Over our 25 years publishing Children’s Book Insider, we’ve given readers, aspiring authors and lovers of children’s literature the opportunity to interact directly with some of their favorite writers. The result: a number of revealing conversations with some remarkable authors. Here’s what happened some years back when our subscribers had the chance to ask the great Lois Lowry about her career — and the one change she would make to The Giver!
A two time Newbery Award winner (for Number the Stars and The Giver), Lois Lowry is among the most acclaimed writers of our time. Noted for her willingness to challenge young readers with thought-provoking subjects, Ms. Lowry has taken on such subjects as the Holocaust, abortion, mental illness and our uncertain future.
1. How important is autobiography in your works?
Only two of my books – Autumn Street and A Summer to Die– are “autobiographical” in that they consciously use actual events, real people, from my childhood. But I think all fiction is autobiographical, really; all fiction draws upon the emotional history and experience of the writer. Marion Dane Bauer, in her book, A Writer’s Story, describes the fact that she was quite certain she had not ever written autobiographically. Then, on reflection, she discovered that she was re-playing an important emotional element of her own childhood again and again, in “fictional” book plots. I suspect that we all do that.
2. How do you lay out your stories? Do you have an ending before you start writing, or does it reveal itself to you as you write?
I am not a very well-organized writer. Beginnings come easily to me, but from there I usually start writing without a clear-cut idea of where I’m going. With the exception of the two autobiographical books I’ve mentioned (since their endings were preordained), I have usually simply started out on a journey along with the book characters, and the destination has been revealed to me along with them. I don’t recommend this as a writing method. But careful planning doesn’t work for me, as a writer. If I try to make an outline (and I have) – I usually lose interest in the book while I’m writing it, I think because my creative energy has gone into the outline. A lot of the fun and excitement of writing, for me, is because of the surprise of it: each day in the creation of a book is a new adventure for me, and that wouldn’t be true if I had a set of index cards telling me what was supposed to happen next.
3. The Giver examines the conflict of maintaining the security of the status quo versus risk-taking. Authors often resolve their own conflicts through their writing. How has this conflict affected your life?
Well, let me say right up front that I am a coward. Risk-taking doesn’t appeal to me much. Perhaps that’s why I liked the exploration of that theme when I was writing The Giver. However, it is also true that cowardly though I am, I have ventured into the world of risk in my own life from time to time. In 1977 I left a marriage of 21 years, left a 12-room house (and a housekeeper!) and moved into a 3-room furnished apartment over a garage in order to start a new life as a writer. I had no alimony, no inheritance, no income beyond what I could earn with words. It was a scary time for me. But I felt that there were no other options. I think it was a theme reflected also in Number the Stars, and actually laid out explicitly there in a conversation between Annemarie and Uncle Henrik, when he tells her that she risked her life and she replies, startled, that she hadn’t even been thinking about that; she’d only been thinking about what she had to do. The question of security/risk most often comes down not to courage but to necessity. You do what you have to do. I have, on occasion, and so have the characters, like Annemarie and Jonas, in my books. We all do, when it comes right down to it.
4. How do you get beyond just an idea. How does an idea become a story?
Some ideas don’t. Sometimes what seems like a wonderful starting point – a wonderful idea – turns out to be no more than an anecdote. You have to look beyond a “beginning” to see if there is any depth to it, any reason for sitting at a desk for month after month laboring over it, any reason for a publisher investing thousands of dollars into it, any reason for kids to pick it up and care about it. Does it have anything to say beyond the superficial? I think that’s the key, for me.
5. What do you think are the key elements when writing a book? When you have your ideas do you write a set plan of what will happen in the plot of the story?
I have occasionally listed the elements – each of them leading to the next – of a successful book as 1.character; 2.quest; 3.complications and choices; 4. catastrophe; 5. conclusion and 6.change. I think most writers and teachers of writing would probably agree that some similar list applies. But – in my opinion – it doesn’t work to make the list and then try to create the story to fit it. You create the story first; later, you see how and where it fits the pattern; finally, you make the necessary revisions which will become apparent at that point. You may find, for example, that the catastrophic event(#4) – upon which the concluding events (#5)should be predicated – occurs too early. Or (and this is quite common a flaw) that the character, who should have experienced growth as a result of the events throughout the narrative, has not really undergone a change (#6).
6. I greatly admire your writing, and especially love your characters. What is your secret in creating characters that we the readers can so easily identify with? Do they come from within you, or are they compilations of children and/or people you know? Any advice for the aspiring writer who’s attempting to create well-developed characters?
Without the exception of the autobiographic books, all of my characters are made-up ones; but of course everything we imagine comes from everything we have ever known or experienced. Most of that is subconscious, of course; but when I “create” a character, he or she is really being born from the fragments of every similar person I have known, seen, or read about. I suppose there are tricks and rules for the creation of characters, but I don’t know what they are. It’s important to me that characters – even minor ones – be well-rounded. I remember a minor character in Rabble Starkey – a grouchy elderly neighbor named Millie Bellows; I think I described her as having a “face like a fist.” She was not an important character – I was really using her only as a plot vehicle, and to reflect other characters – and she died midway through the book; but she began to become interesting to me. We’ve all known old ladies like her: embittered, unfulfilled, misanthropic. I liked creating her, with her baleful view of life, and all the details of her unhappy existence. But of course such misery arises from disappointments, and so I added them in, too: hints of tragedy in her earlier life. I think that’s the important thing: to keep in mind the causative factors that lie behind personality traits, and the motivations for human behavior. If you don’t, the characters will remain shallow; and no real person ever is.
7. I’ve read Autumn Street, and I wondered, was the part where Charles got killed taken from real life? If so, how do you write about painful events like that?
As I’ve said earlier, Autumn Street was autobiographical. But I changed many things. The childhood friend – the cook’s grandchild – was actually a girl. Her name was Gloria. The real Gloria was murdered, that was true. But the circumstances surrounding the death of the fictionalized child, Charles, were different from those of Gloria’s death. I could, actually, have written more accurately about the real events, though I would have had to do research because I don’t know many of the details. Would doing so have been painful for me? Oddly, I think not. This is a very personal thing and perhaps would not be true for you, or for others. But I find it very freeing and healing to talk – or write – about painful things.
8. How do you know for certain when your story is done… perfect…flawless…? Is that only when it’s printed and bound between hard covers, or ?? Do you have a sense of completeness or closure when you are satisfied with a story you’ve been working on?
You never feel that a story is perfect or flawless. And it isn’t. I have never written a flawless book and never will. (And thank goodness; because if I did, why write another?) You simply begin to feel that it is done, or at least as done as you can make it. At that point I do feel a sense of satisfaction and completeness – but it’s a false sense, because if I read a published book six months later, or a year later – I then find things I wish I could change, things I feel I could make better. Hypothetically, then, if I held onto a manuscript for a year – didn’t give it to the publisher right away when I thought it “done” – I probably would see fixable flaws, revisions I’d want to make. But then what? Then I’d give it to the publisher – and a year after that, I’d read the published book, and AGAIN I’d see changes to be made. It could be a never-ending exercise. So the best thing to do is finish, call it done, turn it in, and go on to the next book.
9. What advice do you give to authors who would like to develop their writing voice? What suggestions do you have for creating self-discipline at writing?
As for “voice”: I feel that you should write a book as if you are writing a letter to a friend: telling about something interesting, something meaningful, that has happened. It should be an intimate and private telling, friend to friend. It should be YOU, laughing, crying, teasing, angry, relating events, inviting your close friend to pay attention, to empathize. That will be your voice, a recognizable one. The question about self-discipline is a tough one for me. I don’t think self-discipline is a problem if you are doing work that you love and that you feel is important. I can’t imagine anyplace that I’d rather be than right here, at my desk. I need self-discilpine to make me get up and take the dog for a walk, or to cook dinner!
10. What changes would you make to The Giver if you could?
I wouldn’t change the ending, despite so many requests for me to “explain” it (about 50% of my mail tells me they like the ending as is). I left it ambiguous on purpose, so that readers could bring their own thoughts to it. But I would make the final third of the book – from the place where Jonas rakes Gabriel and flees the community – longer. I think that the escape section should have been a whole complex story in itself; and as it is, it feels a little rushed to me. I was trying to keep the book under 200 pages. Now I think that was an unnecessary restriction that I placed on myself. On the other hand – if I had extended that section, made the book 250 pages long, it would not have been published until the next year. And so it would probably not have won the Newbery Medal, because Walk Two Moons was published that next year, and so… I guess I was wise to quit when I did.
Tags: author, lois lowry, the giver