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Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient: Aja Gabel

We’re excited to introduce each of our 2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog this winter! For these fellowships, out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 439 applications we received. These judges named nine writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. The 2018 OLF applications will be posted online soon, and the deadline will be toward the end of June. You can read more about the application process by clicking here

2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient

Aja Gabel




Aja Gabel‘s debut novel, In Common Time, is forthcoming from Riverhead/Penguin Random House. Her fiction can be found in Bomb, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review and elsewhere. She has a BA from Wesleyan University, an MFA from the University of Virginia, and a PhD from the University of Houston. She lives and works in Portland with her dog, Bear. 

Q&A with Literary Arts

1. What are your sources of inspiration?

When I’m feeling stuck or writing cold, I try to step away and read a book that has the kind of sentences I want to write. This happened recently, when I was reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time in the bath. She was describing the way someone’s father walked into a room—simple, just that—and it was so perfect and unexpected that I immediately got out of the bath and went to my computer and started writing this story I’d been thinking about. Lauren Groff, Jenny Offill, and D.H. Lawrence are others I go to for sentence class. If it’s more a feeling I need to access, usually it’s a movie I watch, something like Beginners or Rachel Getting Married. I have a deep and irrational love for movies.

2. How would you describe your creative process?

It’s fast and furious in that first draft, and then agonizingly slow in revision. I’m grateful that I’m a fast writer, but when it comes to revisiting something and trying to see it a different way, it’s very, very difficult for me. So I have lots of revision tricks to make the task smaller, like printing it out to try to see it visually, in terms of space, or only revising one character’s dialogue throughout the whole thing. I’m also not one of those “write 1,000 words every morning” people, though I respect that. I think my writing is best when it’s inspired. So I try to be inspired as often as possible. 

3. What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?

I’ve been in Oregon two years and can say that, hands down, it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived. And I’ve lived in a lot of beautiful places. I’ve realized that the beauty of the place I live is very important to my emotional well-being, and thus, my writing, and no place has been better for me than the Pacific Northwest. So I’m so very grateful to have this special state recognize my work in this way. It’s also nice to use the fellowship to carve out some breathing room to get to work.

4. What are you currently working on?

The cool thing about having finished a novel is that there’s suddenly all this space and time to start a new project. And that’s my favorite part, like the beginning of falling in love. Anything’s possible, and everything’s exciting. So I’m working on a ton of beginnings right now: a time travel story I’m pretty excited about, a new novel that’s very different from my last, and an idea for a TV adaptation of my upcoming novel.

5. What advice do you have for future applicants?

Send work that is the most honest version of what you do. Authenticity is always recognizable.

OLF Judge’s Comments

We live in a time of forgetting. Aja Gabel’s “Little Fish,” like any good speculative story, takes this reality to the extreme. What is the nature of memory, of love, of hope, when the present cannot be sustained by the past? Gabel writes with strong emotion sentences made to be remembered, sentences attuned to sound. This is beautiful writing that asks where to find beauty and perhaps answers the question with an act.

—Matthew Salesses, fiction judge

Excerpt from current work:

With her look, Brit released Daniel from who he had momentarily been, which, as the first movement (which the composer had retitled from allegretto to Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm in order to avoid accusations of formalism) unfurled, made him consider who he had been, but he couldn’t access it anymore, and that was because who he had been was dark and closed and hard. He should be open: a familiar feeling, as music had always made him feel that way, bigger and fuller. It was because there was a story, one Daniel found so comforting in the scores, able to see it all at once, to see what he heard. Stories always filled you up.

This was the story of the Shostakovich quartet, as Daniel saw it in the black conversation on the score in his mind: the first movement, Jana trying to convince the audience of a placid pastoral theme, and the supporting notes martial, marching always forward, and as the martial themes start to overtake the pastoral melody, Jana fights back, and at the end, in an accelerating coda, Jana wins, two soft notes plucked in time to two harmonic eighths. But then, in the second movement (Rumblings of unrest and anticipation, definitely not moderato con moto), Henry’s plodding three notes repeat, relentless—Henry looked a little relentless himself, his face strained, his work showing for once, but his sound clear and exacting—and Jana’s extended solo, different now, not lining up with Henry’s three note cycle, the notes manipulated so as to appear in a different time signature completely, and the melody not pastoral at all. It was wild. Angry. He saw the competing time signatures on the page. Shostakovich was a beast that was difficult for many listeners because his quartets could not be fit into a mold. They, too, wanted to be free.

Daniel lost sight of the score, which coincided with a realization what Brit had always been trying to convince him of, that it wasn’t just music that made you bigger. People did. People gave you stories. People made you expand.

And at the start of the fourth movement, Henry found his reason, too. Because this was the groaning sound of one kind of family, the whoosh of blood, the gulp of muscles, the hiccup of veins. What else was there to do but make it?

Daniel had no score, but a story: here were those triple stops, played together but apart, and Daniel’s haunting solo, the solo a lament, the fourth movement mourning into the fifth movement, and the fifth—which Shostakovich re-titled Why? And for what?— furious for a time until the very end, where that same pastoral theme that had begun it was played once more, this time greatly diminished, barely audible, slower, uncomplicated, all that desperation giving way to, well, giving up. What was the original title, the Italian one? Daniel could not remember. The movement wound down and down until Brit guided Daniel and Henry to a series of slurred whole notes, one after another, so many and so long and so low that it was as if they were merely tapping into a seismic chord that made the earth vibrate at an otherwise unheard frequency, and at last Jana plucked her final two notes—okay, I’m giving up hope, you can, too—and the notes didn’t end, but died. 

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