The title character of Lois Lowry’s most famous novel, “The Giver,” is an old man who guards all of human history and memory. The book’s protagonist, Jonas, is his apprentice. Jonas’s training involves withstanding 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 fervent following. She received a Newbery Medal, in 1990, for “Number the Stars,” a novel about a Danish family resisting Nazi rule; her series featuring Anastasia Krupnik, a mischievous pre-teen in owlish glasses, charmed both grumpy older sisters and their parents. But “The Giver” remains her deepest achievement. Heaped with accolades, including another Newbery and a reputation as perhaps the best children’s novel ever written, it has sold more than twelve million copies. It also landed on the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the nineties. From the vantage of 2021, the novel is a double portent: a dystopian fantasy and an early spark in the tinderbox of the curriculum wars.
Lowry was born in Hawaii, and her family moved frequently, owing to her father’s career in the Army. (There were chapters in New York City, the woods of Pennsylvania, Tokyo.) She married her college sweetheart, with whom she had four children; after they divorced, in 1977—the same year that Lowry published her first novel, at forty—she met Martin Small, with whom she lived for three decades, surrounded by a rotating cast of animals. Her personal life has been pierced by losses: her older sister, Helen, died of cancer when both women were in their twenties, and a son, Grey, a fighter pilot, was killed in a plane crash, in 1995. Lowry now splits her time between Maine and Florida with her partner, a retired psychiatrist.
At eighty-four, Lowry is a wry and gentle presence on Zoom, where she appeared (silver bob, red lipstick, fuzzy sweater) to speak with me one afternoon this December. I showed her my broken-in copy of “Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst”; Lowry showed me the coffee mug that she had been using a few weeks ago, while giving a Zoom talk to an eighth-grade classroom in Japan. A voluptuous female nude, drawn in the Expressionist style, beckoned from the middle of the mug. (The students “were too polite even to giggle,” Lowry said.) Once the interview got under way, the author rarely responded straightforwardly to my questions. Something I said would tee up a memory, which led to another memory; eventually, I’d realize that the question had been elliptically answered, or set aside en route to richer material. Lowry no longer does much press, but she seems to view the conversations that she does have as opportunities to transmit as many stories as she can. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
It’s funny conducting 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?
I have always prided myself—wrongly, perhaps—on having 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 recall from the crime scene. Now I’m eighty-four years old; the memory is not as good as it once was. Occasionally, a kid will write to me about a book that I wrote thirty-five years ago, one of the lesser-known ones, and they’ll ask about details. And I can’t remember. And that’s a book that came out of my being. So that’s humiliating.
Do you go back to the book when that happens?
It’s rare for me to reread one of my own books. Quite recently, I was on a Zoom interview with a theatre company that has adapted my books to the stage. And one of them is a book that I’m very fond of [“Gossamer”], but it’s not very well known. They did a beautiful adaptation of it, but were asking me to talk about it. And I did—I bluffed my way through it, and then reread the whole book and blubbered a little bit because it was a sad book. It kind of touched me that I got so caught up in it again.
What was that like? I was just revisiting my thrift-store copy of “Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst,” and was completely riveted.
The [Anastasia Krupnik] series has been republished with new, modern covers. I think there may be nine books about Anastasia, and she gets a little older on the [original] covers—the same child, done by the same illustrator, Diane deGroat. And the new ones are glitzy and sophisticated, but they’re not as appealing to me. Also, the particular book of the series you have, they have changed the title. They did that because they thought, Today’s kids wouldn’t know what an analyst is. I think it doesn’t matter, if kids don’t know what something means. By the time they’ve read the books, they know what an analyst is, and maybe that’s something that’s important for them to learn. But I have no say over this.
Have you thought about what Anastasia would be like if she were growing up today? Would her personality be very different?
Someone recently asked me on Twitter what Anastasia would be doing as a grownup. I think I said she had gotten a master’s degree in, I don’t know, library science.
To return to memory, your memoir, “Looking Back,” isn’t linear or chronological. You weave recollections around prompts—photographs, quotes from your books—which makes the book feel more naturalistic, almost spontaneous. What drew you to that structure?
First of all, my father, though it wasn’t his profession, was a very fine 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 World War Two, and my father, a career Army officer, was gone throughout the war. So there are no photographs of Johnny—boo-hoo.
The childhood photographs—looking at those again, in some cases I saw a connection between the child I was and a child whom I later created and wrote about. Those connections are what the [memoir] utilizes, by taking a picture, generally of me, but there are others as well, and relating it to something I’ve written. There are two versions of the memoir, because the publisher, years after the first version, asked me to update it. At that point, my husband had died; I had met Howard, my new spouse, a psychiatrist. The [cover of the] first version has a photograph of me at age five or so. It’s a very pretty photograph. It was one of those days where my hair looked great and I had big blue eyes. But the second version has me frowning and scowling in an ugly bathing suit, and my sister is with me, in her ugly bathing suit. It’s a much more appealing portrait than the pretty one.
It’s interesting to hear about your father being a sort of keeper of family memory. You’ve said that 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-care unit—she was blind and on oxygen—and my father was still up, shuffling around, in the assisted-living unit. At the time, I lived in Boston, and I would fly down about once every six weeks. During one visit, I went first to see my mother. She was disabled, but her mind was intact, and she loved to talk about the past. She was a wonderful storyteller. And she talked often about my sister, her first child, who died young.
After my mother got tired, I went across to the other building and visited Dad. My brother and I had created for him an album: photographs of us as children, places we had lived, people we knew. On this particular visit, when I turned to a page with two little girls, my dad said, “Oh, there you are with your sister.” And then he said, sadly, “I can’t remember her name.” I told him her name was Helen, that she was named for her grandmother. And he said, “Whatever happened to her?”
I had to tell him of her death. Which came as a shock to him, because he’d repressed the memory. Driving back to the airport, I began to think, What if there were a pill or a shot that would obliterate parts of our memory and make us feel safer, more comfortable? I didn’t intend a dystopian novel. I’ve never been a lover of such literature, though I majored in English at Brown and had to read “1984” and the rest. I was simply going to write about people, a group of people, who had found a way to live without any sadness or fear.