Though he’d abandoned others, this one grew out of a Home Depot incident involving his 20-month-old daughter, and a 60 Minutes segment he’d watched that evening. “My daughter had fallen at Home Depot, and I thought why not tell a story from a little kid’s perspective? The same night, the 60 Minutes segment featured an uncommon condition called HASM—Highly Autobiographical Superior Memory—which enables those who have it to recount every detail of any particular day, whether they want to or not. “Less than 50 people have this condition, one of whom is the actress, Marilu Henner,” Emmich says. “It can be a lonely, alienating feeling when others can’t remember what you can.”
In the novel, 10-year-old Joan Lennon Sully has HASM. Gavin, a gay actor, former musician, and dear college friend of the family, is struggling to overcome the loss of his partner, Sydney. The protagonists speak in alternating chapters.
The two bond. Gavin mentors Joan in a songwriting contest. In return she recounts every encounter with Sydney in vivid detail, so that Gavin can collect more memories to help him heal.
The novel is set in the Jersey City Heights, home of Joan’s parents, Paige and Ollie. Streets and landmarks in Jersey City, Hoboken, and New York City will resonate with local readers. Ollie’s music studio, packed with books, guitars and works in progress, also features posters of a college band, Awake Asleep, Emmich’s actual band from his Rutgers University days.
“I always grew up around music and books,” Emmich says. “It was like a library in the house.” His grandfather was a concert pianist in Russia, and Emmich’s sisters were in the church choir. Emmich took piano and sax lessons in elementary school until switching to songwriting and guitar at age 15. He realized early on that music would be one of “his vehicles to communicate.”
“Songwriting offers an immediate, visceral, tactile dimension,” with the audience’s reaction visible immediately, he says, and writing prose “lets you get immersed,” though you are alone most of the time and can’t see your reader’s immediate response. “Songwriting makes me want to write more prose and vice versa,” he says. He calls himself a “hybrid” who loves both. Acting, he says, intertwines with his other passions, but these days acting keeps him away from his family, so he tends to pursue it a lot less than he once did.
Emmich, now 38, also drew the illustrations that appear throughout the book. “All my favorite books had illustrations, and I thought they would give us more insight into how Joan sees everything,” he says.
Music and Movement
Emmich is partial to the word “dance.” A dress dances while Joan and her mom are in a store. A flame dances when a cigarette is lit. An artist dances in joy in her bedroom when she hears some good news. “I just used this vocabulary because my older daughter loves to dance and was dancing as I was writing this book,” he says. “Even before we can speak, we are able to recognize music and start dancing, and to me that just shows how intrinsic and instinctive any art form is.”
Like the author, Joan discovers the power of music and movement early on. “I want my song to make people want to dance or cry,” Joan says. “Dance to forget and cry to remember.” She longs to be remembered because most people don’t have her superpower memory. With her song, “Leave the Past Behind,” she will never be forgotten, just like John Lennon, her favorite musician. Emmich says he chose The Beatles for Joan’s inspiration because they’re a “symbol of lasting remembrance” and that they had “more to teach than music itself.” Gavin tries to teach Joan the beauty of letting the moment happen as they add music to their lyrics for the contest. (To hear the song, visit valemmich.com
Life’s Questions Answered
Will Joan win the songwriting contest? What will Gavin do with the new memories of Sydney? The book also raises questions about pursuing your passion as a professional or just as a pastime, about how to reclaim your life after loss, and what is most important in life and art. “It’s a constant balancing act doing what you love versus spending time with your loved ones,” Emmich says. Lennon and McCartney’s “Two of Us” has a lyric that speaks to this novel: “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” Though no sequel is in the works, the book has been optioned for film.
In his free time Emmich likes to cook. He says he “is happy when he gets to create.”—JCM