The Shelf Care Interview: Nancy Pearl

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by HarperCollins Publishers.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Donna Seaman talks with renowned librarian, literary critic, book advocate, and ardent lifelong reader Nancy Pearl about her new book, The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives, an outstanding collection of interviews with 23 exceptionally gifted writers—and cowritten with Jeff Schwager—on sale September 8 from HarperOne,

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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DONNA SEAMAN: Welcome, Nancy.

NANCY PEARL: Thank you, Donna. It’s such a pleasure to be with you on the show.

Oh, I’m so glad to be talking about this book. Now let’s not leave out your co-interviewer; would you care to introduce him?

Yes, Jeff Schwager is a playwright and lives in Seattle and we met when he actually interviewed me for a project for the Washington State Jewish Historical Society. And we discovered that we shared a great love of reading and arguing about authors and talking about books. So he’s the person who came up with this idea of finding authors and interviewing them, not about the books they’ve written. but the books that they read and really enjoyed. So it was just so much fun to do this book with him.

Oh, that’s so great. Now let’s talk about that, the impetus behind these interviews. These are very distinctive conversations. I have read many, many author interviews, and I was so taken with these. What was the key question you were hoping to have answered?

Well, I think that what we wanted to know was: how did their reading affect—or what influence did it have on—their writing? How did their reading help them become the author that they are and the person that they are? And I think that one of the interviews that shows that so dramatically is the interview with Russell Banks. He talks about growing up without a lot of money and kind of being a badly behaved little boy and a fourth-grade teacher just understanding the kind of person that he was and saying, “You don’t have to sit in class. You can build this big, big, big, three-dimensional map of Brazil and everything about it.” I’ve always believed, Donna, and I think you probably would agree with this, that a memoir of a writer is really a list of, or a discussion about, the books that they’ve loved, the books that have made them who they are. And the poet Osip Mandelstam, somebody asked him if he’s ever going to write a biography, and he said, “No, my biography would be a list of the books I’ve read.”

And that brings me to the title of this book, The Writer’s Library. You’re not talking so much about physical libraries as the inner libraries, I guess we can say.

Right, and I think originally Jeff and I had this idea that we would go to these writers’ houses and we would walk around and look at their bookshelves. And that did happen with many of the writers: Laila Lalami, T. C. Boyle took us on a tour of his Frank Lloyd Wright house in California. But for most of us, it’s the books that are in their heads, it’s the books that have stayed with them for years and years and years. And I think in the lovely interview with Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, we had no books in front of us, but just in talking, it kind of opened up the doors of the libraries in all four of our minds.

Yes, I mean, each conversation had its wonders and surprises, but I really love that one because they sort of helped each other remember books that they loved. Michael would sort of coach Ayelet and say, “Well, what about this?”

Right, right, and the thing that I loved about that interview is that in these interviews, we didn’t go in with a list of questions that we wanted to ask, we really, for all of them, let the authors take the interview where they wanted to take it. I would usually start out by saying, “Did you come from a reading family or were you a reader as a child?” And then we just went on to wonderful pathways that were unpredictable in some cases. But one of the questions we asked Michael and Ayelet was, “Was there a book that you wish that you had written?” And Michael said, Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. And Ayelet said, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. I just thought that was so honest and unput on; you could just tell that’s how she felt. It was lovely.

I love that moment. too. We get a lot of autobiography in these conversations, some really striking. I mean, you mentioned Russell Banks, and Richard Ford was another, talking about having undiagnosed dyslexia when he was young and kind of getting into trouble a lot, and how the books saved him.

And Luis Urrea, I think is one of the strongest statements about the role of books and reading and his life. It’s a wonderful, delightful interview, but it’s hard not to be moved by the fact that he was torn as a child between his Mexican father and his American mother—his Mexican father wanted him to read Mexican authors in Spanish, and his American mother wanted him to read American authors in English—and how that kind of push and pull in his life has really made him the kind of author that he is, and you can see that in his books, I think, as well.

Yes, definitely. That was really striking, [as was] Maaza Mengiste, also, talking about revolutions.

Yes, I mean, one of the things that was so interesting about her: her parents left Ethiopia during the war, the revolution, and what she’s interested in and has been interested in since she was a very young child, was not writing about people who leave during war time, but people who stay. And I think that says almost everything that there is to say about her and her books.

In a lighter vein, one of my favorite moments with Louise Erdrich—and I bet you know what I’m going to say—[is] where she just says, “I really wanted to be a French surrealist.”

Yes, yes, and my co-author, Jeff said, “Well, didn’t everybody?” [laughs] And yet, when Louise talked about her family, her daughters, all reading about the Russian Revolution and how cold it got in Russia during the war and how cold it was in Minnesota and they felt they needed to go any place, but get out of that particular reading experience. It was an honor to interview all of these writers and it was a wonderful experience, and I ended up loving all of them even more, which was such a good thing.

Indeed, that really comes through/ There’s so much warmth and a sense of discovery on the writer’s part, too. These are really fresh, unpremeditated conversations; they’re not authors promoting their most recent book. These are deep, genuine conversations. 

Yeah, I was really interested . . . I had known Laurie Frankel because we both live in Seattle. And I knew, because I had interviewed Laurie in another context, that she read in order to learn how to write. And for me, that isn’t why I read. And it’s always interesting to talk to somebody who reads for a different reason. But other authors, besides Laurie, in the course of these interviews, talk about doing exactly that. Russell Banks talks about doing that. And Laurie Frankel’s new book is written from the point of view of triplets, three different characters. And at the time we interviewed her, when she was working on that book, she was busily reading books that were told in multiple viewpoints. So that kind of reading to learn was something that I thought about a lot since we learned that.

That’s very, very interesting. Nancy, I’m moved to ask you if there was a particular book that triggered your reading passion, that triggered your desire to become a librarian and a critic and all the other things you’ve done in your life. What books started you on your path?

Well, I think it was not necessarily a particular book, but it was the children’s librarians in my life who did that. And I owe my school librarian, Ms. Glen, [who] is the person who gave me My Father’s Dragon. At the public library, it was Ms. Whitehead who gave me all the British children’s literature; she was Canadian so she’s the person who introduced me to Tolkien, to C. S. Lewis, to Mary Poppins, to all of those books, in addition to feeding my great love of horse and dog books. So there wasn’t one book.

The author who influenced my writing the most, in many ways, is a writer who . . . most of her books for teens are out of print, I think maybe all of them are. But it’s Mary Stoltz, who wrote some wonderful novels for teens. And I think that when I was writing George & Lizzie, her books and her style of writing were always with me.

I have to say, Nancy, that I’m astounded by and envious of your phenomenal book memory. I mean, really, in these conversations, you quote lines, you remember everything about books, how is that possible?

Well, I don’t remember anything else. It’s like, I forgot my husband’s birthday when I went to pick up our marriage certificate or whatever; I put in his wrong birthday on that. I am not to be relied on on recounting anything realistic. But books, those I still can remember: particular lines, and I can put authors together with titles, and things like that. I think that’s my superpower, right?

That’s very impressive, and it comes up in these conversations and you can just feel the writers going, “Oh wow, I mean, I can really talk to this person.” I wanted to ask you about another thing I was very struck by— and this is something that you’re very interested in—the idea of re-reading, reading books again. Why is that important? What inspires re-reading and what do we get from that?

I think what we get from it is, like visiting with an old friend. I mean, that’s the plus. And I do a lot of re-reading, and particularly during this pandemic, I am doing a ton of re-reading, and sometimes it’s a great experience and the books hold up and I love them just as much as I did the first time. But sometimes, just like meeting an old friend that you haven’t seen for years and years and years, you discover that the two of you have changed so much, that there’s not that old connection that you had. And that happened to me, and we talk about this with Richard Ford with the book The Moviegoer, which meant so much to me when I was 18 or so. I just loved it, it was so important to me. And then I read it as an adult and it didn’t have the same meaning at all. In fact, I ended up wondering why I had . . . I mean, I knew why I had loved the book; I knew that much about what it was about that book that drew me to it. But I didn’t have that connection with it any longer.

Yes, that’s interesting. That came up in conversation with various writers about old favorites, the ones that are still there for them and the ones they don’t want to recommend to their own children.

Yes, exactly. Michael Chabon is a great re-reader. Just watching the face of these writers when they talked about books that they loved . . . [for example] Dave Eggers was not a reader at all, and again, had a little bit of unable-to-sit-down-ness in school. And then in high school, he discovered the book Dune and Dune turned him into a reader, which I have to think turned him into a writer.

Well, there’s so many moments in The Writers’ Library that are wonderful and very exciting for devoted readers. I guess my final question to you Nancy would be: what do you hope that librarians find in this book to help them in their work recommending books? And what do you hope readers find in The Writers’ Library?

At the end of each interview, we’ve pulled out from the interview a list of books that the authors have talked about and loved. And I think that that’s a really useful readers’ advisory tool, because I think that when you’re writing a novel—and most of these people are novelists—you’re really writing something that you want to read, right? I mean, you’re writing for yourself, I think, or you should be writing for yourself.

And to see the list of books that these authors connected with, I think gives you an insight into the kinds of books that they’re going to be recommending and that they’re going to be writing. Plus, with so many of these writers—Laila Lalami, Viet Thanh Nguyen—they’re talking about books that don’t show up on the best-seller list or in the front table at Barnes and Noble or wherever, sort of hidden gems. And I think that one purpose of this book, or one way to use this book, is really to find books that you haven’t heard of that sound interesting to you because maybe one of your favorite writers is suggesting it.

Yeah, oh, I love the hidden gems, and that’s so perfect for libraries because there are many.

Yes, well, I’m so appreciative of your doing this interview.

Thank you, too, Nancy. It was wonderful to talk to you. 

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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