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What is memoir but writing about “things that happened, which caused other things to happen,” as Lois Lowry puts it in her introduction to Looking Back: A Book of Memories? The twice-awarded Newbery winner (for Number the Stars and The Giver) is beloved by two generations of readers, and will doubtless continue to enchant future ones. Her books range from silly to sorrowful, but her readers inevitably come away with a little piece of her heart—and leave a little piece of theirs.
Looking Back is for readers young and old, veteran and new, who could imagine themselves as the irrepressible Anastasia Krupnik or as brave Annemarie Johansen in Number the Stars. It’s also for kids who wonder how to start their own stories, who have asked Lowry, “How do you get ideas?” In this book, she’s tried to answer that question. “Stories don’t just appear out of nowhere. They need a ball that starts to roll. Here are some of the balls—ping!—at the moment when they start their trip down that complicated passageway that is called life but that also, magically, becomes fiction along the way.”
Q | How and why did you decide to write this memoir?
A | Back in 1995 I read a book called Love, Loss, and What I Wore, by Ilene Beckerman. It was an odd but charming little book with cartoony illustrations, recalling her life through the lens of the clothes she wore. I started thinking along those lines. My book doesn’t resemble the Beckerman book at all. But it does, I think, capture the past through small memories in the same way.
Q | For some of the photos (of your mother, of you at a young age), you have to imagine what the subject is thinking. Is this a good technique for anyone trying to write a memoir?
A | Amazingly, I can recall with detail the circumstances and my feelings about the situation at any given time—at 5, or 12, or 17. The early photos are, of course, black and white, but my memory brings the colors back—the horrible bathing suit, for example, shown on the jacket of the book. It was royal blue dots on an oddly shiny off-white. With the awareness of the colors comes the memory of the day and the feelings: the moldy smell of the log cabin dressing room at that lake and my love of the lake itself, my happiness at the summer days we spent there.
You are correct that I could only imagine the thoughts and feelings of others, like my mom—but that is, after all, the job of a writer: to create those imagined emotions. For many kids, it would be a very creative and meaningful assignment—the imagining of feelings and circumstances, based on a facial expression, a posture, a photo that perhaps hints at a relationship.
Q | How did you come up with the idea of starting each chapter with a quote from one of your books and then weaving stories of your life into it?
A | While looking through collections of old photographs, I realized how many things I had written reflected events in my life. Of course, written as fiction, they were not accurate representations of events, but the quoted passages caused things to surface for me, and I could see the connection that my writing has always had to my life.
Q | You write a lot about the losses you’ve suffered. Is writing about grief, whether as a child or an adult, a good way to get through some of those losses?
A | After my son’s death, I received countless letters of sympathy from people. One of those I most treasure came from a friend who was a professional Shakespearean actor. He sent me, quite simply, a quotation from Macbeth: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak/Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.” And so I have tried here, in this book, to give my own sorrow words.
Q | Autumn Street reads much like a memoir itself. How much did you think of it that way as you were writing it?
A | The little girl in Autumn Street is the same little girl who wore the ugly bathing suit in Looking Back. I was aware of sifting through memories as I wrote Autumn Street, but I was arranging a narrative, using real events but rearranging for literary purposes. The important thing is that the feelings in Autumn Street were real, were true.
Q | Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books like Number the Stars—and when do you think they’re ready for it?
A | It is important for kids, sometimes very young ones, to read, or have read to them, stories about integrity and stories that evoke empathy. Children can react without having to know the name of the reaction, just that it is a comforting feeling of love in spare circumstances. Later—age 10 feels like a good age to me—it’s important to become aware of real events in history, and of how compassionate humans can change the course of events.
Q | What compelled you to write The Giver at the time that you did? What message did you most want to convey?
A | The Giver was written not long after the first Gulf War, in which my son participated as a fighter pilot. He wrote me a very moving letter from Saudi Arabia, talking about the tragedy of war, the ruined country below. He mentioned the oil fields burning, the waste, the desolation. That caused me to think more than I otherwise might have about the future…what might it be like for the generations to come. The book surprised me when I began to write it. It was unlike anything I had done before. Now, of course, there are a zillion dystopian novels out there.
As for a “message,” I don’t try to put messages into books. The role of books is to ask questions, not to try to answer them. That job’s for the reader.
Q | What’s the best thing a teacher can do to nurture a love of reading, and writing, in his or her students?
A | Read aloud to them. A fourth-grade teacher in a very poor area of a Southern state told me that she read Number the Stars aloud to her class, a chapter a day. A boy in the class fell in love with the book. He asked her, begged her, to be allowed to take it home. The teacher hesitated, because she knew he lived in very marginal circumstances and she worried about the fate of her only copy of the book. She asked him why he wanted to take it home, and he said: “I love it so much, and I think I can use it to teach my mother to read.”
Photo: Matt McKee