Emily Nemens on Getting to the Heart of Recession-Era America in a Baseball Novel
The Author of The Cactus League in Conversation with Christian Kiefer
Emily Nemens is a true polymath of the arts world. As an illustrator she has collaborated with Harvey Pekar and others and has had a cartoon in The New Yorker. As a writer, her short fiction has been featured in n+1, Esquire, the Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, and Blackbird. For five years she was co-editor of The Southern Review before being named editor of The Paris Review in April 2018.
Emily’s debut novel, The Cactus League, has been long in the making. A beautiful examination of American lives told through the wildly strange lens of the Arizona baseball spring training, the novel centers on a crisis in the life of Jason Goodyear, star player of the fictional Los Angeles Lions. But The Cactus League does not simply or easily chart its hero’s trajectory, and in fact Goodyear is absent from the text more often than he is present. What remains is a tapestry of dreams, longing, loss, success, addiction, failure, beauty, and, occasionally, love.
Christian Kiefer: I’m not someone particularly interested in sports as a topic and yet was really pulled along by The Cactus League, a book which is, at least on its surface, a sports novel. I wondered why baseball, why the training camp season, what attracted you to this as a subject matter?
Emily Nemens: I’m glad you found your way into spring training, Christian! Can you make a banner with that message? The Cactus League—it’s not just for sports nerds! I’m trying to get the word out. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was delighted when a beat writer for the Cards read and admired it, but when someone who doesn’t know sports—better yet, when a person who doesn’t like sports finds the book compelling, that’s a feather for my ballcap.
I picked baseball both because I’m a big fan—not in the stats-head, watching-every-inning way, but in the sense that I like the game, abstractly (as an American subculture, as a feat of athleticism, as a setting for dramatic performance) and in practice (when I can get to a stadium or carve out the time to watch a few innings: bliss). I’m not the first writer to admire the pace of play and the narrative possibilities within the sport—that there is this subgenre of American letters around baseball is something I was interested in, too—but I was particularly excited to strip baseball of its bottom-of-the-ninth, this-pitch-really-counts narrative.
That built-in drama has been done before (see “Casey at the Bat,” Pafko at the Wall). What might happen if you try to create a narrative against spring training’s throw-away innings and games that don’t count (at least not in the traditional sense)? What would happen if you acknowledge the drama of the stadium and high-pressure games, but then take those players off the field and set their fates spinning elsewhere?
CK: So spring training as a microcosm of America? Or perhaps even of the American dream?
EN: Microcosm of America, yes. I’m interested in exploring subsets of American culture and thinking about what that implies for our contemporary moment, or the very recent past (the book is set in early 2011, at something near the nadir of the Great Recession). In the case of The Cactus League there’s a lot of striving and hope (there’s your American dream), but also a lot of struggle and isolation (that has a bit more of a realist, disillusioned ring to it). The Cactus League isn’t quite a Marxist critique, but I was thinking about class, Studs Terkel’s Working, and how economic disparity in America is (again) in a moment of brash, bold, and troubling relief.
CK: That sounds very ambitious to me: a sports novel that’s also a critique of the collapse of America’s socioeconomic net.
EN: Well, maybe so, but I didn’t take that challenge lightly. I’ve been chipping away, framing and reframing this conversation, for years. I wanted to look at the system and its decay with inquiring skepticism, but I also approached the task with empathy for the characters involved. To overlay a cast of characters atop that critique, and give them personalities and narrative arcs and have a bit of fun with the language along the way—that was a tough nut to crack. I spent a lot of time thinking I was crazy for going back into these pages with such doggedness, reworking them again and again.
CK: That work really shows. The narrator who pokes his head into the text between the stories has quite a lexicon, not to mention an interest in deep history, geology, topography, and so on. In fact, you manage to move easily between conversational storytelling and a more erudite narrator’s voice.
EN: The narrator is a journalist who’s been forcibly retired in the massive newspaper downsizings of the early 2000s, but in my writing, he started as a nameless, bodiless Greek chorus. I was really interested in storytelling, premonition, and recollection as it relates to fabled tales of athleticism, and how that trope could work for my kind of subversive sports story. I had this chorus, and they were speaking about the current moment with this slightly moralizing, on-high position, and one day, it hit me square between the eyes: the contemporary equivalent to the chorus could be, should be, a senior journalist-turned-sports columnist. Here’s someone who speaks for and to the people, with a level of access and insight that sets him apart from the rest of the characters.The Cactus League isn’t quite a Marxist critique, but I was thinking about class, Studs Terkel’s Working, and how economic disparity in America is (again) in a moment of brash, bold, and troubling relief.
Once I understood that, and understood he’d feel slightly disenfranchised by his recent layoff and impending mortality, the lexicon for those interstitials—the grandiloquence and the snark and the glimmers of earnest concern—felt entirely right. That I had a narrator who was almost omniscient and mostly empathetic, resonated with the close third of the rest of the book.
CK: Who did you turn to for inspiration and counterpoint? Any particular sportswriters or sports novels stand out?
EN: I read Malamud and Plimpton and that really strange proto-fantasy baseball book by Robert Coover. But I also read a lot of McPhee and Roger Angell and Frank DeFord. A bunch of athletes’ autobiographies, oral histories, etc. A really good, mostly forgotten book called Brothers K by David James Duncan. My second year of grad school, knowing I was going to write a baseball book, I did an independent study that was all sports literature. My prof and I would go sit in the right field stands at LSU games and talk about the list, which was the length of my arm and took a lot longer than the semester to get through. He helped me get into the press box for LSU Football, too, which was tremendous.
It’d be a few more years before I realized my narrator was a sportswriter, but understanding the culture of the press corps, the writers and coaches and how stories are presented to the media—that real-time mythologizing that happens in a presser—was fascinating, and supremely helpful.
CK: So you started thinking about this during your second year of grad school? This is a project you’ve been working on for a long time!
EN: Try my first year of grad school! Tami (the divorcee who haunts spring training stadiums, looking for a fling) showed up in late 2011. I’ll admit I was doing the grad-school dabble of writing everything at once: these stories set in spring training, plus stand-alone stories, plus a novel, plus drawing congressladies. At a certain point The Cactus League pulled ahead.
CK: At what point did you understand that The Cactus League was going to be book of stories that lock together as a novel?
EN: Well, it started as stories—stories are my first form, the one dearest to my heart, and the one I’ve spent the last decade championing in my editorial work. But several years into the book, I realized I had this stack of stories that all took place at the same time, in the same location, and they were just bumping into each other in awkward and coincidental ways. What a missed opportunity! Talk about teamwork, or lack thereof.
I ordered and arranged them along a timeline, tinkered with some elements and rewrote several entirely so one led to the next to the next. The lynchpin of the dominos was the star left fielder, Jason Goodyear. Each team has a star, around whom everyone else is oriented—why wouldn’t the Los Angeles Lions? He’d been loitering around with the rest of them—at one point I’d charted out every player on the 40-man roster—and it felt entirely natural to elevate Jason, put him in the team’s and the readers’ crosshairs, and give him a storyline that created some wind.
It was important to me to keep the cadence and the payoff of the story form in each chapter, but to layer in forward momentum and an underlying arc so there’s accretion happening, too. It helped that, while the spring games don’t count in the traditional sense, there is this winnowing down of opportunity, as more and more players are cut from the roster each week. That was a built-in countdown clock, to know that all these characters were bracing for Opening Day.
CK: I really love that ticking time bomb aspect of any novel. It’s a great way to put pressure on the narrative situation without having to constantly point to the bomb.
EN: I agree. In sports literature, the countdown is usually heading toward the bottom of the ninth or an actual clock. I liked that we’re ticking toward… the start of the season. That doesn’t sound ominous on its surface, but for so many of the characters in The Cactus League, that moment is curtains.
CK: This is your debut novel, but you’ve worked as an artist and cartoonist (including a cartoon for The New Yorker). I wonder how your aesthetic as an illustrator might have affected your approach to this novel. Does one feed the other?
EN: I’ve always toggled between writing and visual arts. In college, I concentrated in visual arts and art history, but was also studying poetry with Michael S. Harper. My first residency, at the Kerouac Project in Orlando (a great opportunity for an emerging writer!), I’d write for as long as I could each day, then pivot to drawing until my eyes went squinty. For me, moving between writing and drawing feels like doing crawlstroke and then flipping onto your back for backstroke—still a considerable effort, but this big relief, to have the other half of you above the surface, your face to the light. And breathing is easier, too! That might be a hamfisted metaphor, but to me, the flip and surge of moving between mediums does feel that good.
When I got stuck with The Cactus League, I’d draw. I had a particularly bleak spell after it was a stack of stories but didn’t feel quite like a book yet. Being bullheaded, I decided I would sell a cartoon to the New Yorker. (Bob Mankoff, the former cartoon editor, has a great semi-autobiography/how-to book on this topic, but it also contains the refrain: Here’s how you do this, but you couldn’t possibly do it. I took that as a challenge.) It was grueling—several months of submissions, ten jokes and drawings a week—and entirely worth it. At a certain point—after six months or nine?—I’d been away from the manuscript for so long, turning it over in my head, thinking about new inroads, that I finally felt ready to get back into the project.
CK: You’re also very well known for your Tumblr series of watercolors of women in congress.
EN: Oh, I loved that project. Again, it was a chipping away—the concept was relatively big and ambitious (all of the women in congress, a commentary on political portraiture and the limitations of the power suit), but so much of the work, and so much of the joy—was in the execution, painting one tiny woman after another (those paintings—neurotic watercolors—were six inches square). It was something I could do after a day of reading at The Southern Review, and I was grateful to be using this other muscle. That it found such a big audience—and that it drew attention to gender inequity in congress—was very rewarding. It feels somewhat naive in our post-2016 world to make labor-intensive, hand-painted infographics about gender inequity, but I think it was the right project for that moment.
As for how drawing helped me approach this project, I do see a few commonalities. There is an earnestness to the motivations of both that feels a bit uncool, maybe a step removed from the center of the conversation, and I’m okay with that. I mean, a bighearted book about baseball? Not exactly the sexiest thing I could do with my thirties. And the iterative process—i.e. drawing every damn woman in Congress—is both tremendously tedious but also a really satisfying work for me. I think my approach to revision (I went over the book so many times! tightening, polishing, polishing, tightening…) is definitely informed by that same iterative impulse. I have such admiration for those moved by the muse, who write quickly and create art in a few brushstrokes. But I know I’m more methodical than that, and think so much of the good work I’ve made comes through duration and determination, through doing another lap.
CK: Speaking of another lap, I wonder how your writing life fits with your day job as editor of The Paris Review? How do you maintain enough brainmatter for your own writing after a long day of working with other people’s words?
EN: Well, all decorum went out the window when I was doing my last big rewrite—which was concurrent with my first year on the job. I made rules: I would only see friends if they had traveled across state lines or if they’d recently had a kid. I never ate brunch—who had time for that? My boyfriend gets 8,000 gold stars for sticking with me through that crap year.
But even when things are not so harried, I’ve always been a bit of a snake with my writing—going for spells without writing, then a big writing session, then digesting it for a while, before starting the process again. I admire the at-the-desk-every-morning writers and wonder how much more, or more quickly, I could get things done if I didn’t have my day job. But then I think about my day job, which is one helluva gift.
I felt the same about The Southern Review—at the risk of sounding self-important, I’m so proud of what the little literary quarterly has done, and is doing, for American letters. Once I figured out how to compartmentalize other people’s writing from my own, spending all day editing gave me countless case studies of what you can do with language. And importantly, how you can make it better. Now, working with other people’s writing so intensively is not getting in the way, but has facilitated my assemblage of this awesome rolodex of tricks of the trade.
CK: Finally, any chance you’d tell us what you’re working on now?
EN: I’m writing some stories about museum objects, but just getting back into that. To be honest, this winter was really about finding my equilibrium as a human of New York—not just an editor in a big new job, or a writer on huge deadline. I started going to museum shows again, and my boyfriend and I went to the opera (the new Akhnaten really blew my hair back). Listening to records, watching the occasional film (those were definitely verboten during the rewrite). I started running more and baking again (two activities that are net neutral, in my mind), and I read a ton, occasionally even for pleasure. I hung out with toddlers and their parents, walked the dog farther, and called my mom more often.
The Cactus League by Emily Nemens is available now from FSG.