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Nancy Pearl on How Reading Informs the Person That You Are

by Brendan Dowling on September 9, 2020

Whether it’s through her beloved Book Lust series, her frequent appearances on NPR’s Morning Edition, or her own critically acclaimed novel, George and Lizzie, Nancy Pearl has been providing readers with impeccable reading options for many years. With The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives, Pearl has taken it one step further. She and her collaborator, playwright Jeff Schwager, interviewed a wide-ranging group of twenty-three American authors about the books that made them who they are today. From Susan Choi on The Borrowers to Amor Towles on The Honorable Schoolboy, the result is a series of illuminating conversations that reveal your favorite writers in surprising and intimate ways. Publisher’s Weekly stated, “Readers of this delightful compendium will relish the chance to find many of those shared loves, as well as discover new ones,” and Booklist  hailed it as a zestfully elucidating and inspiring portal onto the lives and thoughts of truly exceptional writers.

The interviews examine how reading informs an author’s writing. What was intriguing about that topic for you?

I guess what was even more intriguing than that, in a way, was how reading informs the person that you are. I was reading recently that Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet, said that if people want to know about his biography they should look at the books he’s read. To me, that was a really interesting way of thinking about reading and humanity. Because they’re writers, that [aspect of] their reading informing their writing, either directly or indirectly, was very interesting. I’m thinking of two of the writers, Laurie Frankel and Russell Banks, who both talked about when they’re working on a piece of writing, they go back and read or reread authors who’ve done what they’re doing to see how it’s been handled, and I think that’s really interesting.

It was so fun to learn about what people had read growing up and what their relationships were with those formative books.

I have a big smile on my face now, because I’m remembering how Louise Erdrich talking about how much she wanted to read Marjorie Morningstar when she was eleven years old, but it was way up on her parents’ bookshelves. The other one that I just love is Jennifer Eagan reading Rebecca, and her mother saying that she was “in such a state.” The picture of Jennifer Eagan at eleven reading Rebecca “in a state” was just so much fun to think about. You really get to know these authors in a way that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to in any other kind of conversation.

It feels so much more intimate than a more conventional profile or interview.

First of all, most of the interviews took place in the interviewee’s house, so that was an intimate setting as well. We didn’t go into any of these interviews with a list of questions that we wanted to cover. Most of the interviews start with me asking, “Were your parents readers? How did you get this love of reading?” Then we just let the conversation go wherever it wanted to go. I think that gave it a kind of freedom to really get at what the authors wanted to say and what Jeff and I wanted to come out of the interviews with.

Talking to T.C. Boyle, who now we call Tom, when I emailed him to see if he would be willing to do this interview, he wrote back immediately and said, “Yes, and what fun we will have!” What he did with us at his house was take us through his bookshelves. We walked along and he’d say, “Oh, I loved that book, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.” It was just so special to be able to share those things with people who you respect as writers.

Each of the interviews seem so distinct. How did you approach them?

We read the author’s books, but that was all that we did. We approached the interviews, as I think a lot of librarians would, as people who love to read talking to somebody else who loves to read. So we were really three readers—Jeff and I and the author—together, without doing a lot of background research. I don’t think we ever looked anybody up on Wikipedia, for example, just because we wanted it to be, “Here we are, just a bunch of readers, sitting around talking about books.” I think most of the authors appreciated that, because it gave them a chance to talk about books that they loved that maybe they had never talked about ever before in public.

This is the only place a reader will get to hear Ayelet Waldman talk about her love for the Happy Hollisters.

Exactly! Or having a discussion about the Scholastic Book Club with Michael [Chabon]. That was fun.

Were there commonalities you noticed among the writers?

There were great differences, but there were also commonalities. One of the commonalities was how many writers loved science fiction and fantasy, that was a place where they began, and how many writers referenced as among their favorite authors Ursula LeGuin.  I thought that was such a tribute to her. She was really a mentor to Luis Urrea, which I hadn’t known. When he talked about how much she had meant to him, both as a writer and then as a person, I think that encapsulated how writers feel about Ursula LeGuin, as kind of a touchstone.

It was also really special to hear about the authors who might not get celebrated as much  today who were meaningful to other writers. I finished the book feeling like I immediately had to start reading John O’Hara.

That’s one of the authors who Jeff and I both love. We’re constantly wanting more people to read John O’Hara. For Andrew Greer, it’s the kind of author we both thought that he would really enjoy. You have to read those three novellas, Sermons and Soda-Water. They’re just the best.

I feel like this is part interview, part trying to get reading recommendations from Nancy Pearl.

(laughing) Any time! On Twitter and Facebook I’ve been doing backlist titles of the day. I think that’s another reason why doing this project was so much fun. Any book that you haven’t read is a new book to you, and we just don’t pay attention to backlist as much as I think we should. That’s been a basic thing of my whole career, just focusing on backlist titles and getting more people to read wonderful books.

I want to ask you some of the questions you asked the writers, if that’s okay. Was there a book you read as a teenager that made you want to be a writer?

Yes, an author who I read, Mary Stolz. (laughs) It’s so embarrassing, but I have to be honest. She wrote books for teenagers and she wrote books for children, and one of her children’s books won the Newbery award, but those were not the books I liked. She wrote some wonderful, wonderful novels for teenage girls. They weren’t popular, but my library had them. They were written in a stream of consciousness style, and they were just so perfect for me. It was wonderful writing and I was interested in the characters. That’s exactly what I’ve grown up wanting to read: wonderfully written books with characters who I’m interested in. In some ways, George and Lizzie—it’s nothing like the Mary Stolz books directly—but the kind of feeling I got from the Mary Stolz books is the kind of feeling I got when I was writing George and Lizzie. Can I just recommend two of them? One is called In a Mirror, and the other is Second Nature. They’re so good. I really wish they would be made available again.

Are there writers from your generation or the one before yours that you wish had written more?

Who’s the writer who said there were people he wished had written less?

I think that’s Richard Ford.

Richard Ford has a sharp tongue. (laughs) I’m just going to go to my bookcase and see if there are writers I wish had written more. So many of them have written the right amount. I wish that Frederick Busch had lived longer so he could have written more. I just love his books so much. I wish Pete Dexter, who I hear is working on a new book, wrote faster and published more. Somebody told me he’s working on a big, big book, which I hope he gets done and I hope I get to read. I wish Andrew Sean Greer would write more. Oh, here’s somebody. Have you ever read anything by James Hynes?


He’s an Austin, Texas writer. I guess some people say these are horror novels, but they’re not really. He has some wonderful academic novels. There’s one called The Lecturer’s Tale, which is so good.

What books do you reread?

Especially during this pandemic, it seems to me I’ve been rereading a whole bunch of books, which is always a crapshoot in a way. We talked about this with Richard Ford about The Moviegoer. It was such a shock for me to reread it and discover that I was a totally different person and I didn’t connect with it, even though I always would have said it was one of my favorite books. I have just been doing a lot of rereading of old favorites, Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, which is so wonderful. Pete Dexter’s Spooner, did you read that one?

No. I haven’t read anything by Pete Dexter.

Spooner is his autobiographical novel. It’s amazing, it’s just so good. Here’s somebody who I wish would write more: David James Duncan, who wrote The Brothers K and The River Why. And Chard Harbach, he’s somebody I’d like to see more of.

The other book that I came away from the interviews really excited to read was Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger, which several of the authors mention in their conversations.

It’s really an important book. It deals with big issues, and yet it’s such a great story. People always say what’s your favorite book? For me, I feel like that’s an impossible question. I like to twist it and say, “Here’s a book that I think the chances are the most number of people would enjoy: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Then I go into my theory about why people like the books they like. Lonesome Dove is one of those books that almost any kind of a reader would enjoy. No matter what you’re looking for, you’ll find it in that book.