I’ve never met Nancy Pearl, best-selling Seattle author, librarian, and literary critic, yet we do have something of a history. I chaired the first Newport Reads (inspired by the internationally recognized program, If All of Seattle Read the Same Book, created by Pearl) and years later my novel, Wander, won the 2017 Nancy Pearl Literary Award for fiction. (A friend also gave me the Deluxe Nancy Pearl Librarian Action Figure at a book signing.)
In June, I was all set to meet Pearl at a fundraising luncheon in La Conner, Wash., but our plans were dashed when Amtrak’s guaranteed connection from Albany to Portland turned out to be not so guaranteed. Still, when I talked with Pearl by phone about her upcoming Oct. 20 appearance in Nehalem as part of the 10th year anniversary celebration of the Manzanita Writers’ Series, it was like chatting with someone I’d known for years. She was friendly, forthcoming, knowledgeable, and clearly a generous spirit.
Pearl, who has been hailed as “America’s Librarian,” is a regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition and hosts a monthly Seattle television show called Book Lust, on which she interviews authors, poets and others in the literary world. Book Lust is also the theme of her series of recommended-reading books. Here is an edited version of the conversation she and I had about books, reading, and life in general.
You’ve worn a few hats in your life. Which most defines you these days?
Pearl: I guess “reader,” because reader encompasses all the other things. All the other things wouldn’t have been possible had I not been a reader all my life.
What made you such a reader?
What turned me into a reader was this need to escape. I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, so I spent all my time at the library in Detroit, where I grew up. It was those wonderful children’s librarians who really showed me the world through books. When one librarian, Frances Whitehead, met me, all I read were horse and dog stories. She would say, “Nancy, we just got a new horse book, do you want to be the first to read it?” I’d say, “Oh yes,” and she’d say, “First I want you to read this,” and in that way she got me to read other things, like The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, Mary Poppins…. I became a librarian because I wanted to do for other children what Miss Whitehead did for me.
What surprises you most about your career?
I never expected any of it to happen. I thought I would be a children’s librarian and I would be happy doing it. The breadth and depth of what I’ve been able to do in my life has just been pretty amazing to me.
When you did you realize you were not the typical librarian?
Everything I’ve done, I thought, that’s what librarians should do: talking about books, recommending books, being enthusiastic about reading. I’m fortunate that I am able to talk about books in a way that informs people why they would want to read those books.
Your novel George & Lizzie came out in 2017. Are you working on a new book?
I have some ideas for maybe some more fiction. I don’t know. I am just sort of taking it easy now.
Was it different being on the receiving end of a book review?
For many years, I taught library students, and I have this theory about why people like the books they like. They are looking for a particular reading experience. I would have thought I would have a less sensitive time dealing with George & Lizzie. It’s very character driven. A novel, as you know, is a lot like a child. It’s your baby. So it was interesting to me to deal with the people who didn’t like it.
With the Book Lust books, those were just so much fun to write, just sort of another natural outgrowth of what I love to do anyway. The criticism of that was usually “Why didn’t you include this book?” This was an entirely different experience.
What do you like to read?
With George & Lizzie, I wrote the kind of book I like to read. I wrote the novel for me. I couldn’t find books to read. I wanted a character-driven, somewhat quirky novel. It had everything I loved. I don’t need page-turning — although I do love thrillers — but the keepers for me are the ones that let me look at the characters. You are turning the pages because you are interested in the character, not particularly what is happening to them.
Are you still spending so much time on the road?
Not as much as I did some years. I did a big book tour a year ago. That was pretty exhausting and pretty fun. I love meeting readers. I do certain things, speak at certain organizations every year. The rest of the time I am just thinking, doing a lot of walking, and that helps me think about things.
A conversation with Nancy Pearl, “America’s Librarian,” and April Baer of Oregon Public Broadcasting is a joint fundraiser for the Hoffman Center for the Arts and North Tillamook Library. The interview will be taped for later broadcast on OPB’s “State of Wonder”. It begins at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30) Saturday, Oct. 20, in the North Coast Recreation District Performing Arts Center, 36155 Ninth St., Nehalem. General Admission is $25; the VIP event is $100. For tickets and more information, go here.