An Interview with Lois Lowry - Capturing Moments in a Life

By Future Nobleman staff writer Ryan Sanghavi

“I used to ride my bike around the streets of Tokyo,” author Lois Lowry remembered. “I used to stop my bike by this Japanese school, and I would look through the fence at the Japanese kids on the playground. And there was a boy about my age who would look back at me. We never spoke to each other.”

Credit: Matt McKee/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

These daily interactions stayed with Lowry even until she earned the Newbery Medal for her book, The Giver, in 1994. The Caldecott Medal for Illustration was awarded to Allen Say at the same time, a writer Lowry first met after each of them had received their honor. After a casual discussion, the two realized they had been looking at each other through that fence in Japan 45 years ago.

Before the Second World War, Lowry and her family moved from Honolulu to New York City, and later to Tokyo. I had the privilege of discussing her new book with her, “On the Horizon,” which focuses on her personal experiences living in Hawaii just before the Pearl Harbor attacks, and in Japan following the detonation of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She also talked about her life in isolation, and her resulting reflections.

The Giver is now incorporated in many middle school and high school English curriculums, though the novel faced backlash when it was first published. “There have been attempts to censor or ban one or another of my books, most often The Giver,” Lowry observed. Many parents complained that the book was too mature to be read by younger audiences, and some insisted that it be removed from school libraries entirely. However, as Lowry put it, “The people who most often came to the defense of the book, and of the free speech issue, were librarians. They’re always out there fighting for the right of a book to exist.”

Lowry voiced the importance of free speech for all publications and access to all works of literature. “Even if it’s a book you hate, if it’s a book that displays things you don’t believe in - nonetheless, that book has the right to exist,” she emphasized. Lowry even mentioned, “Houghton Mifflin, a publisher that’s been in existence forever, published Nathaniel Hawthorne [author of, most famously, The Scarlet Letter]. But here’s an interesting thing - they published Mein Kampf [Hitler’s infamous manifesto].” Lowry believes that even books with a moral and ethical low-ground cannot be banned.

In fact, Lowry traveled to Germany last year to visit various book burning sites. During World War II, the Nazi regime banned freedoms to press and assembly. As a celebration of literature, many of the destroyed books were read aloud to visitors that day. “Free speech is one of the essential rights in a free society and democracy like ours,” she asserted.

Writing is an exciting and expressive career option for many, though it is quite rare to gain success matching that of Lowry’s. “It’s not an easy way to make a living,” she admitted. “Everybody who wants to be a writer wants to be a writer with enormous success.” Many writers are unable to generate steady income. Therefore, Lowry suggests that when rising authors take an interest in writing, whether they are in school or a fresh graduate, they should also have a reliable profession. “You’re not going to graduate from college and make a living as a writer,” explained Lowry–– at least, not at first.

Despite having been a writer for 50 years, Lowry has not retired in the slightest. Little is known about her upcoming work, with a publication date certainly years in the future, but its period setting has required Lowry to conduct hours of research.

“Over time, there has been a lot of pushback, and sometimes that has changed with the political administrations,” Lowry noted, referring to the fluctuating favorability of language and mature content in literature. “It [still] doesn’t affect me and my writing,” she said. “I write what I feel like writing, and if the publisher is going to have a problem with it, they will let me know and we’ll work it out.”

In several instances, words have been altered to appeal more towards a younger audience. In her 1992 novel The 100th Thing About Caroline, Lowry debated with her editors over whether the word “sucks” could be written in a children’s book. She believes that her content and tone has remained more or less consistent in her time as a writer, though perhaps her work has been seen through many different lenses.

Of course, when Lowry wrote her new memoir On the Horizon, she could not have known its release date would be in the midst of a crisis, canceling her tour to eight American cities. Nor could she have known its applicability to this very situation.

On the Horizon was first published on April 7th of this year, as a way of reflecting on the memories that she had retained for so many decades. “When you’re twelve, you think, ‘My life is boring, nothing has ever happened to me,’” Lowry said. “In this memoir of mine, it does focus on moments at the time, when I was twelve, or eight, or six, that I wouldn’t have thought of that as an interesting moment, or one that had any effect on anybody else.” She urges students, children, and adults to think back to typical scenarios in their life that, for one reason or another, stay with them.

She has centered her new memoir around moments like these, especially those around the wartime during her childhood. Even now, as people across the globe fall into an isolated, unchanging routine, history is made of the uncertainty. She encourages all individuals to evaluate their experiences: “Those moments, as we look back, are so ordinary, but I think that’s the important thing about them. We change in increments as we get older.” People will be changed by what they discover during their time alone.

Lowry poses the question: “Sometimes you remember something from your past that seems so ordinary, and you wonder, ‘Why has that stayed in my memory and other things have not?’ But I think this is the reason - that’s because it’s a moment in time that you changed in some small way.”

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