Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Interview with Lois Lowry

Photo credit Rhys Lowry

Today’s guest is Lois Lowry, who has long been one of my favorite authors of children’s books. The following are only some of her numerous literary awards: the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award (1977), for A Summer to Die; the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (1987), for Rabble Starkey; the Newbery Medal (1990), for Number the Stars; the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award (1991) for Number the Stars; the Mark Twain Award, (1991), for All About Sam; a second Newbery Medal (1994), for The Giver; and the Margaret A. Edwards Award (2007), for The Giver – this last is an award given for outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens.

Q. When you were a small child you memorized the poem "Thanatopsis", essentially a meditation on death, by William Cullen Bryant. Do you think that poem resonated with you later and impacted some of your own thematic interests?
A. No, the poem had very little meaning for me thematically when I was a young child. But I connected it to my grandfather—to the pleasure of his reading to me, the sound of his voice, the feel of his vest against my cheek as I sat on his lap and listened. There were some phrases in the poem that I related to; I remember “the speechless babe and the gray-haired man” (I may be mis-quoting that, after almost 70 years!) but for the most part I enjoyed simply the cadence and sound, without any comprehension of the meaning.

Q. As a child you wrote stories and poems. You won writing awards in high school. After you married and dropped out of college, during those “interrupted education” years, did you continue to write at home?
A. Not for a while. I had four children in five years, and so had little time for the solitary pursuit that serious writing always is. Then, when my youngest began kindergarten, I went back to college, then to graduate school, and began doing serious academic writing. And eventually: fiction. But by that time my kids were teenagers.

Q. In your more serious books, the writing becomes quite lyrical. Do you still read or write poetry?
A. I read poetry often. Right now I am at my summer home, so I don’t have access to the collection of poetry books that I keep in my office in my “regular” house. But when I am there, I am likely to pick up a book of poetry at the beginning of each day. (Here, in summer, I subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” which delivers a poem each morning to my computer). I rarely write poetry myself---just occasional verse for some reason or another. But reading it reminds me very powerfully of the rhythm and lyricism of language, and of the subtlety of it when it is distilled, as poetry forces the writer to do. I think it is a good way, for me at least, to get my head and my ear into the world of voice and sound and words.

Q. All your writing is visual, with a strong sense of color. In the Anastasia books, Anastasia’s mother is a painter. In addition to your photography, what part do visual arts play in your own life?
A. I am a collector of art rather than a producer of it! I have many friends who are painters—or illustrators—and both my houses are filled with their work. I have one guest room in my Massachusetts house which is filled with work by children’s illustrators who are friends: Allen Say, Rosemary Wells, Diane DeGroat, others. And in another room in that house I have one of the paintings from my own book Crow Call, which is illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. My office—I call it the studio, actually—in Maine is a room I created off of the barn. And on its walls are photographs by me.

Q. What books most appealed to you when you were growing up? Did they have a common theme, or were they quite varied?
A. Varied, I think. But it is clear, from my memories, that I preferred realistic fiction. Two favorites were The Yearling and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think I most liked reading about young people, protagonists to whom I could relate, who experienced enormous hardship, sometimes tragedy, and who made their way through it with determination and grace.

Q. You’ve mentioned you wrote your first book when you were about nine or ten. What was it about, and what was the title?
A. Well, I have a copy of a letter from me which was published in a children’s magazine the summer of 1947, when I was ten. It says, “I am writing a book called A Dog Named Lucky. I am on Chapter 13.” Of course the chapters I wrote at age 10 were considerably shorter than those I write now.

Q. In an interview you mentioned you often feel pulled along by ideas whirling in your head and that you have to scramble to keep up with them. How do you know when one of those ideas is going to “gel” into a new book? How do you know a story is finished?
A. When something keeps gnawing at me—a character, most often, but sometimes little more than a phrase—and doesn’t subside, then I know it is ready to be explored. Sometimes I start the exploration and it goes nowhere. Then I let it go. But usually once I begin, my interest and enthusiasm for it builds, and then it expands and becomes more complicated and is, eventually a book. As for when it is finished? When things come together. When earlier details reappear, changed (a red sled). When questions are answered. But—this is important, to me at least—when interesting questions remain, for the reader. Then it is done.

Q. You write in a range of “genres” – comical (Anastasia and Sam books; Gooney books), historical (Number the Stars), dystopian worlds (The Giver trilogy), and fantasy (Gossamer), and so many of them have won awards. You’ve also written a picture book (Crow Call). Any more picture books in the future?
A. Probably. I enjoyed the process, even though Crow Call was a story I had written (and published) many years earlier. (I did some minor re-writing to turn it into a picture book) And two current books (The Birthday Ball, published this spring, and Bless This Mouse, to be published next spring) are illustrated, though they are not picture books.

Q. It was one of your adult stories that made an editor suggest you should write a book for children, which lead to A Summer to Die. Do you think you’ll ever write fiction for adults again?
A. I could, I suppose. But I love what I do so much. And a writer for young people gets such wonderful feedback from readers. That is less true when you write for adults.

I’m 73, so I don’t have unlimited time, and there is so much I’d still like to do. I’ve written one play; working with theater directors has made me want to write another.

Q. Along life’s way, what was the best writing advice you ever received?
A. I had a professor of writing at Brown—Charles Philbrick—who told me to experience things. I didn’t know just what he meant, at the time; and now he is dead and I can’t ask him. But I’m guessing that he was saying that a writer needed to be keenly aware of feelings, perhaps even to study feelings and reactions in order to reproduce them in fiction. It might be akin to what Henry James said, that a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.

Lois Lowry’s latest book is The Birthday Ball, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. For those who wish to learn more about her or her books, visit: http://www.loislowry.com/index.html .


Rachna Chhabria said...

Lois is such an inspiration to us. What a prolific writer! Great interview, Elizabeth.

Nancy Herman said...

This is a truly excellent interview, Mitty. I copied and am saving a few of Ms. Lowry's quotes for my own inspiration. Thanks so much for this. Now I'm looking forward to your next interview!

Linda Joy Singleton said...

Lois Lowry is one of my writing heroes! Great interview! I've heard Lois speak several times and added my autographed THE GIVER to my autographed book shelf (after 20 years going to conferences, I have many autographed books!).

THE BIRTHDAY BALL sounds delightful!! I already added it as a "To Be Read" on my Goodreads list.

Keep on writing, Lois! The wonderful thing about this business is that our bodies may grow older but our imaginations live in characters of all ages.

Linda Joy SIngleton

Shoshana said...

I'm not surprised at LL's connection to poetry. Ten-year-old Anastasia Krupnik's analysis of Wordsworth has stayed with me for years, and is a major reason I think Anastasia is one of the best examples out there of a thinking child and adolescent.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Anastasia has been one of my favorite characters, too. A real original!

jenn said...

What a wonderful interview! Lois Lowry is one of the reasons why I'm now writing for children. Both from her books' influence on me as a child and then meeting her at a conference ten years ago when I was just beginning to seriously pursue a writing career. Thank you for sharing this interview!