You see a lot of Val Emmich in his debut novel, The Reminders. It's musical, playful, poignant, smart, and endearing with surprising insight into real-life complicated relationships. Emmich is a long-time musician, an actor with past roles on Vinyl, 30 Rock, and Ugly Betty, a husband, a father to two daughters and now, a published author. On our phone interview, he tells me he’s anxiety-ridden, currently chewing on his sweater string, full of nervous energy. What comes through instead is intensity and a charming earnestness about his work.
Though he's written hundreds of songs, the “leap to writing a book was mysterious,” he says. “One day I got up and wrote a story. Maybe it’s because I don’t relax easily but I felt like I needed to create something. So I wrote a book and I learned. And then I wrote another book. This is my third attempt,” he told me solemnly. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Getting this book published was partly serendipity. At the behest of his wife, Emmich pitched his book at an event at a local bookstore. Part of the prize was an introduction to an agent. "Even though I'm a performer, I was shaking. This was totally different. The win gave me the confidence that I was onto something... so I moved forward with it."
In The Reminders, we’re introduced to two wildly different characters: Joan, a 10-year-old born with a condition called HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory). She can remember, in vivid and alarming detail, every single moment of her life. Gavin is a family friend seeking refuge from the death of a partner and his life in Los Angeles. Their paths align when Gavin shows up on Joan’s family’s doorstep, bag and heart in hand.
Joan and Gavin make an otherwise improbable duo—the child who can forget nothing and the man who’s lost a lover. But Emmich crafts a symbiosis for the pair. Joan, with her perfect recall, furnishes Gavin with memories of his partner he desperately craves. In exchange, Gavin assists Joan in writing a song for a competition. If she wins, Joan believes she'll be unforgettable, like her idol and namesake John Lennon.
“Memory seems rich fodder for a book,” Emmich replies when I ask about Joan's HSAM. “Some of the things I remember well are the most painful things in my life. For Joan, the most painful thing is being forgotten. It’s this tremendous injustice. How can you forget her if she would never forget you?” Thus her obsession with writing a competition-winning song. This, in marked contrast to Gavin who is receiving critical acclaim “just when he’s lost the most important person in his life.”
Joan and Gavin’s predicaments are emblematic of the inherent tension between our desire for fame and the more achievable (and important) goal of affecting those close to you. “Part of writing this book was reminding myself that the world’s approval doesn’t—or shouldn’t—matter. That I should care about being good to the people I love: go small, go deep.”
This is a book that leaves you feeling better about life and the role we play, either on purpose or inadvertently. That seems to be Emmich’s intention. “I read a lot of challenging books and there is value in that,” he says. “But when I come across a book that’s a joy, I want to be in that book. I wanted to trade the doom of everything in our world for something that feels warm. My mom was shocked I’d written something optimistic and tender,” he says ruefully.
Kelly Stocker is a writer living in Austin.