Zibby Owens: Emily Nemens is the debut author of The Cactus League: A Novel. She’s the editor of The Paris Review and was previously the coeditor of The Southern Review. An alumnus of The Kerouac Project Writing Residency Program in Orlando, Florida, her work has been published in Esquire, n+1, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, and other outlets. Originally from Seattle, Emily attended Brown University and received her MFA from Louisiana State University. She’s also an illustrator. Her illustrations have been published in The New Yorker and on Tumblr where she has a following for her portraits of women in congress. She currently lives in New York.

Welcome, Emily. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Emily Nemens: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. We were just talking. We had coffee. Emily mentioned this book to me, it felt like a hundred years ago. Now here it is finally coming out. So exciting, The Cactus League.

Emily: Yeah, next week.

Zibby: Next week. The Cactus League, can you please tell listeners what this book is about?

Emily: It’s a novel about spring training baseball, but it’s sort of the least-baseball baseball book. It’s really about the community that gathers in this small suburb of Phoenix every spring with all sorts of different hopes and aspirations for the season.

Zibby: What made you write this story? Why these characters? Why this book?

Emily: I’m a big baseball fan. I have been since I was a little girl. I grew up in Seattle. My dad and I would need to get out of Seattle in March. If you can imagine all the bad stereotypes of a gray, cold place, that’s true from March 1st to 31st — or 30th. How many days are there in March?

Zibby: I think it’s thirty-one.

Emily: Okay. Anyway, we would go, not every year, but often enough that this place got logged in my mind as a really interesting counterpoint to what I knew in Seattle. That counterpoint still was really interesting and compelling when I moved to the East Coast and kept going back to Arizona and seeing how this boomtown really boomed. Phoenix, of course, grew so much, but there’s also the history of the place. Scottsdale, where the book is set, is really interesting. Frank Lloyd Wright went out there to build his winter compound. When he built there, he picked the side of a mountain where there was absolutely — you couldn’t see any power lines from his property. He was like, perfect, I’ve arrived. You get there now, and you just see the entire city sprawled out in front of you. In the near distance from Frank Lloyd Wright, and in this same community, is this brand-new stadium. I thought, huh, that’s an interesting thing to think about. What’s happening in this place that has changed so much that’s there this major league team coming in, all of their fans and all of the adventures and opportunities that come along with the team arriving in this place that was supposed to be so calm and quiet?

Zibby: Forget it. Sorry, Phoenix. I want to talk about you and your dad. Tami, one of the characters in your book — you divide the book up into sections from different points of view. Tami is one point of view. In her section, she was saying, “Her daddy would –” I’m quoting — “take her and her brothers to the minor league stadium in Lubbock a few times a season, spoil them sick with soda and peanuts. Tami learned how to keep score at age seven. By eight, she could spot a strong arm the way an architect senses a perfect sight, the way a divorcée tastes want on the tongue.” That was such a great passage. Were you that old when you started going to games with your dad?

Emily: I started going to games even younger. I’m the younger of two girls. My sister just was not interested in baseball at all. My dad grew up walking distance from Yankee Stadium. I think he had a real itch to get back into baseball when he moved out to Seattle. He moved there a year or two before the Mariners showed up. Basically as soon as I was old enough to sit through a game, we started going. It was a great time to be a little kid excited about baseball because Ken Griffey Jr had just arrived in Seattle. He was this teenage phenom. He went straight from high school. I remember, I don’t know how many years I had the Sports Illustrated for Kids cover with Ken Griffey Jr blowing this great, big bubble gum bubble. He was just the cat’s meow for me. That, plus it was a chance during our day and our week that I got to spend time with my dad alone, was really nice. I didn’t have the eye for pitches, though, that Tami had, but otherwise pretty similar.

Zibby: I feel like baseball, when I was growing up, was more — maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like it was a much bigger deal in the popular culture. My brother was a huge Mets fan. The 1986 Mets, they were like the heroes of our childhood. We had Let’s Go Mets Go videos. I know all the players from then. I couldn’t tell you, probably, a single Mets player right now.

Emily: It’s interesting. That was one of the things that was exciting about writing about baseball. I started writing the book in 2011. For this last decade, baseball has been sort of on a decline in the popular culture. What does that mean? What are we still hanging onto in terms of, why is baseball important? What happens when it fades into the limelight? What are new opportunities there?

Zibby: You started it in 2011. Now it’s 2020. What happened between then and now? Tell me about the process of writing this book.

Emily: I had been living in New York and working and writing and editing, and mostly working though. I just really wanted to write a book and commit to literature, so I went back to grad school after spending my twenties working in the city. I went to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. SEC Football is a really big deal. They’re national champions now. That’s, of course, exciting.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Emily: Thank you. I showed up and I thought, whoa, this is a really fascinating and sort of beguiling cultural phenomenon, just two hundred thousand people on campus. This is a campus of thirty thousand kids. This huge influx of people coming, I wanted to unpack that, to understand it, to enjoy it — I mean, I tailgated too — but understand what was going on, why all these different people had hooked into professional sport, or in this case, amateur, but very top-level amateur sport, and think about what that means to the whole community. I spent a while reading about football and tailgating. I got into the press corps and thinking about what was specific to Louisiana and SEC, and what about this was just American sports culture and where it started.

I was working on it pretty seriously through my MFA, but I stopped my MFA to become the editor of The Southern Review. Then I finished up my grad credits in fits and starts, but finally graduated in 2015 with an early version of this book. It was my graduating thesis. At that point, it was stand-alone stories that all jumbled together in Scottsdale. They all were happening at the same time with the same team. I just hadn’t figured out how to have them speak to one another and work together and really acknowledge that they’re all happening during a season. That’s one of the exciting things about sports literature, is that there is a clock. There is a timeline. There is a ticking timebomb of, whether it’s bottom of the ninth or the end of the season. There is an implicit fire there. I wanted to make the most of that. I took a lot of time to figure out how to do it, but took those characters and those stories, I wanted to maintain the reading experience of this really satisfying arch, the leadup and the conflict and resolution, or not resolution, but the cadence of the story while also assembling them in a way that there’s forward motion and a narrative across all nine.

Zibby: Where did you like to write? Are you a coffee shop type of person? Do you write at home?

Emily: I write at home or at residences. When I was in Louisiana, I figured out a 4/10 so I could edit the magazine in four long days and then have three days to write. I had a home office.

Zibby: Wait, what is a 4/10?

Emily: I would go to The Southern Review at seven thirty in the morning and work for a ten to eleven-hour day so that when I’d wake up on Friday morning, I’d done a whole week’s worth of work in four days. Then I had a day to write.

Zibby: Wow. Oh, I see. 4/10, so forty hours in four days?

Emily: Yeah.

Zibby: Got it, okay. With Fridays off to write?

Emily: Yeah.

Zibby: Got it. That’s such a cool way to say that. Now I know.

Emily: That worked for a long time when I was in Louisiana. I’m kind of a snake with my writing where I either don’t have an idea or don’t have the time to write for some spell. Then whether it’s Friday and Saturday or after a month, I’ll sit down and have a huge session. I did a lot of writing at this residency in Florida called The Hermitage Artist Retreat, which was really great. It’s these tiny cabins on the West Coast not too far from Sarasota. You look out the window, there’s the sand dune and then there’s the water. I need quiet. I need music without lyrics. I listened to a lot of Philip Glass. Then I realized as the music is swelling, I’m writing faster and leaning forward.

Zibby: That’s awesome. It must be the best feeling to have this off your plate now after so many years. Or are you sad that you’re not tinkering with it anymore?

Emily: Not sad. The last edit, I figured out how to build the nine stories into this continuous narrative. It felt so good. At that point, I was like, this is the book. I can’t believe I thought it was done when it was a story collection. This is the book. The last edit was acknowledging that I’d figured out how they all slot together, but there was still a lot of spare bits from when each was a stand-alone thing. I cut 25,000 words line by line.

Zibby: Ugh.

Emily: One or two scenes came out entirely. Otherwise, I was just thinking about what had been told about this character in chapter one that no longer needs to happen in chapter three, what details of backstory feel really pressing and burning, and what can be left on the cutting room floor. That felt like training for a marathon or something. That edit was hard and really satisfying. When it was done, I was just so delighted.

Zibby: I bet. That’s a lot of work, oh, my gosh.

Emily: Yeah, and it’s not a short book. It’s almost three hundred pages, but this is the length it was supposed to be. This is the shape it was meant to be all along. In that way, I’m just delighted, but I miss it. I’ve been tinkering on it for so long.

Zibby: There was a passage that you wrote that I wanted to read I thought was great. You said, “In a lot of ways, baseball players are like other men, but the difference separating ballplayers from everyone else is that they care about something tremendously. It’s thrilling, and Tami feeds off it. Most people will never touch that kind of drive. Most people, whether they’re living in small towns or big cities or sprawl, spend their lives dealing with crying babies and stupid jobs, whatever life throws at them. Baseball players, they do the throwing.” That was so cool.

Emily: Thank you. It’s a little cynical of me. For me, that was really thinking about realizing and recognizing ambition and when we all let it go at different stages in our life. So many people have, like when they’re a little girl, “I want to be a writer. I want to be a baseball player. I want to be a lawyer.” Then life gets complicated. You still have a good life, but you’re not hanging onto that real dream from childhood. To be a professional athlete, you do have to hang onto that and be so singularly focused on that opportunity. I think there’s a lot of ways to have a satisfying life. With professional athletes, there’s a drive there and a willingness to see one’s vision through that I feel like it falls away as we get through college. A whole cast of athletes that are collegiate athletes go find new careers. When you hit your thirties, running is a different —

Zibby: Last man standing.

Emily: Yeah, last man standing.

Zibby: It’s like the marathon of life. I feel like it’s like Goldie Hawn in Wildcats. Did you ever see that movie from the eighties?

Emily: No.

Zibby: I’m embarrassed. It was one of my favorite movies. She’s a female football coach.

Emily: Oh, my god, how did I miss this?

Zibby: It’s so good. Go watch it. I made Kyle watch it because he missed all the eighties movies because he’s too young. She’s the female football coach. When she gets with this team in the inner city, they have no respect for her. She’s like, watch me. I’m going to run. I’m going to beat all of you. They have this scene in the pouring rain where they’re all going around and around the track. Then it starts raining. Then it’s the nighttime. She wins the scene. She’s the last woman standing in this victorious moment. I feel like that’s what you’re saying about these athletes. Everybody starts out on the track together. Then one by one, everybody gives up.

Emily: Yes, it’s exactly like Goldie Hawn.

Zibby: Just to take your literary novel and pair it with mass market.

Emily: Well, a lot of the book is about pop culture and celebrity culture. It’s about feats of athleticism, but there’s only a few innings of baseball in the book. It’s really how these men, and not just the athletes on the field, but all the people wear the mantle of expectation and what happens when you go out to a restaurant and everyone knows you and has this vision of what you’re supposed to be like. What does it mean when you’re not going to be able to perform at that level anymore? and the psychology and the fallout beyond the performance.

Zibby: Did you have the pleasure of interviewing a lot of professional athletes for research or just imaging or reading?

Emily: It was a lot of imagining. I read a lot of autobiographies and oral histories, particularly in the contemporary moment with the culture around sports — athletes are really good at protecting their public personas for all the reasons that I look at in the book — with outlets like The Athletic where it’s their voice, but it’s also a pretty controlled voice. One, I was shy about going to athletes. Two, I just thought that there would be more opportunities to imagine and explore if I had a little bit of distance.

Zibby: Tell me a little, you have a lot of architecture references in here. Are you just interested in it? There was a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin and references to other architects.

Emily: There’s this great book that came out last year, too late to help with me writing the book, but reading it, I was so affirmed. Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic, wrote a book on baseball stadiums. He talked about, in the intro, baseball is not the American metaphor, but baseball stadiums are. I think there’s something so interesting about monumental architecture as this gathering place. It’s an oasis in the city. It’s a place where more people can gather and look at one another than anywhere else in the world or in the cityscape. There’s so many possibilities for this physical manmade creation. I was really interested in the stadium. If I have a stadium, how does that interact with other pieces of architecture in the community? Of course, I thought it was a really interesting counterpoint to have the 2011 idea of monumental architecture as juxtaposed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea of a monument two generations earlier. They’re such different buildings. They’re such different values. What does it say about contemporary culture that we’ve gone to these casinos with strobe lights or spotlights pointing up into the sky in these big stadiums rather than this monument that almost disappears into the mountains?

Zibby: It’s so pretty.

Emily: Because this is a transient community of athletes coming in, seasonal workers arriving, retirees, people restarting their lives after divorces, it felt necessary to talk about domestic architecture too, so lots of houses.

Zibby: Love it. Can I skip over now to your other life as the editor of The Paris Review?

Emily: Sure.

Zibby: You were handpicked from among, I’m sure, a zillion candidates to come to New York and be the editor. What did that feel like? I know you’d already been the editor of The Southern Review and everything. Tell me about that moment in your life and the decision to leave behind what you were doing and come here.

Emily: You can say handpicked. I raised my hand.

Zibby: Ooh, love that.

Emily: I applied for the job. I’ve loved the literary quarterly as a format. It’s just such an opportunity as an editor to support writers you admire. People pick up The Paris Review because they know the magazine, not because they know the writers inside, necessarily. That’s such a great way to share exciting new writing without having the writer to need name recognition or anything else. Just also, the reading experience of putting together essentially what — it’s 200 pages or 250 pages, so it feels like an anthology. This is the most exciting literature right now. That experience of moving between authors and thinking about what they do to one another and how they play together is such an exciting reading experience and unlike anything else.

I knew I wanted to keep working in literary magazines, but I sort of had hit the ceiling in Louisiana in terms of opportunities for growth. I was looking around. There’s only a few. There’s probably a dozen big little-literary magazines left in terms of places that could support a woman who wants to be a full-time editor. I had a sense of the landscape. I wasn’t expecting the job at The Paris Review to come up so quickly. When I did, I thought, I want that. It was great. It was hard to get it, but it was great. I had lived in New York in my twenties, but in a very scrappy, hipster girl living in Brooklyn way. To come back a decade later to this big job was a very weird and wonderful time warp almost, to come back to a city you know. I knew where things were and my favorite restaurants. Some of the things were wonderful and the same as ever. Some places, you turn a corner and there’s a whole new skyscraper there or a new cultural institution. It’s been fun to get to know the city again that way.

Zibby: That’s so neat. Since you’ve been there, what are you most proud of having accomplished? I know you’ve made so many changes and the podcast and all these other events and launch parties. You’ve done a lot of stuff. The awards, that’s one since you’ve been there.

Emily: Thank you. Putting together the quarterly is still central and the most exciting part for me, just finding fiction that is amazing stories or pieces of forthcoming novels I feel like we can excerpt, but particularly stories that knock it out of the park. That part’s really exciting. A thing that I’d never worked on but was a real joy to take over were the interviews, the Writers at Work interviews. These are the interviews of record for most writers. Not to sound too self-important about it, but these are retrospective, career-spanning interviews that the author gets very involved in writing and perfecting the voice. George Saunders, Ben Nugent and I worked on George’s interview for nine months. At one point, it was forty thousand words. We got it down to nine thousand words. George added back another six thousand. Those conversations and trying to make this document that is at once a conversation but is also really a taste statement and an explanation of how the writer’s mind works is a really exciting thing. The quarterly is great. We have a podcast. That was so much fun to put together. I really love that we have this digital presence and we’ve been able to figure out how to be a legacy print magazine with growing readership — our print circ is higher than ever — but be relevant and nimble enough to also exist online. That’s been fun. The parties, the events, we’re trying to do more out in the world, more public events in New York and around the country, really, just so there’s more access points to the magazine. People are reading. People are looking at their phones. People are online so much. We’re not an events organization. We’re a magazine, but there’s a lot of community building that happens when you get together.

Zibby: Can I ask a really stupid question?

Emily: Yeah.

Zibby: The Paris Review, The Southern Review, what does a review magazine mean?

Emily: That’s a great question. It’s not written in stone anywhere. These reviews, it started early in the twentieth century as a way of assembling a lot of content. The editors are more about picking and selecting and anthologizing contemporary writing from that moment. It’s a review of a survey of what’s happening, in our case, American letters at the time as opposed to a magazine editor who’s really assigning things. There’s a lot more regular features in terms of front-of-the-book pieces. If you were to look at a magazine versus a review, sometimes they might look the same, but reviews typically are a bit bigger. Both The Southern Review and The Paris Review have fiction, poetry, visual arts. Like I said, The Paris Review has this interview series that’s been going on for sixty-six years, sixty-seven years now. Also, reviews — this is the thing that I’m really proud of. Because they’re assembled, they’re bigger publications and they’re assembled quarterly, people keep them. They’re not quite books. I love walking into a friend’s house, or a stranger’s house is even better, and seeing that they have a couple feet of Paris Reviews on their bookshelf because this is something that isn’t so timely. It’s relevant, of course. It’s saying something about the contemporary moment, but it’s also a document that is full of literature that they want to keep.

Zibby: Love it. What’s coming next for you now? I know you’re already so busy. You have this launch and everything.

Emily: I’m going around quite a bit with the book, which will be really fun. I’m going around with the magazine as well. There’s this big conference. I don’t know if you’ve heard of AWP.

Zibby: I don’t know much about it, but yeah.

Emily: The Association of Writers & Writing Programs, that’s in San Antonio, Texas. I’m going to that. I really am eager to start writing the next thing, which will probably be some stories, my favorite. I was always a slow writer. If you couldn’t tell, this one took nine years. I’m not rushing anywhere. I’m really excited to have the book out in the world and also put it away and think about what can come next.

Zibby: I feel like in the spring you need to have — do the Mariners play? This shows my lack of knowledge. Mariners must play the Mets or the Yankees at some point? No?

Emily: They do.

Zibby: You have to have a big — you have to invite everyone you know.

Emily: Like get a whole section.

Zibby: Yeah, you should get a whole section and make it your day and give out Cactus League T-shirts or something. Sell the book. Make it a whole thing.

Emily: I love that. I’m going to Arizona in March as part of the tour. There’s a big book festival in Tucson. I’m excited for the book festival, but I’m even more excited to go sit in a couple of stadiums and just be like, ahh, The Cactus League is in the Cactus League. Here we are.

Zibby: If you do the New York thing, let me know.

Emily: I will, absolutely.

Zibby: I can bring my kids.

Emily: Whenever the Mariners come to Yankee stadium, I go to one, sometimes three games. It’s a bit of a schlep to get up there, but it’s always worth it.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Emily: Just keep going. Like I said, I thought this book was done in 2015. I look back at those drafts and I’m really proud of that work, but I also think that it really had to go back into the tumbler and be worked over several more times before it was the book that I wanted it to be. I think that it’s okay to get to the end and say, I need to do it again, or try some more and just be more rigorous with yourself. It’s hard. That patience didn’t come naturally to me, but I’m really glad that I had to go around and around with the book because when it finally did stop, it’s in the right spot.

Zibby: That’s great. Congratulations on it. So exciting. Can’t wait to see what comes next in your career.

Emily: Thanks, Zibby. Thanks for having me.