According to Lois Lowry, memory has always been her greatest source of inspiration. “I have definitive and clear memories of my perceptions as a child which I am able to translate into fictional characters.” Lowry remembers ordering a red plaid dress from the Sears catalog, but not liking it when it finally arrived because the taffeta swished too much. And she remembers finding a large sleeping mouse, stiff with cold, which she tried warming in her arms (actually it was a rat, but she didn’t know it at the time). When the mouse didn’t wake up, she carefully placed him in a warm oven. Unfortunately, her mother checked to see what was baking before Lowry could warn her. Lowry vividly recalls her mother’s reaction—or overreaction.
Lowry also remembers how painfully shy she was as a child and sometimes creates a character like Gooney Bird Greene who she describes as her “alter-ego, the hidden me inside myself.” Gooney Bird, from Lowry’s newest book Gooney Bird Greene (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), wears green pants and a pink tutu, likes to be “right smack in the middle of everything,” and has exotic stories to tell, like how she came from China on a flying carpet.
The threads that make up the fabric of Lowry’s life find their way into her books. For instance, A Summer to Die (Houghton Mifflin, 1977), Lowry’s first book, explores the death of an older sister with the strength and honesty that could only come from experience. The story is loosely based on the early death of Lowry’s sister, Helen. Autumn Street(Houghton Mifflin, 1979) takes place in the small Pennsylvania town where Lowry spent much of her childhood and centers around an actual crime that occurred. According to Lowry, “the people in the book were real. I loved them and they are almost all gone now.”
Because Lowry suffuses her characters with the traits of people that are important to her, they feel like real people. She’s particularly fond of Rabble Starkey’s mother (from Rabble Starkey, Houghton Mifflin, 1987) and Anastasia’s mother (from the Anastasia Krupnik series). According to Lowry, “I think I’m trying to recreate myself as a mother and improve my own history. . .Many of the mothers in my books seem so wise and mature and I was so young when I had my children that I wasn’t either of those things.”
Several of Lowry’s books started out as concepts that intrigued her. For The Giver(Houghton Mifflin, 1993), Lowry’s second Newbery Medal book, she focused on the concept of memory. In the story, Lowry created a futuristic utopian world where all memories, pleasant and painful, are entrusted to one person. Gathering Blue (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), a companion novel to The Giver, began with the concept of creativity—the forms it takes and its value to society. Lowry’s upcoming novel, The Touched Boy (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) began with the literary concept of an unreliable narrator that Lowry explores through the main character—“a child seeing and telling events, but not understanding them.”
Lowry writes from her Cambridge, Massachusetts home with her Tibetan Terrier, Bandit, by her side. Lately, she’s combined writing with a former profession—photography. When Lowry’s editor began work on the cover of Number the Stars (Lowry’s first Newbery Medal winner), he asked Lowry to provide a detailed description of the main character for the illustrator. Lowry searched through her files of photographs and selected a portrait of a Swedish girl she’d taken several years ago saying, “The girl in the book ought to look like this.” The publisher used the photo on the cover instead of an illustration. Since then, Lowry’s photos have appeared on the covers of The Giver and Gathering Blue.
Lowry always knew she wanted to be a writer, and when her four children were very young she began selling short stories to magazines. One story that appeared in Redbook was written for adults but through the perceptions of a child. A children’s book editor from Houghton Mifflin contacted her and encouraged her to try writing for young adults. When A Summer to Die was published, Lowry’s audience responded via fan mail and during Lowry’s school visits. “I began to see how important books are to children. . .Children are not yet formed. You have to help them in that process, and I began to perceive what a valuable role a writer for children can play.”