So here at phoebe, every once and a while, we sell a back issue, but a few months ago, we got a bounty of requests for one particular printing: our Fall 2011 contest issue. When I asked one purchaser why that specific journal, they replied that they wanted to read “Little Fish,” the story that inspired the film. The Film is, of course, Little Fish, starring Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell, from director Chad Hartigan, released February 2021, adapted from our very own Aja Gabel’s 2011 prize-winning tale.
Both film and story center on a couple fighting for their love and memories in the midst of a viral pandemic that affects the brain. “In the beginning,” Gabel writes, “they called it NIA, neuroinflammatory affliction, causing a slow deterioration of memories.” Newlyweds Emma and Jude wonder just how much they should write down, so they don’t forget what they know and feel for each other. “We’d hear stories from somewhere like the coast of Maryland or Florida. Always there, not here,” explains Emma in the film. “Like the story of the man stranded in the ocean picked up by a fishing boat. It turned out to be another fisherman. His boat washed up to shore four days later. He said he couldn’t remember how to steer it, so he decided to swim home.”
Aja Gabel explained that she wrote “Little Fish” for an apocalyptic fiction class with Mat Johnson, in which writers were challenged to reinvent a genre trope. “Apocalyptic stories that are actually meaningful,” Gabel told me, “are not really about the spectacle of the apocalypse. That’s what you go to for the entertainment value.” Such tales are larger than the speculation, she explained, and her work was interested in the love between Emma and Jude, rather than just the threat of the virus. Yet, in looking back on the work from inside a viral pandemic, Gabel and readers may see that spectacle in a new light, and we talked about this in a recent interview about the story, the film, her process and her latest project.
Melissa Wade: It’s been 10 years and so much has happened, in your writing, your life, the world, so looking back now on “Little Fish,” what would you say matters most about the piece to you?
Aja Gabel: While the story is about a world where a pandemic ravages the population, what matters to me about the story is not about me predicting any future we’re currently living in. What matters to me about the story is the philosophical questions that drove me to write it: what is love if our shared memories disappear? Can you carry love if you are the only one housing those memories? Is love more like faith, not contained in any neural networks of our brain but living in something less scientific and harder to explain? I think I wrote the piece because I hoped the answer to that last question is “yes.” So when it comes to readers, I hope that’s what they take away from it, a chance to look at their own concepts of love and memory and loss.
MW: Apocalyptic fiction can be bleak in nature. Did you find yourself pushing against that with this piece?
AG: The reaction to the story whenever I share it is that it is so sad, and I get why it can inspire sadness, but for me, especially in the ending, there is hope. There is something about the value in having loved and lost, and that is what I was writing toward. In a class with Antonya Nelson, she said that short stories can have sad or bad endings because they’re short, but because you invest so much time in novels, both the reader and the writer desire a more positive ending. I think that the story was only as emotionally intense as it was because of its length, and that was an interesting problem for the film adaptation.
MW: When you watched the film, did you feel like it had the same thought that you were trying to instill in the story? Or did it evolve in a different direction?
AG: The film retained the mood of the story, while adding more sensory layers and completely changing some content, which I welcomed entirely. I didn’t even know you could adapt short stories to film, so it was a lesson in how to lift a feeling from something and make it into a visual medium. The screenwriter added more dramatic moments—an attempt at a cure and a vaccine, for example—and more characters to turn some of the internal story of my writing into external drama. And the writing was only one step of the process. There’s so much more to it beyond that. With Olivia Cooke, for example, when I first saw her in the feature, I was blown away. When I saw how she conveys the sadness and empathy of the character, it was clear how crucial finding the right person can help deliver the essence of what you’ve written.
MW: I’ve read that you are working on an adaptation yourself, for your novel, The Ensemble. Is that right?
AG: Yeah, I’ve written a pilot version, which is in constant evolution. With The Ensemble, it is so different, because “Little Fish” was a short story turned into a feature film and The Ensemble is a novel evolving into a TV show. A story is more of a gesture or a first act, a sketch or an outline, a jumping off point. For the novel, I spent so long with those characters, worked out a full story and completed it, and then with adapting to television, I panicked at first wondering if I even had more to say. Then, I thought back to all that got cut from the novel and moments I wanted to add in but couldn’t, and that was liberating.
MW: Speaking of The Ensemble, there’s a quote on the book cover from Kevin Brockmeier, that says you have countless, complete human beings living in your head, and that is why your characters are so well-developed. Would you say that’s true?
AG: Well, first of all, I love Kevin Brockmeier. He is such a kind and generous reader and writer. And I feel like what he’s saying is that I have a lot of empathy, which I think you have to have to be a good writer. There’s got to be the ability to be curious about people. It’s something that I’ve done since I was a kid, even in an obsessive way, always wondering what it was like to be someone else. And the only way to deal with that curiosity, for me, was to write. When I get stuck now, as an adult, that is what I think about—being curious about living as another person, so that I can just play and pretend again.
MW: Thinking about that kind of pretending, especially in how you imagined a pandemic prior to facing our current situation, how do you assess the way you saw it then? Are there elements that you think of differently now that you’re living in a pandemic?
AG: There are certain resonances that feel creepy in how I got them right—like the obsession over where the virus came from and the madness within the media. But “Little Fish” was such an intimate story, really about two people, whereas what we just lived through in the past year feels like such a global struggle and loss, and I don’t think I had that in the story, that kind of collective mourning. That feels like a whole other story to me, more like a novel, something so big and complex that you need length and time to investigate what that collective pain means. There’s a sense of the larger world in the movie that isn’t in the story. The movie has the imagery to do that, with sets changing around them and visual representation of the world’s struggle.
MW: To go back to your process, I wanted to ask about the research you do before creating an imagined world. In a recent interview, you mentioned the research behind the novel you are working on now regarding time travel. How does research factor into your process alongside the philosophical question?
AG: I like to start with a question that I try to answer in writing, even if a really good question isn’t truly answerable. What research does is help me refine that question and see how it relates to the philosophical content of the work. Like how does loss change how we experience time? I can research quantum physics and string theory and use the observation principle to clarify that question and make it more interesting. And the worst thing is to write something, publish it, and then feel like there’s a big hole in my understanding of what I was talking about after the fact, so I don’t want that to happen.
MW: With the narratives you are working on now, do you feel like you’ve evolved as a writer?
AG: I really started out small, writing intimate stories. “Little Fish” is one of those. For me, writing a novel was terrifying because of the need to spin a long narrative. At first, I focused on the characters and creating enough small, intimate moments between them to fill a novel, but what I’ve come to realize is that, with a novel, you can disappear into a world. What I want now is to make bigger worlds instead of keeping the story so small. The Ensemble spans a lot of time, which I think is part of how I was exploring larger worlds, but now I want to look into worlds I’m not familiar with—historical, speculative, niche–so to expand the way I’m writing. I will always be interested in how characters relate, but I want to live and write now in bigger and bigger worlds.
To read both the small and big worlds of Aja Gabel, you can find more here, including her novel The Ensemble. Check out “Little Fish” in our archives and watch the film on Youtube through IFCFilms. Get lost in the beautiful writing, as we all wait patiently to see what this talented writer does next with time travel.
has her debut novel, The Ensemble, out now from Riverhead Books. Her prose can be found in The Cut, Buzzfeed, Kenyon Review, BOMB, and elsewhere. She studied writing at Wesleyan University and the University of Virginia, and has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Aja has been the recipient of awards from Inprint, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She currently lives and writes in Los Angeles. Find her @AjaMaybe.
is phoebe’s editor-in-chief and a 3rd-year fiction candidate in George Mason University’s creative writing MFA program. Recently, she’s been awarded the Alan Cheuse International Writers travel grant, as well as the GMU Thesis Fellowship, both in support of her current novel project concerning assisted-suicide tourism in Switzerland. And, last spring, she won the Shelley A. Marshall Fiction Award for her dystopian short story, “The Wholeness Institute.” When not writing and working for phoebe, she teaches writing courses with PEN/Faulkner and runs her own photography business.