Interview by Tizzy Brown
In June, the Girls’ Night In audience read The Ensemble by debut author Aja Gabel. The Ensemble follows the lives of the members of a strong quartet, through the ups and downs of their careers and their personal lives. For so many people, the world of chamber music is not just foreign, but difficult to penetrate or understand. Gabel effortlessly and melodiously intertwines the pieces the quartet performs with the falls and crescendos of her character’s stories, bringing to life a previously opaque world. While this story in some ways is about music, it is really about how music has shaped the lives of the quartet, and how they have shaped each other.
We were able to catch up with Aja Gabel and ask her about her novel, the process of writing, creativity and self care.
To write this novel, you have to have two areas of expertise: writing and chamber music. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to write this story?
You hit the nail on the head. The two things I did for a large chunk of my life were write stories and play music. I started doing both as soon as I could, around five years old. But I didn’t start writing about music until this book. For a long time they were separate interests. Music is collaborative and social, physical and interpretive. Writing is solitary, interior, and inventive. I liked that they were different. But once I thought about the kind of life I wanted to write about—the connections and fusing and breaking that life was made up of—it seemed clear to me. I had to write about a string quartet.
In this novel you often intertwine the turns in the character’s lives with the music they are practicing and performing. Can you tell us a bit about how these scenes came to be?
I wanted to write scenes of these characters playing music, but I didn’t want it to be boring for anyone to read –no finger positioning or music theory. So when I was writing scenes of music, I tried to think of pieces that could reveal emotional states, and places where the quartet could play that music that would be pivotal. The thing is, when you’re a musician, not every piece you play involves a momentous life change. But when you play all the time, you’re probably pretty likely to be playing when some major transition is happening in you. Imagine if all your most intense moments had actual soundtracks!
Each of the characters in this novel has deep love for one another. It is rare to see such non-romantic love written into a story about such a close-knit group. Why was it important to you to write these characters as in love, but not lovers?
It is rare, isn’t it? I always found that odd, that when we talk about love stories, we always “reduce” it to romantic love (which isn’t actually that simple.) But the love you have for a best friend, for the boy you grew up playing with, and for the sibling that always annoys you are all equally intoxicating and heartbreaking and heart filling. I wanted to paint a whole picture of the myriad kinds of love that fill our lives.
Through writing this story, you’ve managed to make accessible a world that to many seems unreachable. Did you want to bring this world that has been a part of your life for so long to your readers?
I did! I found that whenever I talked about it to people, they wanted to know more. I realized that it was a world that was often kept apart and elite, but that maybe people think it’s stodgy behind the scenes. There’s a soapy, delicious fascination with the world of ballet, and I knew classical music to be just as physically grueling and emotionally messy.
This is your debut novel. What advice do you have for aspiring writers and artists of all kinds?
The worst thing you can do is value your interior writing life by exterior awards and acknowledgment. I know it’s hard, but if the fuel doesn’t come from inside, then it will never be enough.
At Girls’ Night In we are all about self-care. If you had a free evening, with no obligations and nothing on your to-do list, what would you do?
I love an indulgent bath. Epsom salts, eucalyptus bubble bath, a candle, some white wine, and a book. Sometimes I’ll watch a Real Housewives episode while I’m in there, too.
Speaking of self-care, what was the last truly indulgent thing that you did for yourself?
On my birthday I went to an afternoon cycling class, and then I got a long facial, and then I got a massage. I spent like four straight hours just caring for my body. It felt great.
Do you have a favorite piece of music? A favorite composer?
I love the Elgar cello concerto, played by Jacqueline Du Pre. But it’s pretty dramatic, and not for everyone. I listen to it turned all the way up on my noise-canceling headphones.
You’re obviously an incredibly creative person. Other than writing and music, is there anything else you do to flex your creative muscles?
I’m trying to play the piano more. I used to play it when I was younger, and I like how methodical the early stages of learning it are. I tried hip hop dancing one year. Trust me, the world doesn’t need me doing that.
What are some of the books you’re reading right now?
I just finished The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir, which I adored, and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, which anyone who has ever been with someone they shouldn’t should read. Up next is Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (so excited for that movie) and Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage.
What do you do when you wake up in the morning, and what do you do before going to bed at night?
In the morning I have to put on Sunday Riley’s Good Genes, otherwise I’m not awake, and then I do the New York Times mini crossword over breakfast. Before bed, I put on one of my Eberjey pajamas, which are so so soft, and then I slather my face in all kinds of oil. Right now I’m pretty into the Caudalie Overnight Detox Oil and a layer of hyaluronic acid from The Ordinary. I come to bed literally glowing with product.