Last week, we hosted Lois Lowry for an AMA during which we asked her about the book that made her fall in love with reading, the qualities that all protagonists share in her stories, her opinion of all the new and emerging tech that's reshaping the way we take in books, how to get kids involved in reading, and much more.
Here is the unabridged transcript of the event:
Q: Question by community member
C: Comment by community member
Q: Which book made you fall in love with reading?
Lois Lowry: It was a book called The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. My mother read it to me when I was eight. I could have read it myself... but doing it with her was a special bond between us. I've never forgotten it. And I'm now 83!
Q: There is something unique about your work. Your books, despite their small size and their target audience which is mainly young adults, almost always contain profound messages and deal with complex issues. I have always wondered why you chose to tackle these difficult subjects and themes in your work, instead of writing something simple and easy for the young audience. Did you feel you have a moral obligation to do so? Also, how do you strike a perfect balance between making a demand on the young reader to understand these complex issues and themes with creating a story they still find engaging and enjoyable?
Lois Lowry: Wow. Complicated questions! I don't think much about the audience when I'm writing. I tend to write ABOUT young people.. as opposed to FOR them... perhaps because I remember my own young self so clearly. Many of my books, The Giver Quartet, for example, could be designated "for all ages."
Q: I heard you in an interview saying that you’re an introverted person. If that is true, how did you cope with the pressure of meeting with and talking to so many people over the years at book conventions, speaking engagements, book signings, and author reading events?
Lois Lowry: Oh my, it was hard. No one had told me that I would have to pretend to be an extrovert if I had any success as a writer. But I have found those occasions easy because all of us... me, and the audience... are interested in the same things. So it is always like a group of friends hanging out and talking together. That makes it easy. I could not be a politician... making speeches, trying to convince people of things. But books? Literature? Those are easy and comfortable to talk about.
Q: What is your opinion of audiobooks, Kindles, and all the new and emerging tech that is reshaping the way people take in books?
Lois Lowry: I was nervous about them when they were new. And I still don't like audiobooks... but that's just me, and it's because I read very fast. Looking at a page, I read it all at once. Listening... to every word?... I become impatient.
And I still vastly prefer the feel and heft and smell of a "real" book. But the Kindle is so handy. I'm glad it was invented. I used to have to take a stack of books on a long plane trip. Now I just take my Kindle.
Q: What’s a piece of advice that is very frequently handed out to aspiring writers that you don’t agree with?
Lois Lowry: Mmmmm. Let me think. Everyone has different ways of writing. Make an outline? I don't. Plan your plot? I can't. And yet that works... and works well... for a lot of people.
Q: I really loved the character, Jonas. He is bright, inquisitive, and in search of the truth. Are these qualities that all of your protagonists share, like an ideal that you have in your mind of a perfect hero or heroine?
Lois Lowry: I think probably all my protagonists share intelligence, curiosity, and a sense of honor. Although I imagine there are books in which the main character is deeply flawed... and those people are intriguing, no question. I still need my protagonists to share my own values.
Q: Do you think it’s harder to become a successful writer today than it was back in the day when you started writing or do you think it is easier today, comparatively?
Lois Lowry: Probably harder. Just guessing. But when my first book was published, in 1977, I had no agent, no inside knowledge of publishing. It was just luck, and timing. Now there seem to be many fewer publishers. Agents seem to be a necessity. And I'm guessing many more writers! And all of them with vast credentials and backgrounds. I think it's a more competitive time.
Q: I’m curious about your writing space! Also, what time of the day do you prefer for writing?
Lois Lowry: Ah... I do think writing space is important. That the writer should take his/her work seriously enough to set aside a space and keep it sacrosanct. I happen to have several houses, but in each one, I have such a space. My favorite is in an old... I mean OLD... 1768 farmhouse in western Maine. I have a room off the barn, the old equipment and horse feed room which I have remodeled into my writing space. When I enter that room everything goes quiet for me, and focused.
As for time... I am at my desk off and on all day. Not in the evening, though. I save that for my spouse, for watching Netflix series, for sitting and talking.
Q: What are some of your favorite Netflix series?
Q: What’s the most crucial or important aspect of storytelling to you?
Lois Lowry: The characters, I think, and their passion... their need. That's why the reader (or in fact the writer) follows them, turns the page, cares what happens.
But I also pay a lot of attention to setting.
Q: What are some of your favorite things to do besides writing?
Lois Lowry: I travel a lot. I have family in Europe so I go back and forth to be with my only granddaughter! But other places as well. I've been to every continent.
I used to be a little braver. Once I went alone to Sumatra. More cautious now! But I do love being in other cultures. I always go to local grocery stores in places where I don't speak the language... it's a challenge! And a way to perceive details of people's lives.
I have gardens. But at my age... 83... I hire other people to do the digging!
And I love movies.
Q: What is your favorite movie of all time?
Lois Lowry: My favorite movie of all time is Fargo.
Q: You’re actually the first author we’re talking to whose work has been adapted for a movie so I’m tempted to ask this: Were you very involved with the movie while it was being made and which actor do you think did the best job of satisfying their character/role?
Lois Lowry: Two early books were made into TV movies and I had nothing to do with them and didn't like them much.
But The Giver was made by Jeff Bridges and others, and they kindly included me... asked my advice, (usually ignored it), and invited me to South Africa to watch some of the filming.
I loved some of the things they did, hated some other things. But it's important to remember that a movie is always going to be different from the book
I thought Meryl Streep was wonderful. Of course, she always is. But she gave a sinister edge to that role which did not exist in the book.
And Jeff was terrific, as were the kids. I just wish they hadn't felt they needed a car chase! Why does every movie have to have a car chase?!
Q: Based on your interactions with kids over the years and your vast experience in writing for them, what do you think kids like most in a story, also, what’s one thing that they don’t like?
Lois Lowry: Todays' kids... as opposed to myself as a young reader many years ago... are somewhat impatient. When I was a kid, there was no TV. But today's young people have grown up with electronics.. with things moving quickly.. and they seem to want that in a book. Action. (oh, dear, maybe car chases?)
When I was young, I savored lengthy descriptive passages.. the language and poetry of them. Not so much with today's readers. They want to get on with it.
I depend on my editor to remind me of that when I linger too much.
Q: How do you think the expectations and demands of young readers have developed and changed over the whole stretch of more than 40 years you’ve been writing for them?
Lois Lowry: I'm not sure their basic expectations from literature have changed. But it's harder now to get them into a book, now that there are so many other options for them.
Q: I think reading is such an important habit, especially while growing up. What would be one idea to engage young people more in reading?
Lois Lowry: I would wish for young people to grow up as I did, with parents who read to them... and parents who read to themselves.. so that the kids perceive it as a thing that one does. In Iceland (where I've been twice) they give books as Christmas gifts. And on Christmas Eve, everyone reads.
Q: You have been writing books that are nuanced, complex, and very thought-provoking. In the midst of a global pandemic and political confusion, many people are feeling unsettled or anxious. If you could give kids all over the world one message, what would it be?
Lois Lowry: I try to tell them, when I have the opportunity, that the future depends on them. Choices that they make will be vital. Often my book The Giver lends itself to that kind of discussion, when kids ask "How did they become that way?" and I point out that sometime in the past, they chose leaders who made those decisions.
And the three books that follow The Giver to form the quartet... they all have political implications. Kids can see that. Sometimes you need to point to it for them.
Q: In an answer to a question on a Reddit AMA you did a few years ago, someone asked you what your favorite place was growing up, and you said it was Tokyo. I just bought “On the Horizon” and I was curious if you could share anything about your time in Tokyo that was particularly memorable or made an impression?
Lois Lowry: I still love Japan. I've been back several times. The people, the dignity of them. The landscape.. once you're out of Tokyo. I moved there when I was 11, a very impressionable age, and I spent a lot of time alone, exploring. This was the late 40's; Japan was still recovering. It was a transitional time for that country... and for me.
On the Horizon describes my staring at a young boy on a Japanese school playground, and that many many years later, I met that boy... we were close to 60, I think, when he said to me, "Were you the girl on the green bicycle?" Just today I got an email from him. He always starts with Lois-san.
Q: Do you think writing is a great means of catharsis?
Lois Lowry: Indeed it is. My very first book, A Summer to Die, was a retelling of the death of my only sister when we were young.
Many years later, one of my children died in an accident. Of course, I got a zillion letters from people who cared about me. The one that I most treasure came from a friend who was a Shakespearean actor, he quoted from MacBeth: Give sorrow words.
I can't come up with the exact remainder of the quotation, but it says that if you do not speak of what has happened, your heart will break.
And it's true. Speak. Or Write. It heals you.
Q: Do you still make time to respond to readers and fans from all over the world? And do you have a bunch of form letters/emails to respond to most frequently asked questions and comments?
Lois Lowry: I do have form letters that reply to the most frequently asked questions. I just can't come up with original answers to something I've been asked a thousand times. But I do reply personally to everyone, even if it is just with a form response. Just today I wrote a lengthy letter to a 9-year-old in Connecticut who was wondering which of my books her little sister should read!
Lately, I've had a terrible problem because I had my website updated... which it badly needed... but now the email function doesn't work and they don't seem to be able to fix it. So there is a lot of email in a black hole somewhere and I feel awful about it.
Some letters are so personal and so touching. Recently, a 16-year-old boy, gay, closeted, son of a Baptist minister, lonely and scared. I can't solve problems like that but I can make a young person feel less alone.
Q: Do you have any unpublished or half-finished books?
Lois Lowry: I have one that was never published because one of the two main characters was Black, and I am not; so it was deemed by publishers risky.. that it might be called cultural appropriation.
Right now I have one partly-written; I'm working on it during this time of isolation. I've described it to my editor but she won't see it until the first draft is done.
Q: How did you react when you heard the news of winning your first Newbery Medal for Number the Stars?
Lois Lowry: I don't remember how many books I'd written at that point, but I was not tuned in to awards, etc... didn't know the committee was meeting, had no idea my book was under consideration. So it was a complete surprise.
Four years later, there was a lot of talk about The Giver, so I was aware that it was in contention, and I did NOT want to be sitting by the phone that day. So I went on a trip. To Antarctica. And they couldn't reach me. Hah.
Q: Are there plans to adapt any other books you’ve written into a film or TV series at the moment?
The Giver is being made into a musical. But these days...who knows what will happen to theater? These are tough times for the arts.
Order her most recent book, On the Horizon, a moving nonfiction work written in verse for young readers that tells the story of people whose lives were lost or forever altered by the twin tragedies of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.