Val Emmich, a New Jersey singer-songwriter, actor, and as of June, published novelist, knows better than most what it means to channel life into art. His debut novel, The Reminders, which focuses on a ten-year-old girl’s unlikely friendship with a grown man who has just lost his partner, asserts the importance of music—a tool for grieving, for healing, for friendship and love.
We talked about our shared home state, what it’s like to balance multiple artistic endeavors, and the impetus behind The Reminders. “There’s something about art that sustains us, and in that way–because we always keep it in our world, and we remember it, and we pass it on–that must account for something,” Emmich said, as our conversation wound down. “That must mean there’s some value in it. It can’t just be a selfish.” He read a Kurt Vonnegut quote before we hung up: “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.”
Enjoy his thoughtful responses, and be sure to pick up a copy of The Reminders, available online or at your local bookstore.
Let’s talk a little bit about your writing background. Was fiction always something that interested you?
If I follow the trail it’s pretty clear that I was always interested in fiction but I didn’t realize that until I finally started sitting down and trying to write it. I’ve always been a big reader. I’d write little short stories when I was younger. I took creative writing in college. I was just dipping my toes in here and there.
In 2007, I just woke up one day, and was just like, “I’m writing a novel!” and my wife was like, “What?” I know that’s so ridiculous, and it did sound ridiculous, but I stuck with it. And I was serious. And I wrote that novel, and it stunk. And I wrote a second novel and it also stunk, but a little less. The Reminders is my third attempt and it’s been ten years of trying.
During these early novels, and even during The Reminders, was your process very insular? Were you sharing your work with a lot of people?
I think I made the mistake early on of sharing the stuff too early. I would let my wife read and then as I’d ask her to read more and more she, like, totally lost perspective I realized I had to work on it much longer before sharing it. I didn’t really have a community I could go to. I didn’t go to an MFA program, I didn’t have classmates, I didn’t have a writing group. I didn’t know any friends who wrote fiction, so I had a hard time.
Thinking back to college, we’d all read our stories aloud and critique them, and although it was frightening…You’re lucky to have people paying attention. But yeah, it’s been a small circle of people. Or just me and the computer. Which is both freeing, because it’s only up to me, but it’s a little terrible. Because I want help. [Laughs.]
Can you tell me how you came around to telling the story of The Reminders? Had you told different versions of this story in your past drafts of novels or was it a completely new idea?
It was completely new, but I think the mistakes I made with other books made this one go much more quickly. The first novel was what I think a lot of first-time novelists do, which is a poorly veiled autobiography, but that was okay. I just know that for my entire adult life, even when I was in school, and certainly after school, I just processed life through art. I’m a poor communicator when it comes to dialogue and for some reason really good at pushing it through some artistic expression, so I didn’t even think it was weird to have this new story to tell. I just went right into it.
At the time in 2013, my first daughter was just 18 months old, and I took her to Home Depot. I didn’t strap her into the shopping cart, and she fell out and landed on her head on this concrete floor, and I just freaked out. And I guess after all my training of ‘How do I turn this into art?,’ I just went right at it. Instead of being this sad thing, it was surprisingly really uplifting and I don’t know why that happened. Maybe it was because I needed that to happen.
You say that art has always been the way in which you process things, but I’m curious if different forms of art have to be put on the backburner, as you’re involved in so many forms. Were you actively working on music while you were writing?
I think my best stuff comes out in a burst. When I handed in one edit, I knew I wouldn’t be getting notes back for a while and I felt this real urge to make an album, so I did that. And I was also on this TV show during the writing of the book. I used to fight those things, think “I must be this right now.” My wife calls me a jack of all trades, master of none. It’s not a kind thing. [Laughs.] How good can you be at one thing? I often wonder if I should just dedicate myself to just one thing, but I think it helps me be less precious about each thing if I have this other area to go to for a while.
When your head is in one story, sometimes you absorb life through the lens of that story. And that can become exhausting, and you can get lost in that forest and not know how to get out. So if I’m deep in the novel and I can get out and work on music, when I come back to the novel I can see it more clearly. I feel really lucky to have all these different things now, as I way not only to balance myself, but the art.
And since the book has to do with music, I was also working on a specific song, and thinking about music a lot and how its written. So that’s one of the other reasons that it seemed to pour out more than the first two. I was forcing the other ones, but [The Reminders] just seemed like I was writing about what I know, and it was more effortless.
Do you feel like there’s some similarity between your voice in the novel and your voice in music?
I think there’s a difference. Maybe an evolution? My mom and my mother-in-law both gave me the same comment after reading advanced copies of the book. I was really nervous because no one really had read the book, and they both said, “We’re were just surprised how…warm it was.” [Laughs.] I think my songs are probably more cynical and sorrowful. The outlooks are a little bleaker, and I think it’s okay. With a book, you’re spending years there, and I just felt like I needed a little optimism, and it wasn’t a conscious thing. I think becoming a father made me think, I need to find some hope for this thing, this life. Through my daughter’s eyes, I kept seeing a little bit of brightness. I hope people are ready for me to be a little more optimistic.
Do you feel eager to keep writing?
After doing it for this long, I think I’m terminally ill with the writing bug. I’ve already started another novel. I could see myself doing this for as long as I live because the control is in my hands and I’m already a loner of a person and I don’t mind sitting alone for hours and working on a story. That said, I also really need music in my life, and after this book tour I want to make music just to sort of cleanse myself before I really begin this other thing. It’s much more visceral and tactile. But I think it also informs the writing.
Are there writers you were reading or musicians you were listening to during the process? Are there artists out there right now that you find really inspiring?
I listened to a lot of Courtney Barnett, almost the entire time I wrote the book. I also listened to a lot of The National. The book is told from two perspectives, so I kind of used different songs for each of them.
I really like Steve Toltz, this Australian writer who has this real great sense of humor that I kept thinking about when writing this book. Why can’t books just be more of a joy, even when they’re deep and thoughtful? Joshua Ferris does this great domestic stuff, but he never looses his sense of humor.
I was hoping that we could talk a little bit about New Jersey. I know in your novel your main character leaves LA for New Jersey and you live here. I’m wondering what it is that’s kept you here and what you feel are the specific qualities of New Jersey that have influenced you?
I would always come back here [after touring] and I felt like I had seen everywhere and now I just wanted to be here. I live in Jersey City where the bulk of the book takes place. I think it’s an interesting place because you see Manhattan, and you’re right there and you can enter it at any time, but you can get out of it too and see it more clearly. I also probably have this chip on my shoulder that New Jersey gets a bad rap nationwide and I feel some sense of pride that I stick it out.
I think it’s a place where there’s a lot right. There’s the beaches, the Pine Barrens. We have mountains, the suburbs, and these small-scale cities. There’s a lot to take in here. I just got back from a little vacation though, and it’s a bad time to ask me about New Jersey because when I got back here, I was like, “Oh, man, maybe I do want to leave.” There’s so many people. It does feel crowded.
Is there anything about the arts or music community here that’s inspired you?
I’m impressed by the variety of acts. The biggest names get the attention, but there’s all kind of music that comes from here. I mean, right now, this band Pinegrove is cool, from Montclair. Real Estate is great. Titus Andronicus. When I was going to school at Rutgers, Thursday was just playing in basement parties in New Brunswick. So we’ve always had great indie music that I’ve loved.
I’ve always felt that it wasn’t hard to find people that were in creative pursuits. Where I live now, people are all making livings doing these creative things and I feel inspired by that. I’m pretty sure you could find that in most places if you look hard enough. I do think that by feeling that the city was only a train ride away, it felt reachable. For your mindset, I think New Jersey in that regard felt like it wasn’t no where. It felt that it was close to somewhere.
Val Emmich’s novel, The Reminder is available at bookstores around the country. For more on Val, check out his website.