In 1993, Lois Lowry’s The Giver debuted. The book follows a young boy, Jonas, who grows up in dystopian society where pain and memory no longer exist. Over the last 21 years, The Giver has been widely taught by middle school teachers and loved by children. It has also become one of the most challenged books in American schools. It has sold over 10 million copies.
Lowry has written over thirty books, but this is her best known work. It was also made into a feature length movie in the summer of 2014, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep.
I read a number of Lowry’s books when I was in middle school, and I always enjoyed her writing style. She tackled difficult subjects matters and she trusted that children could understand and relate to them. Over time, this has brought her great praise but also heavy criticism. I’ve never thought that much into it. I just like her writing. And I was thrilled she was available for an interview.
Lois, welcome to the blog.
Lois, most people know you for The Giver. It is one of the most recognized and revered books of the last few decades. However, I tend to associate you with Number the Stars, which I remember reading in sixth grade. It had an impact on me because my grandmother’s family escaped Nazi Germany in 1939. What inspired you to write this book?
I had a friend at that time who was Danish. She and I were the same age, and we were talking about the war. I grew up in Pennsylvania, but my father was off in the Pacific during World War II. And she described growing up under the Nazi occupation. I had probably known about what happened in Denmark, I had read about it in some history books, but I hadn’t remembered. And it was such a wonderful story, really. By then, I was a writer for kids, and I thought it would be a good, important story to tell to young people.
I had to do the research, but her personal details were invaluable. I also had to gear it down to a young audience without moving the accuracy of the information. It was a bit of a challenge, but I loved doing it.
How difficult was it to tackle a subject like the Holocaust in a children’s book?
It would have been more difficult if I had to tackle the atrocities, but what happened in Denmark was so different. So I was really telling the story of the human integrity involved, and that was not difficult. That is something that kids can understand and relate to and it’s not terrifying.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Probably by the time I was nine. In August 1947 when I was ten years old, I wrote a letter to a children’s magazine that said, I am writing a novel, and I’m on chapter thirteen. I have no memory of that particular piece of work. I only know this because of somebody that was doing graduate work at Brigham Young University. He was researching me and found this and sent me a copy.
I was always writing a book or a poem or a story when I was that age. I never wanted to be anything else.
When did you know you were good at it?
I was always a good student. English and its affiliated areas were always among my favorites. I can remember specifically in high school when I got a paper back from my English teacher, and under my grade she wrote, Be sure to go on writing. I think there’s a good chance you can do something with it.
I went on to get a special scholarship to go to Brown to major in writing. But certainly I had a lot of encouragement from teachers from adolescence on.
What is your process for writing? Is it fairly similar book-to-book? Has it changed over time?
I don’t think it has changed over time. I work on only one book at a time, and I start out with a general idea of what the book is going to be about, and a clear idea of who the main character will be and what he or she is facing. And then I make it up as I go along.
I sit at my desk every day. It’s my job. It’s how I make my living. Because I’m self employed, I have no deadlines. Way back when I was starting I was writing for magazines, and I always had to get something in by Thursday. But now I work on my own timetable, which means I can, as I’m going to do after Christmas, go to Hawaii for a vacation and not think about the book I’m working on. Even though I’m actually subconsciously thinking about the book I’m working on.
Nobody is standing up for me, and I don’t have to punch a time clock. On the other hand, I don’t get paid until I deliver a book. So that’s an incentive. You have to have a lot of self discipline to be a self employed writer.
The Giver debuted in 1993. Why do you think it became so popular and resonated so strongly with children and adults alike?
I have no idea. I don’t think writers or publishers can predict that. If we could, then we would all be predicting the next thing and trying to do it.
It was just fluke timing, I suppose. 1993 was – let me think – two years after the Gulf War. And I think beginning at that time, the future began to look scary and uncertain. I had a son in the first Gulf War, so I was certainly aware of the circumstances and how frightening they were.
I think with the uncertainty in the world, young people in particular gravitated toward books that dealt with possible futures. And they – they being young people – are the one’s who are going to determine those futures. It appeals on some level to read about the possibilities and to consider the options and the compromises one must make.
I was very interested in the topic of human memory and how it worked. My father was old and he was beginning to lose his memory, and I realized he had forgotten my older sister, his first child, who had died young. And it was so startling to me to see him forget her and her death. I began to think the way a writer does – what if we could just forget about everything bad that happened? Wouldn’t that be special, as the church lady used to say on Saturday Night Live.
Because the book became so popular, it then spawned a monstrous generation of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction for young people, which had not existed before that. And now it’s all over the place, and everyone is sick of it.
What lessons do you hope young readers take away from The Giver?
I always hate the word lessons when it’s connected to children’s literature. Many older people think: Oh, I’m going to write a book for young people to teach them things. But that becomes pedantic and moralistic and polemic and kids hate it. So I never think in those terms.
My goal is simply to tell a good story. And out of a well told story will arise, organically, things that children will learn. But it will be different for each kid. It will be affected by where they are growing up and who their parents are and whether or not they’re religious and many different elements.
After the movie debuted this summer, you did so many interviews for TV, for websites, for news publications. I imagine this was all thrilling but also somewhat overwhelming.
It ruined my summer. I have a house in Maine and I usually go there for the summer. It’s the place I love the most and the place where I get the most work done because it is isolated and very quiet. And I couldn’t go there last summer because I was in Las Vegas and San Diego and Los Angeles and New York doing all of this movie stuff.
Parts of it were very interesting. I’m a film lover, and the fact that they consulted me and took me over to South Africa to watch the filming was very interesting to me. But in the long run, I would rather be at my desk by myself.
A lot of the back-and-forth between me and the film director was by email. He’d send me questions about little details, so it was fun to participate in that way. Sometimes they took my advice, and very often they ignored my advice and we got into bigger arguments. And I lost, because I’m not Harvey Weinstein.
It was an interesting experience and not one that I would want to go through soon again.
Why has there been such a resurgence of interest in YA fiction?
I hear from publishers that it is a wildly popular genre right now. Publishers are loving it because they are selling lots of books. But I don’t know why it’s happened or how long it will continue.
What are some of your goals over the next five or ten years?
Oh gosh, I don’t think in those terms. I’m 77 years old. I hope to be alive and healthy, but I guess that’s not the type of goal you’re talking about. I hope my brain doesn’t start to atrophy. I still love what I do and I would like to continue doing it. But I don’t have any specific goals, nothing I’m striving for except to continue to write good stories.
**Five rapid fire questions**
Three favorite authors: Ian McEwan, William Trevor, Margaret Atwood. I just realized I said three non-Americans.
Most memorable fan interaction: I have memorable interactions every day, and here’s the most recent. It came this week by email – boy, sixteen. He was writing about The Giver, which has provided inspiration for him. He said he’s gay, he has not come out, he’s scared. He lives in the south and his father is a conservative pastor. And the boy in The Giver has made him think about crossing boundaries that are important to cross.
Last book you read: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Something most people don’t know about you: I was once a contestant on Jeopardy!
Do you like sports: I do. I’m a Patriots fan. I was once a guest of the Krafts in their box. And I’m a Red Sox fan.
And, finally, is the world in 2014 a better place than it was when you were growing up?
I think it is much better in some ways and much worse in others. So I can’t give a definitive answer to that. Given my age, I could not have predicted the internet. I didn’t see television until I was sixteen years old.