In the literary world, good timing is essential. But the timing of Emily Nemens’ debut novel Cactus League is downright exquisite.
Sure, any publisher would release a novel set in the milieu of baseball’s spring training in February, just as spring training is getting underway in Florida and Arizona. But Nemens’ novel isn’t really about home runs, double plays, or the game of baseball as it is played on the diamond. It’s more about the culture of baseball—its players, coaches, executives, fans, groupies, sportswriters, and other various hangers-on—particularly during the six-week period every spring in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun.
And thanks to the recent, unprecedented sign-stealing scandal involving the Houston Astros and the scandal’s fallout across Major League Baseball, 2020’s spring training is particularly focused on baseball’s off-the-field culture and the interrelational dramas between players, owners, fans, and the media.
In other words, Cactus League may be an especially relevant literary companion to baseball’s current moment.
The novelist herself will be on hand on Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods in Soquel, in conversation with journalist Molly Knight (whose book The Best Team Money Can Buy is about the Los Angeles Dodgers, the organization which incidentally is the central aggrieved party in the Astros scandal).
“I was really interested, of course, in thinking about how athletes get into shape and get ready for the season,” says Nemens, who—when she isn’t thinking about baseball—serves as the editor of the legendary literary journal The Paris Review. “But I was also interested in the carnival aspects of a million people showing up every spring in the Phoenix metro area to watch practice games. It’s a pretty fascinating phenomenon.”
Cactus League is a big-picture deep dive into the infrastructure of spring training as it’s practiced in Arizona. (For the less baseball-literate, “Cactus League” is the semi-formal brand name of Arizona’s spring season, as opposed to Florida’s “Grapefruit League.”) Central characters include a star player, other more marginally talented ballplayers, a team owner, a concessionaire, a stadium organist, a downsized sportswriter, a group of sexually available women who prey on players, and others.
“There’s only about five innings of actual baseball in the book,” says Nemens. “I’m more interested in the larger questions of spring and renewal and possibility.”
Nemens earned her love for baseball growing up in Seattle in the 1990s, when the Seattle Mariners boasted many of the most exciting ballplayers of the era, including Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez. She and her dad would not only attend games at Seattle’s now defunct Kingdome, they would also regularly make the trip to Arizona for spring training.
“I wasn’t a writer at 12,” she says, “but I was an observational kid. And getting to know the places (around Phoenix) and revisiting them to see how they had changed over the years was a really good starting point in writing about that place and that culture.”
The book’s genesis dates back to 2011, and Nemens earned most of her sportswriter bona fides in 2012 when she covered the college football program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “That was hugely helpful,” she says. “I spent more time thinking about [LSU coach] Les Miles than Don Mattingly. But I was definitely thinking about the public messaging and the public face of sports teams.”
Years later, in the summer of 2018, Nemens took over leadership at The Paris Review, the fabled quarterly that published many of the literary rock stars of the mid-20th century, including Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov and others. The Paris Review is most closely associated with its founding editor, the celebrity journalist and gadfly George Plimpton, who moved the journal from offices in Paris to his own townhouse in New York in 1973.
The lines of connection between Plimpton and Nemens go beyond the editor’s desk at The Paris Review. Plimpton was also famous for bringing a literary flair to sportswriting, most notably in his 1966 book Paper Lion, which documented Plimpton’s mercifully short stint as a back-up quarterback for the Detroit Lions.
“Paper Lion was one of the first books I read when I thought about starting a novel about sports,” says Nemens.
Sports, and especially baseball, are deeply interwoven in The Paris Review’s storied history, she says. “Personally, it still feels very close. Donald Hall, our first poetry editor, was also a big baseball nut and wrote the occasional baseball poem, though he also loved talking about it. There is still a subgroup of New York intelligentsia who love the game. It’s been fun to connect with those folks.”
Nemens runs The Paris Review in a literary environment that George Plimpton might not fully recognize, an era of social media and podcasting. “A big part of my job is stewardship,” she says, “and balancing (the journal’s historical legacy) with innovation.”
Not surprisingly, as editor, Nemens is receiving a lot of material about the unstable political reality of today and the bleak future it portends. “I’m seeing writers who have always been realists move into a more fabular vein, thinking about near-future dystopias as a way of commentary and examination of the contemporary moment. I don’t want it to become a journal of speculative fiction. But I am making room for that.”
Her job at the helm of a powerful literary brand name is, she says, one of balance. “I’m trying to balance it all. I’m a person who loves baseball and the opera. I have eclectic tastes, and I’m trying to reflect that in our acquisitions and what we publish.”
Emily Nemens, author of ‘Cactus League,’ will be in conversation with Molly Knight on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 2pm at Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, 858 Amigo Road, Soquel. Free, but RSVP requested at [email protected] wellstoneredwoods.org