Fielding Questions

The Cactus League BY Emily Nemens. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. $27.
Emily Nemens. Photo: James Emmerman

Emily Nemens, the editor in chief of the Paris Review, is also an accomplished illustrator: Her cartoons have appeared in publications like the New Yorker, and in 2011 she started a multiyear series of watercolor portraits of every woman in the 112th, 113th, and 114th Congresses. Nemens also happens to know a lot about baseball, thanks to a childhood spent watching Mariners games with her father in her native Seattle.

Each of these skills comes into play in Nemens’s new novel, The Cactus League, a propulsive debut set in the highly competitive world of professional baseball. At the center of the story is All-Star outfielder Jason Goodyear, a Don Draper–esque antihero for the baseball set—handsome, talented, and harboring a dark secret. Nemens is a keen observer of the human condition in all its messiness. She crafts nuanced portraits of her many characters, moving seamlessly between intricate details and the larger picture.

For Bookforum, I spoke with Nemens about archetypes, language, and the ways in which her different roles as writer, editor, and illustrator inform and complement each other.

The Cactus League opens in the voice of an omniscient sportswriter who explains that “to tell Jason Goodyear’s story will take a while, require not just Jason but a whole web of people who are touched by him, and a few who long to touch him, too.” As the story goes on, it shifts into third person and we see the same events and people through the eyes of many different characters. Why did you choose to write the story from a collective point of view?

Baseball is a team sport, so I always knew it would be an ensemble story. I was reading Winesburg, Ohio, Olive Kitteridge, and The Imperfectionists (about a newspaper in Rome); those and others gave great models for how to write about a community, even if there is an individual star around whom the group is oriented. Some of the chapters, back when they were stories, were told from first person, but I wanted the consistency and opportunity (and challenge) of an omniscient and empathetic third. I really enjoyed how the language changed chapter to chapter, depending on the protagonist. The narrator speaks differently when hanging out with the grizzled old batting coach than he does with the young boy—same narrator, but he’s adapting for his audience.

The inciting incident of the book is this new stadium/casino complex, which hosts the Lions for spring training. It’s a piece of monumental architecture, and changes the landscape of the town in a significant way. I wanted to put that transformation in perspective—it may seem big in the contemporary moment, but the history of the place is so much bigger and longer than we can understand. The sportswriter is preaching a bit, pushing back against today’s mile-a-minute conversation style. That he’s a journalist, reformed or trying to reform himself, felt like the right fit. He didn’t start the fire, but he’s aware of it and trying to set things right.

Your descriptions of the games are so vivid. What is your connection to the sport and how did writing about it change your relationship to it?

I grew up watching baseball with my dad, mostly at the Kingdome in Seattle. That was indoor baseball, played on AstroTurf. I bring that up because when we went to outdoor games—if it was sunny in the Northwest (a rarity, especially on the weekend!) we might drive down to Tacoma to see the Triple-A Rainers, it was hugely visceral—the fresh air, the sun, the smell of grass, even the sounds were different. Now imagine going to spring training in Arizona in March—after a gray winter in Seattle, stepping into this bright, hot place was sensory overload. And being in a small stadium, whether Triple-A or spring training, you are just a lot closer to everything on the field. So part of the visceral language comes from being an overstimulated fan after a long winter!

But there’s also the language and performance of the play. I listened to a lot of games at home—I remember one game-giveaway was this amazing little AM radio, in the shape of a baseball, that you could carry around with you, and I definitely did. Dave Niehaus was the Mariners’ broadcaster back then. He had his own catch phrases and was very much a classic broadcaster who loved to describe plays with aplomb. A third source was extant baseball literature, both novels and a lot of longform journalism—I love how in the weeds, how heroic and poetic baseball writers can get. It hovers just this side of sappy sometimes, but I like that, too.

To start to write about it I realized just how much I didn’t know. I mean, I’m a lifelong fan, but every few pages I’d get to a detail and realize I didn’t understand the concept well enough to write about it cogently: the ascendancy of the free agent; the history of Hall of Fame voting; Tommy John surgery; the Dominican Republic draft—the list goes on. This isn’t a book of reportage, but it is a realist book, and I had to know my stuff. A lot of research ensued, and I think it made the moments where I knew exactly what to say that much more fun to write.

As someone who knows next to nothing about baseball, I never felt alienated by jargon, but I never felt like I was being explained to in a didactic way either. How did you find the balance?

I think some version of that balance has been there since the beginning—my now-agent read an early draft, years ago, and said “I don’t know what a lead-off is, but I love this book.” I was trying hard to straddle this line of appealing to beat writers and big fans, but not being such a sports nerd that it’d alienate readers who aren’t interested in baseball. I decided to lean in to the emotional struggle of restarting each spring and the community-building angle of this carnival coming to town. That being said, I never took the balance for granted, and was tinkering, pulling things one way and back the other, until the last edits were turned in.

The characters of The Cactus League initially seem to be archetypes found in other baseball stories—the heartthrob All-Star, the insecure rookie, or the baseball groupies, for example. How did you complicate these characters and what did it take to bring them all together?

I wrote each separately and wove them together later. I started with archetypes and then added dimensionality. What would happen if a mega-agent (think Jerry Maguire) got a debilitating, fatal illness? What happens if Annie Savoy (the woman from Bull Durham) has this entire other life—architecture—that she likes as much as baseball? The baseball wives, similarly, rose from unfair stereotypes of the wives-and-girlfriends circuit (see Baseball Wives, the reality TV show, and the Instagram tag #wags)—I wanted to show their vulnerability and more complicated agendas than I’d seen elsewhere.

It took me several years to figure out that the book and its stories should mirror the way the team might operate: waiting for Jason to come to bat, following his cues in the clubhouse, understanding that if he does well all ships will rise and if he struggles it can imperil a lot more people than just him.

How does your work as an editor affect or inform your work as a writer?

It’s definitely a sympathetic relationship. Of course it’s an editor’s dream to find the perfect story, but it’s also a fairly ideal project to find a very, very good story and help the writer get it to the finish line. That I do that in an anthology format—working with a half dozen fiction writers each issue—means I get to see a lot of approaches and suggest a lot of solutions. That helps my writing immensely. Sure, I wish I had more time to write—running the magazine is a very full-time job—but when I do get back to my writing desk, I have this whole new set of inspirations and tools.

You’re also an illustrator. How are writing and drawing different (or similar) for you?

I approach drawing and writing in a similar way—I’m very iterative in my practice. I see drawing in sequence as pretty closely related to revising like a maniac, which I do. I’ve done a few graphic novel projects, but putting words and illustration together on the same page never felt quite right to me. What’s felt better is to toggle between the two, to write until I hit a wall and then turn to illustration. At residencies, etc., it can be a straight split down the day—write until lunch, draw until dinner, read at night—but more often I spend a spell with one, then switch to the other. I was in a real funk with The Cactus League in 2016, and that’s when I got it in my head to sell a cartoon to the New Yorker. It took six months of drawing “batches” (ten sketches/jokes a week), but I did hit the mark, and afterwards I was ready to start writing again.

Annabel Graham is a writer, photographer, and illustrator from Malibu, California. She holds an MFA in fiction from NYU, and serves as fiction editor of No Tokens. For more, see