A Conversation with Lois Lowry

Writer Kate Milford and I sat down to talk with beloved children's author Lois Lowry upon the release of her latest novel, Son, the final book in The Giver quintet.

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Lois Lowry, beloved children's author of more than 30 books, including A Summer to Die (her first novel), the widely popular Anastasia Krupnik series, and the Newbery Award-winning The Giver and Number the Stars, has pale blue eyes, porcelain skin, short-cropped white-grey hair, and an intelligent, calm, and rather no-nonsense demeanor. You get the feeling that no question from a journalist could truly surprise her, but that unflappability doesn't mean her responses aren't heartfelt. Houghton Mifflin published her first children's book when she was 40. She's now 75, and Son, her most recent book—the fourth in the series beginning with The Giver that she never intended to make a series (in between those two bookends are the novels Gathering Blue and Messenger)—is out this week from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It's beginning to get reviews, and there's a great piece by Dan Kois on Lowry in Sunday's New York Times Magazine

Writer Kate Milford and I read The Giver, which came out nearly 20 years ago, for the first time and discussed it in a Y.A. for Grownups column earlier this year. When we learned that Lowry would be in New York City to give a talk, hosted by Anna Holmes and Lizzie Skurnick, at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, we jumped at the chance to meet her. We had a literary-magical 45 minutes to speak to her in private before the event. [Slight, possible spoilers follow.]

Let's start with The Giver. How did you return to that world? How much of what's in the sequels had you structured or thought about beforehand?
Lowry: When I finished The Giver I said stupidly, publicly, that I wouldn't have any sequels. That was published in '93. In 2000 the second [Gathering Blue] was published. I had not intended it as even related to The Giver; I was creating another interesting world, to me, where things were different, and as I went along I realized I could answer some questions—in seven years, I had gotten so many questions about the ending. I put in, at the end of Gathering Blue, the reference to the boy Jonas. He was not mentioned by name, but kids who had been wondering recognized him. Four years later I did the third book, and they were not sequels, really, they were set at a different place at more or less the same time.

But what I didn't do adequately, I realized later, was address the future of the baby. He's mentioned very briefly in the third book [Messenger], just one sentence. I had a little form reply that I'd send to all the kids who emailed me, because they can email me though my website: What about the baby, where's the baby? I'd say go back and read page 17. But that did not satisfy. I think once you're pelted with that many questions about something, you end up wondering about it, yourself. I probably was subliminally, subconsciously thinking about the baby. So I began a book that focused on Gabe at age 14. As he, in what I was writing, began to question his own origins, I found myself diverted into an interest in the girl who would have given birth to him. I went back and re-read the first book and reacquainted myself with that, and created the girl, set aside the Gabe section, and started the book again with this 14-year-old girl giving birth. I admit I had to re-read The Giver, which I hadn't read in 18 years or so, very carefully, and make sure I was abiding by the rules of the community and the geography and all of that. It was interesting to go back and look at a world from a different point of view; the same thing is happening but you're looking at it through different eyes, through a new character with whom I became quickly acquainted and fond of. I set her on the path, and then of course the paths coincide. It started out as a book about Gabe and it quickly became a book about Claire.

I felt at the end that I'd explained the whereabouts and the well-being of each of the characters people were concerned about, and so: The End, no more. Of course it's just out, but in the past week I've gotten emails, already four with the same question: Yes, but couldn't you write a fifth book about what happens to Claire and the boy she left behind? They want a romance to take place there. I'm not planning to do that and have written and said I'm not going to ... part of the problem would be that these are books for a certain age level about adolescents, and those characters are now adults—I don't want to write a romance for adults! The End.

But it's nice when people become so passionately involved with fictional characters that they care about them after the book ends, and you know, as a writer, you do, too. You close the door and say goodbye, but you continue to think about them.

There's something in each of the books that deals with the idea of romantic connection denied.
That's one of the things the fourth book is about, letting go, sacrificing something. The boy who helps her to escape loves her—and see, I get all choked up—not because of them but because of the notion that when you love someone you have to let them go. And that's also something that parents feel, when they raise their kids, wave goodbye when they go off to their grown lives. I don't know if I was aware of it while writing but in looking back I see that [sacrifice] as a pervasive theme.

What was the marination period of writing The Giver like? How did you begin to think about it?
I started thinking about two things that had always interested me. One was the concept of human memory, and the other was the concept of dreams. Those fascinate me because they're so individual to you and at the same time they're so mysterious and you never really understand them fully. Later I went on to write a book dealing with dreams, but that's separate from this.

Memory was the concept I started out with. What if there were a group of people who could control and manipulate human memory? I realized it had to be set in some future time because that doesn't exist yet—it will before long. I never had any interest in futuristic fiction, dystopian fiction, but I had to set this in this future, so I created this place at some unnamed future time where things are able to be controlled, not only memory but other things as well. This world was interesting to me, and in many ways it was very appealing. Clearly there'd be no plot or importance to the book if it was just, Oh, it's a nice world, here's how it works. So I had to introduce the underbelly and suddenly it was dystopian.

You do that so subtly, everything seems perfect and idyllic, and suddenly you get hints that not everything is so great.
I think the first hint that all is not well there is when they hold the ceremony recounting the childhood of each child who comes to the stage. They're recounting with laughter the childhood of Asher, laughing about how he mispronounced a word when he was little and they had to, what, whip him, was that it? And suddenly you're jolted, or you should be, that all is not right in this place even though everyone is very accepting that that's the way it is.

Your use of color, or lack of color, in The Giver is really powerful. The reading experience kind of parallels that world—you don't know you don't have color in the book, and suddenly you see it and realize you've been living in that world just like they are, without even knowing.
You know, it was very difficult, once I decided to do it, to make a book devoid of color. It was very hard not to reference color at all. A kind of silly mistake that an editor caught when I turned the manuscript in was the first scene where he sees color—it's an apple that they're throwing back and forth, and originally it was a ball. It seemed logical for two boys to go out and throw a ball back and forth. The editor wrote a note saying, "Why would they be manufacturing a ball, would they have dye, or paint?" Whoops. When Jonas does see color it's only in natural objects, like first an apple and then flowers and hair, so nothing is manufactured.

When you went back to read it after so long, did anything surprise you?
When I go back to read books I've written, no matter how long after, I always find things I wish I'd done better or differently. I always felt the last section of The Giver is too rushed and short. Once Jonas leaves the community with the baby, it's supposed to be a long period of time, but it's a short section of the book. I did that for a stupid reason. I thought I'd been told the book had to be under 200 pages, and it was getting close, so I purposely made it short. Later the editor said, "Oh, you could have gone on." But had I realized that and gone on at a more leisurely pace, I think it would have been tough. There's only the boy, and the baby, who can't talk, and nature, and it might have been difficult to spin it out for a long time.

So, I wish I had a chance to redo that. But oddly enough that reminds me of another place, and this is in the fourth book. The girl, Claire, is in a place where the birth mothers live. And in writing about that, I thought, this is going to be so boring. They're in this building. What do they do? There's no books, there's no music...and so I got out of there very quickly.

But you opened it up with the mask!
Sort of like Hannibal Lechter.

What's the experience been like to have had such a frequently challenged book?
I do not remember the first time that it happened but it must have surprised me. Except that, going back further—Anastasia Krupnik had been challenged, specifically for one thing, it has the word shit in it. If it had been 10 years later the editor would have told me not to put that in, it would have been easy not to, but it was published in '79, it was written in '78. Somehow things were a little more relaxed then. We had a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, and after him when the government became more conservative, that's when the challenges and censorship started. That book was challenged more than once and removed from the hands of children. So I was not new to challenges and censorship, but of course it took a whole different form with The Giver, and it continues to this day.

I've never really sorted out in my mind why it's challenged so often. Those who object hold up two different scenes. One is, reference to "the stirrings," which seems to be, so, well, it's something any kid that age is familiar with and has been taught about in school, but also it's alluded to so vaguely, it's hardly explicitly sexual. The second, and it is explicit, is when the father kills the baby, and that's been referred to as euthanasia. Certainly the book doesn't promote euthanasia, but that charge has been brought. And that's often from someone who hasn't read the book thoroughly and doesn't see why I included this.

I have a feeling that those two incidents are not the real reason, but they're something that people grasp onto. I think it's a book that makes some perhaps very conservative parents uncomfortable because it's a book challenging the authority set down by the government, the parents, the older people. It's a boy seeing the hypocrisy of the older generation and breaking the rules to combat it. No one's come out and said it, but that's the only thing I've figured out in my mind that can bring out that kind of unease.

What sort of cross-over audience, adults coming to you and saying they read The Giver as a kid and again as adults, have you seen? 
A lot of people have written or told me that they read it as a child, and it's been around 20 years, so now they're 35. A woman came up last night and said she re-reads The Giver every year.

It's interesting how story-telling factors into the books, and the idea of art sometimes even as imprisonment.
I felt like I was focusing in Gathering Blue on the role of an artist in society, and that was 12 years ago, probably a time when funding for the arts was being withdrawn and the role of the artist was precarious, as it still is. For a kid audience, of course, kids aren't going to get that, nor do they need to, they read for the story.

Do you feel the four books function together as more of a whole than you where aware of while you were writing them?
It's too soon for me to know that; I haven't talked about them as a whole yet. The thread common to them all is the child or the young person with a power. It was interesting to dream up what the power of the boy in the fourth book would be. In this Sunday's New York Times there will be an article where [Dan Kois] discusses this; I think it's the most important power that they all have, so maybe it's a good one to close with.

Do you have a favorite book of all time? What about a favorite that you've written?
My favorite that I've written is a book from way back called Autumn Street that very few people remember, but those who do remember it remember it fondly, I'm glad to say. I don't have a favorite book of all time that I've read, I don't think. My favorites come and go.

What about books you read as a kid?
I was a kid in the '40s and there was not the vast wealth of children's books there are now. I loved the books of Lois Lenski, but partly that was because she had my name, so I felt a kinship to her. I gravitated very early to books at that time that were published as adult books; now they'd be published as young adult books. One was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn [which Lowry recently wrote about for NPR Books]. Another one I've often talked about was The Yearling. which my mother read me when I was about eight. Both of those, incidentally, hold up quite well; if you go back and read them, they're still magnificent books.

The thing I remember about The Yearling was my mother reading it to me. It was an adult book, so it was a big deal that my mother was sharing that with me, and also, she cried when she was reading it. I'd never seen my mother cry before. It conveyed to me the power of literature. I wouldn't have been able to articulate that when I was eight, but I could see that something very special was happening.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.