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With debut novel, Nancy Pearl chronicles the ups and downs of unlikely love

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 20, 2018, 10:30 p.m.

Super librarian Nancy Pearl never expected to write a novel.

“It was never on my bucket list,” she said, speaking before an audience of nearly 170 people Saturday in the West Chronicle Room of The Spokesman-Review. “I never would have written anything down, except I came to one of those points in my life that I think as readers we all sometimes get to … where we just can’t find the right book to read.”

Luckily for Pearl, she already had that book – or more specifically, the two characters who would form it – brewing in her mind: “George & Lizzie,” an odd mismatch of pasts and personalities whose unlikely love forms the thread of Pearl’s debut novel of the same name.

That novel, the five years that went into it and Pearl’s lifetime of work as a librarian – work that has inspired readers the world over for many decades – were all on the table Saturday evening as Pearl, the latest featured author in The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club, joined Spokane author Sharma Shields for an on-stage conversation about the writer’s craft.

They also touched on Pearl’s “One City One Book” movement, which aims to bring people from diverse, sometimes divergent cultures together through the empathic experience of the novel.

“George & Lizzie” was published in the autumn of 2017. It tells the story of Lizzie, a pessimistic woman with a troubled past; of George, a dentist with a cheerful disposition; and their sometimes troubled, odd and unlikely marriage. It is a study in the pitfalls of past heartaches and the price of companionship.

Shields, herself a novelist whose accolades include the 2016 Washington State Book Award for her novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac,” had some pointed questions on the process behind Pearl’s first novel. One of the first: To what extent was Pearl writing autobiographically?

Not so much, Pearl replied with a laugh.

Both authors quickly discovered a shared appreciation for, as Shields put it, “experimental structure” – in other words, writing outside the confines of the conventional narrative arc. Pearl wrote “George & Lizzie” as a series of vignettes – the first conceived, she said, in a dreamy, medication-induced haze following a foot surgery – and it was only after the novel reached an editor’s floor that the various pieces were structured into a more-or-less timebound sequence.

“When I thought about it … that’s how you get to know people,” she said. “When you read something, when you’re sitting down next to somebody at a kid’s soccer game, you don’t say to them, ‘Tell me about your life in chronological order.’ ”

Shields agreed: “I don’t think that’s how memory functions. I think memory moves back and forward in time very swiftly.”

Life, in memory, can be an accordion, she said – sometimes stretched out, sometimes compressed.

Eventually, Pearl did concede some parallels between her own life and the character of Lizzie – namely, a past full of disruptions, and the solace found in a mutual love of books.

Pearl retired from the Seattle Library in 2004. Since then, she has written a series of a popular books that include “Book Lust,” “More Book Lust,” “Book Crush” and “Book Lust to Go.”

Born in Detroit, Pearl turned to literature and the library as an escape from a difficult home life, she said – and more than that, a way to see through the eyes and experiences of others.

As a librarian, she would later pass that experience on to thousands of readers, particularly children; as a radio commentator and television host she reaches an even wider audience.

Pearl hosts the monthly program “Book Lust with Nancy Pearl,” where she interviews authors and other literary figures. Her honors include the 2011 Librarian of the Year Award from Library Journal and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

She is the only librarian who can claim her own action figure.

In addition to these accomplishments, Pearl is the founder of the “One City One Book” movement, which aims to bring communities together through the experience of the novel. Originally started at the Seattle Public Library’s Washington Center for the Book, it has since expanded both nationally and internationally in scope.

In addition to “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac,” Shields is the author of a short story collection, “Favorite Monster.” A public services specialist at the Spokane Valley and North Spokane libraries, Shields serves on the board for the Friends of the Spokane County Library District and also on the programming committee for Spark Central, a community center in the Kendall Yards neighborhood. Henry Holt will publish her next novel, “The Cassandra,” in 2019.

The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club hosts live community events and online discussions featuring Spokane-area authors and nationally acclaimed writers. The book club is an extension of the newspaper’s role in spurring community discussion about ideas, said Rob Curley, editor of The Spokesman-Review.

“Books are just a great excuse to get us all talking again,” Curley said.