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Lois Lowry's Blog
Several years ago I wrote a book that remains one of my favorites: THE SILENT BOY. It is set in the early 1900's and is about a boy who doesn't speak, and today would likely be called autistic. But in those days, there were no such terms, and the boy is referred to as "touched"...meaning "touched in the head," a phrase used commonly at that time. The young child narrating the story, who cares about the boy and understands him better than most other people, always thinks of him - affectionately - as "the touched boy."
So the title, when I finished writing the book and turned it in to the publisher, was "The Touched Boy."
But I was asked by the publisher to change it. It was at the height of the Catholic Church scandal in Boston, and the word "touch" had taken on a nasty little life of its own.
This year a new book of mine has been recently published, and its title, too, had to be changed, and for the same reason. The small sweet creature who is the central character of the book, is one of the "dream-givers"...those elfin spirits who creep silently about at night, gathering fragments of people's lives, extracting them from human belongings while they sleep.
Here's a quote from the book:...
I am altogether tired of ark jokes, now that New England has entered its umpteetnth day of rain and there are floods everywhere. Worst, they say, in 70 years.
I had intended to go to the nursery today to buy plants for replenishing the garden, but of course it has been too miserable to go anywhere. So I have turned my attention to my desk (see picture) and its unending mess, much worse than the garden.
And here is what I done so far today:
(This is all a sort-of answer to the FAQ "Can you decribe a typical work day?")...
Yesterday I was one of several speakers at Boston's annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance ceremony at Faneuil Hall. The neo-Nazi protesters who had planned to be there - and because of whom the hall was ringed with police - did not show up, and one wonders if their shaved heads are uncomfortable in drenching rain.
It was a hideous day, a downpour, and I confess to jealousy of the mayor, whose car collected him afterward from the front door --- having driven right up over the cobblestones -- while I (and everyone else) had to make our normal-person way, dripping, to our own vehicles.
It felt as if the world wept. And inside, in the company of Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, it seemed appropriate as we all mourned the unconscionable loss of so many victims.
The speaker whom I found most moving was Dr. Wolfgang Vorwerk, the Consul-General of Germany, who talked of his country's determination to teach their children about the past and its horrors. Perhaps that was especially meaningful to me because my 12-year-old dual-citizen granddaughter is growing up in Germany and I have watched her own mother's commitment to telling her the truth about that time.
But there is so much hatred, still. I tried, in my own brief talk, to tell of my feeling that the time is past for hatred, that the world is small, now, and people interconnected and that though we must mourn what we've lost - and tell each other and our children - our stories, we must also move ahead and beyond. I described my son's wedding in Germany and how I had looked around, as a soprano sang: "Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people" ... and I realized that in the same month, back in 1945, my son's Jewish stepfather, 18 years old, had been in uniform and with weapons, on the island of Okinawa; and his new mother-in-law, nine years old at the time, had been hiding and sobbing, with other children, in a basement in a German village, because the American troops were entering and they feared for her lives....
I've just spent three days at the farm in Maine, doing the spring chores, getting the furnace serviced (and examining the snake that the furnace man found: "This is not a Maine snake," he said. "Last time I saw a snake like this was when I was in Egypt, in the Navy." It made me feel ominously ilke Cleopatra)
Lilacs are in bud. And here is the apple tree that I see when I look through the kitchen window: newly pruned, very green in the rain, and quite gnarled and old. We have other, younger apple trees, and they bear more fruit than this ancient guy. But this one has so much history going for it, plus its wonderful shape, and the fact that countless birds use it for shelter; Ihave a snapshot of a pileated woodpecker on its trunk last summer.
Our farmhouse was built in 1768, before there was a United States. Early records show that our place was called Brigham Hill, and amazingly, Google Earth calls it the same thing when its little car icon drives up that road diagonally across my computer screen.
Down at the crossroads, in the little cemetery, there are many Brighams: old men and their successive wives who mostly died young, along with countless children, their mossy gravestones etched with lambs and angels and assurances that they are safe in heaven. The old books describe an apple orchard and though it is hard to imagine that this old tree could have existed then - almost 240 years ago - certainly the granite boulders that form our foundation date that far back, and the hand-hewn beams pegged together in the barn; they were all part of someone's existence long ago....
I've just finished reading a article (in yesterday's Washington Post) about a friend of a friend of mine, who was married in 1956 (as I was) to a young Naval officer (as I was). It was the Cold War era, a time when many of us married young military officers. I didn't know this woman, but I had heard her story from our mutual friend: that three months after her wedding, her husband's spy plane was shot down off the coast of China. His body was never recovered. A year later he was declared dead by the military. She returned to school, became a doctor eventually, married another doctor, and went on to have four children.
And then...thirteen years ago...she discovered that he may not have been killed, that there was a seemingly strong possiblity that he had been captured by the Chinese and held prisoner there.
She has not been able to cut through the red tape and evasions of either the American military or the Chinese government to find the truth, and so she will have to finish her days with that uncertainty.
It made me remember the days when I was a young military wife, living in military housing in San Diego, and I saw two officers in formal uniforms knock on the door of a nearby dwelling in order to notify the young woman there of her pilot husband's death.
And of course it brought back the memory of the official visit to my home - two officers; they always do this in pairs - to bring me the paperwork and the 200-page explanation of my own son's death in a fighter plane....
Well, it's happened. This morning I got an e-mail...certainly not the first of its kind....from a kid who simply said U R A BITCH (I suppose because I had replied to questions with an explanation that I can't answer long lists of them for individuals, not when I get 50-60 e-mails a day). I found myself muttering about good manners and what ever happened to common courtesy and what's wrong with today's young people...and suddenly I realized that I sounded like my mother.
My mom was actually a nice woman, reserved and proper and gentle; and she had been a kindergarten teacher before she married, so when we were little, she was great at reading to us and playing games and all those things that make kindergarten teachers so wonderful.
She lived to be 86. In her final years she was legally blind, and tethered to oxygen, so my brother and I bought her a monstrous TV - tavern size - and she spent her days sitting in front of it watching the blurred outlines of Oprah and Sally Jessy and Jerry and the others on daytime television. It was quite an education for her. "My goodness, I never realized the world was so filled with homosexuals!" she said once...not in judgment, but in amazement, that all this had been going on and she hadn't known.
She accepted the world she discovered then with great interest, but she did not learn to accept bad manners or displays of poor upbringing.
Did you know the world is full of rude adolescents, Mom? I wanted to say to her in outrage, when I read my BITCH e-mail this morning. Then I laughed, to myself and at myself. The world has, I suppose, always been filled with rude adolescents. It's just the anonymity of e-mail that gives them such a platform....
I'll be leaving Friday to attend several performances of the Prime Stage production of "The Giver" in Pittsburgh. Here's a photo of Jonas and The Giver, from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, as well as a review of the performance:
Speak with manners and precision. Don't let doubts impair our vision.
That's part of the mantra repeated by the citizens of the community of sameness, a seemingly idyllic environment portrayed in Prime Stage Theatre's production of "The Giver," based on the Newbery Award-winning novel by Lois Lowry.
The residents, including 12-year-old Jonas, seem content and happy with their lives. Everything is the same. There is no war, no pain, no difficult decisions to make, and disruptions are quickly taken care of....
I said a while back, in a previous post, that I would discuss fan mail. And I've put it off because it is difficult. It's like the movie star who moans, "Oh, it's so hard to be beautiful..." Yeah, right.
It is very hard to complain about fan mail.
And most of it, to be honest, is downright wonderful. Here are excerpts from some recent e-mails:
...somehow I feel my relationship with my older daughter has been different since she devoured
your novel and we have discussed it, and I feel more confident about the things I want to accomplish as a teacher...
...I just want to let you know how much your wonderful books meant to me
as a child and still mean to me today. I spent over ten years in foster
care, which meant moving dozens of times and losing a good chunk of my
personal effects, but never once did I lose or leave behind anything written
REMINDER: If you are writing to ask me questions for school assignments....send them to me by pressing the E-MAIL button on my website. I am not going to answer those questions here on the blog.
Here I am, my last year of high school, sixteen years old, with the kind of hairdo we created in 1954 by winding our hair into pincurls each night and impaling our own heads with bobby pins (now there's an obsolete term).
I was thinking of myself at 16 this past weekend because as I flew into New York, the plane took an unusual approach to La GUardia, flying low over southern Manhattan, and I found myself looking down at the roof of the house I lived in as a teenager.
Because of my father's job at that time, I lived on the most incredible piece of real estate: Governor's Island, out there in the harbor not far from the Statue of Liberty. Each day I took a boat over to the Battery, and from there the subway to school in Brooklyn Heights.
New York has changed, in some ways, since then. I'm not certain that if I were the mother of a fifteen or sixteen year old now I would be thrilled with the thought of her roaming the city the way I did then. But oh, what a magical time that was for me. I thought myself very worldly and sophisticated. In truth, I was wide-eyed and ingenuous - and like a sponge. I absorbed everything - and have squeezed sone of it back out, in a couple of books set in Manhattan (The One Hundredth Thing about Caroline; and Your Move, J.P.!)...
I will very shortly go to the St. Louis Airport and head back to Boston, and home, after a very busy week: five cities, countless book-signings, lots of people to meet. Many libraries, many bookstores...I only wish I'd had time to browse and read in all of them!
And in each place, someone I've known the past appeared! In the midst of signing book after book for strangers, there would suddenly be a familiar face, or name. In Dallas, a little girl named Grey, who was named for the son I lost, by her parents, who had been his good friends. An unusual name... a family name in our family...(and now my other son has a boy named Grey, for the uncle he never knew).
I love naming book characters. But it is never a difficult task because somehow the right names just come to me, as if they have been whispered into my ear by the characters themselves.
In my book The Silent Boy, the main character is Katy, named for my own mother, who was a child herself in the years the book takes place, and whose actual childhood photographs are used as illustrations.
Many of my books have a minor character named Ben, just as a private joke between my son Ben and me....
That previous short post was a good example of how weary one gets on a book tour. Somehow the outdated, chipped tile in a hotel bathroom takes on metaphoric significance. Of course any hotel would be a contrast to the opulence of my stay in Dallas, and certainly I wouldn't expect or even want such luxury every day. This (un-named) hotel has a certain funky charm, and clearly was once quite elegant. It's like the old lady you see whose lipstick is seeping into the wrinkles around her mouth. You can tell that she has good bones and breeding, but the bloom is gone and her silk blouse has stains under the arms.
Tomorrow I speak to 120 sixth-graders, then do an hour-long NPR interview, then a lecture at the Kansas City Public Library. By the end of the day I too will be chipped and peeling and seeping and stained.
The important thing is that there is a very comfortable bed in this room and I am right this minute going to fall into it.
After one of these events, a woman came up to me to have a book signed, and said: "I just loved listening to your antidotes."
She meant anecdotes, of course, and I didn't point that out because I didn't want to embarrass her. But I've been thinking about it ever since.
My anecdotes are simply the bits and pieces of my life: the things that went into the making of who I am, as well as the fiction I've written, and none of them important to the world in any way.
But I do like thinkng of them, now, as antidotes. The whole process of telling our stories to one another is what makes us human, and is sometimes very healing. If you eat a little Drano by mistake, you call the Poison Control Center in Atlanta, and find out what the antidote is, and then you don't die. In the same way, if you have had caustic experiences in the past....you talk about them. Tell them to others. Listen to what they tell in return. And it neutralizes the Drano that might otherwise erode your being.
I'm in Dallas now, and will speak this afternoon at the Dallas Art Museum. They have housed me in a hotel suite roughly the size of a cattle ranch. Last night I sat in one of my several rooms, on a damask couch, all alone, sipped a glass of wine, and watched Helen Mirren as Queen Bess on HBO. They chopped Mary's head off extremely graphically. Full frontal chop. (Now there's a woman who needed antidotes.)...
Maybe everyone in the world already knew this but me, but I discovered yesterday that they cannot fuel an airplane if there is lightning in the vicinity. I discovered this because I had to sit in the Knoxville airport for several hours waiting for the lightning to go away.
When you are waiting to board a plane and the weather is terrible, you try to think about other things. And so I sat at the airport thinking about poetry. This is the poem, by Billy Collins, that came to my mind, and it was not at all in the category of "other things":
At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
With the possible company of my death,
This sprawling miscellany of people—
Carry-on bags and paperbacks—
That could be gathered in a flash
Into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
If our plane crumpled into a mountain
I thought the cover was breathtakingly beautiful, and found myself wondering if the child on it is Grey or Rhys. I found the name of the woman who designed the cover, but no photo info.
This is a quote from an e-mail I received yesterday, referring to the jacket on the book GOSSAMER, and referring also to my two smallest grandsons, whose names are Grey and Rhys.
I have often done the photographs for my own book jackets: NUMBER THE STARS, THE GIVER, GATHERING BLUE, and MESSENGER. So it makes sense for a reader to wonder if the lovely profile and hands on GOSSAMER are those of my own grandchild.
But no. I was mystified, thinking about a jacket for this book, and wondering how it might look. The most important character, after all, is translucent. But fortunately the book designer, Kathy Black at Houghton Mifflin. had a vision of it that was perfect. Not just the exquisite translucence of the child, but the posture, with its sense of wonder: it’s all perfect....
Date: Fri, 14 Apr 2006 21:21:47 -0700
To: Lois Lowry
Subject: love Gossamer
I love love love Gossamer. Your prose is so tight it's poetic.
And nobody dies! Yay! Very happy with the whole book.
Here (I’ve deleted the name of the sender out of respect for privacy) is an e-mail I received last Friday, in response to my new just-published book.
“And nobody dies!” is what I want to talk about.
I chuckled when I read that, and then thought about previous books, and it is true: fairly frequently, people die in my books....
A few people have posted comments at the end of my musings here, and I appreciate it (I’ve only had to delete one that was random obscenities)…but want to point out, too, that I’m not going to comment on comments and create whole conversations…haven’t time! If you have a question you want to ask me, you should send it by e-mail, which you can do through the website.
Otherwise: feel free to say whatever you wish, as long as it doesn’t need a reply! And if there is something you would like me to discuss, please say so.
Just as an aside: I hate the word “blog.” It sounds, I don’t know, a little like the noise kids make when they fake-barf.
But when I said that, in an e-mail to one of my daughters, she replied:
Why don't you like the word? it sounds so funny
to me, BLAWGG --(C'mon, you gotta love it: blawwwwgg!!! buhloggy! Blahg)
I spent yesterday afternoon at Bunker Hill Community College and have already, in the few hours since then, had e-mail from several of the students whom I met there.
I think that we pay much too little attention in this country, and spend much too little money, on education. Okay, enough time on my soapbox.
But one of the good things we do is to provide community colleges.
I was with, yesterday, students from I-don’t-know-how-many different cultures. English is a second language for many of them. I watched them listen intently and take notes. They came up to me afterward to thank me, to shake my hand, to tell me their names: names from Iraq, Thailand, Viet Nam, Korea, Barbados, Haiti…those are a few that I recall.
Most of them, probably all of them, have jobs. They work hard and study hard and spend their time trying to better their own lives and make a difference in the world. I doubt if any of them went to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break....