Memories and remembering are at the heart of Val Emmich's first novel The Reminders. The Beatles music provides the thematic structure. The heart of the novel is love.
Nine-year-old Joan Lennon can't forget anything that has ever happened to her. When her grandmother Joan's Alzheimer's disease took away her memory it frightened Joan to be forgotten. Now she wants to create something so no one will forget her again: she wants to write a song.
Joan's father is a struggling songwriter; her mother works to pay the bills. Her parents have decided to close her father's studio and rent it out; her father will work in his dad's construction business. Joan is despondent. She hopes to win a songwriting contest so her dad can keep the studio.
Joan's parents' friend Sydney has died, and his partner Gavin, a television show actor, underwent a very public meltdown. Joan's mother had introduced Syd and Gavin. They invite Gavin to come stay for a while.
Gavin thinks he wants to forget everything about his true love Sydney. When he learns that Joan can recall every time she met Syd, down to the details of his clothes and conversation, they agree to help one another. Joan will tell stories about Syd. Gavin, who had been in her dad's band, will help Joan write a song.
Gavin's grief over Syd's death is complicated by doubts about Syd's activities prior to his death: he made several secret trips, meeting with a woman he never mentioned. Was their life a lie?
The story is told from Joan and Gavin's viewpoints in alternating chapters which offer a nice balance between Gavin's grief and doubt and Joan's determined, naive, hopefulness.
Joan is beautifully drawn, a lovable, adorable, kid. The book is worth reading just to know Joan! The story is about grief and yet what remains after reading is the joy. I am sure this uplifting book will become a best seller, well beloved by book clubs.
Emmich draws from his career as an actor and singer/songwriter, and his life as a dad, to create a charming and warm story of the power of friendship.
I was excited when Emmich agreed to answer some questions for me in February.
Nancy: What motivated you to write The Reminders? What came first--story, character?
Emmich: The character came first. Specifically, the character of Joan. I was a new father and I was frustrated by the lack of progress I'd made in my life and in my career as an artist. Fatherhood felt like an impediment to where I wanted to go. That finally changed when I attempted to write from the point of view of a little girl. If I wasn't the father of a girl (two little girls now), I probably wouldn't have tried something like that. Once I did, though, all sorts of new possibilities opened up for me, both creatively and as a parent. Drawing on my family life for materials finally put me in a place where I could start to accept my new reality and embrace it.
Nancy: Is the creative act for you an endeavor to, as Joan believes, ensure people remember you?
Emmich: No. I create because I have to create. I feel compelled to. It's probably the only time I feel happy. And at times, it doesn't even feel healthy. It can feel like an obsession or addiction. But after I create something, if I think it's any good, I feel this strong desire to share it with people. I created the thing first for myself--to try to process life and understand it better--but I still feel I need some validation from others. I shouldn't need it. But I do. I crave applause and feedback. I wish I didn't.
The whole idea of being remembered, which is a huge part of the book, is related to the above (and certainly in the book, the two are directly linked), but it's also, for me, a whole separate problem. It bothers me that we're so focused on what's happening today and what will happen tomorrow that the past is often too easily forgotten. I'm certainly guilty of forgetting. And I'm not talking about the distant past only, but even the recent past, as in last week, or yesterday. Now, when someone close to us passes away, which is what happens to the character of Gavin in the book, there's a feeling of guilt that comes with forgetting. Forgetting feels like a betrayal. That's how it feels for Joan. To forget her is unfair, because she would never forget you. But some amount of forgetting is helpful, and even necessary. It allows us to heal. It's a complicated thing, which is why I love the quote by James Baldwin that begins the novel: "it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both."
Nancy: We know so much these days--the relationship between Gavin and Joan could have been considered suspect. What considerations helped you ensure the purity and healthiness of their relationship?
Emmich: I understand what you mean, but I also hate that I understand what you mean. In other words, it's a shame that's where our minds go. I've always loved stories where two very different sorts of people are placed together. It's a good starting point for conflict and misunderstanding. So I didn't want to avoid that uneasy feeling completely. But in one of my earliest drafts, the character of Gavin was straight and I did find that there were moments between his character and Joan's that felt strained in a way that was distracting from the narrative. Once I decided to make Gavin gay, I found that it relieved a lot of that unintended pressure. Also the fact that Gavin is pining for his lost love and Joan is helping him reach that lost love helps, I think, maintain that feeling of purity that you mentioned.
Nancy: What were the challenges and rewards of writing a book as compared to writing and performing your songs and acting?
Emmich: There are different challenges with each, too many to list here. But I will say that so far writing a novel has been the most challenging thing I've ever attempted in the arts. In terms of rewards, a song can be written in minutes, recorded in a few hours, and uploaded online where it can be streamed instantly. So, it's a much more immediate sense of satisfaction, both with the creative act and the sharing.
Writing long-form fiction is a slog that can stretch for many years. And it's a lot lonelier. I can write and perform songs with others, but a novel is written alone Writing prose is rewarding in a different sort of way than more communal activities like music and acting. Maybe it requires a little more confidence and faith, I don't know. You'll have to ask me this question again when I'm a little farther along. My book still hasn't been published yet. Most people in m life still haven't read it and I've yet to do my first public reading. So, I haven't had much feedback from readers. All this buildup scares me. Wish me luck.
See the trailer at http://ew.com/books/2017/02/14/reminders-book-trailer-val-emmich/
Little, Brown & Co/Hachette
Publication May 30, 2017
$26 hard cover