We probably all know people who have said they plan to try their hand at fiction when they retire. But Nancy Pearl, our nation’s most popular and well-known librarian, has actually done it. Her debut novel, George & Lizzie, will be published by Simon & Schuster next month under the Touchstone imprint—and those of us in the library world could not be happier for her.
Over the course of her career, Nancy has become something of a celebrity for sharing her love of books and reading, whether on National Public Radio, through her local TV broadcast, or online in her popular Book Lust series. In 1998, in her capacity as executive director of Seattle Public Library’s (SPL) Washington Center for the Book, she began what would go on to become a national movement: the One City, One Book program. Her celebrity status is such that she became the basis for the famous Archie McPhee Librarian Action Figure.
My friendship with Nancy spans nearly 20 years. And knowing her as I do, I am not at all surprised that, once she decided to become a published novelist, she made it happen. But I will admit that when the advance reader’s copy for George & Lizzie arrived on my desk this spring, I was a little afraid to open it. Over the years, I’d spoken with Nancy periodically about her progress on the book. Then one day, there it was, in my hands. What if I didn’t like it?
Quintessential Nancy Pearl
I needn’t have worried. Right from the opening sentences, I loved it.
George & Lizzie is quintessential Nancy Pearl—great quirky characters, a laugh-out-loud sense of humor, and memorable language. And, no surprise, you can compile a great reading list from the book titles sprinkled throughout the story. As I read, I could hear Nancy’s voice—as will so many readers who have listened to Nancy talk books over the years. (And audiobook lovers will literally hear her voice: Nancy is narrating the S&S audiobook edition that will be released simultaneously with the hardcover).
So, after a career devoted to a books and reading, where did this book-loving librarian find the inspiration for her first novel?
No, neither George nor Lizzie are librarians—though characters do share a few Nancy Pearl-like characteristics, particularly Lizzie’s love of reading and poetry. But the book is in no way autobiographical, she stresses. “Lizzie is not me!” Nancy insists—which is quite evident from such elements as Lizzie’s love of football. (Nancy loves the theater of football, but not necessarily the game.) In general terms, Nancy says her writing influences include Anne Tyler, Andrew Sean Greer (always the reader’s advisor, she enthusiastically recommended Greer’s Less to me as we were talking for this piece), and Michael Chabon—all writers who engage serious topics with humor and give us characters that we want to meet again and again.
Nancy says the main characters of her story just sort of arrived in her head one day after foot surgery—perhaps with the aid of some strong painkillers. For nearly seven years after, Nancy says George and Lizzie kept her company, whatever the task at hand—walking, doing dishes, traveling. “A sentence would appear and I would fiddle with it,” she says, noting that writing for her feels more like discovery than invention.
Writing, of course, is only part of the experience—there is also the publishing part. And after decades of working closely with publishers as a librarian, critic, and nonfiction author, Nancy confessed that she still could not have imagined the time invested in getting a novel ready for publication—a process she described as challenging, scary, and exhilarating all at once. She credits Tara Parsons, her editor at Touchstone, with helping with edits and rewrites and shaping the narrative arc around George and Lizzie’s relationship.
Her prepub signing event at BookExpo 2017 was another of life’s surprises. Having attended the event in various capacities since the 1980s—the American Booksellers Association days—this year Nancy was on the novelist’s side of the table. And to her delight, readers turned out in droves to receive advanced reader’s copies of George & Lizzie. Nancy says she is looking forward to book signings and events once the book is out in September, and to getting more direct feedback from readers and book clubs.
Writing novels is just one more part of the literary ecosystem Nancy has devoted her life to—and more evidence that libraries play a major role in creating not only lifelong readers but also writers.
And as her fans, followers, and fellow librarians know well, Nancy will never stop working on behalf of books, libraries, and reading. Nancy has long been my favorite reader’s advisor, and whenever I am looking to find new authors, she’s still my go-to. She helped me discover the mysteries of Tana French, for example, and classics like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. And core to Nancy’s philosophy is that librarians who are knowledgeable about books, and trained to connect readers with titles, have tremendous value in the book world. Call it a human touch.
“Crowdsourced ratings of a book go against everything that I believe,” Nancy explains. “Reading is very, very personal. Many things inform whether someone likes a book or not. Reducing that to an algorithm is antithetical to the nature of reading.”
Though she officially retired from SPL in 2004, Nancy certainly hasn't slowed down. In 2011, she won Library Journal's Librarian of the Year award. And in 2012, she became Publishers Weekly's first regular library columnist (a post I am now happy to occupy). And she has worked directly with a number of library systems to help librarians recognize their value to readers—including my library.
About ten years ago, as technology was bringing great changes to librarianship, I was growing increasingly concerned about the role libraries played in the lives of readers. So we at the Cuyahoga County Public Library asked Nancy to come and help our library reestablish itself as a go-to place for books and readers.
Over the following year, Nancy traveled from Seattle, Wash., to Parma, Ohio, for one week a month and trained all of our staff around the theme “Reconnect with Reading.” I often say that Nancy Pearl came to live with us. And it changed our lives.
With Nancy’s help, we worked to re-emphasize books and reading in the Cuyahoga County Public Library mission. Personally, I was thrilled. We worked on new ways to help our staff make sure our customers always found that next great read. We did a local celebrity marketing campaign. We established successful new programs like our Reconnect with Reading Action Group, a weekly after-hours Facebook group called Night Owls, and our Three for Three online reader’s advisory strategy: we invite people to tell us, on Facebook or Twitter, the last three titles they’ve read and enjoyed and we recommend three great reads in real time.
The efforts have paid off. Cuyahoga County Public Library has topped the nation in per capita circulation for the past eight years and is locally recognized as the go-to resource for all things literary.
During her year of work with us at Cuyahoga, Nancy became part of our library family. We included Nancy’s image on posters, bookmarks, and even the cover of one our annual reports. We still try to lure her back every year for a check-up on how we are doing. And we always look forward to Nancy’s visits—partly because it means every meeting will start with folks briefly sharing what they are reading. But Nancy’s future visits—as a published novelist—promise to be a little more special.
Sari Feldman is PW's new library columnist. She is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio—one of the nation’s largest and highest-rated public library systems—and a former president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).