Aja Gabel's The Ensemble Follows Four Friends Across a Quarter-Century

Ahead of a Brazos reading, Gabel talks her debut novel, which she mostly wrote from her apartment here in the Heights.

By Ryan Pait May 14, 2018

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Houston will welcome Aja Gabel, a UH alum, for the kickoff of her first book tour. Her debut novel, The Ensemble, has earned advance praise from writers such as Celeste Ng and Alexander Chee. Gabel’s novel is set in the world of classical music and follows four young musicians, called the Van Ness Quartet, over a period of 25 years as their stars rise and fall.

Gabel will speak at Brazos Bookstore about The Ensemble on Thursday, May 17. We caught up with her to talk about homecoming, which Van Ness Quartet member she’s most like, and with whom she’d form a quartet.

How does it feel to be doing one of your first book tour stops in Houston?

It feels amazing. This novel was my dissertation for my PhD, so I really wrote the majority of it in my apartment in the Heights and revised it and had my mentors read it and give feedback. So to be able to have a finished product and come back to Brazos—where I spent so much time as a student—is really, really special.

That’s so cool. Very full circle, to like the closest degree.

It is! I’m launching the book in L.A., because that’s where I live now, but that first stop is going to be Houston, and I think it’ll be a nice, warm welcome. Hopefully!

This is super vain, but I love the cover of the book. It’s so gorgeous and striking, and perfectly suited to the content of the story. Did you have any kind of input about the cover?

Yes! Riverhead is really particular about their covers. They do incredible, bright, and really vibrant covers. So we went through a few rounds. It started out with this much more literal image of musicians, and it wasn’t quite landing right. So then they came back with this, and it’s perfect. You’re right—it does have to do with the world of the book but doesn’t explicitly seem like it’s a scene from the book. It’s more evocative of the feeling and not literal about a specific scene. And I love that yellow. I just had no idea that I would love it so much when they sent it, and now that I see it everywhere I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s my cover!”

You have four main characters in Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry. Who gave you the most trouble when you were writing?

That’s a tough question because there are hard parts with all of them. But the person who I didn’t really look forward to writing was Jana. She’s the super ambitious one, but her ambition makes her kind of cold and shut off from the world. It was hard to sort of get into her brain because her emotions are so shut off from people. I was moving toward this moment in the book where she has to reconcile that, so everything I was doing was moving toward that. That’s how I solved it. But it was tough for me. You want to write characters who have access to their emotions, but when you write someone who doesn’t, it’s tough.

Who was your favorite character to write or explore?

My favorite character is definitely Brit. I just felt so tenderly toward her. A lot of bad things happen to her, and she’s not very forthright. She sort of lets things happen to her. But she feels a lot, even if she doesn’t know how to say it or how to take control of her life. That was sort of like a writer’s dream: there was a lot of interiority I could write about. I just felt that one day she was going to figure it out, but in the meantime I could take care of her while she got there. That was an enjoyable writer’s task.

The good thing about having four main characters is that if one of them lacks something, you can explore it in another. That must be kind of a relief.

Yeah! For me it was really fun, and it made the process easier to write about four different characters with four different mindsets. It diversifies the process and created a lot of tensions by virtue of there being more than one person. It’s funny, because one of my teachers at Houston, Antonya Nelson, told us, “Do the easiest thing. For your first novel, don’t try to rewrite the Great American Novel.” I remember thinking, “Oh, no. I have four characters, it’s close third person on all of them, it’s set across 25 years.” It was a hard task. But I think I did it because it gave me a lot of stuff to play with. I don’t know how people do novels where it’s just one point of view. Probably at some point I’ll write something like that, but that’s a long time to stay with just one person. I get kind of frustrated when I’m writing that. The world’s a lot bigger.

I have to ask the Sex and the City question: Are you a Jana, a Brit, a Daniel, or a Henry?

(Laughs.) I think I understand Brit a lot more. I like her. But I think I probably identify a little bit more with Daniel, actually, with his struggle to be better than you are in the current moment and not knowing how to get there. Loving something and trying to figure out how to get it without putting in the work—I just identified with his struggle a lot. I feel like a lot of his themes are exposing. I put a lot of own insecurities into him, so when I read his scenes I’m like, “Oh, no! I hope nobody sees me!” But I certainly feel like I’m a Daniel.

You’re forming a literary quartet—what three authors, dead or alive, do you want to join you?

Oh my God, this is so fun. Definitely Zadie Smith, and definitely Alice McDermott. Those two are masters, and they wrote novels that helped me figure out the kind of novel that I want to write. For a third one, I feel like it’s got to be a guy just to mix it up. I’m gonna throw Haruki Murakami in there. You never know what he’s going to bring to the table, but it’s always something interesting.

Aja Gabel, May 17 at 7 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet Street. More information at

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