After she graduated from Brown University, Bellevue native Emily Nemens won a coveted three-month fellowship with the Jack Kerouac Foundation. Her three-month residency at the Kerouac House in central Florida resulted in a book of short stories, Scrub. Emily currently lives in Brooklyn, but during a recent visit home did a reading at the Tree of Life bookstore in Seattle. We caught up with her there.
JT News: Talk about your writing history and how you got into writing. You were an art history major?
I went into school thinking I was going to study English, but then I discovered art history and I really liked it. I had been on the fence, even before going to school, between studying art and writing. I turned to the former, knowing that I could keep reading and writing on my own; but in terms of an academic background, I needed the art history. That led to a job in New York that was full-time and to another job in New York that was almost full-time, and as that went, I kept on writing. I was working on a novel for about three years that I just finished.
JT: Has the novel gotten anywhere yet?
It got me to Orlando. I submitted the first chapter as the writing sample for my residency program. And that got me the residency. The one story that wasn’t written in Orlando was that sample chapter. As I’ve been in New York, I’ve learned a lot about publishing and publishing a novel and being a young writer. With the big, commercial publishing houses, it’s a big crapshoot. So, no, it hasn’t been published yet, but I’m doing the legwork.
JT: Do you feel like the residency has opened a lot of doors for you?
Yeah, it was a really great opportunity. I produced [Scrub] really fast. It was about six weeks of writing, and then a month of production.
JT: So when you talk about production, you were actually laying it out?
Yeah, and that was done in about four weeks. In New York, I’m doing freelance writing and freelance design, and so I was able to have a hand in all of that and that helped streamline the process a little bit. So that was one less person that had to go back and forth for this. For living in a Florida house by yourself, it was a pretty chaotic couple of months.
JT: Had you always felt that you wanted to be a writer?
I continue to paint, so it depends on what day you ask me. I may say I want to be a painter, I may say I want to be a writer. But more and more, the text and the images, the written language and the visual language are coming together and working off one another. My mom could tell you that I started a writing club with my friends when I was 7, and we all hung out in the backyard. So in that way, I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer, but this feels like it’s actually it.
JT: Do you see this career that you’re building for yourself, with the art and the writing, that as technology continues to grow, that you’re sort of having to jump into that? Do you feel like that’s a hindrance to you, or like it’s helping you?
I’m a little bit of a Luddite. Vintage things are my aesthetic, but that being said, I think it’s really exciting. In terms of self-publishing, I was able to start a blog and talk about what I was doing in Florida with my friends in New York. And that hypertext stuff, I’ve just done a little bit of it…. I need a friend who knows more about electronics. But I’m excited that there are these new avenues opening in all directions.
JT: The stories in this book are pretty different from each other. Where did you draw your inspiration from?
Each story is about somewhere that I’ve lived or passed through that feels important, with this idea that they’re all going toward something. The cover’s this picture of Jerusalem and, you know, there’s this saying, “next year in Jerusalem,” and it was the New Year and that was swirling around in my head. Each story is someone dealing with an interpersonal relationship, which is sort of what happens every September, with trying to figure out what they’ve done wrong and atone. The stories sort of catch people at different points along the way toward forgiveness, but each one is reckoning, “I did something wrong and how do I make it better?”
JT: Did it feel weird to you reading a story in the first person about being pregnant in front of your parents?
Oh yeah, it was a little awkward. But, a lot of the people here are friends from high school and people I’ve known for 10 or 20 years, but know driving up 24th [St. in Seattle], so that was more important than talking about being an imaginary 16-year-old pregnant [woman].
JT: Does your Jewish experience figure into any of your writing?
This was the most manifest, in this book. It’s never been at the forefront for work I’ve done, but on the other hand, it’s always there. Right now, I’m working on a book project with someone who was one the first curators of the Israel Museum, so between that and this book and going to Israel, it’s becoming more and more in my consciousness. So we’ll see what happens next.
JT: Do you feel like Seattle fits you more as a writer? Or did New York get into your blood?
I don’t want to be stereotypical about it, but you just have to work harder there. Everything costs more, and even getting to work is harder. It’s definitely hardened me a little bit. But in terms of sitting down to be a good writer, it’s really about you and a pen and a piece of paper, and you can do that as easily in a kitchen in Brooklyn as you can in a kitchen in Seattle. I think that when I look out…the cultural stuff that I’ve been exposed to in New York has been great, but Seattle has grown up a lot in the last decade with the new art museum, and I know the literary scene has grown. I miss trees a lot. There are a few trees growing in Brooklyn, but it’s not the same. It is inspiring here. The fact that I wrote about places…a sense of place is really important to me.