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Interview: February 2008

February 2008

Lois Lowry has written over 30 books for young readers, including the Newbery Award-winning novels NUMBER THE STARS and THE GIVER.

In this interview with Teenreads.com's Alexis Burling, Lowry recalls the painful yet intriguing event that inspired her 2006 work of fiction, GOSSAMER (now available in paperback), and explains what "stereotypes" her characters are meant to represent. She also draws parallels between one of the book's main themes and that of a previous title, and shares a few objects from her own home to which her fictional dreamgivers would pay special attention.

Teenreads.com: Was there any specific moment, or collection of moments, that sparked your imagination and inspired you to write GOSSAMER?

Lois Lowry: I think we are all fascinated by the world of dreams. Dreams are so much a part of ourselves, but so mysterious and other-worldly and I’m sure we’ve all often wondered about the origin of them.

A number of years ago, my mother was recovering from a stroke. For five months her mind was somewhere else. She didn’t know me, or my brother, and she often laughed or wept at things that we could only guess at. One time, when we visited her in the nursing home where she was being cared for, she cried and cried and kept saying, “I’m so sad. Dorothy’s baby has died. Poor, poor Dorothy, Her baby has died.” Well, my brother and I recognized the reference. My mother’s best friend back when Jon and I were probably 7 and 13 was named Dorothy, and she had, in fact, lost a baby very tragically. But it had been 50 years earlier. So my brother asked her: “Mother, are you actually seeing Dorothy? Or are you just remembering her?”

She looked at him as if he were an idiot. Then she said impatiently, “In the dreamworld, it doesn’t matter.”

My mother recovered from the stroke; her mind returned, and she lived several more years. But she didn’t remember those five months. And though we asked her, she could not remember that moment when she wept for Dorothy…or anything about the dreamworld she had apparently entered for a time.

But it has always haunted me, and I have wondered about it for years.

TRC: Fastidious’s annoyance with The Littlest One stems mostly from her playful nature and curious mind. She asks too many questions and seems to derive great joy from learning, while Fastidious would much rather her just do her job in silence. What does Fastidious represent for you? How about The Littlest One?

LL: Well, I suppose they could both be called stereotypes, though I hope I didn’t write them in a way that makes the reader yawn and think, “Oh, that character again.” 

Littlest is me as a child, and my own children when they were young, and my grandchildren today: all of us, actually, when we were still lively and curious and interested in everything, and eager to learn. And Fastidious is every uptight, impatient, tired older person who just doesn’t want to deal with that eagerness and energy any more.

TRC: “Dissolving” is a lot like meditating, is it not? It’s about focusing on your form until your “self” disappears. Do you meditate? If so, what does it do for you?

LL: I don’t. Every time I’ve tried to mediate, I find myself thinking about recipes or movies or whether I remembered to feed my dog. But I can see that it might be much the same…wiling your “self” to disappear.

TRC: The process of “touching” is fascinating on many counts --- picking up fragments of memories, smells, feelings, etc. that have become embedded in objects over time. What objects in your house would be ideal for “touching”?

LL: My house --- or houses, actually, since I have two --- would be a real treasure trove for a dreamgiver. So much of what I value and keep around me is related to the past, to places I’ve been, people I love. I have the American flag that covered my son’s casket after he was killed in the military. I have a bracelet made of beads strung by a grandchild. A diamond ring that was my grandmother’s. A coffee mug from an elementary school I visited in Germany. And a lovely small basket given to me in Indonesia. Countless things important to me from my past.

TRC: Another veiled metaphor… Why is “delving,” or touching too deeply, caustic to both the dreamgiver and the dreamer? Is there a larger meaning to this?

LL: A psychiatrist, of course, would say that it is important to delve painfully into troubling things. But the dreamgivers’ task is to collect the fragile mementos that bring joy. To burrow too deeply into the pain would be to invite the nightmares in. So, for example, Littlest can touch the photo of the young soldier, of his smile, and bring a memory of a kiss into the dream of the woman. If she had lingered…delved…she would have had to encounter his terrible death.

TRC: From the beginning, John is dead set on hating his new caretaker. He wants a TV, a Game Boy, or any other distraction so that he doesn’t have to think or feel. But throughout the story, he slowly learns to trust the woman and grows to love his new surroundings. What can readers learn from his change in character? From her unconditional love?

LL: John is, simply, frightened, because he has been damaged by people he loved. So, he mistrusts love, and perhaps with good reason. It will take him a long time to recover. The woman gives him that time. She doesn’t pressure him, doesn’t judge him; she only loves him. It helps him begin to heal.

TRC: Why didn’t you give “the woman” a name?

LL: That’s a question I have asked myself. I wrote the book during a summer when I was alone in my old farmhouse in Maine. Alone, except for my dog. So the house in the book is mine, and the woman, really, is me, though I don’t share her sad history or her loneliness. But I think that’s why I didn’t name her. I wanted to keep her as my own.

TRC: Part of GOSSAMER deals with child and spousal abuse, and while that part of the story is certainly heavy, it’s almost as if it’s more of a whispering backdrop to the tale. Why did you construct the novel this way?

LL: The story is about the healing power of imagination and memory. Of course I had to show someone being affected by that power, and so I had to include his history and that of his poor mom. But I didn’t want it to be a book about those issues, really. I wanted to show the two of them, John and his mother, emerging --- and to show the reader that such healing can happen. That’s really what I focused on.

TRC: You’ve won the Newbery Medal twice --- for THE GIVER and NUMBER THE STARS. Did receiving those awards change your outlook on writing? Your writing process?

LL: No. I write a lot of different kinds of books, and I go about them in different ways. Some, of course, based on historical settings and events, needed research. Others just flow from my imagination. That two of them --- which was very different in style --- won major awards has been a wonderful and gratifying thing, but it has not really changed at all how I go about creating a book.

TRC: In your Newbery speech for THE GIVER, you said: “But I’ve never been a writer of fairy tales. And if I’ve learned anything through that river of memories, it is that we can’t live in a walled world, in an ‘only us, only now’ world where we are all the same and feel safe. We would have to sacrifice too much. The richness of color and diversity would disappear [and] feelings for other humans would no longer be necessary. Choices would be obsolete.” Would you agree that there are elements of this in GOSSAMER as well?

LL: The thing that is intrinsic to both THE GIVER and to GOSSAMER is the concept of the way humans care about each other, their need and capacity to do so. It is what saddens Littlest at the end of GOSSAMER --- her realization that she is not human, and that love is not supposed to be a part of her make-up. It is what propels Jonas, in THE GIVER, to flee his community, the awareness that he comes to that the people there are not capable of love.

TRC: In many of your speeches, you talk a lot about circular journeys, both for your characters and for yourself. Did you go through a particular “circular journey” while writing GOSSAMER?

LL: My journey is long and ongoing. Each book I write, I suppose, is a particular smaller journey as well; and now, more recently, I have adapted GOSSAMER to the stage, so I am in the midst of that theatrical journey, which is a fascinating one.

TRC: Your readers are in touch with you via e-mail. Are there any e-mails in particular about GOSSAMER that you can share with us?

LL: Sadly, I don’t keep e-mails because I get SO MANY! And I am not remembering any particular one about GOSSAMER, though there have been some classrooms that have dealt with dreams, and kids who have listed the things a dreamgiver would “touch” for them…as I just did.