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; 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 by phone recently from her New York City home.
“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 Arizona’s cool, late-February 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 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.”
Writing the book was a multiyear project, beginning in 2011. 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.
All this happened while her career as an editor unfolded, first at the Southern Review, then the Paris Review, for which she relocated to New York. 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 re-enter the water.” Batter up!
Moira Macdonald is an arts critic for the Seattle Times.