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R.O. Kwon

The Truest I Could Be: Q&A with ‘The Ensemble’ author Aja Gabel

Aja GabelAja Gabel’s first novel, The Ensemble (352 pages; Riverhead), reminds me of why I first, long ago, might have fallen in love with reading. It’s immersive and sweeping, featuring ambitious professional musicians—Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry—who form a string quartet. Walter Pater posited that all art aspires to the condition of music; I don’t know if I agree (that “all” makes me nervous), but I’ve thought for years that there isn’t nearly enough writing about music, and musicians. (A few exceptions I love include Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, and now The Ensemble.)

Gabel and I spoke over email about Baldwin, point of view, YouTube performances, and, of course, music.

ZYZZYVA: We’ve talked about our shared past lives as would-be professional musicians. Can you tell me about yours, and about what led to your leaving it behind?

AJA GABEL: “Leaving it behind” is the right phrase to use, but it’s something I had real trouble doing. I started playing violin when I was 5 and switched to the cello when I was 10. I played very intensely until I was about 22, until I finished college. I mostly played chamber music, but studied privately and performed solo as well. It became clearer earlier than that, though, that I wasn’t going to be the sort of conservatory-going, professional career-chasing musician I’d dreamed of being when I was younger. I don’t think I accepted that clarity for a while, though. I continued studying and playing anywhere and everywhere throughout my twenties. I didn’t really let it go—I mean really let it go—until I went to Provincetown to start writing this novel. That was the first time I didn’t take my cello with me when I moved. Not playing every day opened up this space in my brain, enough landscape for an entire novel about the pursuit of music to take hold. Unfortunately, that meant my skill level quickly dissipated. I can still play, but I wouldn’t do it publicly.

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Now & at the Hour of Our Death: Q&A with ‘The Immortalist’ Author Chloe Benjamin

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(Photo by Nathan Jandl)

I refuse, as a rule, to consult all fortunetellers, palm-readers, and tarot-card diviners. I won’t so much as glance at a horoscope; routinely, I forget what my own astrological sign might be. It’s not so much that I believe or disbelieve in what a fortuneteller might have to tell me, but that I distrust myself, not knowing how my future behavior might change in response to what any would-be oracle has to say.

Chloe Benjamin’s second, much-lauded novel, The Immortalists (352 pages; Putnam), follows four siblings who, as children, go to a fortuneteller to learn when they’ll die. Afterward, tensions between the future and the present, between predictions and reality, threaten to break this family apart. I talked via email to Benjamin (whose first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, won the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award) about her powerful, compelling new book, and about death, the present tense, and dance.

ZYZZYVA: I’m not at all alone in finding the central premise of The Immortalists—the possibility of finding out, and maybe even believing in, the date we’ll die—to be both terribly moving and terrifying. What brought you to this idea?

Chloe Benjamin: I know it sounds strange, but I have such a hard time answering this question! I think it’s because concepts, for me, always feel very subconscious—I don’t have a clear memory of the first time the idea hit me, but I do know that the basic kernel was always there: four siblings go to visit a fortuneteller, and then the book follows each of them over the course of their lives. I wish I had better origin stories. Stephen King has a great line that references the muses as “the boys in the basement”—this idea of people working away at some deeper level of a writer’s consciousness. Of course, as a feminist, I amend that to “the gals in the basement.”

Even if I can’t remember the precise spark, I do know that The Immortalists comes very much out of my own neuroses. I’ve always struggled with uncertainty and loss, which are intertwined, for me: the uncertainty of whether and when we will lose our loved ones, our happiness, our stability. And there’s no greater, or at least no more final, loss than death. It’s occurred to me that I would be able to slough off so much worry if I knew that I and those closest to me would live long lives. Of course, we can’t know that, but it got me thinking about what it would be like if we could know—with no guarantee that it would be good news. Is knowledge a blessing or a curse? A liberator or a hindrance? And to what extent are denial and ignorance actually positive forces in human life, in that they enable us to keep going?

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