Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Looking Back, by Lois Lowry

Sunday, I took -- well, actually dragged -- my kids to hear the famous children's author, Lois Lowry, speak at the Glendale Public Library. On the drive there, as I worked hard to block out the bad attitude vibes of my beloved "three musketeers," I tried to come up with a question for the author, should I get the chance. I felt satisfied when I settled on, "How did you come up with the idea for "The Giver?" It felt like a meaty question, an original question.

So I had to laugh at myself when, in her talk, Lowry told us that the question most often asked of her is "How did you come up with the idea for the "Giver?" In fact, the theme of Lowry's entire presentation, a talk with accompanying slides, centered on where the seeds of inspiration for her book ideas come from. It was apparent from the start that Lowry, a prolific author of children's books and now in her seventies, has a lot of experience speaking about her work, and has put considerable thought into what she wants to tell her fans, and how she can best convey this. To show us "her process," and give us a glimpse into what she is about, as a person and an author, she told us about pivotal points in her life, and how their impact expressed itself in her writing.

Now that I've got a handful of author talks under my belt, I am able look back and see why some were more successful than others. In the most general terms, whenever an author found some way to convey some part of his or her authentic self in the talk, no matter the topic, I felt able to connect, and I learned something. I think in that way books are like people (or maybe it's the other way around); books are "about" so much more than plot, just as the essence of who we are is more than the narrative of our lives; in a story, it's the underlying theme that reaches out to us, connecting us with the experience of another.

One way Lowry connected to her audience was with humor. She self-effacingly told us how many people confuse her with another famous children's author, Lois Lensky, who also happens to be one of Lowry's favorite authors. Lowry also showed us how she feels a responsibility to her readers, (my take is that we readers seem to be an afterthought to many authors), and showed slides of the stacks of letters she unfailingly answers (sounding apologetic that she has to resort to using form letters to answer the questions that are unfailingly asked over and over again). To further lighten things up, she told of some funny emails kids had sent her, and a few of her slides showed the text of these emails. The kid who asked the author to do his homework for him by spelling out the themes in one of her books. A kid who resented being forced to read Lowry's books and sent disparaging rants -- using his father's computer, which included his dad's computer signature.

In the course of her almost hour-long talk, she did indeed answer my ubiquitous "Giver" question, telling of the visits she made to her elderly father, and how, in his old-age, he twice forgot that Lois's older sister, Helen, died as a teenager. By then Lowry had also lost a child, and she kept thinking about her father's "forgetting", thinking about how amazing it would be if there actually was a pill that could make you forget the horrible things that happened in your life.

At the start, though, I have to admit that I was a little afraid Lowry's talk might focus exclusively on her newest book, "The Birthday Ball," and that she would have little to say that would be of interest to the recalcitrant twelve-year-old boy with me, but interestingly, she spoke about this book only at the very end of her talk, and what she did say about it wasn't the typical hardsell.

One of many things I didn't know about Lowry is that she published a memoir, actually a book for children, "Looking Back." Lowry, an avid photographer, intersperses shots from her life with quotes from her books and her own life story. It doesn't shy away from difficult topics, a divorce, a child's death, but those challenges are described in simple terms, and honestly. It's a beautiful book, echoing the same sensibility Lowry brought to her talk: honest reflection and a consideration of others.

It was this consideration of others that showed even after the talk, as we waited to have our books signed. The line was LONG, but the Lowry protocol was clear: we were to write the name we wanted inscribed in the book on a post-it note. Lowry would not be able to write longer messages. Speaking as someone who hates waiting in line, someone who has given up waiting for an author's autograph when seeing an author chat up a few fans leaving the rest of us in limbo, I really appreciated this. The line moved quickly. I still hold close much of what Lowry spoke about that day, as well as her autograph.

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