Interview with Lois Lowry

Posted by Goodreads on October 1, 2012
Nearly 20 years after The Giver, Newbery Medal-winner Lois Lowry has finished her quartet of dystopian novels with her work Son and revealed the fate of Gabe, the endangered infant who precipitated the events of the first book. Haunting, incisive, and banned almost as frequently as it is taught, The Giver remains one of the hallmarks of children's literature. Now 75, Lowry has, of course, published a wide range of other stories; her first, A Summer to Die, came out in 1977, and she also writes the beloved Anastasia Krupnik series.

Lowry talked with interviewer Jade Chang about growing up on a military base, her favorite children's books, and the current glut of YA fiction set in post-apocalyptic worlds.

Goodreads: When The Giver was first published, you said you weren't planning a definitive end to the story. What changed your mind?

Lois Lowry: Oh, readers were writing continuously and asking what happened to the characters, and I guess I was thinking the same thoughts.

GR: Who do they usually ask about?

LL: Most readers in the early days would ask about Jonas [the protagonist of The Giver]. By the time I wrote a couple more books [2000's Gathering Blue and 2004's Messenger], it was clear where he was. But I had not dealt with the baby, and I had not realized that kids would be so attached to a toddler. I started [writing Son] with him as an adolescent, but I found my own attention diverted by who had given birth to him. What turns out to be the final third of the book, when he began questioning about his own mother, started out as the beginning of the book.

GR: Son really feels like a testament to maternal love. It begins with Claire, Gabe's mother, and her search for him.

LL: Yes. I haven't done any research, so I'm just guessing, but it seems to me that most books for young adults deal with a kid becoming independent and emerging as a young adult—not leaving his parents behind, but no longer needing them. I think there are not very many books that deal with the close connection between the parent and a young adult. Many set the parents aside and take the kids to summer camp or something. I've definitely been guilty of that.

GR: Goodreads member Miss Domuracki says that she recently heard your heartfelt talk at Book Expo, where you explained that you came to write the book after your son died in the Iraq War.

LL: I just want to be clear: My son did not die in the Iraq War. My son was a pilot in the first Iraq War, but he died after the war when his plane crashed. The book deals with a young woman who has lost her son and who spends years of her life trying to find him. When you've lost a child to death, as I have, you don't spend the rest of your life trying to get him back, but you do spend the rest of your life thinking about him. You find yourself thinking again and again, "What would he be doing now?"

My son's little girl was two years old when he died, and this year she's graduating from high school. It's not something you let go of, but it's not the same as the girl who lost her child. To not know where your child is—and there are people to whom this has happened when a child disappears—that's the kind of experience, the not knowing, that would be the torture for me. And the grief.

GR: The son, Gabe, has a special gift he calls "veering," but really it's the gift of empathy. How did you choose that for him?

LL: The word "empathy" is not used in the book, but that certainly is what he has. Each protagonist in the first three books has a power of some sort, so it seemed necessary that the boy in the final book would have one. It occurred to me that that gift, to be able to feel and understand another human being's feelings, could we ever have that, if it were ever possible scientifically, it might be the thing to end a lot of suffering in the world.

If the young man who recently put on camouflage gear and went into the theater and shot a lot of people would have done that, if he could have perceived their suffering, then maybe it wouldn't have happened.

GR: You grew up on military bases, and then you married a military man and continued to live on them. Were the highly regimented communities in these books based on that experience?

LL: The one in which Jonas and Claire live in the fourth book, although there's a sinister underbelly to it, is not unlike a military community. Military bases were always governed by strict rules. On an army post at 5 o'clock every evening, the canon goes off and a bugle call goes out and they take the flag down, and the little boys would all get off their bicycles and stand solemnly with their hands over their hearts.

It seems kind of bizarre to me, now that I live a regular life in a normal town, that people abided by it, that no one rebelled against it, even adolescent boys. It's just a small example of life in a community like that. Another would be the housing. It was all the same with differences according to rank. If you were high ranking, you would have bigger houses, so you knew exactly where you stood in the community. Everything was structured.

There were things that I liked. The orderliness of it, the cleanliness of it... In one of the places, the prisoners would be brought out—with an armed guard, of course!—and they would clean my yard and keep the place clean.

GR: Did it ever seem strange to you?

LL: As a kid it was routine, it was ho-hum. There was never any feeling of, "I'm not going to do this," never any rebellious feeling, and that's kind of interesting. Now I'm less inclined to obey mindlessly. I'm not saying that particular example of the flag is mindless, of course.

But there were very good things about it, too. At Spangdahlem [a United States Air Force base in Germany], when my son's funeral was held, they did a flyby. It was the missing man formation, and at that moment on a large military base in Europe, every car at the base stopped, the people got out of their cars, and every person stood at attention to honor my son. That kind of ceremony has great meaning. It might not when you're ten and have to get off your bike, but I think it's a good thing, ceremony.

GR: Did you expect the enormous response that you got from The Giver?

LL: I was quite astonished when I began to perceive gradually what people were finding in it. It was my first time receiving letters from adults. Clearly, I was subconsciously putting things in—people found political and religious implications. You can't sit down and plan to do that. If you did, it would fail and would be contrived. What I put into a book is not what the reader takes out of it.

GR: Do you think that love for the book made you feel a certain sense of responsibility? A need to give readers an ending?

LL: I suppose I did. Not consciously. When you ask the question, I realize I must have. Mostly I felt I wanted to tie things up, to make people feel satisfied with the ending. I know that, nonetheless, there will be some readers who will still ask, "Yes, but what about Gabe?" I think you can assume that he'll be OK.

GR: And now there are so many dystopian YA books—The Hunger Games, the Divergent series. Do you ever feel...

LL: Like I created a monster? Yes! It's been an interesting phenomenon. When I wrote The Giver, I don't think there had been any [dystopian literature] for kids. In college I had read Brave New World and 1984, and then some time passed, and all of a sudden, whether it's related or not, suddenly every other book seems to be futuristic, every other submission they get is one more dystopian novel. But it's always that way. A few years ago it was vampires, and I think we've seen the last of them!

I thought [The Hunger Games] was well done, but I was troubled by the fact that it was about children killing children. I can't get past that for some reason. Kids seem to be quite blasé about that, but it seems to indicate something deeply wrong with our culture.

GR: How do you think The Giver differs from the others?

LL: It's interesting that they announce themselves as trilogies. It seems to me that they all seem to be much more action packed. They've been trying to make a movie of The Giver, but there's not a lot of action in it. It's relatively easy to make a movie of The Hunger Games. It's interesting to see that they haven't...they don't take away from The Giver. The Giver continues to be just as popular as it always has been, especially with teachers, who think the book brings out more opportunities for discussion.

GR: Goodreads member Brittney asks, "You've written about many controversial topics in your career. What is your favorite topic that you had to research in preparation for writing a novel?"

LL: Most of my books have not required a great deal of research, but I did write one for the Dear America series that was set in a Shaker village [Like the Willow Tree]. The last three living Shakers live near my home in Maine. They let me go into their archives. The Shakers kept a daily journal, so many of the things that happened in the book really happened, even though it's told from the point of view of a fictional girl. I just became so permeated with it. One person in the community was appointed to the role of scribe, and the journal was usually quite objective. But sometimes, for example, they didn't reproduce, and one of the ways they increased in number was they took in orphans. One day there was a notation about two little girls who had been first sent to the community, then taken back by their mother. Now she's decided she can't cope, and they've been returned. And it says, "Their condition is deplorable, their clothes are dirty." And you can just picture [the scribe's] outrage!

GR: Tell us about your first experiences reading your favorite childhood books.

LL: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: I took that out of the public library when I was probably 11. By the time I got home, the librarian had called my mother to tell her that I had taken out an inappropriate book. My mother greeted me at the door with that info and asked what book I had—she took it from me, and she started to laugh because she had read it, and she gave the book back to me. There were some places that involved the dread topic of sexuality... at ten or 11 years old those just slipped past me, but I loved that book, because I related so to the girl. Despite our different background and the time in which we lived, our thoughts were so similar.

The Yearling: My mother read it to me when I was eight or nine. She cried when she was reading it, and I had never seen her cry before. It wasn't embarrassing or frightening, it was that a story could do that. The books I'd been reading up until then—Bobbsey Twins, Mary Poppins—were not books that could make you feel deeply. But with this, my mother was sharing words on a page that made you feel so deeply that she wept.

GR: What are you reading now?

LL: I just finished Christopher Hitchens's memoir written in the last years of his life [Hitch-22]. Oh, I just loved one recently, it's a British book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It's just very moving.

GR: And one last one from a Goodreads member named April: "If you lived in the world of The Giver, what job assignment would you be given?"

LL: All of the things that I most enjoy doing are creative things, and they had lost any creativity. Hmmm. I would have been a good child care worker, but I hope I would have been assigned a spouse and some children, too!

Interview by Jade Chang for Goodreads. Jade is a journalist and writer living in Los Angeles.

Learn more about Jade and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-32 of 32 (32 new)

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message 1: by Julia (new)

Julia Thanks Jade for the delightful interview. As a fan of Lois Lowry it was wonderful to hear her talk about the books we have all come to love. I pre-ordered my copy of 'Son' and am just waiting for it to come in the mail.

message 2: by Peggy (new)

Peggy Wonderful interview! I have not read the books after The Giver (which I read as an adult when my son was reading it in school) but I am on my way to the library now.

message 3: by Nancy (new)

Nancy When my son (in high school at the time) read The Giver, he pronounced it as one of the most powerful books he had ever read. I agree whole-heartedly.

message 4: by Gail (new)

Gail The Giver is absolutely my favorite children's chapter book. Hands down.

message 5: by Sandra (new)

Sandra My prized possession? A signed copy of The Giver. It was over ten years ago that I heard her speak and I can still remember that session. Love the books and just really appreciate her person. Thank you.

message 6: by Linda (new)

Linda Lilja I teach The Giver to my 7th graders. It makes a very big impression and is a gateway for many meaningful discussions. I notice that years later, as adults, many list it among their favorite books on their FB profile page. So excited to get and read "Son".

message 7: by Lauren (new)

Lauren I read this when I was in the sixth grade. It's been a favorite of mine ever since! I absolutely love it and love the series. I can't wait to read Son!

message 8: by Niccole (new)

Niccole Paytosh I brought a copy of The Giver to my school to pass among my teacher friends.

I think this was my favorite part of the interview and something I wish more teachers would focus on.

"Clearly, I was subconsciously putting things in—people found political and religious implications. You can't sit down and plan to do that. If you did, it would fail and would be contrived. What I put into a book is not what the reader takes out of it."

message 9: by Shannon (new)

Shannon This was a powerful book for our kids leadership book club and we will read it again for a new group this year. Your book handle hard things beautifully. Our kids had read a Wrinkle in Time and were familiar with the concept of IT which made the society more understandable.
Thank you for writing about hard things. I appreciated the interview.

message 10: by Rayni (new)

Rayni The Giver is one of my favorite books. I was unaware of the other books. But will now look for them. I enjoyed reading this interview.

message 11: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn "The Giver" just gives children food for their souls! No one has mentioned "Number the Stars" another thought provoking epistle. The article was effective revealing what helps us to love and enjoy Lois Lowry. Adults and children can be inspired by her beautiful words.

message 12: by Allie (last edited Jun 20, 2013 09:04AM) (new)

Allie Sawyer I absolutely loved "The Giver" when I read it for the first time. I read it for the first time when I was 11 so I did not understand all of the ideas brought into the book. This allowed my second time reading it to be even more spectacular. The whole series is one of my favorites ever and I have a tradition of reading them every year around Christmas. Thank you for the interview of a very inspirational author.

message 13: by David (new)

David A. A similar feeling is the one I had with THE LITTLE PRINCE (Exupéry. I was 6 when my grandmother read that book to me.
I could not sleep that night. Next day, we talked about the book. We read it again a few days later. She dug a little big deeper, but not too much.
Grandma told me that I should read that book every seven years, for the next 30 years. I did (more or less).
This book took on new meanings every single time I read it.
Such is the power of good literature!


message 14: by Rayni (new)

Rayni Number the Stars is another of my favorite books. It's about time I read both of these books again.

message 15: by Bob (new)

Bob Murphy THANK YOU! What a wonderful interview. I have long enjoyed Ms. Duncan's books - especially The Giver. Your comments about writing your books were very interesting for me. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

message 16: by Edlin (new)

Edlin I love the story theirs a lot of thought seek in my mind how possible. A present could understand a moment that we still need someone to stay.

message 17: by Jutta (last edited Oct 09, 2012 04:47AM) (new)

Jutta What a beautiful surprise to read this interview at breakfast! Since I read 'The Giver' to my sons in the nineties (in german, book from our library) I never again came across Lois Lowry. The Giver has become one of my favourite books, I bought it, reread it several times. So tempting to see this seemingly perfect life and to find out at the end the cruel circumstances behind. As a mother of three children and a mediator it helped me to accept life as it is,instead of trying to be perfect. Thank you so much, Lois Lowry!! I am looking forward to reading "Son".

message 18: by Fauzia (new)

Fauzia Thanks

message 19: by Fauzia (new)

Fauzia Edlin wrote: "I love the story theirs a lot of thought seek in my mind how possible. A present could understand a moment that we still need someone to stay."

And me also love soo much

message 20: by Joann (new)

Joann This was a wonderful interview. My daughter has really loved this series. I think it's time for me to read it, too. I agree with Lois Lowry; the Harold Fry book was memorable and moving.

message 21: by Ahmed (new)

Ahmed wow, one of the best stories

message 22: by Francis (new)

Francis Kyei Francis'
l enjoy the stories

message 23: by Dinesh (new)

Dinesh It's more than an interview. I found another story here!

message 24: by Ruthie (last edited Oct 18, 2012 07:42PM) (new)

Ruthie Connelly I've read several Lois Lowry interviews, and this one has some fresh information! Well done.

The Giver was the hardest book to keep on my classroom shelves. It kept disappearing, and I must have bought dozens of copies over the years! I even made it required reading for any of my sophomores who hadn't read it yet.

If any of you haven't read Lowry's awesome Newbery acceptance speech, you MUST. It's online; go read it now.

message 25: by Alan (new)

Alan Gilfoy It was an amazing book, didn't know it had two sequels, let alone a third.

message 26: by Kersten (new)

Kersten Mason me neither.

message 27: by Alegna (new)

Alegna Great interview Jade! It was books like "The Giver" that started me down a path towards more serious and fantastical books at a young age in school.

message 28: by Art (new)

Art Yes, Great job, well done. Thanks, Jade.

message 29: by Rayni (new)

Rayni "The Giver" has been one of my favorite books for years. I just voted on it on Goodreads' Best Books thread.

message 30: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Mcduncan Never read 'The Giver'in school don't know why it was never assigned. Great book!!!!

message 31: by Randy (new)

Randy Nguyen I have a question for Lois Lowry. In your book "The Giver" When Father "Releases" the twin does he know that he is killing the baby?? In my Language arts class we had an argument of this. Some people said that Father does not know that he is killing the baby, but I say that he does know that he is killing the baby.But he has no feelings,so basically he really doesn't care.I am confused of who is right because both of us have accurate opinions. I think he knows about death, but he has no feelings for it.My classmates say that he doesn't know what he is doing and he doesn't know what death is, but wouldn't they train him about death?

message 32: by Carbuywhiz (new)

Carbuywhiz There were things that I liked. The orderliness of it, the cleanliness of it... In one of the places, the prisoners would be brought out—with an armed guard, of course!—and they would clean my yard and keep the place clean.

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