Stepping Back from the Cliff: A Conversation Between Aja Gabel and Chloe Benjamin

Aja Gabel is the author of The Ensemble, and Chloe Benjamin is the author of The Immortalists and The Anatomy of Dreams. The two authors discussed their backgrounds in chamber music and ballet, rhythm, their influences, San Francisco, and writing toward happiness.

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CHLOE BENJAMIN: One of the reasons I fell so hard for this book is that it offers an insider’s perspective on a particular subculture — in this case, chamber musicians. I know it can be obnoxious when people immediately jump to the biographical similarities between a novelist and her work, so I hope you’ll forgive me for starting this by asking about your background as a musician. The book is filled with details that only someone who knows this world intimately could know: violin hickeys (a detail I loved), the way it feels to play a particular piece of music.

AJA GABEL: I don’t think it’s an obnoxious question at all. In fact, I tend to think ignoring the background of a writer is more annoying, as though any massive piece of art could come from a vacuum. To answer your question, I did play cello pretty consistently for about 25 years. When I was younger I played competitively and studied obsessively, but I chose to pursue writing instead of music after college — not that I had the chops to be a professional musician. I didn’t! I was good, but there was better, and I always knew that. I think this book came from that knowledge, that as much as you could love something like music, there’s this intangible gift of being really naturally talented that separates the amateur from the professional. It’s a tough realization, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The difference between desire and disposition, or tenacity and talent.

I could not relate more. Your depiction of this world fascinated me in part because I’m also a writer with a background other art forms — most seriously, ballet, though I was also involved in theater. And when people ask me why I stopped, I say the exact same thing: I was good, but I knew I wasn’t good enough. I’m a big gymnastics fan and I once heard a commentator say that in order to do a particular, very difficult vault, a gymnast has to have “a brain like a computer.” I loved that because it got at the ineffable, sort of genius level, you-have-it-or-you-don’t quality that separates very good artists (or athletes) from great ones. And maybe writing comes naturally to both of us in the way that dance or music didn’t quite. Was it a pleasure to incorporate the fine details and texture of something you know so well, or did you feel pressure to “get it right”?

I hope what I did in writing about music in my book is half as graceful as what you did in your book, writing about dance, or even magic, as that’s a kind of theater. So you must know it was absolutely a pleasure to be able to put into words this thing that had been in my hands and calloused fingertips for decades, to finally be able to describe what I had witnessed for so long in studying with professional musicians, their oftentimes violent practice towards refined beauty. I do feel a pressure to get it right, and I feel sure that I’ll get emails from professional musicians pointing out this or that inaccurate detail. But boy did I spend years thinking about this project, and even longer observing chamber musicians and their gnarled intimacies. So as long as the emotional truth of the quartet is resonant with people, I’ll feel I’ve done some right.

I’m also curious about how you feel your background in music informs your writing. One thing that’s always puzzled me is how little I feel my dance informs my writing. Dance is so nonverbal that it feels like the opposite of writing. My years in theater, on the other hand — even though they took place when I was younger and didn’t last as long — feel much more relevant. I can see the influence in the way I write dialogue and blocking, the way I hear rhythm and silence. (Rhythm, now that I think of it — maybe that is something that dance contributed to my work.)

How connected do you feel your musical background is to your written work? Do the two overlap — or not — in ways that surprise you?

Oh my god! What you just said about dialogue is something I’ve never thought of before, but might be right on the money. How a sentence or paragraph sounds is very important to me, and I know it’s important to all writers (hopefully), but for me it’s often where the story starts, instead of with an image or a character. The sound of the phrase in your mouth. I don’t think I’ve connected that to my musical training ever, because I was never a very good singer, but of course you’re probably on to something. I remember a professor at Houston reading an early draft of this and saying, “what’s with all the long sentences?” because in climactic moments for these characters they narration tends towards long, breathless sentences. I was flummoxed for a minute before answering, and finally said something like, “when these characters become emotionally overwhelmed, so do their sentences and cadence, the music of their speech.”

I love that. And as someone who is focused on dialogue, I adored yours. One of my favorite quotes about dialogue comes from Raymond Carver, who of course was so expert at it. He said, “It’s sometimes said that I have a good ear for dialogue, and so forth. I certainly don’t think people talk the way I write. It’s like Hemingway. It’s also said that he had a good ear, but he invented it all. People don’t talk that way at all. It’s a question of rhythm.”

I find that line so delightful and thought provoking. For me, it illuminates why, although writers should listen closely to the way people talk, you can’t just reproduce it unedited and have it work on the page, no matter how authentic those sentences may be in real life. It’s the paradox of art: there must be conversion of reality into fiction in order for fiction to feel like reality.

Yes, and maybe that’s why it’s so awesome to have another art to borrow from, to remind myself that it’s all art, that there is a conversion. That’s what’s so great about music and dance and theater and film and all of it: it’s not reality, though it speaks to it.

You write so well about the tension between artistic production and community. Because a quartet is collaborative, its members are able to have both. Sometimes their interconnectivity isn’t enjoyable — it can be a chain, maddening, limiting — but I still found myself envying it. Writing is such a solitary experience. Strangely, when I’m nostalgic for ballet, it’s rarely the physical movements I crave, but the relationships. I miss the camaraderie of the dressing room, the communal experience of class.

Exactly. I often mourn that I don’t get to play chamber music very much anymore, because that artistic interaction breathed life into me. I’d leave rehearsal physically exhausted and emotionally high. Like you, I always thought of the loneliness of writing as so deliciously different from the rich relationship-based practice of chamber music. I did one as the antidote to the other. It’s cruel, how quickly things like flexibility or finger positioning can leave without practice, isn’t it?

Yes — when I try to do certain ballet positions now, I’m stunned at how terrible they look when I know I’m capable of better — or that I was capable of better. Isn’t it funny how the brain can outpace the body in that way? I still remember what it felt like to do those movements, they’re so natural to me and it feels easy to conjure them up, and then when I look in the mirror, I look nothing like I imagine I do in my head. And then writing sort of cuts the body out of the equation entirely. It’s brain to page, though you can still have the feeling of looking at the page, as at the body in a mirror, and thinking — no, that isn’t what I meant to do at all.

Sometimes I wonder if my movement from performer to writer comes out of an increasing tendency toward anxiety and control. There is still a performative quality to a finished piece of writing, but you can fine-tune the product to near perfection before you put it out in the world; there are none of the risks that come with in-the-moment, public-facing creation. Of course, there are different risks — you’re still putting your work out there for public critique — but you aren’t reproducing it night after night anew, you know?

It’s true, you aren’t. There is definitely a sense of control to writing that suits my personality. I remember playing the Elgar Cello Concerto (made famous by Jacqueline du Pre, check it out) and there are these huge intervals, and you’re playing so high up the fingerboard at parts, and every time I played it, it was like an act of faith: I hope I hit that high E! That never happens with writing. It’s just me trying and failing to hit the high E, and all the readers ever see is the successful E. But sometimes I think it would be nice to be able to continually revise and interpret one’s own idea. Because it can feel a bit claustrophobic giving readings sometimes, as though these words I wrote must be true forever. I suppose the answer is more writing, more books.

Wow — that is such a fascinating concept, continually revising and interpreting one’s own idea. In a way, I think we do: if you believe that all writers have their obsessions, the things they return to over and over again, then maybe we are revising some version of the same idea each time. The same heart, at least.  

Speaking of obsessiveness: Do you think all artists are — must be — selfish in order to give their art the protection and time and psychological space that it needs to grow? I’ve always feared that I’m selfish because I chose to pursue my passion. I strive to create art that engages with the world socially and politically, which means I have to engage in those ways, too. On the other hand, I need to withdraw to some extent in order to hear my own voice. I also think my insecurity and anxiety about selfishness comes out of the way our culture deprioritizes art. Like, we don’t think of athletes as inherently selfish.

I completely hear you, but look. You know what’s also selfish? Staring down at our phones all day. And a hell of a lot of people do that. If I have to leave my partner or my job or my dog or my responsibilities for a month to go to Wyoming to scribble out a novel idea in my head that might one day make someone somewhere feel more seen or less lonely, I think it’s worth it. As someone who has felt very comforted, perhaps even saved, by novels and stories, I know that doing it right can be meaningful. So you’re right. It’s the de-prioritization of art — especially if you’re a woman creating art — that is sparking this guilt that I, too, often feel.

There’s this moment in your book right after 9/11 that I found fascinating. The quartet is playing at a vigil, which Jana initially opposes. Brit says that the people at the vigil will “just want music so it’s not quiet when people are crying,” which “seemed to Jana the worst reason in the world to play music.” But at the vigil, she sees that the music functions as part of the landscape of that moment, “an apparatus… to hold them up for a while.”

On the other hand, you complicate that moment by exploring Jana’s ambivalence in the months after 9/11. She feels sadness but worries that her pain isn’t as “authentic” as others’. And then, when the city “settled into an agitated, anxious resilience, [she] didn’t want to be filled up with that, not now, especially not now, and she felt bad for that, for her desire to flee from unease, to switch randomly from a diseased understanding of the world to a major chord.”

I’m so glad you mentioned that part! Writing Jana, a particularly closed off, hardened character, in a 9/11 New York City was one of the scariest things I did as a writer. There are lots of ways to get that wrong, but I desperately wanted to be honest about what her reaction might have been.

This dichotomy — the meaning Jana finds in being useful during a moment of cultural pain, and her competing desire not to be entirely porous to it — resonated with me, and I think it speaks to my concern about selfishness. I do think that the artist is always an outsider, an observer, to some extent — like if we fill up entirely with the moment, there isn’t room to see that moment from a distance, produce something that comments on it. And I suspect most of us who create art feel guilt about that distance, but also believe it’s necessary to make something that offers to others what the quartet does at the vigil — a sense of solace or understanding or companionship. Ironically, we need distance to create something connective. What do you think?

Wow, Chloe. Your reading of that section is sort of blowing me away. It’s reminding of something Alexander Chee once said to me, when I was his student in a creative nonfiction class in college, and my brother unexpectedly passed away. He said to me, with infinite tenderness, “take notes.” And it both chilled me and changed me as a writer. Because he was right. He knew that as writers, taking notes is the way we survive the most painful moments in life. So I think you’re correct in saying that it does require some remove, a refusal to be subsumed mindlessly by tragedy. I don’t think that makes us less engaged or involved. People do all kinds of mental and emotional gymnastics to find solace. If what I’m doing can maybe also give someone else peace, that’s okay, I think.

One more comment on that 9/11 scene — it also made me think about what kind of emotional tenor we seek as artists, which is most helpful. Jana doesn’t want to fill up with the unease of the city. At the same time, I think there’s a pervasive idea (myth?) that melancholy is conducive to great art.

Now that’s the selfishness that you were talking about before! That’s it right there at work, this idea that we must wallow in melancholy to be able to know it and write it. It’s a kind of selfishness to mistake one’s own pain for unique knowledge. It’s not just the pain anyone is interested in. I think there’s a difference between being sensitive and being, well, subsumed. We all — writers or not — have stood at the edge of the cliff of sadness or darkness. The interesting part is the step forward or backward, that decision, the thought and action. Anyone who stays in one place too long, like a place of melancholy, probably doesn’t produce writing that is very interesting to me. To be as empathetic as humanely possible, to experience and observe, and to act: that’s the note-taking we do.

I want to star this and underline it and print it out to put on my desk. I’ve not heard this articulated in the way you do, that it’s not just the pain anyone is interested in — this is so true. Why do we value less the ability to illuminate other ranges of the human experience, not least of all joy and pleasure? I love what you say about the interesting part being the step forward or backward. It occurs to me that this is not only a sign of perspective but of technique, of craft — what separates a novel or a memoir from a diary.

That’s a really great jumping off point to teach memoir! I really wanted to be able to write the joyful moments in my novel as well as the sad moments. I know there’s more of an immediate catharsis for me in being able to articulate sadness, but there is something very useful in a human way to being able to articulate joy. I think so few writers — and people — are able to truly stand in happiness that it’s just much harder to write about. Think about how few really good epithalamiums there are. Maybe if we could write about the move towards happiness better we’d be able to hold it better. I loved being able to write about four characters and not be limited to just one, so that I could poke at a range of emotions and circumstances. Certainly that’s one thing that’s so satisfying about The Immortalists, the splintering arcs and emotional journeys of a single prophetic event.

Yes! Even more proof that our novels are sister books: in addition to the performing arts similarity, both follow four characters over many years. I love books that do this — reading them as well as writing them. I often think about Alice Munro, who offers the reader such shock and delight (or sorrow) in showing what happens to her characters over time. Have you always felt drawn to work that covers a lot of time and perspectives, or was it more that this project specifically required it?

Munro is the master of that, isn’t she? There’s a moment in her story, “The Albanian Virgin,” where the third person narration itself almost incants what happened to a character over time, over the rest of her life. It stabs me in the heart every time. I also think of Munro’s triptych of “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence.” How she can express the quiet tragedies of a person’s entire life in a long short story! I guess I never thought of that as the explicit goal of my writing, but I have always been drawn to work that jumps in time and dips into more than one character’s head. I think I always want more when I read, I always want to be in everyone’s perspective, and I don’t mind maximalism in literature at all. For me, as a reader, it’s the ultimate way to get lost in a book, to enter into this living painting full of an entire world of people. Now I also know that’s an incredibly hard task as a writer. You don’t want to look at the absurd timelines I had to create to write this relatively uncomplicated novel. I can only imagine what your drafting process looked like.

A mess! It’s funny; earlier, I was talking about how maybe writing is, for me, a reflection of my desire for control, and yet writing is also the rare place where I let myself play and explore and take wrong turns, where I trust the chaos of it all, and my ability to make something from that chaos. I basically have a ton of hard copy research materials stacked vertiginously and countless Microsoft Word folders embedded like those Russian dolls — folders for each draft, each sibling, each draft of each sibling, each research subject, each research material — and then loose-leaf notes that I stress about finding, and notes written in the hard copy research materials that may or may not have made it into the typed files in the folders. Oh, and then when I’m hit by an idea when I’m not at home — this is so unromantic, but I use the Notes app on my phone, because it uploads instantly to Gmail, so I can’t lose it. I wish I were the sort of writer who carried a notebook around, but it just isn’t practical for me. So anyway, I have a whole other black hole of content there. Honestly, it’s a miracle that it ever all comes together.

Going back to other writers, though: I always find this question hard, but I’m genuinely curious. Who are some of your favorite writers and/or your literary influences? For readers who enjoyed following your quartet over decades, do you have any suggestions for similar reads? (Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings comes to mind for me, as well as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life — two of my own influences.)

I read The Interestings only recently, after I finished my novel. As I was reading I started to panic, thinking Meg Wolitzer might think I copied her!

Yes! This is exactly what happened to me! I was like, “Shit, she’s done it — what else is there for me to cover?”

It’s everything I tried to do in my novel. Hers is so wonderful and exacting, and the sort of living ecosystem of people that I was talking about before. Giving into a book like that will have me lost for days at a time. Her new novel, The Female Persuasion, is just as expertly consuming. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty was influential for me, and continues to be something I return to over and over again, just to remind myself how the novel is really done. Of course I am a mad devotee of A Little Life, but I don’t always recommend that to people, because it’s an acquired taste, isn’t it?

It’s true. Recommend it to the wrong person and they look at you sideways, like, “Yeesh, this is what you’re into?” But god, I just loved it so much. I loved so much I was uncritical; I’d forgive that book anything.

Nicole Krauss’s Great House is a book that doesn’t often get talked about, but is masterful in its treatment of time and perspective. For books that are wholly unlike my novel, but which I have loved deeply: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and any and all short stories by Haruki Murakami and Tessa Hadley. I bet those last two authors haven’t ever been uttered in the same sentence before. I’m very curious about you and your influences, both in regard to this novel and otherwise.

Ha! I love that, about Murakami and Hadley. Such great picks. James Baldwin — my God. Recommended reading, I feel, now and always. I haven’t read Tessa Hadley but I do have a story of hers on my bedside table that my mom clipped out of the New Yorker and sent to me, and which I now clearly have to read.

I would say that Alice Munro remains a primary influence for me. Beyond the genius way she uses plot and structure, I’m hypnotized by her prose. It has such style but it isn’t purple or flowery, and for a long time, I thought being purple and flowery was the way to be stylish. Now I’m drawn to writers whose prose is stylish in a way that feels not just “lyrical” but interesting. I actually keep a list of favorite sentences on my website so I can keep track of and reread them. Sometimes I can’t explain why I love something, it just feels new and it lights something up in me. An example is this line by Jeffrey Eugenides from The Virgin Suicides: “The wind sound huffed, once, and then the moist thud jolted us, the sound of a watermelon breaking open, and for that moment everyone remained still and composed, as though listening to an orchestra, heads tilted to allow the ears to work and no belief coming in yet.” It’s those last few words that make it for me, and no belief coming in yet. It wouldn’t hit you like it does if he’d written, “heads tilted to allow the ears to work, though no belief came in yet,” or something like that. It’s just strange enough.

Or these lines by Ann Quin, from the short story “A Double Room”: “The fish flat. Dry yellow. Little dishes with lumps of potatoes like ice cream dropped on a pavement. Vegetables as though chewed already. Looks good love doesn’t it? And it is good. It will be good. I can’t survive it all unless it’s going to be good. It’s up to me the whole thing.” God! The punctuation, or lack thereof — it just hits you like a stake.

Even though I’m constantly seeking out language that feels fresh, I confess that I’m drawn to work that is pretty traditional plot-wise. I get frustrated if I can’t understand what’s happening. I love an epic scope, a good story. I think my love of story was influenced by the YA writers I read growing up — people like Madeleine L’Engle and Philip Pullman and Lois Lowry and of course J.K. Rowling. I want to be enveloped and transported.

I like that you put “lyrical” in quotes. It was sort a dirty word in my MFA, like writing lyrically was a show without substance. This goes back to what we were saying about infusing dialogue or narrative with rhythm or some kind of artistic sensibility that feels authentic to the plot or characters. You’re right. Lyricism has to be interesting. Ask any poet.

That’s such a clever reversal — your point that just as we don’t want empty, uninteresting lyricism, unstyled substance (artlessly regurgitated dialogue, as we discussed) is just as lacking.

I want to end by commenting on the arc that the quartet experiences in their playing. Late in the book, Henry realizes that “playing was no longer cathartic […] it was no longer a means to an end, a way to go from stifled to expressed […] Instead, playing was like lifting a sheet to reveal the secret, beautiful gears and pulleys at play beneath the work of living — that was it, like letting everyone in on a secret, instead of working their way out of one.”

I love that. Do you think there is an analogy to writing, a moment when writing ceases to be an attempt to process and is instead a revelation of the fruits of that process? Maybe it’s a question of skill — seeing the author’s hand in the work or not, as we say.

I can’t say this quickly enough: yes. Yes, you’re right, there is absolutely a moment where writing goes from inner processing to outer expression. There’s something inward about the young writer, which I think is good. I spent so much of my MFA imitating writers I loved as a way to process my own grief, and while my stories weren’t great, it was a helpful boot camp for skill-building. But the moment I started to look outward, to speak and write towards the world, the stakes changed. What was possible changed. Writing this novel required that kind of purpose. I have a hunch any large project would require the invitation of a community of people into the imagined world. Short stories don’t necessarily have to concern themselves with the complexities of the larger world, though incredible ones can. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think they’re required to look as far or speak to the same kind of audience as a novel. Maybe that’s a different conversation.

I don’t think writing will ever not be personally revelatory for me — that’s a huge part of why I do it. But communication is at the core of anything we write, isn’t it? Even this. I’m still learning, but I think the struggle in writing is to not be so concerned with myself, to remember that there is more to commune with than my own inner scars. After all, the best revelations come when one wound recognizes another, don’t you think?

Absolutely. And I think this has to do with what you said earlier about stepping back from the cliff of experience or emotion in order to do something with it, something that is, ideally, relevant beyond the self.

In a lot of ways, writing about place helps me get out of that place of navel-gazing. Someone once told me that as long as you can be inspired by a site, or imagine a site during a time you’ve never experienced, you have an active and useful imagination.

That’s a good distinction. They definitely said “site,” and it was in reference to a way I felt visiting the Coliseum in Rome. I was pretty young, but was weirdly sad that I could have a visceral feeling of what it must have been like to be there in 200 AD, and yet couldn’t actually go there to that time. The solution was to imagine your way there, write it yourself. I think that’s one of the things I loved doing the most in my book, imagining and creating San Francisco. I was actually thinking about how both of our novels sort of reference a San Francisco that doesn’t really exist any more. San Francisco has been a place — like New York — that used to hold a lot of dreams for artists. I have so many visceral memories of driving to San Francisco when I was a kid or a teenager to see all the classical music and dance there. And now I know almost no artists who can afford to live there.

It’s so true. And it’s interesting that, although we often think of the ‘60s as a peak moment for artists in San Francisco, you and I have seen an evolution in the city in our lifetimes alone. I was born in the ‘80s and lived there until I left for college in 2006. It was certainly expensive then, but now, when I go home to see my family, I’m overwhelmed by cost, the crowds, the overstimulation. It really feels like a city that is made for a new young elite (as well as, I guess, an old elite), most of whom work in tech. Like you, I grew up inhaling art in San Francisco; I danced in the Castro, did theater at New Conservatory (on Van Ness!), and saw my mom, a theater actor, perform all over the Bay Area, from the Mission to Walnut Creek. Do you get the sense that art can still thrive in San Francisco in a way that is still underground, varied, diverse? Or do the smaller places get shut down until you just have ACT and SFB and the symphony, which are wonderful, but at the top of the food chain?

I honestly don’t know. I really feel at a loss for putting the changing landscape of San Francisco into a context I can be kind to. And in saying that I don’t want to erase the generations of Asian Americans, African Americans, and so many others who emigrated there and weaved the texture of the city, and who continue to do so, somewhat invisibly. San Francisco’s Japantown is still one of my favorite places in the state. My great grandparents came on a boat from Tokyo to settle in San Francisco and Alameda, where they lived until they were taken to the internment camps. I would imagine they’d have a pretty wild take on how San Francisco changed after they left, too. Maybe that’s something unique about San Francisco, how it keeps being a locus for transformation. It’s such a physically small place, but has inspired so much, I don’t know…so many bursts of pioneering people, I guess. And in a way, we both wrote books about this wrestling with loss and change, with the idea that any place or person can contain or explain a life. Maybe it’s selfish of me to long for a San Francisco that existed once. And maybe your hunch is right, that there are underground seedlings of misfits ready to change the city once again. I can’t wait.

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