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Getting to Know Essayist Aaron Gilbreath

Ellena Basada

We are so excited to welcome multiple talented creative non-fiction authors to come provide intensive writing workshops to the students of the Critical Studies MA program at PNCA. This upcoming week, essayist Aaron Gilbreath will be leading students in the art of music writing as an extension of his latest book This is: Essays on Jazz. I sat down with Aaron screen-to-screen to harvest some intimate insight into his life and practice.

What does being a writer mean to you?

AG: For me, being writer means getting to indulge my curiosity and making sense of the world through narrative. It also means learning to hear the stories all around us, as well as inside us, and helping readers become more aware of our world and the connections we have to each other, especially how we are all more alike than we are different. It can be very comforting and encouraging to read something and realize that you are not the only one who had that experience, that other people share certain fears, or pain, or made similar errors. That only comes from stories that give clear deep glimpses into other human beings' interior worlds. I strive for that. There are many reasons to read: getting information, feeling a certain feeling from a story's tone or setting, but literature helps create empathy by letting readers see the humanity and commonality in our fellow human beings.

Tell us about your latest book This is: Essays on Jazz.

AG: It's an eclectic collection of pieces about the musicians and the music of mid-century jazz. Some of the essays tell the story of individual players like Jutta Hipp and Lorraine Geller in a more traditional narrative style. Others drill down into specific topics: what the life of a single Miles Davis song across ten years of playing it reveals about his ideas about improvisation; using an old weird play to examine the influence of sobriety and intoxication on creativity. I just bounced from one subject of interest to the next. I like eclectic essay collections.

Why does jazz stand out against other genres? When did you become passionate about jazz?

AG: My dad turned me on to jazz when I was a kid. He loves music and played me old country, too, but he loved Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, jazz that really swung rhymically. My shared love of music grew from there. I listen to anything that grabs me, from loud gritty guitar music to twinkling pop, but certain mid-century jazz stands out to me because its driving rhythm moves my body in a powerful molecular way. You know how certain flavors just really hit all the right spots for you? Certain jazz does that. I'm all about rhythm and beats. Also, sad songs with blue notes and minor chords—I love the sad stuff and the jubillant stuff, and jazz has both.

What are your most treasured books in your personal library? Why?

AG: So hard to choose. I have so many favorites! Maybe my first editions of Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis and Dogs of the South, which I found for dirt cheap in a used bookshop. I treasure my signed Edward Abbey photo book, because old Cactus Ed was my first literary idol, and I couldn't live without my old beatup copies of Joan Didion's books, which are marked up with my marginalia from my early aspirational years, when I was trying to learn how she did what she did and struggling to learn to write anything readable.

What is さんま塩焼き? Why are you enthusiastic about it?

AG: That's a fish called sanma—or Pacific saury—that is relished in Japan. It's harvested in fall, roasted with a simple dressing of salt, and to me, it just as the perfect taste. Too few Americans know about its deliciousness. They build entire fall festivals around it in Japan, which I hope to attend one day. I've only visited Japan in winter and summer.

Describe the qualities that are most valuable to a writer.

AG: For narrative nonfiction writing, I'd say honesty, curiosity, empathy, self-awarness, a sense of humor and adventure, a willingness to take risks with subject matter and form, and a sense of narrative. Humility and objectivity help when writing about the more intimate aspects of our personal lives. Also, intuition. Artists have to learn to listen to their guts and turn off their brains. Learn the rules, but also learn to trust your intuition.

What is the best advice ever given to you?

AG: Oh boy, it would be a three-way tie for best. My dad's advice for having any kind of fullfilling fruitful career always was: Find what you like and are good at and do the hell out of it. He's right. In grad school, Susan Cheever told students to read for theme, not only plot. When you write personal essays, that's one of the best pieces of advice, because theme connects your personal experience with a more universal human experience, which connects readers to your story. And finally, indulge your curiosity. Everything and everyone is potentially interesting. That's my advice to myself, but Einstein validated it when he said "Curiosity has its own reason for existing." Meaning: something's value doesn't derive strictlly from its pragmatic or fiscal value. Look around you. How can our world not fill you with wonder?

Aaron Gilbreath is a nonfiction writer. Author of This Is: Essays on Jazz and Everything We Don't Know: Essays, he's written stories for Harper's, Kenyon Review and Brick and works as an editor at Longreads. Follow him on Twitter @AaronGilbreath and Tumblr http://aarongilbreath.tumblr.com/.