Photo credit: Susan Doupé Photography
Describe your latest book.
It’s unbelievably exciting to have your first novel published. It’s especially unbelievably exciting when you happen to be 72 years old and never intended (or expected) to write a novel at all. It happened this way: Late one night about seven years ago, while I was waiting to be overtaken by sleep, two characters came into my head. I knew that their names were George and Lizzie. I knew how and where they met (at a bowling alley in Ann Arbor). I even knew Lizzie’s last name (Bultmann). But at that point that’s all I knew. After that night, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Little by little, as I lived my life over the next many months (which quickly became years) George and Lizzie’s lives — together and apart — revealed themselves to me. Every day I learned a little more about them. I got to know their families, details from their childhoods, their friends…in many ways they became more real to me than most of the people I interacted with in my so-called real life. (This is, perhaps, not so surprising. I’ve been an inveterate reader all my life, and it has not infrequently been the case that the lives of the characters I was reading about seemed more real — and much more interesting — to me than the life I was actually leading.) But I wasn’t writing down any of what I was learning about George and Lizzie; instead, I’d compose sentences in my mind before I fell asleep, or while I was taking my daily walk, or brushing my teeth.
I should mention that I’d done some writing before — a lot of poetry throughout high school and college. I even wrote a terribly earnest, very depressing novel about a depressed teenager my freshman year of college. Plus, I had a short story published in Redbook
in 1980, when I was 35. However, my life as a reader, librarian, and book-touter, as well as a wife, and mother of two daughters, was quite fulfilling, and I hadn’t thought of myself as a writer for many years. But I adored George and Lizzie; I wanted to spend more time with them. I wanted to understand them and their relationship. I wanted to see what made them tick. After two or three years of pure thinking and rewriting sentences in my mind, I finally sat down at my computer and started putting what I knew about George and Lizzie onto paper — just for me, just for fun.
I started with the first thing I’d learned about them — how they met at the bowling alley — but after that I didn’t write these “snapshots” (as I came to think of them) in any particular order. I just wrote about whatever seemed most important to get down, whether it was George’s experiences on the Hebrew School bus or Lizzie’s visit to a Health Service doctor at the University of Michigan. I gave each snapshot a short title — “How They Met,” “The Great Game,” “Dr. Sleep,” etc. — so that I could identify them later. It was all still just for my own entertainment: I was writing the very sort of fiction that I most enjoy reading, which tends to be character-driven and just a little bit quirky, both in plot and narrative style.
Eventually, as the George and Lizzie
file in my computer grew, it became apparent to me that I might actually be writing something that could conceivably be called a novel. I started sharing what I’d written with my older daughter and a good friend, and their encouragement propelled me into devoting some serious time to the project. There was one last creative hiccup, though. I thought I knew, early on, how the novel would end, but when it came time to write that ending (the last snapshot), I found, much to my dismay, that it no longer seemed right. It required some additional patience on my part, but eventually George and Lizzie guided me to the proper end of their story. (I mark it down to their having matured more than I realized during the time that I was writing about them.)
What was your favorite book as a child?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer. I wrote Book Crush: For Kids and Teens — Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Interest
(2007) because there were so many books I loved as I child that I wanted to share with other readers. I remember that Miss Glenn, the librarian at my elementary school, gave me Ruth Gannett’s My Father’s Dragon
to read, which remains one of my favorites. Like many kids, I loved books about dogs and horses: Walter Farley’s series (the one I most enjoyed was The Black Stallion and Satan
) and Bonny’s Boy
by F. E. Rechnitzer, which turned out to be one of Lizzie’s favorites as well, and of course all the Marguerite Henry horse books, especially Misty of Chincoteague
and Born to Trot
. I loved stories about magic, too, and still remember how thrilled I was to discover first E. Nesbit’s novels (Five Children and It
was a particular favorite) and then Edward Eager’s stories, beginning with Half Magic
. Oh, and of course I loved Tolkien’s The Hobbit
and The Fellowship of the Ring
and its sequels. And then there were all the books I read when I was 11 or 12, those novels about teenagers that portrayed a life so different from my own. My two favorite authors at that time were Mary Stolz (In a Mirror
is perhaps her best, but I loved all of them) and Betty Cavanna (Spring Comes Riding
and Going on Sixteen
were marvelous). And there was a fictional biography of the Brontës, called Wild Decembers
by Hilda White.
(I can probably still take you to the exact shelf where I found it in the Parkman Branch Library in Detroit in 1956 or '57.) Over the years I’ve found used copies of most of my favorite Stolz and Cavanna novels. A few years ago I reread the Stolz novels, which definitely hold up, even decades (and decades and decades) after they were written, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to reread any of Betty Cavanna’s books. I’m too afraid, I think, that I’ll find them badly written and way too sweet. I think they’re probably better remembered than reread.
What does your writing workspace look like?
In thinking about the answer to this question, I was reminded of a story that Beverly Cleary
, the iconic children’s book writer, told. She was speaking to a classroom of third graders about the process of writing her books, and when she asked if there were any questions, one boy’s arm shot up immediately. When Cleary called on him, he said in a worried tone, “Well, I understand how you write your books, but where do you get your paper?”
I totally get what he was concerned about, because that’s how I felt about writing and workspaces. My husband and I live in a very narrow townhouse a few miles northeast of the University of Washington campus. It has six different levels, so except for the third one, which has both the kitchen and dining room, there’s only one room on each level. There are books everywhere. When we moved in about nine years ago, we designated one of the two bedrooms as our office, with a desk for each of us. We also lined the room with bookshelves, which I planned to use as temporarty storage for the books that are sent to me for review. But the books came thick and fast (like the oysters in Lewis Carroll
’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”)! Soon after I really started working on what became George and Lizzie
, I discovered that there was absolutely no way I could write anything in a room with all those hoping-to-be-noticed books staring beseechingly at me. So I moved my laptop downstairs to the dining room table. It’s the only floor in the house without bookshelves, although the table itself is usually covered with books and the stuff of ordinary life. Here is a photo of how it looked on August 8, 2017:
But even though I was no longer surrounded by bookshelves, the dining room table wasn’t an especially wonderful place to work because I kept thinking of everything else that I ought to be doing (mostly, reading those books one flight up). I tried going to coffee shops, but found the noise and commotion weren't conducive to writing. I finally ended up spending a lot of afternoons at my local library, where I wrote much of George and Lizzie
in their “quiet room,” where cell phone use isn’t allowed. I discovered that I need total quiet to be able to write, and that it’s imperative that I turn off any access to the Internet, because the temptation to check Twitter is too great.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
About eight years ago I got a call from a third grade teacher at a private school here in Seattle. When he told his students that their assignment was to interview someone that they admired, one of his students told him that she wanted to interview me. She was an inveterate reader, and had somehow come across a copy of Book Crush
— perhaps her parents had given her a copy of it as a gift. The teacher had tracked me down and was calling to see if I’d be willing to meet him and Sydney at the café at University Book Store. She was absolutely amazing and I just loved talking to her. (One of her questions was why on earth I had included the Captain Underpants
series in Book Crush
. It was her younger brother’s favorite book, she said, but she didn’t think it was a very good book at all. I told her that if I hadn’t included it as a recommended read, I wouldn’t have much credibility with young kids. She got what I meant, but I could tell she still didn’t approve.) Toward the end of our time together, she said that she thought we should get together again. “That would be lovely,” I said. “But what would we do?” “We could have a book club,” she replied. Which we did for several years, meeting monthly to talk about the books she’d read. When she was 12, I had her as a guest on my TV show, Book Lust with Nancy Pearl
. It was some interview — you can watch it here.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that one of the authors I turn to when the world is too much for me is the British novelist, Elizabeth Cadell, who was very popular in the 1950s through '70s among women readers who wanted light, G-rated romances. My two favorites of her many novels are probably The Corner Shop
and The Toy Sword
. Oh, and The Friendly Air
. It’s also hard to admit that I'm quite fond of many D. E. Stevenson novels. Two of her best are Listening Valley
and The Young Clementina
, both of which are back in print from Sourcebooks, so maybe I don’t need to be quite so embarrassed about how many times I’ve read them. If only someone would reprint Elizabeth Cadell’s oeuvre, and all the rest of D. E. Stevenson, I could replace my ratty copies with nice new ones. Here's my current collection:
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I am always looking for a good mystery, and I felt extremely lucky when I happened upon Adrian McKinty’s The Cold Cold Ground
. It’s set in Belfast in 1981, at the height of the Troubles. I just love Sean Duffy, the Catholic policeman who is the hero of the series. The books are not only excellent mysteries, but they also give readers insight into a particular place and time, and you leave the McKinty novels knowing so much more than when you began. It’s best to read these in order.
I feel the same way about the mysteries by C. J. Sansom, which take place during the reign of Henry VIII. Each of the six novels covers the year(s) when Henry is married to one of his wives, beginning with Dissolution
and concluding with Revelation
. Read these in order, too. When I finished the series I felt I could pass an exam in Tudor history with ease.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I’ve had two especially odd jobs, both of which I bequeathed to Lizzie in George and Lizzie
. The first, which I got while I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma, being a (mostly) stay-at-home mother to two young daughters, was a part-time job doing indexing for the Midwest Fire Protection Association, which involved looking through magazines and newspapers in search of articles about fires. I read about house fires, forest fires, gasoline fires, electrical fires, fires set deliberately, and the occasional chemical fire. This was before computers, so for every article about a fire, I created an index card, noting its author and title, the date of the fire, the name of the magazine or journal where the article appeared, the pages the article was on, and a brief summary, which included the number of deaths and/or serious injuries resulting from said fire.
My other very odd part-time job was working as a proofreader for a printing company, also in Stillwater. I had anticipated going over book manuscripts, hunting for typos. What I was greeted with on my very first day of work was a repair manual for a large appliance company. The only words on the page were the name of the company and the model numbers of the appliance. My job was to compare the numbers in the proof to the numbers on what seemed like thousands of loose pages. Numbers! Who knew? I made it through one day and quit the next morning, citing child-care issues.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Since I was in high school, I’ve written down poems I love (many from The New Yorker
in the 1970s and 1980s) in a series of notebooks, along with favorite sentences or paragraphs from the books I read.
I tried to pick just one, but it was simply impossible to narrow it down, so here are a few:
“Maybe everybody is a novel…I read the other day about how they’ve been able to encode all of Dickens onto one strand of human DNA, and I started having a science-fiction fantasy about how our DNA is actually literature and that humankind is some other civilization’s library.” — Jenny McPhee, No Ordinary Matter
“Matthew held in his hand something which was for him one of the most beautiful things in the world. It was a shallow Sung bowl with a design of peonies cut under the glaze. Its color was a sort of milky ivory, what an angel might conceive of if asked to conceive of white.” — Iris Murdoch, An Accidental Man
“The only thing that depressed me more than the ecological breakdown of the planet and my parents’ unhappiness was my sex life with Arthur. There’s no point in going into it in detail. In the end, all unhappy sex lives are alike. I don’t blame Arthur. The problem was as much my fault as his. Whenever I thought about our sex life, I thought about two bald tires, spinning and spinning and spinning on a patch of ice. Once you’ve tried pushing, pulling, putting chains on the wheels and sand on the snow, there’s not much you can do but turn off the engine, take the key out of the ignition, and start walking.” — Stephen McCauley, The Easy Way Out
“[His overcoat] emitted an odor of bus station so desolate that just standing next to him you could feel your luck changing for the worse.” — Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
“Each one of us is a museum that opens for the business the moment we’re born, with memory the sole curator.” — Kate Bolick, Spinster
“I blame it all on The Hobbit
. That, and my supportive home life. I grew up in one of those loving families that fail to prepare a person for real life.” — Susan Juby, Alice, I Think
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I have several grammatical pet peeves, but perhaps the one I find most cringeworthy to encounter is “between he and I” and all its various (ungrammatical) iterations. I’ve given up fighting for the use of whom in sentences like “Who did you give that to?,” but I really wish that announcers, podcasters, and everyone else would come to accept that it’s correct to say “between you and me.” I should mention here my favorite books on grammar and usage: Karen Gordon’s The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed
and The Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed
. They’re a delight to read and are filled with excellent advice and very funny examples of correct usage and grammar.
Do you have any phobias?
I am not at all fond of edges and ledges, so I will not be doing any mountain climbing in the foreseeable future.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Three guilty pleasures, all involving electronics: playing Plants vs Zombies on my computer and Mirrors of Albion and 1010! on my iPad, when I should be reading or writing.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Not to take myself too seriously. But it’s advice that I gave myself; nobody ever told me that.
If I enjoyed George & Lizzie, what other books should I read?
Try these other character-driven, often quirky works of fiction: Laurie Colwin’s Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object
; Stephen McCauley’s The Easy Way Out
; Leah Hager Cohen’s Heart, You Bully, You Punk
; Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation
and Single, Carefree, Mellow
; Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen
; and Jon Cohen’s The Man in the Window
Share a Top Five book list of your choice.
I’ve never been a big fan of memoirs, primarily because I find them egotistical (which makes perfect sense, given the first two letters of the word “memoir”). The authors tend to take themselves and their suffering so seriously. Most of us believe that not only are we the Hamlet
in the play of our own life, we also play the starring role in the lives of all of our friends and relations. In fact, we’re really the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
in everyone else’s plays. That is, we’re killed off (and offstage) somewhere in Act V.
But here are some memoirs that I’ve really enjoyed. What they have in common are authors who don’t seem utterly self-absorbed. If this were a longer list, I would include many newer favorites, such as Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club
, but instead I’ve concentrated on older titles, some of which are no longer in print. I’ve done so partly because I think that as a society we focus way too much on what’s new and hot, and partly because there are so many wonderful older titles out there, and recommending them gives me a lot of pleasure. Trust me, these are all well worth seeking out. Besides, isn’t it true that any book you haven’t read is a new book to you?
My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge
by Paul Guest
Brother, I’m Dying
by Edwidge Danticat
The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order
by Joan Wickersham
A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me
by Jason Schmidt
The Tender Bar
by J. R. Moehringer
÷ ÷ ÷
is known as "America’s Librarian." She speaks about the pleasures of reading at library conferences, to literacy organizations and community groups throughout the world, and comments on books regularly on KUOW FM in Seattle, as well as KWGS in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Wisconsin Public Radio. Born and raised in Detroit, she received her Master of Library Science degree in 1967 from the University of Michigan. She also received a MA in history from Oklahoma State University in 1977. Among her many honors and awards are the 2011 Librarian of the Year Award from Library Journal
and the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. She also hosts a monthly television show, Book Lust with Nancy Pearl
. She lives in Seattle with her husband. George and Lizzie
is her first novel.