Lois Lowry is one of the most renowned authors of young adult and children’s books in America. She has twice won the Newbery Medal for her work, for Number the Stars in 1990 and The Giver in 1993, and has written many successful series, including the Anastasia series, the Sam series, the Gooney Bird series, and The Giver series. Her most recent book, Son, is the final book of the latter.
Not one to shy away from challenging topics, her work is often found on required reading lists at schools around the world, while it has also been banned in conservative districts in the U.S. The Giver, for example, is considered one of the most banned books of the 1990s.
Lowry spoke with The Days of Yore while on an American tour to promote Son.
You’re on a big tour, I know. Where are you right now?
I’m in Austin, Texas at the moment.
I’m from Dallas. Are you going there?
I’m not going to make it there this time, no.
That’s okay. There’s not much to see in Dallas.
I’ve been to Austin once before. Everyone seems to think Austin is the best place in Texas.
What was the first piece you ever wrote? Do you remember?
If you wanted to do some tedious research, you could look up a 1947 magazine, published for children: Jack and Jill Magazine. Each month they’d publish letters from children. I frequently wrote to them, but they never published any of my letters until August 1947. I was ten years old. And in the letter, I said I’d written an novel. I have no idea what happened to the novel, or if I was lying about it.
Did you do a lot of creative writing in school?
We read only textbooks back then. I don’t recall in my elementary school years that there was any creative writing at all. It wasn’t part of the curriculum.
So you wrote in your spare time.
In those days, kids had a lot more spare time. Of course now they’re all so scheduled. When everyone else was playing tag and hide and go seek, I was inside with a book or a notebook.
Were you traveling a lot? I know you grew up in a military family, and usually military families move from place.
When the war [WWII] began, my mother took the children back to her town in Pennsylvania, so I spent my elementary school years in the same small town. Until after the war ended. Until I was 11, I remained in Pennsylvania. At the end of the war, my father had to go to Japan so we went and lived in Tokyo.
What was that move like to you? Was that a major culture shock?
When I discovered at 11 that we were going to move to Japan, I was thrilled. My sister was very pissed off, she was 14 and she didn’t want to leave, she had a boyfriend. But I had a very romanticized vision that I would soon be living a very exotic life. I pictured myself living in a Japanese house, wearing a kimono, eating with chopsticks, all the stuff I’d gleaned from childhood books.
So I was surprised when we finally arrived in Japan after a very long boat ride–
How long did it take?
My recollection was it took a month.
That is very long.
I remember when we arrived, my father drove us from Yokohama to the place we’d be living in Tokyo, and the place was surrounded by a wall. It was this hastily constructed fake American village. American style houses, movie theaters, grocery store, a church, very much like the town I had lived in Pennsylvania. So that was a disappointment. But I did take a bus every day through town to an international school.
Did your family like living there?
My mother was a very timid woman, and my older sister – they were both satisfied with that American style life. But I was not. Though I did have a bicycle. I used to ride around and go through the gate and round town. I’m not sure my parents knew I was doing that, but I was enthralled by that.
Was it a strict household?
My parents were probably typical parents of the time. Kids would eat breakfast and take off. Maybe you came home for lunch, maybe you didn’t. But parents didn’t seem to worry about kids the way they do now. It was a freer time.
Were they creative people?
No. [Laughs.] My father was a dental surgeon, I doubt he ever read a novel in his life. He used to make fun of me when I became interested in classical music and opera. My mother was a very social person. As the wife of a high ranking military officer, she had a lot of cocktail parties, bridge parties, luncheons. That was my mother’s life.
So, where did that gene come from – the creative gene?
I haven’t a clue, really. I grew up in a family of pragmatic people, relatives who were all lawyers and bankers and wives who were housewives who had bridge parties. I guess I don’t have an answer. I was very fortunate that when we returned from Japan, my father was stationed in New York, and we lived on Governor’s Island, on the lower tip of Manhattan. So, I was equally free and turned loose in Manhattan from the age of 15. And for the first time I was exposed to a life where a lot of things were available. I remember going to concerts and theater. But my parents never did. I don’t recall them ever taking the five-minute boat ride over to Manhattan, actually.
What was your favorite book growing up?
Nowadays there are so many young adult books, but in those days there were none. So probably from 11 or 12, I gravitated toward adult books. I wasn’t discriminate; I read popular things, but I do remember the British author Daphe du Maurier. I don’t know if anyone knows those now. One of those became Rebecca, the Academy Award winning movie. I guess that doesn’t say much about me as an intellectual.
Why did you end up applying to Brown, specifically? Did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Rewinding a bit – When we moved to New York, my older sister was a student at Penn State, and my parents were legal residents of Pennsylvania, so the tuition at Penn State was much less. She was very happy there. She majored in home economics if you can believe that.
I don’t think that’s an available major anymore. So I went to New York and wanted to “broaden my intellectual horizons,” but my parents assumed I’d go to Penn State and I didn’t want to. It was the first real battle with my parents. So I applied to Brown on my own. I just filled out the papers and sent them in. My parents were furious. But I pointed out, in the arrogant way a 16 year old can, that the tuition at Brown was exactly the same amount my father had just paid for a new Chrysler. And the amount incidentally was $3,000. This was 1954.
Then Brown offered me a scholarship. And that threw the balance in my direction. My parents never set foot on the Brown campus, never visited me there, but that didn’t matter because I dropped out after my sophomore year.
Because you got married.
I got married. In those days, at Brown it was maybe 7,000 women and 3,000 men. I had come from an all-girls school, and suddenly I was dating and having a social life, and I had a steady boyfriend who gave me his fraternity pin. All stuff from a bad novel. But he was two years ahead of me so he assumed, and I guess I assumed, that we’d get married. And it never occurred to me to finish my education. That seems rather odd in retrospect, but not then.
He went on to Harvard Law School and I just had baby after baby after baby.
Did you miss writing? Did you miss school?
Yeah. I mean… we didn’t have any money when we got out. He’d been in Naval ROTC in college, so he had to put in some time with the Navy. And before we had children we lived in San Diego, he took off on a ship, and I can remember being very poor, but spending it on paperback books. I accumulated a lot of paperback books. That’s how I spent my time. And then he went off to Harvard Law, and I had 2, 3, then 4 children by the time he graduated. I still had dreams of writing, but there wasn’t a time I could do that. I loved being a mom. I loved having those babies, but it didn’t allow me to do anything else.
When did that shift?
When my youngest child went to kindergarten, I went back to college. The older children were in 1st grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade, and I enrolled in the University of Southern Maine and then I went to graduate school, as the kids were getting older.
How old were you when you went back to undergrad?
I was 30 years old.
Did people go back to school much back then? I guess it’s more commonplace now.
I think women who left school and married and had children, probably very few went back the way I did. I met a woman there, the wife of a Portland doctor, I was the wife of a Portland lawyer. I think we were somewhat rare.
So you got off school, and you weren’t yet pursuing writing yet, is that correct?
I studied photography in graduate school. My goal still was to write fiction, though it never occurred to me to write for young people. In those days a lot more magazines published short stories. So I was writing stories, submitting to magazines, and getting lots of rejection slips. From everyone. And then in 1975, I think, one of those magazines accepted a story of mine and published it. It was a story for adults, but seen through the consciousness of a child. When that story was published, a children’s book editor read it, got in touch with me, and asked if I’d consider writing a book for young people. So, with that invitation I began my first book.
Was getting asked to write a full length exciting? Did it feel like everything was finally coming together?
It was. It was exhilarating. I had done well in college and I had gotten a lot of praise from professors for things, but that wasn’t the same as having a public endorsement from a major publisher. Although they did not promise to publish what I wrote, they were waiting for it. And then it won a big award. So all of that was new to me, it was a world new to me, and it was very exhilarating. But thinking back, it was what I had always wanted to do.
Was time an issue? You were a mother of four, out of school…
I had to withdraw… And this is why my marriage ended, I’m sure, in part. I had to withdraw from the social life of a lawyer’s wife. I’m writing a novel, mother of four, I was not going to go to cocktail parties. I had to make choices that were very difficult.
My daughter told me once, I can’t remember how long ago, she mentioned that in our house we had a room we called “the study,” and my husband had a large desk. One wall was bookcases. And to find a place for me to do my work, I took a little corner of that room, I had a small table there with my typewriter. My daughter, she said, “I used to think that was so pathetic. Your little table and your little typewriter.” [Laughs.] But when she filled out her application to college – she showed me – she was asked what women she most admired. She wrote, “Mata Hari and my mother.” So I guess in some ways I was an example to my daughters who didn’t get caught in that 1950s trap so many of us did.
Would you have ever written the book if you hadn’t been asked?
I don’t know. I had always envisioned myself as a writer for adults. At Brown, doing fiction workshops, that’s what we were all looking to. But I think if I would have stayed at Brown, completed that course of study, graduated, I would have just turned 21. I would not have been ready to write meaningful fiction. I probably would have taken a low level job at a publishing company, I probably would have ended up an editor somewhere. That might have been satisfying, but probably not as much as what I have done.
Was it tough to write that first book? To actually finish it?
It wasn’t tough, but I didn’t know anything about the world of publishing. I remember I sat there, wrote four or five chapters, dealing with an autobiographical set of events. And I realized it didn’t have the right tone. I figured out for myself one character in it was altering the tone, making it humorous, but that wasn’t right. So I went back and rewrote those chapters. But what I didn’t realize was that I could have asked the editor to take a look at it. She would have been happy to do it, but I didn’t know that I could. I guess it’s good I sorted it out for myself.
But when that first book was published, I got phone calls, or mail, people from the publishing house, very elated, because it was getting “starred reviews.” I just smiled politely on my end, but I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. I was very naive. It might have served me well.
It probably did. You were writing for the sake of writing, without any specific aspirations for it.
You know, I hear from younger writers now, who come up with me at the book-signing line, they’re very knowledgable about agents and things. They go to workshops, they attend symposia. They know all this stuff I never knew. And I’m not sure it serves them well. They spend so much time talking about writing, it would be better if they’d just go sit in a room and do the writing.
That is a great irony now, isn’t it?
It is fun to talk about, though, I suppose. [Laughs.]
So then after the first book was published, you pumped out a lot of them quickly, right?
One a year starting after the first one in April, 1977. I had already separated from my husband and in September we were legally divorced. So I needed a job. I needed money. I had to work hard. The magazine pay was very poor, and I had agreed with my husband then, he would educate the boys, I would educate the girls. So I was going to have college tuitions. In retrospect, it was very unrealistic of me to think I could do that. So suddenly I was in that position, it made me work very hard. I moved out, I rented a furnished apartment over a garage and I sat there and worked my butt off.
What was the pay like for young adult novels back then?
There was none of what you hear about today. There was no talk of the auctions and million dollar advances. The advance for my first book was $1,500. So no. Not a lot of money in it. I had to work hard, keep books coming. Then, as time passed, and the books became popular, some bad TV movie deals, I was able to make a living. But it was really quite a struggle at first.
When did you realize you could do this for a living? What made you realize this would be in your life forever?
The first book had won this International Reading Association award given to a first or second book. At the time, it was $1,000, but it was a very big deal. That book [A Summer to Die] is still in print, it still sells very well, it just got a new cover, actually. But I think the publisher then realized I was worth hanging on to. I began to see it as really the only avenue I had for making a living.
Did you find it easy to shut yourself off and finish things easily?
I’m good at that. I’m good at being diligent. I stick with things. At that time and the following years, my kids were grown. I wasn’t tending to toddlers anymore. So I was by myself for a while. I’m good at sticking to stuff. And because what I do for work, i.e writing books, is what I most enjoy doing, I’d rather be at my desk at home at a computer than I would be in this very fancy room in the St. Regis Hotel, where I’m sitting right now.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Number the Stars. I know we already discussed The Giver a couple weeks ago, but so many people I know loved that book so much. Was it a departure for you? A darker subject matter?
It was the first book of that nature I had done. And then because that book won the Newbery Medal, it went into 25 languages around the world, and now its part of the curricula in schools all over. Incidentally, the girl on the cover of that book was someone I had photographed back when I was scrambling to make a living photographing children.
Was this during the period after your marriage ended? You were writing books and taking photographs of kids to make money?
Yeah, I was taking whatever work came my way in that realm. Textbook writing. It was always writing or photographs.
There was never a period you weren’t making money off one of those two things?
No, I never had to be a waitress. That would have been my only other option, really.
Have you always had the same process for writing?
Still to this day, I don’t do outlines or plan books. I get a character in my head, perhaps a general theme, and I just set out. Go where it takes me. I’m pretty disciplined and organized, but if I write an outline I find the excitement’s all gone. There’s no surprise anymore.
If somebody asked, What advice you would give to writers just starting out? What advice do you give?
It’s the question I most dread from an audience, and here on this tour I’m on now, I’m speaking to audiences a lot. I tend to dread that time when they stand up and say, “What advice do you have for younger writers?” And I can’t think of an answer. I feel so stupid. I give platitudes like, “Read a lot.” I don’t have a clue how to teach writing, unfortunately. I don’t have a clue how to do it.
Don’t talk about it. Just do it, maybe?
Yes, I’ll stick with that.
Interview by Lucas Kavner
Photo courtesy of the artist