Getting Out of Her Own Skin: The Millions Interviews Nancy Pearl

September 6, 2017 | 2 books mentioned 1 10 min read

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Fans of Nancy Pearl know her as many things—renowned librarian and former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, author of the Book Lust/Book Crush reader recommendation series, originator of the One City One Book initiative, and featured books reviewer for NPR’s Morning Edition. Now, readers can experience Pearl’s love for the written word in an entirely new way: she’s written her first novel, George & Lizzie, out this week.

Pearl’s debut revolves around the two titular characters, who embody temperamental opposites and yet find themselves falling in love. George comes from a loving childhood and approaches his adulthood, and marriage to Lizzie, with the same intense affection and forgiveness modeled in his family. Lizzie’s own history is one riddled with cruel rejections, starting with her parents, Lydia and Mendel, and evolving into a self-loathing that lingers well into her adult life. Even as George’s love continues to deepen for Lizzie, her sexual history—particularly a time in her life she labels as the Great Game—leaves her burdened with a shame that limits her ability to give and accept true intimacy. As readers move further into George and Lizzie’s story, Pearl asks us to consider the odds of love triumphing where self-love never existed.

George and Lizzie’s story remains true to Pearl’s own self-professed reading preferences: description and exploration of the characters drives the plot. George & Lizzie achieves this through vignettes that circle back across the timeline of the narrative, with each separate piece united by Pearl’s ability to recognize humor in even the most devastating of circumstances. I spoke with Pearl about her new novel and her fascination with the stories people have to tell, whether in literature or in life.

The Millions: George & Lizzie provides a unique narrative structure—scenes unfold as vignettes, remembrances, or something akin almost to diary entries told in third-person. What led you to choose this type of structure for your novel?

Nancy Pearl: That happened accidentally. First of all, I wanted to write a novel that I would love. I was going through a time when my favorite authors weren’t writing fast enough for me and I needed more books that were smart and funny and that was what compelled me to take these characters I’d been thinking about for a long time and start writing about them. And so I would sit down and I would just write a section of their lives, whatever was at the forefront of my mind. I came to see it as snapshots of their lives at different times. Even the chapter headings were just notes for myself. I would save them and remember what was in that particular section. I’m not naive enough to not know that I was writing a novel, but my motivation wasn’t to get published but really that I wanted to spend more time with the people in my story.

The order of the book and the back and forth was even more random than it is now in the sense that, when I submitted the book for publication, it was in the order that I wrote the chapters. And so you might read the results of the Great Game before you knew what the Great Game was. But my wonderful editor at Touchstone, Tara Parsons, spoke with me about the George and Lizzie plot arc, and then we fit everything else around that.

See, plot is not that important to me. I think what’s always important to me in life and the books I read are the people involved. I could never write a mystery, for example. It’s always about exploring the characters and, for me, it’s the characters that need to stand out. And a sense of humor. I think in all my favorite books, characters are the main focus and I want the plot to arrive out of the characters, rather than having the characters live within a plot that’s been devised.

TM: So let’s talk about the Great Game.  Lizzie’s obsession with her ex-boyfriend, Jack McConaghey, is a strong source for her own self-loathing. She can’t seem to move past her belief that his love for her was erased by her revelation of the Great Game, where she slept with the starting members of her high school football team. Which aspects of female sexuality did you want to explore through Lizzie’s story?

NP: I think society has these morés set up for teenage girls, especially. And to break those taboos can really cause you to doubt yourself and to not forgive yourself. It’s interesting that both things she can’t forgive herself for have to do with her sexuality. The fact that Jack leaves and doesn’t say why gives her added reason to go back and not forgive herself. She also never tells George about this part of her sexual history. 

TM: Lizzie’s character feels very much halted in her adolescence—that stage where we begin to consider complex and ambiguous concepts, like love, truth, and identity—three issues that Lizzie struggles with throughout the entire book. Lizzie’s conceptualizations of these are categorical—You love or you don’t. You are good or you are worthless. You are honest or you are a liar. And it’s this style of thinking that limits Lizzie’s engagement with life. What interested you in creating a character with this form of primary struggle?  

NP: I should preface by saying that in many ways this novel was my discovering George and Lizzie rather than my inventing them, so it almost seems like they really existed. I know I made them up, but it seemed throughout the whole process that they were real people and I was just uncovering things about them. I absolutely see that immaturity in Lizzie—there’s a point in the novel where George comments that Lizzie has the emotional age of a 13-year-old and Lizzie agrees, as do I. It wasn’t that I sat down and tried to figure out who Lizzie was—I mean there were things that I had to figure out, like her parents—but it just seemed so natural for who I saw Lizzie as that she would be stuck in that period, partly because of the Great Game.

Maybe this is the place to say this novel is not autobiographical.

TM: Yes, unfortunately there’s this assumption that any time a woman writes a novel where a female protagonist engages in risky sexual practices or experiences some form of trauma that it must be autobiographical.

NP: Lizzie’s behavior doesn’t come from a story someone told me. The Great Game is just something I imagined someone like Lizzie might do. The hard part having to do with that—I mean my editor kept saying “Why did she do it?” and I had to figure that out, but I also had to figure out how to tell that part of Lizzie’s story. Being a writer, you have ideas in your head and put them on paper and they seem so stilted. I describe myself as a very critical reader of the books I read, and I feel I was even harder on myself as a writer.

TM: Lizzie, who begins the novel as a high school upperclassman and ends it as a woman we assume is in her late 20s, is never clearly described. Given that these times in a woman’s life are especially riddled with doubts about physical appearance, I found it very interesting as a reader that Lizzie’s physical self is never a point of concern for her. Her self-criticism stems from flaws she sees in her character, especially due to the Great Game—why did you want to have your female protagonist so comfortable in her skin and so uncomfortable in her self?

NP: I think it was something that I discovered. I didn’t describe Lizzie because I really wanted readers to make their own picture of her. It seemed like I couldn’t have this one character who is so wrecked emotionally and feeling terribly about her body. I wanted to give her a break. In most of my own reading, I don’t care how characters look, I care about how they feel.

TM: Lizzie’s parents, Lydia and Mendel, are psychologists who ascribe to the Behaviorist approach focusing on reinforcement and punishment and they take this to an extreme in their own parenting of Lizzie, which is cold and distant. Was your choice for her parents to be Behaviorists just reflective of the popular ideas at the time the novel was set, or do you have a viewpoint on this particular field of therapy?

NP: My husband is an academic psychologist. But he’s neither a Behaviorist nor a Freudian. He’s a Humanistic-Transpersonal psychologist. You get a good sense of him from George. The Dr. Kallikow that influences George reflects much of Joe, my husband. Though Joe does not wear earth shoes. Or a beret.

I knew right away that Lydia and Mendel would be academic psychologists. I wanted Lizzie to have an unhappy childhood, but not the typical unhappy experience. I didn’t want there to be physical abuse or poverty—I wanted this unhappiness directly attributable to her parents. In the beginning I considered having them be Freudians, but I thought that’s such a cliché: such a large part of our daily existence in our culture acknowledges Freudian issues. Once I decided that, Behaviorists seemed the next best option.

And there’s no room in Lydia and Mendel’s relationship for Lizzie. That’s why I did that entire background for Lizzie’s family tree. When Tara, my editor, got the manuscript I wondered if she’d like it to be taken out, but I feel George and Lizzie’s story needs this backdrop, especially Lizzie’s.

That part was fun to write too, because it was entirely invented. That whole thing about Minsk and Pinsk—all of those things were a lot of fun. Some chapters were much harder to write.

TM: Which were harder to write?  

NP: I mean everything is hard—I have trouble sitting down to write. I don’t have a place to write besides my dining room table and it’s hard because I see things to do in the house, so I would go to the library. They have a quiet room there with a shelf going around it at computer height. Two hours and that was it. I’d have my Diet Pepsi, turn off Internet access, write for two hours, and then go home.

I’ve also been a morning walker for a long time and basically go for a long walk—6 miles or so—every morning. I stop halfway to get a Starbucks tea and I continue my walk. It’s a lovely ritual and George and Lizzie would always be percolating in the background. I walk to the University of Washington campus and on the way back I walk down a street with lots of fraternity and sorority houses. As I walk I’ll think about different things, like what my life would have been like if I’d joined a sorority at University of Michigan, or what if I’d married this guy I dated when I was a junior. When I was stuck on something or couldn’t figure something out, the answer would frequently come to me on my walk, even though I wasn’t concentrating on the characters or the problem I was stuck on in the novel. I’d smell bacon cooking and think, oh, Elaine—maybe that’s her favorite breakfast. Everything just related back to my characters.

TM: Almost 20 years ago, you began the movement that became One City One Book through your work as Executive Director at the Washington Center for the Book. What other initiatives do you hope to see realized for America’s (and/or the world’s) readers in the near or distant future?

NP: I had this life-changing experience in Bosnia where the cultural attaché with the U.S. embassy there invited me to teach teachers how to lead book discussions—this was about four years ago. In Bosnia I saw how powerful books could be to bring people together to talk about important things like identity and how a book could help people think about their lives in a different way. That was my motivation when we developed One City One Book. I wanted to get people who might not think they have anything in common with each other to see that common humanity. Bosnia was an amazing place to see Serbs and Muslims coming together and finding out that they share many things—they are both mothers or that both sets of parents are mixed ethnicities, for example, and that linked them despite the fact that one was a Serb and one was a Muslim and they had the war behind and between them.

I think reading is such a wonderful tool to develop empathy. We spend so much of our time in our own skins and we just think about our mind and our body, yet when we’re reading we are experiencing the lives of other characters and I think that freedom—that escape from ourselves—is the beginning of developing empathy.

TM: Are you working on another novel already?

NP: No, I have this obligatory novel that I wrote when I was 18—the kind people write when they want to be writers and are unhappy, which I definitely was at age 18. I read some of it recently and it was painful. It was just so earnest, there was no leavening in it. I mean, you could just see who I was as an 18-year-old. The little bit of the manuscript that I managed to read reminded me of interesting things I’d forgotten about that I’d put into that novel. It was also very stream-of-consciousness, which is quite different from George & Lizzie.

I did start writing a short story about Maverick, Lizzie’s boyfriend her junior year of high school, as he turns 50. I don’t know if he becomes a sports commentator—I think he has a sports podcast instead. But for me, it’s always going to be that same narrative voice—that close third person narrator. I don’t know if I can access another voice, or if it’s always going to be this way.

I mean, I started out in elementary and certainly high school and college writing poetry. I always defined myself as a writer. I thought I would be a writer and when I was in my 30s all of the lines that started to come to me as poetry started coming to me as prose instead. I wrote a short story that was published by Redbook in 1980 and they said they loved that story and “please send us all your writing.” I did just that, but they said although they loved it, my writing was too depressing for their readers, and then I just sort of stopped writing and I didn’t start again until I began George & Lizzie.

TM: There are many literary references in the book—as you wrote George & Lizzie, did you have any beloved novels in mind that you wanted to use in representing your characters?

coverNP: It was really hard to narrow it down to which book Lizzie would be reading when she met Marla—it was easy to give George books, but with Lizzie there’s so many other books I wish I could have included and have her reading. I have this fantasy of George & Lizzie being illustrated and having a picture of Lizzie’s bookshelves and the Christmas tree of Elaine’s or the family jewelry store in Stillwater.  There are so many smart and funny books I’d like to have included and I’m so glad I included I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  I think Lizzie needed to be a reader. It was something that brought her pleasure when she was a child. That’s what reading did for her and it continues to sustain her, as it does for so many of us, including myself.

***

In line with Nancy’s love for characters and their stories (and backstories), she’s kindly provided us with a recipe that features in George & Lizzie.

Elaine’s Mandel Bread Recipe
(which she got from her cousin Marilyn)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Ingredients:
4 eggs
1 cup canola oil
3½ to 4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup chopped nuts
Mixture of equal parts cinnamon and sugar, for sprinkling

Beat eggs until foamy. Add rest of ingredients. Divide dough into 4 parts. Make a long roll of each part and put it on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes.

Slice each roll while still warm. Put back on cookie sheet, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar mixture and bake for 8 minutes or until brown. Then turn over each piece, sprinkle again with cinnamon and sugar, and bake for 8 minutes.

Elaine often adds dried fruit in addition to nuts—cut up dried apricots, cranberries, or raisins. Sometimes she adds part of a package of trail mix.

is a developmental psychologist and a senior lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories and essays have appeared in LitHub, National Book Critics Circle: Critical Mass, Five on the Fifth, The Indianola Review, and (parenthetical). Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, was released in December 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.

One comment:

  1. Thank you.

    Yes, the writing following out from the characters and the situation. I like the E.L. Doctorow line, that it’s like driving at night – You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way.

    Best,
    Monty Johnston

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