Reading with... Val Emmich

photo: Holtz

Dubbed a "Renaissance man" by the New York Post, Val Emmich is a writer, singer-songwriter and actor. He has had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty as well as a memorable guest role as Liz Lemon's coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. Emmich lives in Jersey City, N.J., with his wife and their two children. The Reminders (Little, Brown, May 30, 2017) is his first novel.

On your nightstand now:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: for a book club I'm in with some friends. McSweeney's Issue 46: a Christmas gift from a friend. The Hunter by Julia Leigh: research for something I'm writing. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: his music doesn't always do it for me, but I'm intrigued by the book. The Book of Dahlia by Elisa Albert: a recommendation. The Nix by Nathan Hill: one of the perks of having Picador as a publisher. Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar: one of the perks of having Little, Brown as a publisher.

Favorite book when you were a child:

My book, The Reminders, is about a little girl with an exceptional memory, and yet my own memory, especially of my childhood, is awful. I think the following books had an impact: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. I believe my teachers read them to me, although I might be making that up. Later, when I was reading on my own, it was Hardy Boys all the time.

Your top five authors:

This question makes me sweat. I don't think any modern writer leaves me more awestruck than George Saunders. Any time Dave Eggers, Steve Toltz, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen or Joshua Ferris (so many J's) release a new book, I buy it right away. Uh oh, those are all men, and mostly white. What does that say about me? This is why I hate these questions! As a fellow so-called renaissance person, Miranda July really inspires me. Zadie Smith, Lorrie Moore, Evie Wyld. But those are all modern writers. I also love Nabokov, Vonnegut, Plath, Baldwin, Carver, Dickinson and a hundred other brilliant dead people who only require last names.

Book you've faked reading:

Ulysses by James Joyce. I've stopped and started so many times I almost believe the lie I tell that I've actually read the whole thing.

Book you're an evangelist for:

I tell anyone who will listen (and many who won't) about Steve Toltz's debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole. It's one of my all-time favorites. Funny, ambitious, audacious, plot-driven, epic, exhausting, exhaustive and surprising.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing. I picked it up off the shelf and read the back, but the description didn't grab me, so I put it down. A week or two later I was back in the same store, and I was drawn to the cover once again. This time I bought it and I'm thankful I did. The book is so haunting and emotional, and also a bit of a thriller. It's a novel I think back on often when I'm trying to figure out how to make my own work better.

Book you hid from your parents:

I bought a book about suicide. I can't recall the name, but whatever it was, my parents would have been alarmed had they found it. If "suicide" is in the title, it just looks bad, even if it's: Suicide Is a Dumb Thing That I Would Never Do and One Hundred Other Totally Sincere Statements. Put vaguely, suicide is something I've had to deal with in my family. I was hoping the book might help me understand it better. It didn't.

Book that changed your life:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert messed me up pretty good. Understanding the problem of climate change didn't empower me; it made me feel helpless. Still, even with the dark subject matter, it was one of the most riveting, informative, and even enjoyable reads I've come across. It's a scientific adventure story, and yet the ending (at least for me) was basically: "our children are screwed." And guess what? I'd read it again! How Kolbert managed that is quite a feat.
Favorite line from a book:

I've never been someone who can quote lines from books (or movies, for that matter). I'm better with songs. But I do underline sentences when I read. I just pulled a book off the shelf: I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flasar. I'm flipping through it now. Here's a line I marked: "When I was small, I took refuge in life in the moment. Neither the past nor the present could affect me in any way, and how lovely if that were so now." The young protagonist in my novel wouldn't agree with that, but I certainly do.

Five books you'll never part with:

I have a copy of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner that was my mother's when she was in college majoring in English, and it has her school notes in the margins. My brother bought me and my wife Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer in hardback and he ended his inscription with "Suck my balls!!" I really appreciate the double exclamation points. The Diagnosis by Alan Lightman was a Christmas gift from my father, who used to give my siblings and me each a book with a personalized note that we'd open on Christmas Eve. After receiving the book in 2000, I ended up contacting Alan Lightman and I made him the subject of my senior thesis in college. It was the first time I sat down with a real author and it made an impression on me. I also have a paperback of Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer which was a birthday gift from the engineer who assisted in the recording of my first major label album. The engineer's name was Jason and on the inside cover he wrote: "I know it will be a great year for you." It was not a great year. My album tanked, my record deal soured and I went back home to live with my parents. But I did get a friendship out of it--and a book.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Deep Thoughts: Inspiration for the Uninspired by Jack Handey. Here's a line: "Laurie got offended that I used the word 'puke.' But to me, that's what her dinner tasted like." I still laugh when I read it, but not like the first time.

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