Lois Lowry Interview
Interviewed by Linda M. Castellitto
Lois Lowry's stories have been entrancing readers for more than two decades. From the moving A Summer to Die to the endearing and comical Anastasia Krupnik to her most recent work, Gathering Blue, her books have garnered much praise and a devoted following. Two of her works have won Newbery Medals: Number the Stars -- which brings the reader back to the Holocaust, as seen through the eyes of young Annemarie -- and The Giver, a complex, intriguing work that has inspired controversy and, in some cases, censorship.
Lowry's most recent novel, Book Sense 76 pick*Gathering Blue, depicts a future society in which the government attempts to harness and use the talents of those like young Kira -- an exceptional embroiderer and weaver with a magical eye for color. BookSense.com's Linda Castellitto talked to Lois Lowry (via email, nicely in keeping with Gathering Blue's futuristic bent) about artists and authority, her sources of inspiration, what she reads…and what books she's working on next.
BookSense.com: You've been writing books for more than 20 years (my goodness!). What keeps you going?
Lois Lowry: My first book -- A Summer to Die -- was published in 1977. The time since then has gone by like the blink of an eye: WHOOSH. It feels like yesterday that I wrote the sentence, "It was Molly who drew the line," which began that first book.
Your question "What keeps you going?" would only have relevance for me if I felt burdened and plodding. Instead, I feel pulled along by ideas whirling in my head...I'm always scrambling to keep up with them. Racers call it "drafting," I think, when they are pulled along by the suction created in the wake of the person ahead. As a writer, I feel pulled forward that way. The momentum of ideas keeps me going.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Dreams and daydreams, fantasies, memories, and imagination. Those are always there. Then they combine with what I'm reading, what I've read in the past -- and what I see and observe and overhear every day. Even sitting here in my home office...I look through the window over my desk onto a park. All day long I watch (though I can't hear) the interactions taking place: people meeting, playing with their dogs, having arguments or discussions about who-knows-what. I notice what they're wearing and how they stand and walk and smile. In more public places, I listen to snippets of conversation. Nothing interests me more than a sullen teenager in an airport with frustrated parents! Or seeing several adolescents together, and observing how their posture, demeanor, and vernacular, change -- depending on whether they're with their peers or with adults.
What, if anything, in your own life spurs you to create a story to share with others?
I think most serious writers use memories of turning points in their own past as a stimulus to explore fictionally the issues that such moments raise. Because I write for young people, I turn again and again to times in my own younger life when emotions ran strong, when I made decisions -- good and bad. Then, through fictional characters (and most often they have the same introspective qualities that I did) I re-explore those emotions and decisions. By the time I'm finished with the fictionalizing, thought, there is little resemblance to actual events or times. Yet as writers all we have, really, is the memory of our own past, combined with observation.
Do you have a routine of sorts that you follow each time you write a book?
It would be wonderful to be able to describe some ritualistic approach to writing fiction. I'd like to tell you, "I take a shower using lilac-scented soap. Then I put on a blue denim dress, listen to a CD of Nina Simone singing "Baltimore," and eat 14 potato chips and half a Red Delicious apple. As if by magic, a story begins.…"
But the truth is so much more mundane. I sit at my desk every day. I do the New York Times crossword puzzle. I watch the park through my window. My CD player plays music, usually classical (at this moment, it's a violin concerto). I sip coffee. I type words into my computer. I retype them, rearrange them, and delete them, and retype them again and again. The phone rings. The dog woofs to go out. I get up and refill my coffee cup. Then I look at the words I've written and I rearrange them again. Eventually, somehow, a story is put together. There isn't anything magical. It's a lot of hard work, a lot of fun, and a lot of waiting for the words.
In Gathering Blue, young artists are exploited by the Council of Guardians -- authority figures attempt to harness and direct the children's creativity, and use it to benefit themselves and their own future. You are a photographer as well as a writer -- what do you think about those issues in our society? (For example, the flap in New York City over the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.)
Picture the small child who comes home from nursery school with a finger painting wild with smeared colors. Someone -- well-meaning, certainly -- suggests to that child, at some point, that if he made the blue here, it would be sky, and then the red would be house, and he could make some windows and a chimney...and eventually the child will no longer be free to smear colors across the page because he will feel it is "right" and "better" to define houses and skies and trees.
I suppose our acts of creativity have to be directed in order to serve our needs as a society. I suppose "talented" people have to work in advertising agencies and recording studios and they have to follow the rules and do what the boss says. But the world has never been changed by those people. Literature and art and music have changed people's thinking when they have taken new directions, and sometimes that has required great courage, and often those artists -- like Van Gogh, for example, or Ezra Pound -- have died unhappy, frustrated, poor, insane. Today's artists face such problems from authority. From the government. Even children's authors like myself face censorship and challenges everywhere. And, sadly, sometimes the rewards are greatest for those who wear the harness happily and who learn to dance prettily with chains on their ankles.
You wrote so clearly and descriptively of the children's various talents: intricate embroidery, creating color, singing, carving. How did you research the processes Annabella and Kira used to create their dyes?
When I began writing the book, the first draft, Kira was a weaver, with magic patterns appearing in the hand-woven cloth. But when I did research on looms, I realized that even the most simple handloom would have to be fairly complex in order for her to create her weavings. And so, eventually, I gave her a needle carved from bone or wood, with which she could stitch into cloth...and then in my mind I began to see the patterns that could emerge, especially through color.
Of course, the world in The Giver had no color at all, and I am a person who LOVES color, so it was a treat to begin to think in those terms. I got several books on natural dyes. I wish I could say that I experimented with it myself, but I didn't; it would have been too time-consuming to grow the plants, too complicated and messy to create the real dyes. After I finished writing the book, I gave the books about dyes to Erica Layton, the young girl who posed for the cover on the jacket. She thought she might like to give dyeing a try.
What made you select these skills for each of the characters in Gathering Blue?
I chose things that I can't do myself -- especially singing. I would so love to have a soaring, lyrical voice. Being able to write, and to take photographs, makes me aware of the enormous, surging feeling of satisfaction one experiences with the act of creativity. And I also know the feeling of frustration that comes with using your gift to suit someone else's needs. (I've done my share of wedding photographs!) But it was fun to use my knowledge of that feeling in combination with an exploration of skills that I don't have. Just five nights ago I went to a concert and heard the soprano Renee Fleming sing. It made me think of little Jo, in the book, possessing a voice that soars and hovers and floats. What an amazing gift.
It's been 23 years since A Summer to Die was published. How has your writerly life changed (or not) since then? What have you learned along the way?
I no longer have the anonymity and isolation that I did then. That's a loss. But it's an irony, that any success as a writer brings with it the peripheral obligations that take away the things that most helped your writing. I've lost the loneliness and uncertainty and there's no way that I'll ever get those back. I still have the excitement, though, at the words falling into place. And what I've learned really has come through the loss of those things. At the same time that I grumble, mostly to myself, about having to answer all the mail, and to go off and make speeches and do promotion and interviews (Sorry about that! This one's pretty painless, though, because I'm doing it at home, at my desk).
I have learned about the reciprocal nature of writing: that at the other side of the wall that isolates me, there is that magical somebody known as the reader. And that I have a relationship with -- and an obligation to -- the reader, because I affect that person's life and thinking, and that is no small responsibility.
What books have been influential in your life?
The books that have most influenced me as a writer are those that combine a profound knowledge of childhood with a masterful gift for language. In that category I would place James Agee's A Death in the Family, William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye.
What books are on your to-read list?
Oh, dear. That's a guilt-producing question because I always have a stack sitting and waiting, and there is never enough time. Right now Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer and Jane Hamilton's Disobedience are in the stack. Both of those are authors whom I admire. I need a long plane ride and a deserted beach with no bugs.
Have you had any interesting moments with your readers that you'd like to share?
The moments I remember most, and most sweetly, are the very small ones. Last week I spoke, in a library basement room in Pittsburgh, to a fourth grade that had been brought in. It was nothing special. A few words from me about writing, and about my books. Questions and answers. But then, when it was time for them to leave, one by one, completely spontaneously, boys and girls alike...the children came to me and hugged me. I remember each one: the smell of their hair, the texture of their jackets, and mostly the exuberant and genuine warmth of those hugs.
What's next for you? Can you give our website visitors (and bibliophiles!) a hint as to what you are, or will be, working on?
I don't much like talking about things I'm working on. I need to keep them firmly in my head and not let any bits and pieces escape into the atmosphere, because they tend to vaporize if I do. But I will say that I'm working (slowly. much too slowly) on trying to combine some real photographs and documents with a fictional narrative to create a novel. It's HARD.
And also, you should know that I'm planning a third book to go with The Giver and Gathering Blue so that they will create a trilogy.
Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to let your readers know about?
My dog's name. Bandit.
Lois Lowry's reading list:
* A November/December 2000 Book Sense 76 Pick
"So much more than Lowry's female response to The Giver, this enchanting heroine makes her way through a dystopian society which harbors petty class squabbles, corrupt officials, and shocking secrets of its own."
- Mary Brice, The Tattered Cover, Denver, CO