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Nancy Pearl balancing books on her head, book cover: George and Lizzie

Nancy & George & Lizzie

Given Nancy Pearl’s expert and ardent book recommendations in her best-selling Book Lust series, her public-radio appearances, and her monthly television show, readers have come to know what sort of novels she loves best. When George & Lizzie arrives in September, Pearl fans will discover whether her reading preferences shaped her first novel.

As soon as Booklist heard about Pearl’s fiction debut, we wanted to know the backstory. After all, Pearl has reviewed for Booklist and helped establish the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction as the inaugural selection committee chair. When we asked Pearl about her earliest literary efforts, she replied, “Writing has been an important part of my life since my early adolescence, when I began writing poetry. I even won some awards. Randall Jarrell, then teaching at the Woman’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, I started writing short stories. My first, ‘The Ride to School,’ was published in Redbook in 1980.”

Pearl admits that she still has the now-disintegrating manuscript of her actual first novel, the work of “a depressed college freshman.” It will never see the light of day, but it is about a relationship, as is George & Lizzie. Noting that she also revisits other themes, she asserts, “I am nothing if not consistent.” This extends to one of Lizzie’s finer traits: like her creator, she is a passionate reader always ready to suggest a good book, though in her case, this impulse can backfire.

Why make Lizzie an intelligent, sensitive reader? “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), and 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 central parts of her life.” As for George, he becomes, of all things, a “softhearted” dentist and celebrated self-help guru. Pearl laughs. “I know you don’t normally use ‘saint’ and ‘dentist’ in the same sentence, do you?”

Football plays a hilariously risqué, if ultimately dark, role in Lizzie’s complex story, and Pearl does enjoy the sport. “There’s almost nothing I like more than sitting down with someone and listening to her or his 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), but, rather, that I love getting to know about the lives of individual players.”

Booklist wondered if writing her novel was exciting or difficult or a combination of the two. “Writing George & Lizzie was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. 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 weak and 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 viewing my own work as inadequate was difficult. Certainly, this was much more difficult to write than all the Book Lust books put together. On the other hand, to take George and Lizzie, characters whom I really cared about, from the moment they meet to the last pages of the novel was both a thrilling and exhilarating experience.”

After sharing our delight in Lizzie’s endorsement of fiction writer Julie Hecht, we just had to ask Pearl for more book recommendations, and she readily complied: “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, Laurie Colwin, Anne Tyler, Lorrie Moore, Leah Hager Cohen, Jo Ann Beard, Dylan Hicks, Jami Attenberg, and Carol Anshaw.” To this stellar list, Booklist enthusiastically adds seasoned book maven and new novelist Nancy Pearl.

Feature by Donna Seaman. First published June 1, 2017, Booklist).

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