An Interview with Val Emmich
Words By Dani Hedlund
What was the original inspiration for your debut novel, The Reminders?
When my first daughter was twenty months old—when you still count somebody’s age by months and not years—I took her to Home Depot. I was a stay-at-home dad and it took me a while to warm to being a father. I was mostly just frustrated by all the things I wasn’t able to do because I was taking care of this little girl. I didn’t strap my daughter into the seat belt and when I turned around to reach for something on the shelf, she was falling out of the shopping cart. She landed on her head on the concrete floor and she didn’t move. I thought, I just killed my daughter. Now that I’m a seasoned parent, I know kids are super durable and they’re always close to dying. But at the time, the experience functioned as a shake out of my numb existence. It stuck with me.
Around that time I also saw an episode on 60 Minutes about people who have a rare condition known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory or HSAM. They can remember every day of their lives. I thought what if my daughter was one of these people and always remembered the day that I dropped her? The next morning I woke up and started writing in the voice of this little girl. There was something different about this story. I showed it to my wife and instead of her usual polite encouragement, I heard excitement. I sent it into a few literary journals and I placed third in a contest held by Glimmer Train. It was the first piece I had written that received positive feedback from an established source. So, I thought I should try to expand the story and years later I had a novel. There is a larger journey here too; instead of seeing fatherhood as a burden, I learned to see fatherhood as a source of inspiration because I can view the world through the innocence of my daughter’s young eyes. I consciously wanted to maintain this sense of hope and have the story be a joyful experience even though the premise of the book is based on a tragedy.
One of the most interesting elements of the book for me is this dual way of looking at the family dynamic, through Joan’s memory lens and Gavin’s unique voice. What was it like to view this world through the eyes of a child?
It was challenging but also liberating. I have a lot in common with the father in the book. I wanted so badly to explore the parents more but the restrictions with Joan’s voice held me back. My wife is a teacher and I sat in on her fourth- and fifth-grade classes to see the world through a child’s eyes. I watched them fidget and not be able to keep still in their chairs. I didn’t use the material because I realized none of those kids was Joan. Being Joan was like being me, just like being Gavin was like being me; and I am neither a little girl nor a gay man. I just focused on the humanity part.
This book feels more me than previous things I’ve written because I was writing about my reality: music, acting, living in Jersey City. The last two books I wrote were failures and maybe that’s because I didn’t write what I know; I tried too hard to seem literary. With this one, I tried to be more honest and hoped that would be enough.
The heartbreaking thing about being human—especially in a year like 2016—is we seem to only talk about the people who pass for a second and then they’re gone. It’s an injustice. My acting manager, who got me into acting when I was eighteen and has been my manager since, passed away on New Year’s Eve. Now, I keep thinking about this book in a new way. I feel this tremendous guilt and responsibility about keeping her memory alive. I owe it to her. Joan taught me that. I have to work harder to make sure that people who are important to me are always remembered.
There’s an idea that music can somehow transcend the way we tend to recall memories. How did that bleed into the narrative? Did you always intend for music to be a central element of the book?
In writing the book, I was trying to sooth my own anxiety about being forgotten. How do you last? Is trying to last a worthy effort? It seems arrogant to even try. I discovered that music exists in the ether; it is something that you can pass on, like a tale. Once I realized that, I had a path for my story, and once Joan realizes that in the book, she has a way of achieving her dream of being remembered. At some point, when I’m gone, my daughters will still have the music I’ve made to listen to. They may dislike it but it’s still a part of me that will live on in some form.
In the book, Joan sets out to win this songwriting contest and the contest is not a big deal in the scheme of the world but for Joan it’s the biggest deal. The contest gave me something to build up to plot-wise and I also realized that Joan was going to arrive at the harsh realization that the competition was not the answer to her problems. But that’s life. For me, there were so many times when I thought to myself if I could just accomplish this one thing, then I would be fine. That’s rarely the case. These little challenges do lead to other things whether we want to realize that in the moment of defeat or not.
I enjoyed the parallel about how people write songs and how people live their life. Has your history with songwriting made you view life itself through the contrasting lens of letting lyrics come to you or forcing the lyrics? How did that philosophy come about?
If I’m an expert in anything, it’s probably songwriting. I’ve put in my ten thousand hours at that particular craft. It’s provided me with a great lesson for life. It taught me not to force things, especially art. I now write songs faster just because I know when to write. My fiction writing is also getting faster and I wonder if it’s somehow linked in that respect. It’s not about writing more often or writing more words, but learning to recognize when something you’ve written is useful or garbage. You become more efficient, and because you’re not wasting needless time wandering down dead-ends, the experience of making art becomes more enjoyable. Prose is different than songwriting, though. Songwriting is more like poetry. It’s such a condensed form that I can be driving, walking my dog—and all the while there are lyrics filtering through my head. With prose, you really have to force yourself to sit down and work because you’re dealing with thousands of words. There are days when I don’t want to do it, but I sit down and just begin.
Joan’s and Gavin’s voices are very distinct. How did you manage to keep them from running into each other?
My agent was a real stickler. He constantly encouraged me to go further. At one point Gavin’s voice was stylistically different, no quotation marks on the page. I was trying to take an easy way out but then I realized that I had to work even harder to make the two voices different in a more organic way. I eventually established little rules in my head such as no semicolons in Joan’s section. Just by creating boundaries, I was able to change the way I wrote her. My rules eventually fell away as well, but it was a good way for me to work. Keeping the voices of Gavin and Joan separate was part form and part embodying the characters.
Can you describe how things have changed since the genesis of The Reminders—the moment you realized you had to write this story—to now?
I would rise at four in the morning in the spring of 2013 to write until my daughter woke up, and then I would resume my father responsibilities. I remember thinking, I’ll write fifty pages and see if it works out. I ended up writing a whole first draft but only in Joan’s voice. That’s how energetic writing her voice was.
I attended Pitchapalooza—a husband and wife team called The Book Doctors held this event at a local bookstore in Jersey City. You got one minute to pitch your book. Even though I’m an actor and I’m used to performing, I was so nervous. I ended up winning first place, and the prize was an introduction to an agent. It didn’t pan out because the agent thought my book was middle grade. She didn’t get it. I knew having a young character telling the story even partially would be an issue for some people; they might think it was a children’s book. Even though the agent rejected me through the contest, I learned that I needed to do more work.
I knew about the form; I read all of the how-to books and I had tried to get an agent off an earlier novel I’d written. I got one response, saying the voice isn’t strong enough but thanks for sending it, keep me in mind for future projects. When I finished the first draft of The Reminders, I sent it back to that same agent and he’s my agent now. Together we basically destroyed the manuscript. I had to rewrite it from scratch in order to strengthen the voices and then a book deal came through in 2015 followed by many more rewrites. It’s going to be published this year, four years later.
Once you started the publication process, what surprised you the most?
The publication journey is a slow process, as is the world of making film and television. Music is a lot faster. I’ve been an independent musician for many years now after being with bigger companies and I can now release my work when it’s done. I really had to take a pause and realize that the work wasn’t done with my initial drafts of the book. I was also surprised to find that the book world is a little behind. It seems to be a lumbering thing. I know that getting books in stores is a big setup. I have seen success stories with self-publishing but I wonder if there is a happy medium. There is so much build up to my book, in time and moving parts, and now it’s just going to come out on May 30th. What if it fails, as most books do? All that for what? Why not go quicker with less setup, see if something happens organically and then try again? I realize I may just be naïve to how these things really work. I still have a lot to learn about the business. My agent has warned and encouraged me to generate all the ideas. I was surprised by how much was up to me. But I’m used to that and I welcome the challenge.
How have your various careers informed your writing?
It took me a while to come to terms with being a hyphenated person. On the playground, other parents will ask me what I do. “I’m an engineer, I’m a teacher,” they say. I have to respond with whatever project I’m working on. If I have a television show coming out, I’m an actor. If I’m releasing an album, I’m a musician. I haven’t said I’m a writer yet because I’m embarrassed, there’s no book out yet.
I stumbled into acting when I was eighteen with no prior desire or experience; I learned on the job with some beginner’s luck. The songwriting aspect of music is the part I like most along with performing. All of these experiences informed my writing. I went to Rutgers University and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts having majored in American Studies. I used to imagine myself as a professor but university life has since been demystified for me. I always had an interest in fiction. I think it fits my lifestyle now. Instead of being in a band and traveling around the country, I can take my kids to school and write all day. I’ve been lucky; one passion feeds the other. To help promote this book, I recorded a little album with some Beatles covers, since the Beatles’ music is a motif in the book. When you preorder the book, you’ll also receive a download of the music. I plan to go on the road for a bit and do events that are half book reading and half concert. I’m trying to make all my various artistic pursuits work together.
When you first sat down to write this book, what defined your idea of success?
At that time seeing my book in a tangible form on the shelf meant success. It had only existed as Microsoft Word files for so many years, for almost a decade. Later on, I started thinking about the rare times I’ve read books in which the reading process was actually an enjoyable experience. I love challenging books, books that make you squirm like Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy or trying to sludge through Ulysses. But there’s something about those books where the smile never leaves your face when you’re reading them. At some point I asked myself, why don’t more people write those kinds of books? Are they cheaper because they’re more enjoyable? One of my favorite books, A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, makes me laugh out loud but I also feel this tremendous emotion. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is from a kid’s perspective; it utilizes little graphs and charts. It’s such a fun read. My goal was to set out to write something that people might truly enjoy reading. I wanted to make people feel warm and fuzzy. I feel vulnerable admitting it, even putting my book out in the world.