Monday, February 3, 2020

TBR: The Cactus League by Emily Nemens

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Jason Goodyear, star outfielder of the Los Angeles Lions, shows up in Arizona for baseball spring training and his life go sideways. The book follows his descent through the season but also follows the ripples and ramifications of his misdeeds across the entire team and its fanbase. It’s baseball book that’s really about community, vulnerability, and the possibility of starting over each spring.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

I had a huge cast of characters—a whole expanded roster, all their friends and girlfriends and coaches. That scale and scope came pretty easily—I guess I have a slightly encyclopedic tendency. Cutting that list down was painful! There’s a whole b-string of Lions infielders resting in a drawer.

When I realized that Jason was going to be the backbone—he was already in every story, but his momentum and pull grew with each revision—I had to laser in on this very shy guy. He’s supremely private, an incredibly regimented athlete and reticent colleague. I wanted to preserve that opacity, but I also wanted to figure out where he’d show his cracks and what they would look like.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Being on submission is the pits. I was nervous and cranky and just certain no one wanted to publish me. But I remember talking on the phone to Emily Bell, my editor at FSG, about the book and she absolutely understood what I was doing—understood it and loved it and had ideas for how it could be better. I hung up with her and thought, “That went well?” It felt like an impossibly good first date. A week later she offered a preempt on the book.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Revise. Drafting and the intuition of new ideas is so important, but so much of the work of writing comes when you take that idea, pick it apart, polish it, discard it, revisit it, rewrite it, reorient it: I could keep going with the verbs that describe how important revision is to my process, but you get the idea.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

George Saunders, in his TPR [The Paris Review] Art of Fiction interview, talks about intuition steering the writing process. “The biggest thing I’ve learned about writing is that we tend to underestimate and marginalize the irrational, intuitive aspects of it.” I was working hard on this book—breaking rocks, revising line by line, structuring and restructuring for years—but I was surprised that some of my best, some of the biggest, decisions were intuitive ones. Like my Greek chorus began as a traditional one: a group of nameless observers, recounting the events of the past and foreshadowing the future. But then I realized the contemporary equivalent—a disembodied voice, speaking for a community, recounting the past, predicting next steps--that’s the marginalized journalist. That knocked the wind out of me.

How did you find the title of your book?

The Cactus League is the name of the major league baseball spring training league out in Arizona (the Florida league is the Grapefruit League). For people who know from baseball, the Cactus League is a quick-and-easy marker that this book is about spring training baseball. For the rest of us, I like the idea of a group of cactus, in cahoots. Cactus are prickly and desiccated and probably used to being on their own in the desert, but this notion of the “league” suggests some kind of fellowship. On some level, that describes my book. 

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

There is a famous steakhouse in the book, Don and Charlie’s. It’s absolutely plastered with sports memorabilia, and they do a good prime rib, but the recipe isn’t so too complicated: don’t overcook it and add some drawn butter. Another character, Sara, is acting as something of a glorified a home health aide, and she’s learning how to cook for her person while on the job. She’s miserable at it—everything is either served raw or burnt to a crisp--but she’s trying!





DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.