Emily Nemens grew up in Seattle and loved going to baseball games with her dad. She remembers Mariners games at the Kingdome — “I have distinct memories of Ken Griffey Jr.’s rookie year” — and, on sunny days, going to Tacoma to watch the Rainiers play. When she was in middle school, she and her father started going to spring training in Arizona to watch the Mariners play in Peoria; they didn’t make it every year, but “often enough that it became a ritual, a routine.”
Years later, that ritual inspired Nemens’ irresistible first novel, “The Cactus League,” set among “the carnival that I saw in spring training growing up,” she said in a recent telephone interview from her New York City home. She hasn’t lived in Seattle since leaving for college after her graduation from Garfield High School, but Nemens still has family in the area (and a 206 area code on her cell), and looks forward to bringing her book home this month for an event at Hugo House on Feb. 26.
“I’m so excited,” Nemens said. “I think my dad’s whole book club is coming.”
“The Cactus League,” which debuted this month, follows a series of characters connected to professional baseball — a star outfielder, an almost-retired batting coach, a player’s wife, a sports agent, a woman who (like Annie Savoy in “Bull Durham”) seeks out ballplayers for seasonal romance. We get inside their heads, one by one, and watch as their stories gradually and gracefully converge under the cool, late-February Arizona sunshine — a complex structure that Nemens makes look as easy as a major-leaguer nonchalantly catching a line drive.
Nemens, who since 2018 has been the editor of the storied literary magazine The Paris Review, said the idea for “The Cactus League” came to her when she was in graduate school at Louisiana State University. “I was starting to think about stories, a big project to delve into,” she said. “I was really struck and surprised by the manifestation of sports culture in the Deep South — college football and tailgate culture was just a really big and interesting thing.”
The more Nemens pondered that culture, the more it began to seem a variation of the theme she had seen at spring training years ago. Fascinated by the long tradition of “baseball literature as an American thing,” she decided to try her hand at a baseball novel set in the preseason, “giving myself the constraint of writing about practice games … thinking about what is essential to the sport when nothing’s on the line.” (Among her favorite baseball novels: “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan, “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” by Robert Coover, “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, and the novella “Pafko at the Wall: The Shot Heard Round the World” by Don DeLillo.)
Writing the book was a multiyear project, beginning in 2011. “I was grateful to have time,” Nemens said. The book’s elegant structure echoes a baseball game’s innings: nine chapters, each focusing on a different character, interspersed with nine commentaries from a sportswriter/observer. “It’s so much about community in spring training, I wanted to structure the book that way as well,” Nemens said, describing how much time she spent “thinking about how the characters spoke to one another, how the characters might intersect, how the actions of Jason [the outfielder] and others had ramifications on the whole community.”
All this happened while her career as an editor unfolded, first at The Southern Review, and then The Paris Review, for which she relocated to New York. For TPR, Nemens says, she does little writing — it’s more “finding promising new writers, developing new relationships with writers and helping their fiction grow.” She reads fiction submissions for the magazine constantly, accepting “about one story out of every hundred I read,” and is always looking for work that has “voice, narrative arc and a story that is big-picture but also on a very granular level.”
For a while, she said, she was doing double duty — editing TPR and finishing her own book. “When I was on deadline to turn in the book, I basically got up, worked, came to the office, worked, came home, worked, slept and repeat,” she said. Since finishing the book, she’s “eased up on the tempo.”
With “The Cactus League” behind her, Nemens said she’s eager to start another writing project — after a much-needed break, during which she “started going to museums, to the opera, hung out with new friends and read for leisure, a little.” She’ll soon return to her own fiction, “probably start with some new stories, to reenter the water.” Batter up!
Author appearance: Emily Nemens, author of “The Cactus League,” will read from her book and discuss it with author Adrianne Harun at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle. Admission is free but RSVP requested: hugohouse.org