Lois Lowry has penned over 30 thought-provoking novels for children and young adults. She’s won numerous awards, including the prestigious Newbery medal for her books Number the Stars (1990)–a book about Nazi-occupied Denmark–and The Giver (1994)–a fascinating look at a world based on “sameness.” Though Lowry is targeting the younger set, these are books adults can appreciate as well; I recently lost a few days lingering over the pages of The Giver and its companion books, Gathering Blue and Messenger. Shorter than your usual read, they’ll be quickly consumed yet satisfying for all that rich flavor–like a good Spanish tapas.
We’re honored Ms. Lowry took time out to speak with us about her stories and her process. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Lois Lowry
Q: I’ve read that you attended a school without libraries and creative writing classes, without even a good supply of books. What drew you to reading and writing without this scholastic support, and what are some of your earliest memories showing your love of literature?
LL: Well, my school…a small town Pennsylvania public school in the 1940’s… had books, of course: textbooks: the standard Dick-and-Jane type of thing. But there were no trade books, no school library, no reading-for-pleasure in those days, in that kind of school. I was fortunate that I had been born into a family that loved and valued books, that I had a mother who read to me, and that we lived within walking distance of the town library, which I visited early and often.
I remember my mother reading the childhood classics like Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland to me, and I remember my grandfather—a distinguished, erudite man, a bank president—reading Dickens and Longfellow aloud. Evenings in those pre-TV days, when as a family (we lived with my grandparents during WW II because my father was overseas) dined together, conversed over dinner (no talking-down to children, either) and then went into the living room to read in front of the fireplace…those are almost sacred memories to me.
Q: The cover picture for The Giver is of an older man—a picture you took yourself. How does imagery influence your writing, and how is imagery like writing for you?
LL: I am a very visual person….once a professional photographer…. someone who still sees every-day, ordinary things in terms of light and composition. I see scenes in my mind as I write them. Back in graduate school, I remember, I once wrote a paper called “the Pen and the Lens: Instruments of the Image Maker,” attempting to correlate the development of photography along with the corresponding changes in contemporary fiction writing. As a writer, of course, one changes lenses from time to time, opens up the aperture to shed more light (but in so doing blurs the background details), or stops it down for greater depth of field, a more omniscient view. Although I haven’t thought it through recently, I suppose the advent of digital photography…and the ability to manipulate photographic imagery…is also analogous to contemporary experimental fiction.
Q: What photographs in your collection beg a tale or two? Which, if any, would you like to tell?
LL: I used photography as the basis for a book called THE SILENT BOY. I had inherited early 20th century photographs from a great aunt who had been a photographer around the time of WW I. When the photographs came to me, she was already gone and I had no one to ask about the details. One photo in particular haunted me…a photograph of an unidentified boy. So I made up his story: gave him a name, a tragedy, and a setting in which it would unfold. Then I located other old photographs, one to illustrate each chapter. I think writing that book, creating the story from the image, and then finding the other images to enhance it, was the most fun I’ve had….and perhaps the greatest challenge…of any of my books.
Carol Shields, a writer whose work I admire enormously, had illustrated THE STONE DIARIES with old photographs. Although the book itself was very successful…it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995…I don’t think she used the photos successfully. They became a distraction, I think.
Q: What is your writing process, and how many drafts do you generally go through before you’re ready to call something Finished?
LL: I work every day, re-writing as I go. Because I use a computer, and don’t save draft after draft….it is always an ongoing revision process….I have no idea how many drafts I write.
Q: You were born in Hawaii, and spent a lot of time in New York, Pennsylvania and even Japan. How do you think these life experiences have influenced you as a writer and storyteller?
LL: It doesn’t matter where you live. The important thing is what you absorb from your surroundings. To be a keen observer….to see and ponder and weigh….to hear the cadence of speech and notice the shrugs and gestures and the way the eyebrows lift or the lip curls…to perceive human relationships and how they work (or don’t)….all of that is what makes a writer. You could live in the same small town for 50 years and have all of that available.
Q: We recently discussed how real events can become the catalyst for a story, though usually the real event becomes augmented in the process. I’ve read that The Giver, A Summer to Die, and Number the Stars all began with true life inspirations. Have you ever struggled with separating the real from its fiction counterpart? How can one best use real life events to mold compelling fiction?
But real events do not fall into well-plotted lines, necessarily. They have too many characters, some of whom are distracting and dull. They have moments of great boredom. Things don’t flow nicely, with each event depending upon the previous events.
We’ve all heard people at a dinner party tell a long anecdote in which they get sidetracked into unnecessary detail so that you want to scream: “Get to the point!” A writer can’t tell a story that way. Guests at a dinner party will be polite up until dessert. Readers will set a book aside long before that.
So it is the task of the writer to examine the set of “real” events and determine what matters: why it is worth writing about, how to shape it so that its worth is clear to the reader, and how to tell it in a way that holds the reader’s interest. Then to embellish it, to enhance its importance with detail that may or may not be “true.”
Q: Your ideas are truly unique. How many ideas do you set aside for every book you turn out? How do you know when an idea is The One to settle on and work with?
LL: I don’t know that my ideas are any more unique than the next guy’s. Everyone has the same ideas but they take on individual form. One way in which I differ from some writers- not all – is that I write in different genres. The differences seem to come easily to me and it makes my writing life interesting, going back and forth: realistic fiction, fantasy, YA reader, younger reader, historical, autobiographical. I never know, finishing one book, what form the next will take. I’ve just finished a full-length novel that is really a spoof of the old classic children’s literature. It’s a little outrageous. I began to write it in my head during a 3-hour car trip; when I arrived at my destination, an old farm I own in Maine, I went into the studio there and began to write it down. Where it came from…haven’t a clue. I’m just glad they keep coming.
Q: Opposites and extremes play a big role in your writing. Gossamer, for instance, deals in pleasant dreams and nightmares, violent handlings and a gentle, gossamer touch; the Giver’s world is black and white, sterile, and is later counterpoised with color and passion; and healing and destruction are important threads in The Messenger. How do you use polar expressions to create tension in a story regardless of external conflict?
LL: The writer tries to avoid a static feeling in a book. There have to be contrasts of every sort. Slow, lyrical passages of description are followed by short staccato dialogue. And of course real life consists of the juxtapositions of dark/light, joy/terror, peace/chaos. Literature simply tries to re-create life in an organized and interesting way.
Q: You’ve said of your stories that you’re aware of an omnipresent theme: the importance of human connections. What do you think brings you to this theme time and again?
LL: Well, there are no secrets or nuance here. The importance of human beings to one another is the pervasive and profound theme of all literature. It’s what Sophocles wrote about, and Shakespeare. Flaubert, and Faulkner. It’s all there is, and it’s everything.
Come back next week for part two of WU’s interview with Newbery Award winning author Lois Lowry!