Aja Gabel, UH Creative Writing Program alum, sells first novel to Riverhead Books
October 24, 2016, by Mat Johnson
Aja Gabel, University of Houston Creative Program PhD, Class of 2015, has sold her first novel, In Common Time, to Riverhead Books, where it will be published next year. We caught up with Aja in the calm before the storm of her literary debut. Some of you may know Aja as the recipient of the Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/Fondren Foundaiton Fellowship, winner of an Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Nonfiction, and winner of an Inprint Alexander Prize in Fiction. Aja also taught writing workshops for Inprint and was one of Inprint’s beloved live tweeters.
MAT JOHNSON: Congrats on placing you first book with the prestigious Riverhead imprint of Penguin Random House! Can you tell me, what’s the novel about? Did you start this book at the writing program, or after?
AJA GABEL: Thanks! The novel is about a string quartet, and how they manage their personal relationships as they battle for professional success. Each member desperately needs the quartet to succeed, but for very different and secret reasons, and along the way they navigate heartbreak, death, birth, marriage, injury, failure, and more. It’s told from all four of their perspectives and covers about 25 years. I played cello for 20 years, and I’ve always been fascinated as to how professional ensembles make a living together while also maintaining relationships with each other. It seems like it must be full of all kinds of turmoil and drama (hence, the novel).
I came up with the idea in the very first workshop I took with Chitra Divakaruni, when she forced us to pitch novels, and I panicked. That synopsis I pitched back then was so silly, but the general idea stayed with me. It took me a few years, but eventually I figured out how to actually make it into a novel that didn’t sound like a Lifetime movie. Hopefully.
It took me a few years, but eventually I figured out how to actually make it into a novel that didn’t sound like a Lifetime movie. Hopefully.
And yes! I feel super-lucky to be with Riverhead. They publish so many of my favorite contemporary authors, including Lauren Groff and Junot Diaz, and I think they pay really careful attention to their small and selective book list. Also, their covers are pretty rad.
MAT: You’re living in Portland now, is there anything you miss about Houston, besides the weather?
AJA: Ha! Almost every single day I miss exactly two things from Houston: the good tacos and the good people. I’d like to find some way to ship tacos from the truck outside the Ice House to my door in Portland. And I miss the creative writing family I made there—my writing cohort, the profs, Inprint. It’s a pretty special community. And it’s a mind trip to leave that community and go try to be “a writer” out in the cold. Like, how do you define yourself as a writer if you don’t have the community to back you up? It’s only recently that when people ask what I do, I say “I’m a writer” and don’t feel 100% like an imposter.
I also still have my Texas drivers license. Don’t tell anyone.
I’d like to find some way to ship tacos from the truck outside the Ice House to my door in Portland.
MAT: Coming out of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, what were three major lessons you learned here? If there’s less than three, that’s okay. Insulting, but okay.
AJA: 1) Something Toni Nelson said in class I had with her early on helped me start this novel. She said we shouldn’t try too hard to prove ourselves with our first novel, as in, don’t try to show off all your tricks on the first go. I took that to mean in order to write something so long and involved, I had to write the way I enjoyed writing, about the subject I felt passionate about—instead of trying to write in a style that I thought was popular about subject matter that I thought might sell well, or try to leverage experimentalism when that isn’t really my thing. It turns out that if you write the way you truly and honestly want to, that authenticity can take you pretty far.
2) That said, in your apocalypse seminar, you helped me think a lot about writing stories from a commercial standpoint. And I don’t think you were saying, “write what sells,” but rather, see what’s happening in culture right now and figure out how you can fit into it. Which no one ever tells MFA students! It’s like they’re afraid to talk to us about publishing and selling. Luckily, that’s not the case at UH. And the apocalyptic story I wrote in your class has been far and away the story that’s brought me professional success. I think I’m using a commercially familiar genre, but also it’s written in a lyrical way that’s distinctly who I am as a writer. So, hey, thanks for showing me how to do that!
3) One of the biggest takeaways for me at UH was that there’s maybe nothing more valuable than a community of writers who all support each other. UH has that in droves.
One of the biggest takeaways for me at UH was that there’s maybe nothing more valuable than a community of writers who all support each other.
MAT: How do you find the novel form as opposed to the short story form? You do both, do you have any preference?
AJA: I think I was really afraid to write a novel because I felt like I couldn’t sustain a narrative for that long. Managing time and tension was a real problem for me in every draft. No one told me writing a novel was basically figuring out how time works. I guess when I say time was a problem with this novel, what I’m really saying is that figuring out plot was a real learning curve for me, especially a plot that can run across 25 years. And I think it’s probably good for my short story-writing to have a better grip on plot. Short stories don’t really require that you dig that deep in plot. But some of them sure could be improved if they did.
I haven’t written a short story since I finished the last draft of the novel, but I’m going to go back to that soon. Sounds pretty nice to be able to finish a piece of fiction in under three years.
MAT: When is your book coming out? How freaked out are you? Are you going to come back to the bayou to say hi?
AJA: I wasn’t really freaking out, but the other night I was finishing the final edits to send it back to my editor, and I kinda went nuts. I kept reading every line as though I was James Wood or someone like that, and it seemed impossible to make every single word perfect enough. And then it became VERY real to me that when the book comes out, strangers will be reading it and judging it and I won’t be there to explain things or change things. It’s going to be completely out of my control! I am still very uncomfortable with that. Let’s not talk about it anymore.
My book is either coming out Fall 2017 or Spring 2018, so far in the future that by then, we might have flying cars and the Internet implanted directly in our brain. But when it comes out, I’m definitely swinging through Houston. And not ONLY for the tacos.
For more about Aja Gabel, check out her site: http://www.ajagabel.com