Poetry, Football, and Dentistry? Nancy Pearl shares the story behind her first novel, GEORGE & LIZZIE

Nancy Pearl’s first novel, George & Lizzie, comes out in September. How did she do it? Why did she do it? Booklist contacted the author of Book Lust, one of the nation’s favorite readers’ advisory librarians, and one of public radio and television’s most influential book and reading champions, to find out everything about how she became a novelist.

 

DONNA SEAMAN: Did you always want to write fiction? 

NANCY PEARL: Writing has been an important part of my life since my early adolescence, when I began writing poetry. My mother loved to read poetry, so I was exposed to a lot of it growing up. It’s not exactly that I set out to be a poet, but at a certain point, lines would come to me, and they came as poetry. I wrote a lot of poetry in high school and college, and even won some awards for it along the way. Randall Jarrell, then teaching at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, once critiqued a poem of mine by saying that he “had an uneasy respect for it,” which seemed to my 18-year-old self to be high praise from an exacting poet. Sometime after college the lines that came to me were, clearly, prose, like “My mother talked to us all the time,” so I started writing short stories. The first one I wrote, “The Ride to School” (which begins with that exact line) was published in Redbook in 1980.

Do you have a stash of earlier novels you haven’t shown anyone?

I wrote a novel my freshman year in college, titled “A Summer and a Fall.” I hadn’t even looked at it in years, but after I finished George & Lizzie, I dug it out of the box where it’s been for decades and tried to read it. I didn’t get far. It was pretty painful to re-read for two reasons: First, because the paper was disintegrating (!), but mostly because it was just so darn earnest—there was no leavening humor at all. It was clearly the work of a depressed 18-year-old. I’m glad I didn’t burn it all those years ago, but there’s no way I’d ever show it to anyone now. “A Summer and a Fall” was also about a relationship, and it share other themes with George & Lizzie—I am nothing if not consistent. But George & Lizzie has a lot of humor and doesn’t take itself overly seriously.

 

You are the book maven extraordinaire; no one has read more widely in the world of novels. Did any writers in particular inspire George & Lizzie? I have to say that I took great pleasure in that hilariously inappropriate moment in which Lizzie brings up Julie Hecht!

I’m so glad you appreciated the Julie Hecht reference. Among the writers whose books have given me great pleasure over the years, and whose work has taught me a lot about the craft of writing, I would include Elizabeth McCracken (especially Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry!); Laurie Colwin (especially the stories in The Lone Pilgrim); Anne Tyler (especially The Clock Winder and Searching for Caleb); Lorrie Moore (especially Birds of America); Leah Hager Cohen (Heart, You Bully, You Punk); Jo Ann Beard (especially In Zanesville)—I could go on and on. Dylan Hicks’ Amateurs. Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins. Carol Anshaw’s Lucky in the Middle.

Nancy Pearl

 

Why was it important to you to make Lizzie such a smart, sensitive reader? To make books so central to her life? Of course, her ardor for books allows you to do lots of author name-dropping and offer outright book recommendations. Was this a deliberate narrative choice, or could you simply not help bringing your book-sharing mission to your novel?

I started writing George & Lizzie because two characters came to me, in much the same way, or at least with the same feeling, that lines of poetry had come to me in high school and college. They introduced themselves as George and Lizzie; they felt to me like real people that I wanted to get to know. It turned out that I had to spend a lot of time with them to really understand them, and some of the things I learned surprised me. I don’t mean to sound woo-woo. I know that I invented them, I guess it’s just that inventing, to me, feels more like discovering. So, if you ask me why I think the character of Lizzie is such a smart, sensitive reader, I’d answer that of course any character who comes to me, and invites me to spend a great deal of time with her, is going to be someone I’d enjoy spending time with (I’m not a masochist). I can’t imagine enjoying spending time with anyone who wasn’t a good deal like Lizzie, someone for whom books and reading and language are a central part of their lives. All the author name-dropping and book recommendations were just me taking advantage of Lizzie’s good nature. She didn’t mind.

 

There is rather a surprising amount of football expertise woven into the story! Almost as much as the literary knowledge. Are you a big football fan?

There’s almost nothing I like more than sitting down with someone, almost anyone, in fact, and listening to their life story. So when I say that I am indeed a big football (and basketball) fan, it’s not that I especially care who wins or loses in any particular game (except for the University of Michigan football team and the Golden State Warriors: I really want them both to win), but rather it’s getting to know about the lives of the individual players on each team. The best sports journalism, I think, does exactly that: it offers much more than statistics or analyses of particular plays or strategies, but instead gives readers insight into the nature of the player profiled. Leigh Montville’s writing in Sports Illustrated, David Remnick’s brilliant biography of the young Muhammad Ali in King of the World, and ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series (especially the early ones) are good examples of how I approach sports. It’s always all about the people for me.

 

A similar observation can be made about dentistry, George’s calling. Why did you make this saintly character a dentist?

I know! You don’t normally use “saint” and “dentist” in the same sentence, do you? One of the very first details I learned about George was that he was a dentist; I didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter of his profession. This was very odd, because I, like many others, would rather do almost anything other than go to the dentist. But as it turned out, the fact that George was a dentist gave me the opportunity (via Elaine, George’s mother), to share a lot of (possibly apocryphal) stories about dentistry that I’d picked up over the years. I had a lot of fun watching Elaine tease George about his life’s work.

 

The novel is set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I know you lived in Tulsa; do you have a personal connection to Ann Arbor, too?

My undergrad degree is from the University of Michigan; it was there I got my master’s in Library Science as well. My husband, whom I met when he was a senior and I was a junior there, went on to get his PhD there, so I lived there from 1964–1971.

 

The Nancy Pearl action figure

Are there any other autobiographical ingredients you’re willing to reveal?

Lizzie and I share some interests (love of poetry, and reading, for example) and personality traits (I’ll let readers guess as to what those might be), and certain aspects of George’s character and interests are inspired by my husband, but George & Lizzie is in no sense autobiographical. My husband is not, and never had any interest in becoming, a dentist (or a motivational speaker).
My parents weren’t psychologists. I didn’t grow up in Ann Arbor. I’m not an only child. I don’t have a best friend like Marla (although I wish I did), and I definitely didn’t act out as an adolescent the way Lizzie does. Plus, I’d like to think that I’m a much better bowler than Lizzie is, or at least I used to be.

 

Lizzie’s parents are astonishingly monstrous in their clinical detachment, which makes for great humor and distress. Where did these “behaviorists” come from?

For the purposes of the plot, Lizzie needed to have a less than happy childhood. I didn’t want to use the sort of standard unhappy or difficult childhood tropes, so that eliminated sexual abuse, poverty, being bullied, or the death of a parent (although I suspect that Lizzie would have been thrilled to have been orphaned at an early age). I knew that I wanted Lizzie’s parents to be professors, and it just seemed obvious that if they were going to be professors, and bad parents, making them psychologists would give me the juiciest opportunities to develop them as characters. At first I was going to make them Freudians, but I was afraid that all that—the psychoanalysts, professionals devoted to helping people be happy, while making their own children miserable—could turn into a cliché. In talking it over with my husband (who is a psychologist, though neither a Freudian nor a behaviorist), I decided to make them behaviorists. Not to overgeneralize, but it seemed like behaviorist parents might well produce a child with the amount and sort of misery that Lizzie has. Plus, I didn’t remember reading any novels in which behaviorists and behaviorism play a role, except for B.F. Skinner’s novel, Walden Two.

 

This is such a fun read, even as you delve into deeply painful subjects. What do smart, humorous novels accomplish? Why do you cherish this style of fiction?

That’s such a good question. Partly, I think, it’s that the people I like best both in fiction and real life don’t take themselves too seriously. (Does Lizzie take herself too seriously? I have to think about that. I do know she has a good sense of humor.) Novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man; Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!; Stephen McCauley’s The Easy Way Out; Jon Cohen’s The Man in the Window; and Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down all deal with painful topics, but leaven the sadness with a certain amount of humor, which allows the reader to confront subjects that might otherwise be too depressing.

 

For all your reading and for your readers’ advisory writing, was writing this novel liberating? Terrifying? Thrilling?

Writing George & Lizzie was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, for two reasons. First, because I often find it very hard to sit still for more than 20 minutes at a time, but mostly because I found excruciating the process of taking what sounded like a perfect sentence in my head and observing how imperfect it became once I wrote it down. The wonderful use of language is one of the two qualities that all the books I cherish possess—the other is the three-dimensionality of the characters—and seeing how inadequate my own work seemed was difficult. Certainly George & Lizzie was much more difficult to write than all the Book Lust books put together. On the other hand, to take George and Lizzie, two characters that I really cared about, from the moment they met to what became the last pages of the novel, was both a thrilling and exhilarating experience. I’m fascinated by the what-ifs of my life: What if I’d had different parents? What if I’d had an older brother instead of a younger sister? What if I’d joined a sorority in college? What if I’d never stopped writing poetry in my thirties? What if I’d gotten an MFA instead of an MLS? Writing about Lizzie and George gave me the opportunity to explore the what-ifs of other people’s lives.

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About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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