What Lois Lowry Remembers | The New Yorker


The main character in Lois Lowry’s most famous novel, “The Giver”, is an old man who retains all of human history and memory. The protagonist of the book, Jonas, is his apprentice. Jonah’s training involves resisting the prismatic flood of the past – memories of joy and pain, war and suffering – so that his tightly regulated community can thrive in ignorance. When the book came out in 1993, Lowry had already won a staunch following. She received a Newbery Medal in 1990 for “Number the Stars”, a novel about a Danish family resisting the Nazi regime; her series starring Anastasia Krupnik, a playful preteen in owl glasses, charmed both cranky older sisters and their parents. But “The Giver” remains his deepest achievement. Filled with accolades, including another Newbery and a reputation of maybe the best children’s novel ever written, it has sold over twelve million copies. It also landed on the American Library Association’s list of most contested books of the ’90s. From a 2021 perspective, the novel is a double omen: a dystopian fantasy and an early spark in the powder keg of program wars. .

Lowry was born in Hawaii and her family moves frequently, due to her father’s career in the military. (There were chapters in New York, in the woods of Pennsylvania, in Tokyo.) She married her college girlfriend, with whom she had four children; After their divorce, in 1977, the same year that Lowry published her first novel, at age forty, she met Martin Small, with whom she lived for three decades, surrounded by a cast of rotating animals. Her personal life was marred by losses: her older sister, Helen, died of cancer when the two women were in their twenties, and a son, Gray, a fighter pilot, was killed in a crash. plane, in 1995. Lowry separates it now. between Maine and Florida with his partner, a retired psychiatrist.

At eighty-four, Lowry is a twisted, sweet presence on Zoom, where she appeared (silver bob, lipstick, fuzzy sweater) to talk to me one December afternoon. I showed him my broken copy of “Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst”; Lowry showed me the coffee mug she was using a few weeks ago, while giving a Zoom talk to a grade eight class in Japan. A voluptuous female nude, drawn in the expressionist style, beckons from the middle of the cup. (The students “were even too polite to laugh,” Lowry said.) Once the interview began, the author rarely answered my questions directly. Something I said would awaken a memory, which led to another memory; eventually, I realized that the question had been answered elliptically, or set aside en route to richer material. Lowry isn’t doing a lot of press anymore, but she seems to view the conversations she’s having as opportunities to convey as many stories as possible. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

It’s funny to conduct a career retrospective with an author whose work thinks so deeply about memory. Are you surprised by what you remember and what you don’t remember?

I have always boasted, perhaps wrongly, that I have an excellent memory. I have a secret desire to be called as a witness in a trial, so that the jury can be overwhelmed by the details I remember from the crime scene. I am now eighty-four years old; memory is not as good as it used to be. Sometimes a child writes to me about a book I wrote thirty-five years ago, one of the lesser known, and he asks me for details. And I don’t remember. And it’s a book that came out of my to be. So it’s humiliating.

Do you come back to the book when that happens?

It is rare that I reread one of my own books. Just recently I was on a Zoom interview with a theater company who adapted my books to the stage. And one of them is a book that I really like [“Gossamer”], but it is not widely known. They made a great adaptation, but asked me to talk about it. And I did – I bluffed my way through it, and then I read the whole book again and cried a little bit because it was a sad book. It touched me a bit that I was so caught up in it again.

How was it ? I had just seen my second-hand copy of “Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst” and was completely mesmerized.

the [Anastasia Krupnik] series has been reissued with new modern covers. I think there are maybe nine books on Anastasia, and she’s getting a little older [original] covers — the same child, made by the same illustrator, Diane deGroat. And the new ones are glitzy and sophisticated, but they don’t appeal to me as much. Also, the particular book in the series that you have, they changed the title. They did it because they thought that today’s children wouldn’t know what an analyst is. I think it doesn’t matter if the kids don’t know what something means. By the time they read the books, they know what an analyst is, and maybe that’s something that’s important for them to learn. But I don’t have a say in it.

Have you thought about what Anastasia would be like if she grew up today? Would his personality be very different?

Someone recently asked me on Twitter what Anastasia would do as an adult. I think I said she got a masters degree in, I don’t know, library science.

To go back to memory, your memory, “Looking Back”, is neither linear nor chronological. You weave memories around prompts – photographs, quotes from your books – which makes the book more naturalistic, almost spontaneous. What attracted you to this structure?

First of all, my dad, even though it wasn’t his job, was a very good photographer, and we always had a darkroom in our house. I ended up receiving his eight-by-ten photographs of me and my sister as little girls. I have a younger brother, but he was born during WWII, and my father, a career military officer, was gone throughout the war. So there are no photographs of Johnny — boo-hoo.

Childhood photographs – looking back, in some cases I saw a connection between the child that I was and a child that I later created and wrote about. These connections are what the [memoir] uses, taking a photo, usually of me, but there are others too, and relating it to something I wrote. There are two versions of the brief because the publisher, years after the first version, asked me to update it. By then my husband had passed away; I had met Howard, my new partner, a psychiatrist. the [cover of the] the first version has a picture of me when I was about five years old. It is a very pretty photograph. It was one of those days when my hair looked great and I had big blue eyes. But the second version makes me frown and scowl in a lousy swimsuit, and my sister is with me, in her lousy swimsuit. It is a much more attractive portrait than the pretty one.

It’s interesting to hear that your father is kind of a keeper of family memory. You said it was a moment of forgetting on his part that inspired you to write “The Giver”.

Yes, my parents both ended their lives in the same nursing facility in Virginia. My mother was in the nursing unit – she was blind and on oxygen – and my father was still standing, dragging his feet, in the assisted living unit. At the time, I lived in Boston and flew about once every six weeks. During a visit, I first went to see my mother. She was disabled, but her mind was intact and she liked to talk about the past. She was a wonderful storyteller. And she often spoke of my sister, her first child, who died young.

After my mom got tired, I went to the other building and visited dad. My brother and I had created an album for him: photos of us children, of the places where we had lived, of the people we knew. On that particular visit, when I turned to a page with two little girls, my dad said, “Oh, you’re there with your sister”. And then he said, sadly, “I don’t remember his name.” I told her her name was Helen, that she was named after her grandmother. And he said, “What happened to him?

I had to tell him that he was dead. Which was a shock to him, because he had suppressed the memory of it. As I got back to the airport I started to think, what if there was a pill or vaccine that would erase parts of our memory and make us feel safer, more comfortable? I had no intention of writing a dystopian novel. I’ve never been a lover of such literature, even though I majored in English at Brown and had to read “1984” and the like. I was just going to write about people, a group of people, who had found a way to live without sadness or fear.


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