The Great American Baseball Novel

Emily Nemens, author of "The Cactus League" on building a human story around a sports stadium

Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash

In The Cactus League by Emily Nemens, the year is 2011 and Salt River Fields, the new baseball stadium, is open for spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Recession is in the rearview, and the next baseball season beckons. Jason Goodyear, the beloved Lions left-fielder, is still beloved as an athlete, but his personal life (“coming off a possible divorce and a lonely drive across the desert in his busted Jeep”) has many fans asking questions about Jason Goodyear the celebrity. Is he okay? One recently laid-off sports writer takes it upon himself to follow the left-fielder to spring training to figure out how to tell the story of Jason Goodyear, the athlete, the celebrity, the man. 

The Cactus League

The novel is structured as a series of interconnected stories, each told from a different person in the Scottsdale spring training universe––the aging batting coach, the Lions pitcher returning from an injury, the rookie kid who’s just been signed, Jason’s manager and his new assistant, the Lions owner, a young boy who’s Goodyear’s #1 fan, among others. Each chapter proceeds linearly through the spring training season. Taken together, these chapters also move vertically through the place of Scottsdale, Arizona, digging deeper and deeper into the people, the architecture, and the land that is always changing. Punctuating each character’s story is an interlude from the sports writer, who leads the reader to the next character, while examining perspectives on baseball, on celebrity, on the relative significance of a season, on Scottsdale, on what it means to tell a story about someone you cannot know. This is a novel that spreads like a web, its elegant strength and line-level detail on full display. 

In the first chapter, the sports writer explains to the reader why baseball is so pleasurable. There’s the clean linearity of the game, sure. But it’s not so simple, he explains: “there’s so many men playing together, so many more behind the scenes, coaching and cajoling and sometimes sabotaging the game’s progress, pulling the line until it goes bonkers, more like a dance chart than any sort of arrow.” 

Emily Nemens and I corresponded over email about baseball, editing versus writing, and how to write a dance-chart novel. 

Erin Bartnett: First, I wanted to ask you about your relationship to this book. What was the genesis of The Cactus League? What did you think the book was going to be about, and what did it end up becoming for you? 

Emily Nemens: When I moved to Baton Rouge in 2011, to start an MFA at Louisiana State, maybe the first thing I wrote was a tiny story about Yankee Stadium. I was really intrigued by the relationship between the life of this architectural monument and the life of a man who, albeit briefly, interacted with it, and was thus shaped by it: in some, 78-word way, it was proof positive that I could build a human story around a baseball stadium. So, making the book was just multiplying that idea by one thousand!

Not really. But it was an auspicious beginning. The other thing that happened to me was LSU football, and the carnival aspect of tailgating that occurs on home-game Saturdays in Baton Rouge. While in Phoenix and spring training it is less concentrated—and there are a lot less boudin balls—something very similar unfurls. One million people show up to watch practice baseball! I wanted to explore that idea of a carnival coming to town: What happens to the town? 

EB: The novel is delivered by a sportswriter who is following the career––and life, really––of one Jason Goodyear, star baseball player for the Lions. But each chapter explores the world and particular lives of people circulating around Jason Goodyear. Like baseball, according to the narrator, which is linear, yes, the novel also moves “around and around” until it is “more like a dance chart than any sort of arrow.” How did you decide on this structure for the novel? 

EN: For a long time I had a disorganized pile of stories, all happening in the same place at the same time. But rather than dancing together, they were all elbows, running into each other and not talking as they should. When I realized Jason could and should be the pivot point—he’d been there all along, but was lurking quietly in left field—I was able to reorient those individual characters toward him, not unlike flowers turning toward the sun. I wanted to preserve the pacing and payoff of the individual narratives (I do love the story structure), but have this compounding factor of the season marching forward and Jason sliding downhill.

EB: In the sportswriter’s chapters, he zooms the lens out on Scottsdale Arizona, and reframes the story as its situated in “geological time.” So I want to ask you about perspective. I was interested in the way you created distance –– personal, physical, and now, even geological distance –– between the reader and Jason Goodyear. Why was it important for you to create distance between Jason Goodyear and the reader? And what did zooming out help you think about? 

American celebrity culture is so insistent on intimacy, on knowing all things about our most famous people.

EN: Those are two questions, really. I wanted to create distance between Jason and the reader because he’s a private person. I’m a bit fascinated and horrified by the way American celebrity culture is so insistent on intimacy, on knowing all things about our most famous people. To be honest, we really just need to know if Jason can hit, catch, throw, and run, if he’s healthy enough (physically and mentally) to do his job. But in our media environment, that’s never enough.

As for the narrative distance of those interstitial chapters: the narrator started as a more disembodied Greek chorus, and I realized a few years into the draft that our modern-day equivalent (someone all-seeing, speaking for the group, from something of a remove) could be a journalist. To make him a disenfranchised one (he lost his job in the recession) gives him both a chip on his shoulder and a bit of emotionality that was interesting to exploit. He’s harping on geological time to try to keep things in perspective—in the current media cycle, and the one within which he had operated, the news around Jason seems like the A-1 story. But now that he’s stepped out of the cycle, he can see we’re all pretty puny, that this salacious story (which he can’t let go, the journalistic instinct kicking in), is really minor compared to all else. He is trying to convince himself, maybe, that even as he’s chasing this story, we should take a step back and think about the scale of things.  

EB: How did you settle on this cast of characters? Was there one character/perspective that you felt closer to? One that was harder to write than the others? 

EN: I was at a party a few weeks ago, and an acquaintance who had started an advanced readers’ copy looked at me and said, “How did you become such a good old man?” (The first chapter circles around Michael Taylor, a nearly retired batting coach.) I took it as a compliment: I wanted to write with credibility and empathy from all these different perspectives. It was important to get into the mindset of the athlete, of course—I worked for years to get the pitcher’s chapter just right—but I also wanted to think about this constellation of characters that felt like an ambitious map of the community. I could’ve plotted another nine points, created another nine characters, and told a parallel story of this community, I’m sure—but at a certain point I just liked these guys.

EB: This novel is so richly imagined––the baseball knowledge is really insider-level. What brought you to baseball? Were you already someone who is passionate about baseball? Who were your go-to sources for baseball knowledge and language? 

EN: I’m a fan first—I’ve been watching since I was a little girl. But I’m not a 162-game a year fan—I have too many books to read to watch every game! Still, baseball’s spot in American culture (the primacy of being the country’s pastime, the perilousness of seeing that position slip) and American lit (there are more good baseball books than books about any other sport) made it an exciting thing to delve into. 

I didn’t have a go-to resource, I was much more of a magpie than that. Autobiographies, interviews, and oral histories for voice of the athletes; reportage, documentaries, and reality TV for details of the sporting landscape. The Best American Sports Writing of the Century and Sportswriting from the New Yorker were nearby always: I love a good piece of longform journalism, and I wanted to build a world that felt as realized as the best narrative nonfiction, then overlay a compelling plot atop it. 

EB: There’s a thread in The Cactus League between architecture and baseball––Jason loves architecture, so does his agent, Herb, Tami works at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale, and William Goslin, the new rookie has an architect father. What are some of the overlaps in architecture and baseball that were generative for you while writing this novel? 

EN: I’m interested in the built environment and particularly monumental architecture as a catalyst for community-building, to go back to that first question about writing stories about stadiums. When I realized that the opening of this new stadium would be the inciting incident of The Cactus League, it felt right to plant architectural counterpoints and resonances elsewhere in the story. Paul Goldberger wrote a great book on baseball stadiums that came out too late to be helpful for writing my book, but was helpful in affirming the project of it. In that book, he says, baseball isn’t the ultimate American metaphor—baseball stadiums are. 

EB: For some of these characters––Tami, the baseball wives, Lester the organ player, Michael Taylor the batting coach, Greg the injured pitcher, Herb the agent and Sara his assistant––there is anxiety about aging, injury, and the body. Even for those who aren’t playing baseball, some of them are aware of their value as bodies. So, I wondered, how did writing a novel about an athlete help you think about the way other characters’ bodies interact with the world? 

EN: Sports fans understand that athletes age, that they peak relatively young and grow old and retire and that’s the natural order of things. I think we have a lot less introspection about the fact that everyone is going through that same cycle, losing their primacy and performance of their bodies. How do different characters, on parallel courses, respond to that trajectory? It was interesting to build out a chord, as it were, of different types of people facing that same diminishment. 

EB: “Here’s the thing about baseball and all else: everything changes. Whether it’s the slow creep of glaciers dripping toward the sea, or the steady piling up of cut stones, rock upon rock until the wall reaches chest high, nothing is static.” Were you writing this novel during the election of 2016? Did that moment affect the way you were thinking about “change”? 

No doubt about it, being a full-time editor slows down my writing.

EN: Oh, interesting! I started writing in 2011 and finished when they pried third pass pages out of my fingers about six months ago. The election impacted me as a human, but I was honestly grateful to have the necessary peg to 2011—the year Salt River Fields opened—to keep my story a bit less contemporary. I read so much new fiction at work that is trying to wrestle with this moment, and some of it is great, and a lot of it is overpowered by emotion.

I have great respect for those who can assess, distill, and quickly create art that doubles as cultural commentary, but I know I’m one that needs to stew and simmer. The book’s explorations of economic vulnerability, outsize celebrity culture, and the emotional ripples of disenfranchisement—I think those are very 2020. But this story needed to take place during the nadir of the last recession. And I had no interest in letting 45 into my book.  

EB: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but as someone who also works in publishing, I wanted to ask you about the balance between being an editor and being a writer. How do the two experiences inform one another? 

EN: No doubt about it, being a full-time editor slows down my writing. I get back to my manuscript at the end of the week, or after I send a quarterly issue off to the printer. I deeply admire those at-the-desk-every-day writers, but I’m more of a snake about it—I stalk my prey (well, think about next steps) for a while, eat a big meal (have a productive session), then digest (replay the recent progress) for a spell. Sorry, that’s a gross metaphor, but I do write in chunks, grabbing time when I can. 

But editing is also a real asset to my writing: I’m able to think about story and structure and line-level language all day. I pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and on a good day I can suggest improvements that make writing I greatly admire even stronger. As an eclectically minded quarterly editor, I could be working with a dozen different story writers at any given moment, all trying to do something different. And they all need something different from their editor. That means I have built out quite a toolkit for how to solve problems, and I’m very grateful to have that at my disposal when I do get back into my draft.

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