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Sunday, October 07, 2012

Lois Lowry - in Iowa, about her book (Son)

 On Friday evening (October 5, 2012), sixteen authors, illustrators, and other book people met for dinner at Givanni's in Iowa City, enjoyed a meal and then made their way to the Iowa City Public Library to hear Lois Lowry speak about her newest title, Son - the final (and fourth) book in the Giver Series.  We joined approximately 230 other eager fans who wanted to hear this iconic author tell us about her books -- this one being her 40th.
Lois Lowry was honored with the Newbery Award twice, once for the Giver (1994) and earlier for Number the Stars (1990).  I was in the audience at the American Library Association when Lowry gave her Newbery acceptance speech in Miami.  Now I have no recollection of the city of Miami.  Unless I looked at my notes detailing the place, I would have told you that I had never ever been to Miami.  Orlando, yes, but Miami, no.  Can't remember it.  However, I do remember Lowry's acceptance speech and that of Allen Say (who was that year's Caldecott winner for Grandfather's Journey).  I remember that the two of them had realized that each of them were most likely on a playground, in Tokyo during the same period of time toward the end of World War II.  Lowry was there because her father was an U.S. Army dentist stationed in the county with General MacArthur, if my memory serves me well.  Say was there because his (divorced) parents had put him under the care of his grandmother who did not care for him so she put him up in his own apartment in Tokyo. That is a story for another day but suffice it to say that he spent time on the same playground that Lowry frequented, during the same period of time.  But their paths really did not cross until that day in June, 1994 when both were accepting a most prestigious award in the world of literature for young readers.  Lowry mentions the connection to Say and the fact that both of them had been twelve years of age, in Tokyo in the Shibuya district.  She also discusses the origin of The Giver.

On Friday evening she was in Iowa City, Iowa - the third stop in a fourteen city book tour for her newest title, Son.

During Lowry's presentation in Iowa City she expands on the trip she made to West Virginia from Boston during a time when her father (the father that she and her older sister, younger brother, and mother had joined in Japan years before) was losing his memory.  She says that among the pictures she shares with her 90 year-old father is one of herself and her sister Helen.  He looks at the picture and muses that he doesn't remember who the other girl is.  Lowry tells him that her name was Helen.  He wonders what happened to her.  When he is told that she has died, he is sad.  Just a few minutes later, there is another picture of Lois and her sister Helen as older children.  This time he remembers that Helen is her name, but "I can't remember what happened to her."  Lois must tell him again that she has died.  In just a few minutes, she has told her father something that brings great sadness to him, twice.  Memories that she has given him back has caused him sadness.  From that seed came her wondering, "What if..." Would it be a good idea if people did not have to deal with memories?  In her acceptance speech for The Giver she includes information about other bits and pieces that come together.  She tells us about Carl Nelson who was a painter in Maine and who saw color in a way that Lowry did not.  Nelson eventually became blind before he died in 1989 but his paintings left a legacy and it is his face that is the subject of the photograph on the cover of The Giver - he is the face of Jonas.
    From the publisher:  The Giver is a dystopian novel set in a Utopian society.  Jonas's world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear of pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the community. When Jonas turns 12 he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now, it is time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.
The ending of The Giver  was controversial in that many readers felt that the ending was ambiguous.  But despite that she did not intend to write a sequel, she has however.  She has written three more books that take place in Jonas's society. -- The following are annotations from the publisher:
    Gathering Blue (2000)— a society ruled by savagery and deceit and that shuns and discards the weak. Left orphaned and physically flawed, young Kira faces a frightening, uncertain future. Blessed with an almost magical talent that keeps her alive, she struggles with ever broadening responsibilities in her quest for truth, discovering things that will change her life forever.
    Messenger (2004)—Strange changes are taking place in Village. Once a Utopian community that prided itself on its welcome to new strangers, Village will soon be closed to all outsiders. As one of the few people able to travel through the dangerous Forest, Matty must deliver the message of Village’s closing and try to convince Seer’s daughter to return with him before it’s too late. But Forest has become hostile to Matty as well, and he must risk everything to fight his way through it, armed only with an emerging power he cannot yet explain or understand.
and finally:
    Son (2012) — They called her Water Claire. When she washed up on their shore, no one knew that she came from a society where emotions and colors didn’t exist. That she had become a Vessel at age thirteen. That she had carried a Product at age fourteen. That it had been stolen from her body. Claire had a son. But what became of him she never knew. What was his name? Was he even alive?  She was supposed to forget him, but that was impossible. Now Claire will stop at nothing to find her child, even if it means making an unimaginable sacrifice.
In her Iowa City presentation, Lowry told of an early encounter with using her imagination to advantage.  She was 10-years-old (1947) in Pennsylvania and going off to summer camp where she was intent on riding horses.  As Lowry tells it she was a "shy introspective" child who often had her "nose stuck in a book."  She knew no one in the camp, and no one in the cabin that she shared with six other girls.  The counselors were all of college age.  Now Lowry says she was observant even then and she quickly noticed that the college age counselors paid a little more attention to those campers that had college age brothers.  So despite the fact that she only had an older sister and a toddler brother, when she talked to the counselors she had a college aged brother.  She quickly fell in the realm of fiction -- also known as lying.  She called him David.  When she was asked where he went to college she brought to mind the great uncle who was overly passionate about his own Alma mater, Princeton.  So Princeton is where her brother attended college and he was handsome and had a blue convertible.  The counselors asked if he would visit next week.  "Maybe," Lowry would reply.  Fiction had power.  She worried about being caught but she wasn't.

Lowry's first book is A Summer to Die (1977), it is autobiographical and is a book about a child dying.  Meg is the younger sister (Lois) and Molly (Helen) dies - just as Helen dies all too young in real life. 

In 1990, Lowry is awarded the Newbery Award for Number the Stars - the only book that she has written that is anchored by real life events.  In the audience this night (in Iowa City) is the son of the woman who inspired Number the Stars.  This man, Torben Platt*, (and his entire family) was friends with Lowry's son and the book was based on Annelise Platt's life.  When the editors wanted Lois to downplay the images of the shiny black boats of the Nazi soldiers - Annelise reaffirmed that the image of the boots was the lasting image she had of the soldiers and the most frightening image she retained during those frightening days.  At the time of Annelise Platt's death (February 19, 2012), Lois Lowry said, "My dear long-time friend Annelise Platt, the original inspiration for Number the Stars, died in Denmark this morning. She was a unique and remarkable woman who brightened everyone's life." Many have used Number the Stars as a classroom read and the words and Annelise's story have touched both teacher and student.  In the summer of 2013, a teacher in California wrote to Lois Lowry and said that he wanted to visit Annelise's grave in Denmark.  Lowry sent the information and later he sent Lowry a picture of the gravesite.  His two 8-year-old daughters left the pinwheel.
Read about the fictional title and the historical pieces that Lowry wove into her historical fiction account of World War II in Denmark  at  And Lois Lowry

Despite the resolve not to write a sequel to The Giver, Lowry has continued the story of Jonas and the other characters in the Utopian Society.

Q & A

Questions from the audience and Answers from Lois Lowry:

Q: What do you do when you get "writer's block?"
A:  I don't believe in "writer's block."  No one says "teacher's block," or "doctor's block."  I do not love the term "writer's block," so I say "get over it."

Q: What was your favorite book to write?
A: The light-hearted series are the most satisfying.  But I really don't have a favorite.

Q: Where do you get your ideas for your books?
A: From my imagination and from eavesdropping on people.  For example, one day I was at dinner with a friend for my birthday - a rather expensive restaurant.  At a nearby table was a man and his two daughters who had been invited to dinner.  Why? Although the father told them he was not ill, he was insistent that they discuss his will: his car, his house, and other substantial worldly goods.  The daughters persisted in asking, why then did they have to discuss his will now.  He replied, "Because I don't want your rotten mommy to get any of it."  I observe relationships.

Q: What was your first book?
A: Summer to Die, it is a book about Meg (13) and her sister, Molly, who dies.  In the book, I get rid of my brother.  He would have been about seven at the time and he was walking through the book being funny.  This was supposed to be a serious book, and he was a distraction.  When I sent a copy of the book he asked "What happened to your brother?"  Later I did put him in a book, Autumn Street.  He is on page 100.

Q: Why was Number the Stars written about real events in history.
A: (Lowry recounted the story about the long-time friendship with Annelise Platt, and introduces Torben.  As a family the Lowry's were at times asked to sit for Torben's various animals, including a boa constrictor)

Q: Do you plan out the symbolism that you use in your books or do those just come in as you are writing?  I notice that in The Giver there is a passage of a memory of a boat, and in Son, there is also a memory of a boat.
A: I guess there is. In The Giver, there is the apple, and of course, the shoe in Number the Stars is certainly symbolic. There is a sled in The Giver and in Autumn Street.  But sometimes I think teachers take symbolism too far.  For example, the passing of the apple back and forth.  There is no real symbolism there.  The original manuscript had a ball being passed back and forth -- but at the time there was no concept of "color" so how did the ball become colored.  Did they manufacture the ball and paint if or somehow color it?  But how could that be if there was no color.  So I changed the object being passed back and forth.  It became an apple as that object would have color in the natural world.  The color then would occur in nature.

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring author?
A: I don't have any.  most aspiring authors already do what they need to do.  They read and write.  Sometimes I am asked how to get published.  I think that question is premature.  First you have to love words, how they go on a page.  There is no good answer.

Q: How do you think the interpretation of your books have changed over time?
A: Other books being written today are different from those of mine.  The Giver was one of the first dystopian novels.  Now many dystopian novels are very violent - sad!

Q: How do you choose the character speak?
A: That just comes naturally.  An author creates people and that's the way they talk.

Q: What is Anastasia Krupnik doing now?
A: Well she was in nine books and then there was four books about her younger brother.  But they are outdated (father still used a typewriter) and my paperbook publisher told me to stop.  I had a story partially finished.  I can tell you about it as it will never get published.  Anastasia's English professor father is getting a computer.  He is learning to use it.  During the same time their next door neighbor Gertrude Stein has had a house fire so she comes to live, temporarily, with the Krupniks.  One day Anastasia's father ventures into a chat room and in a back bedroom, Mrs. Stein is also learning to use the computer, and she ventures into a chat room ... . Well, Anastasia will always be fourteen.

Q: What is the hardest book to write?
A: No so hard that I get "writer's block." This book [Son] is the longest, it's about 400 pages.

Q: What made you write about the Willoughby's?
A: Well over the years there has always been a reaction to the "happy family" in my books.  The Willoughbys (2008) is a satire on children's book classics.  Like all children's classics the children wish for a happy ending but to have that the children must get rid of their parents.  And the parents really want to get rid of their children.  In the end the children are orphans but those that are dead have died with a smile on their faces.  That story was set in a time when children did not have computers and no television.  I don't know what might have happened if they had had those things.

Q: How did you research Number the Stars?
Lois Lowry autographed copies of Son and other books
in the Giver Series. 
Iowa City (Iowa) Public Library October 5, 2012
A: Well, first I researched in libraries in Boston, where I live.  Then I went to Denmark.  When I came back I wrote the book.  It all took about six months.

Q: Do you plot out your stories?
A: No, I usually know the beginning and I know the end but the middle, I make up as I go along.   I could make an outline but then I have used up all of my imagination and am too exhausted to write the book.  I'd rather use my imagination as I go along and sometimes characters just appear.

Thank you all for coming.

*Torben Platt lives in Solon, Iowa where he and his wife, Jennifer Doll (a veterinarian) have a non-profit animal shelter, Witty Kitties Animal Shelter, in the area.  Torben Platt is known as "the reptile guy."

1 comment:

  1. This is so interesting! It reminded me that I have one of her books, "Looking Back", autographed in 2008 and given to me by one of my daughters, also a school librarian. Now I'll have to ask her where she was when she met Lois Lowry! She probably told me at the time, but I can't remember.
    Thanks for posting this!
    Jane Palmer, Retired School Library Media Specialist
    Jacksonville, Florida