Aja Gabel’s fiction can be found in New England Review, Glimmer Train, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. She was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and lives and writes in Houston. This is her first published essay. An excerpt from her essay “The Sparrows in France” can be found here. The full essay appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Could you tell us a little about “The Sparrows in France”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The hardest part about writing this essay absolutely was going back to that time in my life—going back, emotionally, to the very room in which he died, that morning. Being witness to a parent dying is something most everyone goes through, but it’s also not something you ever get encouraged to talk about. And it’s transformative, no matter what age you are, but especially when you’re young. So writing this felt cathartic in a way writing doesn’t usually for me, as though I finally got to talk about it. But when I was writing it, I kept having to resist the urge to get up and walk away. It’s hard to sit with sadness. So I ended up looking away from the raw sadness periodically in the essay by examining this ortolan bunting phenomenon. That came from a nonfiction workshop I was in with Nick Flynn, in which he asked us to research something outside of the situation we were writing about. We spent a class with me giving a presentation on this weird phenomenon, watching YouTube videos of people doing it, etc. It’s a good way to make the whole endeavor of emotionally difficult writing more palatable. For everyone.
Do you consider your piece, which discusses grief through the lens of cooking and dining, to be part of the food writing genre? Do you see it as in conversation with other pieces on food and eating (aside from, of course, A Movable Feast, which is quoted in the essay)?
Hmm, that’s a good question. Charles Bowden’s essay about death and food, “The Bone Garden of Desire,” was the first personal essay I ever read that knocked me out, and I think I probably re-read it at least once a year (everyone should go read it). I definitely teach it all the time. I wasn’t trying to imitate that essay but now that I think about it, maybe I was, subconsciously. It just made sense for me to look to the way people eat because my dad was so into cooking and eating and his stomach cancer completely shut down that desire. Actually, now that you bring this up, I’m realizing I gravitate towards food writing in personal essays. One of my favorite short pieces in the New Yorker recently was Donald Antrim’s essay about being depressed and how it affected his appetite. Maybe this could be my new thing. I could write off all my meals at tax time.
The piece is organized in an anti-chronological order. How did you decide where to place each individual section?
There was a lot of moving pieces around before it came to this version, but I think the short answer is narrative instinct about balance and intensity. In the revision process, I did a visualization thing where I put each section on its own sheet of paper and moved the pieces around, physically, on my floor. That also helped me see where there were some holes or room for more, or too much.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
This sounds a little reductive, but I learned to trust my desires and instincts. I recently realized I spent a long time writing the compromise between what I thought I should write and what I really wanted to write. Then I spent a year in Provincetown writing all through the long, cold winter, and often the power goes out, and all the restaurants are closed, and the houses are shut up, and there really isn’t anything else left but the ocean, a few reticent fishermen, some booze, and your desires. When everything else is stripped away and no one is talking and the only sound is the radiator rattling, what do you really want to write? Write that. That’s what I learned. It’s sort of silly it took me this long to learn it.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I guess I’d have to say music, since I just finished a draft of a novel about a classical string quartet. I’ve played classical music since I was five, starting with the violin and switching to cello. The writer Chris Tilghman was one of my teachers in my MFA and he always said every good writer should have a second art, and I think he’s right, just in that the writer’s life can get insular, which is difficult when you’re trying to write about the world. I stopped taking lessons about four years ago, and only play occasionally, for weddings, but playing cello was a huge part of my life for a long time. I’m wary of making too many one-to-one analogies about music and writing because in many ways, music is the opposite of writing: it’s collaborative and physical and non-verbal. But I suppose that’s why it’s helpful. It takes some of the pressure off of words.
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.”
If you were to write a credo, do you have a potent piece of advice, either from yourself or from another writer, that you might use as a jumping-off point?
My first thought is: oh my god, I don’t have a credo, I’m not a real writer! My second thought is: whatever Joan Didion said, that’s what I believe. My third thought is: just write what you love. My fourth thought is: I’ll get back to you when I have a few books under my belt.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I just finished a draft of a novel (are there more drafts of it to come? I’m not sure), and I’m reading Bad Feminist, which is making me want to write cultural criticism/personal essays. Actually, it’s just making me want to be Roxane Gay’s friend. Does that count as a project? I’ve also got a short lyric novel idea I’m thinking about, which emerged after reading Jenny Offil’s Dept of Speculation. Basically I’m just a big copycat when I read.