cultural omnivore,” in that I like very highbrow movies and TV, but also extremely lowbrow stuff like Real Housewives. Is my longest relationship with Andy Cohen? Maybe. I’m hoping to have time to get into 90 Day Fiancé soon.

5) I just started taking boxing lessons, and it might change my life?

Author Photo: Darcie Burrell

AJA GABEL's writing has appeared in The Cut, BOMBThe Kenyon ReviewGlimmer Train, and elsewhere. A former cellist, she earned her B.A. at Wesleyan University, her MFA at the University of Virginia, and has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Aja has been the recipient of fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Literary Arts Oregon, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she was a fellow in fiction. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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