Lois Lowry ’58 on the power of noticing

This latest episode of Brown Blasts: Women's Voices Amplified features an interview with the award-winning author of more than 40 books, including The Giver, about her creative process, her advice for writers, her new book, and more.

Brown Blasts


An Interview with Lois Lowry ’58 LITTD’14 hon.

At 82, Lois Lowry ’58 LITTD’14 hon. is showing no signs of slowing down. With a career spanning five decades, Lowry is renowned for her ability to thoughtfully address challenging subject matters with middle-grade and young adult readers. Two of her most popular published works, The Giverand Number the Stars, earned Newbery Medals. Lowry attended Pembroke College (the women’s college at Brown until 1971) in the 1950s. After putting her studies on hold to get married, she completed her education at the University of Southern Maine and continues to write regularly with her dog Alfie by her side. 

Here, Lowry speaks with Women’s Leadership Council member Caitie Whelan ’07.5 about Brown’s influence on her life and work and her sources of inspiration—namely, her love of children, memories of her own childhood, and her fascination with human interconnectedness. 

Knowing the profound effect literature can have on young minds, Lowry feels a strong sense of importance in writing for children. “I think that’s what any writer hopes for—that they affect individuals in a very powerful way,” says Lowry. “And it’s very gratifying when somebody lets you know that that has happened to them.”

The Brown University Women's Leadership Council's podcast features incredible women from all corners of the Brunonia ecosystem sharing their insights on the big questions of work, life, and living in today’s world.

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Caitie Whelan ’07.5: To start, how do you describe yourself and how do you describe your work?

Lois Lowry ’58 LITTD’14 hon.: I would describe myself as an introvert and a multitasker and somebody who is really quite passionate about what I do, which is, I think, a good thing. And that segues into my work. How would I describe my work? Well, it is so varied because I work on so many different kinds of things. This morning, for example, I sat at my computer, as I do every day, working for several hours on a fairly lighthearted book for middle grade kids, which is what publishers call—what would it be? Grade five through eight, I suppose. And then some days I'm there working on something much more serious for older kids, teenagers, or occasionally for adults. Mostly my work is for young people. 

And now I'm going to zoom that back to how do I describe myself, because I am somebody who really loves kids. I married young, not because I wanted to be married but because I wanted to have kids. And of course, my kids are all grown now and I have grandchildren and I have grandchildren who are old enough to have kids themselves, although they've chosen not to so far. But that's who I am. I am somebody who loves kids, who loves to write and who is introverted enough to be able to sit there doing it all by myself, day after day after day, and who has a very happy life.

Whelan: Did you love being a kid?

Lowry: You know, when you're a kid, you don't think about "I am a kid now." But looking back, and I recently had a child ask me a question...I get email every day from kids. It used to be letters and now it's emails of course. But asking just general question of "What was your childhood like?" And I replied that it was very happy and very ordinary, which makes me assume that I did love being a kid. I don't remember the yearning to be older. As a girl, a young girl, say 10, 11, I don't remember yearning to be a teenager as my sister was. And when I was a teenager, I didn't yearn to be an adult. But I did love every phase of my life during those periods when I was young and in fact I've loved most of it ever since.

Whelan: So I want to circle back to the questions that you get from readers, in particular kids. Is there any particular kind of question that you wish readers would ask you?

Lowry: You know, over the years, and let me think math now...My first book was published in 1977. So that is 42 years ago. Over those years, I have gotten so many questions that I can't think of any that I haven't been asked, or any that I would love to be asked. I mean, all of us who have dogs would love to have somebody say "What kind of dog do you have? What's his name?" And kids actually do kind of frequently ask that because that's the kind of thing kids are interested in. But no, I can't think of a single thing that I wish to be asked that I haven't been. I can say that I wish over the years I had given better answers to many questions, but that's the kind of thing we all indulge in, what the French call pensées de l'escalier, the thoughts you have on the stairs when you're leaving, the things you could have said. But no. They've asked me everything and they continue to and sometimes I become impatient because I've heard that question a thousand times, but I always remind myself that it's the first time this kid has asked it.

Whelan: Yeah. Do you have a dog now?

Lowry: I do have a dog.

Whelan: And what is your dog's name?

Lowry: My dog's name is Alfie because when I got him I discovered from the breeder that his mother's name had been Georgie Girl. You're too young perhaps to put these two things together in your mind. But there were two British movies, Georgie Girl and Alfie, at the same time. They both had songs that became well-known songs. What's it all about, Alfie? Michael Caine. And so that's my dog's name. 

Whelan: So this morning, when you're at your computer writing, where does Alfie factor into that?

Lowry: Alfie sleeps right at my feet. He has a bed there in the room where I write. Incidentally, I'm sometimes asked for advice from people who want to be writers and I always tell them to have a space. Virginia Woolf said it first, of course, but to have a sacrosanct space where that's what you do and nobody else invades that space. In my case, I have such a space, but Alfie is welcome to share it with me and he lies at my feet, worshipfully.

Whelan: Yes. Of course. Is there anything besides Alfie worshipfully at your feet that you need to have in that sacrosanct space for writing?

Lowry: In the morning, a cup of coffee. And that's about it. Windows are nice and I have good windows, but I suppose if I didn't have a space with windows, I could make do with a windowless place. I could commandeer a closet if I had to and it would be my space. But I have a nice window-full place, lots of light, cup of coffee. In the old days I would have said an ashtray, which leads me now—this is stream of consciousness—in the old days, in the very old days when I was a freshman at Brown, they gave out cigarettes in the dorm. I know, your mouth falls open. My doctor's mouth falls open. Little packs of five Winstons and they got us all hooked on cigarettes and the classrooms had—probably still do—the desk with the arm that is also a table and there was a little ashtray on each desk. And those rooms, those classrooms filled with smoke and the professor would have been smoking. This is the '50s, the terrible '50s. 

Whelan: Wow.

Lowry: But where did I get that from? Okay, I was talking about my space. No ashtray there now.

Whelan: No ashtray. Well, I am delighted to hear that. It is interesting though just thinking about our consciousness and education around smoking. In the '50s it was entirely different. I mean, I would remember seeing, flipping through some very old magazines that my family had and there was a picture of a woman in her doctor's office and they were all smoking.

Lowry: Of course. 

Whelan: So then I think for me, part of the question is so what, 50 years from now, will we look back on and think "Oh my goodness. How could we possibly not have known that X is ..."

Lowry: Interesting question, which also leads me to this thought. Only once have I written a book that was set in the future. And although I didn't name the future time, I envisioned it as maybe 50 years from now. So I had to think about those things, what would be different, and I didn't go to extremes. I could have. But certainly there's no smoking in that book.

Whelan: Is there a reason there was just one book that was set in the future?

Lowry: You know, I said that, just one book set in the future, but I was wrong. I'm correcting myself right now because I later followed that book, which was The Giver, published in 1994, I think. Several years later, with a second one called a companion book, not a sequel really, and then a third and finally just a few years ago a fourth. So it's now The Giver quartet and obviously they're all in the future.

Whelan: One of the things that I always think about for anything that is not landed squarely in the present or the past as we have known it is the role of technology in the future. And one of the things that I appreciate about The Giver was it was obviously written at a time when the sort of omnipresence of technology was a little bit less-

Lowry: Yeah, it was written in 1992, I believe. And in fact, it was written on my first computer. It was the first of my books written on something other than an old typewriter. All my books had been written up to that time on a typewriter. Not the typewriter I took with me to Brown. That was a manual typewriter that my father had given me on my 13th birthday. We're going way back now. 

Okay, went to Brown when I was 17, took that typewriter with me, used it at Brown. Then much later, got an electric typewriter. That seemed an amazing change and I wrote many books on that electric typewriter. And then in 1992, my daughter, who worked at MIT, she had graduated from Vassar in '79, so she had been out in the work field for a while and she said "Mom, you ought to be using a computer." I said "I don't know how." And she said "I will teach you." And she said "Also, I can get you a discount." She said "I'll buy you a computer, you pay me back, and I'll teach you how to use it." And so she did and she bought me something called a DECmate II, using her MIT discount. And even with that discount, at that time, this would have been 1992, cost $4,000. Yes, shocking. And it was huge. And the printer had paper that was not individual pieces of paper. The paper came out attached to each other. You had to separate all the pages.

Whelan: Yep.

Lowry: And it was very, very noisy. And that's what I wrote The Giver on. And I only found out later and then made the transition that that was not actually a computer. That was a dedicated word processor. There was no internet involved and the machine, my $4,000 machine, did not do anything except type manuscripts or letters or whatever. It did nothing else. And so then probably only two or three years later, goodbye 4,000, I then got a—I don't know what they were called in those days, but it was a Macintosh laptop, and that was my first real computer. 

Whelan: Wow.

Lowry: Yeah.

Whelan: Was there anything you missed about the typewriter at all when you transitioned over, or did that transition happen—

Lowry: It actually happened quite smoothly. And I don't think there was anything I missed because it made things so much easier and it also made my work better because prior to my word processor, if I wanted to change something, if I wanted to insert a paragraph, say, that meant I had to retype the whole damn manuscript. And I didn't study typing at Brown, I wasn't an expert typist. And if I made a mistake it was difficult to correct. And the word processor made that so easy that it then became difficult to know when to say "The end," because there's always something you can make better. And so I would get to the end of the book, say, The Giver, the first one I wrote on that machine, type "The end," and then think "Well, now wait a minute," and go back and it was just so easy to go back and fix things, change things, take things out. 

And this has been true of every book since. I just have to tell myself "Okay, this is it. You can't keep doing this. Enough revision." And yet in my earlier books written on a typewriter, I didn't revise enough because of the difficulty. Also, copies. Okay, now I can spit out copies easily. In those early days I would take that manuscript from the computer and ... I'm trying to remember. I suppose I would take it some place to be xeroxed perhaps. But then I would give a copy to the publisher and then I would have the only copy in my possession. I would store it in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator so that if my house burned down, that manuscript was very valuable and before it went to the publisher, it was the only copy. And we all know the story of Hemingway's wife leaving his manuscript on a train. And that was the only copy he had, that lost book. So I feared that. Now I don't. Now I have so many copies or could make so many copies. It's very different.

Whelan: So loosely related to that, but you've been writing for you said 42 years now?

Lowry: Well, I was writing before that for magazines, but my first book was published 42 years ago.

Whelan: Now it's safe to say you have a little experience writing. Do you get nervous when you submit a draft to an editor or to the publisher?

Lowry: Oh, I don't think nervous is the world. I had the same editor for many, many books and many, many years and he retired ... Oh gosh, I've forgotten how long ago. It's perhaps 10 years ago. And so then I acquired a new editor. She's the only one I've had since then. This is aside from a few things I did on the side, but basically I've had the same publisher and only two editors. My first editor, a man, and that's unusual in the children's book world, most editors in that field seem to be women for some reason. But at any rate, he pretty much liked everything I wrote actually, one book, just as he was retiring, I gave it to him and he didn't like it. And that was quite shocking to me because I was accustomed to being accepted so easily. And so I told him I wanted to get a second opinion. He looked shocked. 

And finally he said "Well, okay. But who would you get it from?" And I suggested an editor at another publishing company whom I knew he respected. And he said "Okay, well, let's see what she says." And so I sent it to her and I said "You know, this is ..." I explained all circumstances and she wrote back after she read it and she said "If he doesn't want it, I'll publish it." And so that made him change his mind and he said "Okay, I'll publish it." But then he retired before it was published. So it acquired a new editor who liked it and it's important for the editor to like the book. I've never ... There may have been times in the past when an editor didn't like something of mine they were working on, but they never let me know. Now I've forgotten what your question was. Oh, do I get nervous? I don't think so. There have been a couple of books that I've written that my current editor has not liked and so I've set them aside and maybe in the future ... Or maybe she just felt that they needed more changes than I felt willing to make. 

The time may come, although who knows because I'm going to be 82 this week, I don't have that much time left, but the time may come when I'll feel ready to make extensive changes on one or both of those manuscripts. In the meantime, they're set aside. And I'm working on a new one and you know, maybe she won't like it. There's no guarantee. I don't sign a contract until a book is finished. So there's no deadline, which some people feel the need of a deadline. I don't. That would feel pressure to me. But there's no guarantee and I just work on it till it's done and then I show it to my agent and to my editor.

Whelan: Is there anything that you hope from them, that you hope that they will be able to see that you can't see in the writing process, or that you know that they will catch that you might not catch in the writing process?

Lowry: What I always hope is that there won't be anything wrong at all that needs any revision.

Whelan: Flawless.

Lowry: That the truth is there's always something that I'm grateful that they point out because you do lose your objectivity. When you're so immersed ... With a piece of writing, you're sitting there with it for some months and so you really miss the flaws and you need somebody. But if you're wise, you don't give it to your best friend or your husband or your neighbor to point out things because it really needs a professional and they're the ones who can see that and can also help you figure out how to fix it. So that's the process.

Whelan: Was that harder, the insight for you of not giving it to a best friend or a husband or to a neighbor?

Lowry: I never have done that, nor has a best friend, husband, or neighbor ever asked me to. So I'm fortunate that way.

Whelan: So one of the things that I wonder about, Lois, for folks who write or who are in sort of creative work, how do you reconcile the tension, and if there is one for you, between the isolation needed for that work, the time at the computer, and loneliness? Do those come up at all, to a head at all for you?

Lowry: Well, I wouldn't call it isolation. You certainly do need to be alone to sit in a room and write a book. But isolation makes it sounds as though you're there because you have TB or something, you don't want somebody to catch. And it has a negative connotation to me. I prefer the word solitude and solitude is something I value and love. And it is not a lonely kind of situation to be in a situation of solitude, for a writer at least, because your world within that solitude is so heavily populated. I mean, I live with an ongoing cast of characters. Granted, I manipulate them to be what I want them to be since I'm going to be living with them for a while, but they keep me interested, they keep me amused, they make me sad, they make me laugh. And when you're in that kind of situation, you don't get lonely. Of course, you know, at the end of the day, or the end of whatever time you've set for yourself, you turn your computer off or put it to sleep and go in the other room and then you'd like to have people around to talk to, not about what you've been working on.

I had to say ... I don't have a husband, but I have a spouse equivalent, so for lack of a better term. And I said to him just recently, "I don't like to talk about what I'm working on," because he had asked me when I closed up one afternoon and he said "You know what? How far did you get? Where are you in the manuscript?" And I began to tell him and then I thought "It doesn't feel right to tell him." So I had to say "I don't want to talk about it." It goes away if I talk about it. It goes away as the words go into the atmosphere, the ideas go with it. And so I need to keep that all to myself while I'm working on it.

Whelan: How do you handle it when you have a character, somewhat, as you were saying, sort of the cast of characters that populates your head when you're working on a book, who you either really like and don't want to let go or don't want to see anything bad happen to them in that book, or who you either really don't like and have not enjoyed spending time with them?

Lowry: A long time ago, 1980 it was published, which means that I wrote it in 1979. So it is a very long time ago. I wrote a book called Autumn Street, which was autobiographical. It was fiction. I wrote it as fiction, but it really was plucked from my own life when I was a small child in Pennsylvania during World War II. And during that time I had a friend who was murdered. And that happens in the book. I changed the friend from a girl, her real name was Gloria. So he's a little boy in the book name Charles. And when I got to the part in the book where Charles was going to be killed, it was very, very hard for me to write that. If he had been a totally fictional child, oh, maybe it would have been different. I'm not sure. I've certainly done many books in which people have died or disappeared in some fashion. But that was the one that came to my mind when you asked the question. That was hard. 

And also, my very first book, I'm now remembering, was fictionalized autobiography. It was about the death of my older sister when we were both young. The two girls in the book are 13 and 15, told from the point of view of the 13 year old girl about the effect on the whole family of the death of her 15 year old sister. And I've sometimes been asked—kids often ask this question. Girls, girls read that book. Boys don't. Girls refer to it as a “feelings book.” Isn't that an interesting phrase? And boys tend to veer away from books that can be described that way. I know, I'm generalizing. Anyway, girls have asked whether it was difficult for me to write that book which dealt with my sister's death and in thinking about it, I think it was not. When my sister died, I was a young wife, as was she. We were not 13 and 15. We were in our early 20s. 

And I began to tell the story of the two sisters when they were young to my own little girl, who was four at the time. And she was bored with it after a while and wiggled off my lap and went away and I didn't have anybody to tell it to. And so I think I told that story in my own mind to my own self again and again over the years and didn't have any place to put it until a publisher asked me to write a book for young people. And that's the story that came to my mind. And writing it down ... Well, there's a line in Shakespeare in Macbeth and I've forgotten who says the line, but he says it to Macduff, whose wife and children have been killed. And he says to Macduff "Give sorrow words." And I think that's a key phrase. I think that's what I did when I wrote that first book, which was called A Summer to Die. I gave words to the grief I had felt about the death of my sister. And perhaps I was doing it again a few years later when I wrote Autumn Street. Those though were both based on real people. Fictional people whom I create and then kill off I don't have that kind of commitment to, I think. I think I always know that they're made up characters and I could bring them back if I wanted to.

Whelan: I wanted to circle back just briefly to something you said about “feelings books” and I know for me growing up I had some male friends, and I was much younger, who literature provided such a safe space for them to have feelings and to be human beings who were allowed to feel a wide variety of things in a way that sometimes society did not afford those young boys. And so I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that I would imagine some of your books have certainly done that for young boys.

Lowry: Well, I would hope so. And I was overgeneralizing when I said that. And something has now just popped into my mind and memory and it's my own son Ben. Ben is now ... Oh, math is ... He was born in 1961. He's 58 years old, I guess. And he would have been about seven or eight when this happened. So he would have been say second grade, when he walked into the kitchen—I was always in the kitchen in those days. Ben was the youngest of four children. I was a busy housewife and mother. Walked into the kitchen after school, kind of looking morose. And I said "Ben, what's wrong?" And he said "I just read the saddest sentence I've ever read." And—I've forgotten the page number—he told me "Page whatever of Charlotte's Web." And the sentence was "No one was with her when she died." And for an author, E.B. White as it happened, to be able to convey to an eight year old child the tragedy of that sentence was really remarkable.

And not too long after that—Ben would be chuckling if he were sitting here listening to me describe this—but Ben had a pet rabbit named Barney, Barney Bunny. And one day he let Barney out to play in the lawn and a German Shepherd from the neighborhood ran over and grabbed at Barney. And Ben came in the kitchen carrying his rabbit, who was still alive but clearly dying, and I told him that Barney probably wasn't going to live and he walked off to his bedroom carrying his dying rabbit and I peeked in a little later and he was lying on the bed beside Barney, covers over Barney with his ears nicely flattened out on the pillow and he lay there while Barney died. And he didn't make this connection, nor did I say it to him, but I was aware of that he was reacting still in his own way, as we all do to things we read, to that sentence that "No one was with her when she died" and that it was important to be with him, with his Barney Bunny when he died. 

So I shouldn't laugh and it's a very sweet scene. I'm laughing because my mind has leapt ahead. We buried Barney, of course, with ceremony in the backyard with a little cross made of Popsicle sticks and a plaque that said "Here lies Barney Bunny. Lover of carrots and beloved friend of Benjamin Lowry." Not terribly long after that, I noticed that there was another grave nearby, new, with a new little Popsicle stick cross and I asked the kids and another of my children confessed—my daughter Kristin. She said she was starting to eat a hard-boiled egg and it looked like it had been trying to be a chicken. And so she had a little funeral for it. I shouldn't laugh at that. It's very sweet.

Whelan: Oh wow.

Lowry: Anyway, all of that has to do with the effects that literature can have upon the psyche of children and a role that it can play—an important role and it's one of the reasons that I feel profoundly the importance of what I do, that I don't take it lightly, that I don't whip these books off, even if a book is, as the one I'm currently working on, a lighthearted book, I am not doing it lightheartedly. On one level, I'm aware, always, that this will affect children.

Whelan: Well, it makes me wonder what are the creative projects that you find yourself saying "Yes" to and then sort of the flip side of that would be what are the creative projects you find yourself saying "No" to?

Lowry: Most often I choose my own project. The books that I do are books that I think of and write. And no publisher says to me "Would you do a book about ..." If they would, if they did, I probably would say "No," because it would be their idea and not mine. However, I'm aware as I say this that the one I'm currently working on was suggested by my agent and editor simply because there's a movie coming out next year made from a book that I wrote called The Willoughbys and they suggested that it would be fun to have simultaneously or shortly thereafter with the movie to have a sequel come out to The Willoughbys. So I'm working on that now. But by and large, I choose my projects and sometimes though people come to me. I'm trying to remember his name. Andrew something. I'm not remembering. An editor came to me asking me to contribute a piece to a collection and the name of the book is The Good Book and its various authors writing about something from the Bible which has affected them. I am not a religious person. But the instant he emailed me, I've never met him, and asked me that something came to my mind and so I did write a piece for that collection. 

More recently, Andre Dubus, the author, has asked me to do something for a collection that he's putting together. Here's a very interesting project that I did recently and this is for adults, and I tend to gravitate or to view more kindly requests that I do something for adults because it's different from what I ordinarily do. There's an artist in Maine, and if I think long enough I'll come up with his name. But any rate, he did a series of paintings. I've forgotten how many. Perhaps 14. The paintings are very large. They were exhibited in a New York gallery and then again in the Institute of Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine. These large paintings, each one is set at night. You assume they're all Maine, they look like Maine, though they could be from New Hampshire, they're New England paintings, they're at night. They're very provocative and evocative. And then he asked if there are 14, he has 14 authors, if there are 16, then 16 authors—I've forgotten the number—to write a short story based on the painting. Richard Russo here in Portland did one. Andre Dubus did one. Ann Patchett, I think, did one. 

Any rate, when they asked me, I was delighted to be able to do it because it's so seldom I have that opportunity to do an adult project. And I sat a long time, weeks, looking at that painting and came up with a story. Then the book was published, beautifully printed with the paintings and the stories. And the title of the book is Night Stories and any minute I'm going to come up with the name of the author ... Not the author, there are many authors, but the painter of the fabulous paintings. Most of them have been sold and they weren't sold for $200. They were sold for, I don't know, $65,000 a piece. Something like that. They're remarkable works. And it's a remarkable book. So I was thrilled to be able to be a part of that project.

Other things I say no to. Once, many years ago I was asked to write a children's book based on ... It was some Bible story. Moses or something in the bulrushes and I said "Nah, I don't think so. I think that's already been written. It's in the Bible. It's been done." But I have so many ideas of my own that I don't really need suggestions from other people, though I'm happy to think about them.

Whelan: So where in your writing life were you when you were at Brown?

Lowry: I had gone to high school in New York City, private school, all girls, now of course it's coed. Now of course it's much more expensive than it was when I went there, but any rate, there were only about 30 girls in my graduating class and I had been greatly encouraged by my English teachers to pursue writing. I'm sorry I lost it, although I don't know what I would do with it if I still had it, but I remember a paper that was returned to me which my English teacher had written on it "Be sure to go writing. I think there's a chance you may do something with it." At any rate, I went from there to Brown with high recommendations from teachers of writing. I went there to major in writing. In those days, the curriculum was very different from what it is now. But I don't know how I wrangled my way into this, but I got to take some upper level writing courses right away. I did of course have to fulfill require—I don't think Brown has these requirements anymore—I tested out of some things, but I had to take a political science course and math course. I dreaded the math course. 

But I did get into these seminars, these writing seminars, which I so loved. And those professors, the one I remember most was Charles Philbrick, who has died, but they also encouraged me. However, this was the '50s. So we all sat around in our writing seminar, the air was thick with smoke from our cigarettes, but also in the '50s many girls, and I was one and we called ourselves girls then not women, left and got married. And so I dropped out at the end of my sophomore year because my boyfriend was two years older, he was graduating and so I just quit and got married. And all my aspirations sort of were put on hold. My creativity turned toward motherhood, I guess. I had four children before I was 26. And then I waited until the youngest one went to kindergarten and I went back to college. It took me four years to complete the two that I still owed to get a Bachelor's degree and then I went on for work on a Master's degree, but in the meantime I started writing professionally. 

I was living in Maine then and I was doing freelance writing for magazines. I also, in graduate school, studied photography, something that had always interested me and it made me more of a marketable commodity as a freelance writer because I could do photography for magazine articles as well. The man on the cover of the book The Giver is a man that I photographed for a magazine article and I had my own darkroom and I used to keep copies of some photographs. Not all, but that man's face had haunted me. I kept him. And then the little girl, blonde girl on the cover of a book called Number the Stars, was a girl I had been hired to photograph and I kept a copy of her photograph. When I wrote Number the Stars, which would have been 1988 probably, I gave a copy of that photograph to the book editor because they had asked—they've got to hire an artist for the cover and they'd asked what the girl should look like and here was this child—happened to be Swedish—here was this Scandinavian 10 year old girl. And so they said "Can we use the photograph?" And I tracked down her parents to ask and they laughed and they said "You'll have to call her. She's all grown up." And in fact she has children in college now. 

So I was taking a lot of English courses at Brown and some writing courses. The literature courses I think are the ones that were the more valuable, actually. But any rate, Brown was certainly encouraging to me. I will say, however, and this was typical of the '50s, nobody, when I announced that I was leaving school and getting married, nobody suggested that that was not a great idea. I was 18 years old when I made that decision. My parents didn't say "Hey, why don't you stay and get your degree?" None of my professors, not the dean of Pembroke, which it was then. Nobody. It was considered, I think, a thing that we girls did. We found a husband and it took some of us longer than others and so off we went. I'm sad about that now. However, if I had stayed in school and graduated, I would have just turned 21, I wouldn't have been ready to write professionally. Maybe I would have gone onto graduate school. More likely I would have taken a very low level job in publishing somewhere and then found a husband and quit that. 

So I don't know, there's no easy answer. I did love Brown and I loved my courses there. But when I went back to school, which was in Maine because that's where I lived at the time, and I was in my 30s, I loved every course then. I didn't have to think about who I was going to have a date with on the weekend, you know? I was going to have a date with my husband and kids. And so it was very different. I was able to truly devote myself, with the exception of cooking dinner and doing the laundry, to my courses and that was a very happy, happy time for me, those years when I was in my 30s and doing my homework on the kitchen table with my kids.

Whelan: Well, I want to be respectful of your time, which you've been really generous with, but is there any question that I haven't asked that you-

Lowry: No, you started right off asking about my dog. That was just fine.

Whelan: [laughter] We got Alfie!

Lowry: Yeah. No, I can't think of anything. I mean, I'm happy to talk on and on until my parking meter expires. But I don't know what kinds of things people would be interested in. 

Whelan: Well, I think one of the things that I'm really struck by is how much you notice. Just the story of the popsicle stick cross over Barney the rabbit—I think one of the things that I certainly struggle with in this very fast and very preoccupied world is better noticing the world around me, which I think is essential for any creative process.

Lowry: Oh, that's such a great question. Or maybe it's not even really a question. It's a commentary and it's so true. And I'm guilty of it as well—of not often enough looking up from my electronics. I criticize my grandchildren for that, but I do it myself as well. And yet Henry James was the one who famously once said that "a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost." And one hopes for that to be true and yet we do lose so much in our daily lives with all this stuff going on around. The world has become speedier, I think. There's too much happening all the time and too much to pay attention to. I think it's important to slow down, to look up, breathe in. I'm going to start sounding like a yoga instructor. But you're right, noticing is key. And I still think it was partly being a photographer and I think I also am very photographic in my writing. I pay a lot of attention to layout. What's the word I want? Composition. Where things are, where they go, how they fit together visually as well as literally. And I am somebody who does see things, I think, with—I won't say greater clarity than everybody else—but certainly with great interest and some clarity, I think. 

Whelan: Is there anything that you're looking for when you're seeing? Is there anything you're hoping to see?

Lowry: Yes, connections between things, I think. What can I use as an example for that? I was surprised when I got into town to meet you today, that big parking lot beyond the auditorium was full. What's going on? Something's happening in town. So I was driving around looking for a parking place and eventually found one. In the course of walking here from that parking place, I passed a homeless guy, I assume a homeless guy, a guy dressed like and walking like and looking like and acting like a homeless guy. And you know, it's easy to walk past someone and observe that and forget it, but I tend to see him and begin to wonder what his connections are to me, to the world, to the people around him. And even as I say that, here's a question you should ask me. I'll ask it of myself. Because the question is what is next to be published by me? And it's a book about that. It's about our connections, our human connections, one to another. And I'll just tell you the starting point for that book. It is not fiction. It's autobiographical. 

I was born in Honolulu and I was always, as a child in the days before television, it was always very exciting when daddy would get out the home movies and show them. That was our visual entertainment. He would set up a screen, set up the big projector and mother would lower the shades and we'd watch, once again we'd watch baby Lois on the beach in Waikiki and there's daddy on a horse and there's mother pouring milk. And daddy would run the projector backwards and the milk would fly back into the pitcher, you know? I had watched those films many, many times and then time passed, we moved out of the country, put things in storage, television arrived. By then we were in New York, the McCarthy hearings were on so my parents bought a television and we never looked at those films again. And then I was visiting my parents when they were very old and dad showed me those old films in metal canister in the garage. And he opened up the metal cans and the film smelled terrible. It was beginning to deteriorate. So I brought it back to Boston with me. I found somebody who would transfer it to videotape. This was the early days of videotape. And I had just bought a ... What did you call it? A VCR? Is that what you—

Whelan: Yeah.

Lowry: And so I had daddy's home movies, what they could save, on this videotape. And I had company in the living room and I made them look at my old home movies before I sent them to my father. And there is the picture which I had seen a zillion times before, there I am with the little shovel in my hand on the beach. There's nobody else on the beach except my grandmother, who was visiting, and she's watching me. And it's an idyllic scene. It's Waikiki. The color had faded. The original film had been color. 

And so that scene passed and the next one is my sister and me with a watering can, watering flowers in mother's garden in Honolulu, but there was someone in my living room who was a lawyer in Boston. But he had been—that was a second career-he had been captain of a nuclear submarine. And he said "Wait a minute. Go back to the scene on the beach." So we figured out how to pause, rewind, start up again. We watched baby Lois on the beach again. And he said "Look on the horizon." And that's the title of my new book. And on the horizon, shrouded in mist but moving slowly across, is a ship. And John, who had been captain of a submarine, said "That's the Arizona." So suddenly, all of us were kind of dumbstruck because there's me, happy, my grandmother smiling as she watches me and on that ship are 1,200 young men who are going to be dead within months. And so I thought about that ever since. I've been haunted by it. What is my connection to them? And that's what this new book is about. We publish in 2020 and the title is On the Horizon.

Whelan: 2020 can't come soon enough. It makes me think about that. Is it the end of Howards End is the line "Connect, only connect—"

Lowry: “Only connect, only connect.” That's also the book where the bookcase falls on somebody and kills him.

Whelan: Yes.

Lowry: Death by book.

Whelan: Death by book.

Lowry: “Only connect.” You're right. That was Forster who said that.

Whelan: Yeah.

Lowry: Only connect the prose and the passion.

Whelan: Right. I mean, what I think is so interesting about the time that we're in right now is there does seem to be multi-generational epidemic of loneliness and that we have the guise of connection through our technology, and yet—

Lowry: It's all ... It's fake news. I hate to use the phrase.

Whelan: But yes. It's not—

Lowry: It's superficial.

Whelan: Yeah. It's not that I could send out 79 emails and not feel any closer to anybody around me, or even to the people that I emailed. And I think that ... But I also think ... What I love about the kind of connection that you're talking about is what is our connection to ... What is young Lois' connection to those men on that ship? And what is our connection to people who we might never actually meet or see and yet somehow we have shared this earth together at some point and do we have a responsibility to them, do we owe them?

Lowry: Yeah, that's exactly what this book tries to address. And of course, it's a question that isn't answerable, but it's wonderful to think about it and to be aware of it.

Whelan: Yeah. Well, I'll just wrap up with this, which is ... So when I was in sixth grade we read The Giver and that was written by a person who I never thought that I would meet. And if I hadn't met you, you would not have known that you changed my life, you opened my life up in a way that I did not know my life would be opened up. And so now I feel that I have this opportunity to connect with you, I would like to say thank you so much. I am a better and a bigger person for the work that you have done in the world.

Lowry: Oh, thank you. I think that's the most that any writer hopes for, that they affect individuals in a very personal way. And it's very gratifying when somebody lets you know that that has happened to them. It works both ways, of course.


The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent those of Brown University.

(August 2019)