A Peek at the Creative Space of Lois Lowry
It is an honor to welcome to Creative Spaces Lois Lowry, two-time Newbery Award winner for Number the Stars and The Giver. Continuing with the birthday giveaways this week, I was recently in New York City at a fantastic independent children’s bookstore called Books of Wonder and was delighted to find Lois Lowry’s latest book Birthday Ball. It was actually the birthday connection that gave me the idea of giving away books for the interviews this week. What I didn’t even realize at first was that these were not ordinary copies of Birthday Ball, but SIGNED! And not just signed by Lois Lowry, but also the illustrator Jules Feiffer who you may know best from Bark, George or this little-known title called The Phantom Tollbooth. Comment on this interview and you’ll be entered to win Birthday Ball. (And you can still comment on yesterday’s interview too to win Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s latest!)
When I was in graduate school, I learned that Lois Lowry was going to be a keynote speaker at a children’s writing conference held at the Book Passage bookstore, just a neighborhood away. I’d never attended a conference before and really hadn’t been overly motivated to attend author readings. But this was Lois Lowry, one of my childhood heroes. The author of Anastasia Krupnik, Rabble Starkey, The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, A Summer to Die, Autumn Street and so many books that I loved. I couldn’t pass up hearing her speak.
I attended that conference nervous, unsure, skeptical, but I left it feeling like I’d found the place I belonged. Lois Lowry spoke with such straightforwardness and respect (and humor!) for writing and so many things she said clicked with me. Here are some of my notes from Lois Lowry’s presentations that weekend:
“People don’t give readers enough credit. Readers can make the jump if a chapter ends one place, and the next opens in another.”
On endings: “There is a temptation to wrap things up and explain everything. Don’t keep going and going, explaining everything.”
“Think of the ending as a new beginning.”
Messages books are bleh. (My notes, I’m not sure “bleh” is exactly how Ms. Lowry worded it.)
“The best way to deliver a message is through strong, engaging characters.”
Ms. Lowry won’t remember this, but I had the good fortune of sitting next to her at lunch that weekend. I was too nervous to say much of substance to her, other than telling her I grew up with Anastasia Krupnik and had read all her books. But it was wonderful to get more of a feel for her as a person. When you are enthusiastic about a book–at any age–and you wonder about who created it and have the opportunity to meet them, I at least always have the assumption that I will like the author as much as I liked their book. I have yet to have an author prove this assumption wrong, and Ms. Lowry was no exception. She was funny and wise, gracious and kind.
If you’d like to learn more about Lois Lowry, you can visit her website. She also maintains a blog, which is one of my favorites. But the best way to learn more about Lois Lowry–or at least what I would recommend most highly–is her autobiography, Looking Back: A Book of Memories. It’s a really wonderful collection of photos and anecdotes from her life.
Describe your workspace.
I live in two places: Cambridge, Massachusetts (where my workspace looks like a writer’s workspace SHOULD, because it has floor to ceiling bookcases across one entire wall); and Bridgton, Maine, where I am at this moment. I love my workspace here. This is an old farmhouse—1768—-and it is attached, as New England farmhouses always were, to a large barn.
Between the barn and the house, connecting them, was a garage (once it would have been the place for the buggies) and a shed with feed bins, which was still in its unfinished state when I bought the property. If you look at the photo in snow, with a wreath on the barn door, you’ll see a small window to the left.
But now look at the photograph of what I call the barn garden, the flower garden in front of the barn, and you will get a glimpse of the new windows—three of them—installed when I renovated that unfinished room and turned it into my studio.
And the view from those windows is of gardens, meadow, apple trees, wild life (turkeys here; but could be deer or woodchucks or coyote), and (on the day I took this picture) a rainbow.
But back to workspace (though in truth I think the exterior, and the view, is intrinsic to a workspace). The contractor preserved the old barn boards and beams (with their hand-hewn nails) but turned it into a cozy, warm, comfortable place for me to work.
I spend the whole summer here but come up here frequently also during the winter (and it gets COLD in Maine, in winter!) But I turn the heat on in the studio and it is toasty in minutes.
Describe a typical workday.
My dog gets me up early. I have company often here, but I am usually up before my company because of Alfie, and so I use that time, before people are up, to go into the studio and tend my email. I rarely work when I have company because I am distracted by cooking, entertaining, etc., but when I’m alone here I sit at this desk all day. For many years I didn’t have a phone out here, but I am not one of those people who can comfortably allow a telephone to ring. So although I don’t get many calls when I’m in Maine—still, when I did, I would have to run through the garage and the laundry room and pick up the phone breathlessly in the kitchen. Finally I relented and had a telephone installed out here. It rarely rings, though.
I answer all of the (huge number) of emails, check on my kids via Facebook, and then turn to whatever I’m working on. Yesterday it was small revisions of a Gooney Bird book which will be published next fall. Yesterday, also, my mail lady delivered (drove up and put it on my porch! It was pouring rain outside and she didn’t want me to have to head down the long driveway to the mailbox) copies of the WONDERFUL illustrations by Eric Rohmann for a book due out next March called Bless This Mouse. Last summer I was doing a lot of research for a Dear America book called Like the Willow Tree; it is set about 30 miles from here, in a Shaker Village, so I spent a lot of time there, but much more time here in the studio, sifting through my notes and writing.
So, as you can see, my typical workday includes bits and pieces from whatever projects I am working on (often there are interviews as well). But always there is an ongoing manuscript, and after getting the other things out of the way, I turn my attention back to that. In summer I have a lot of interruptions for company, and in winter I do an enormous amount of traveling, so I have become a master of the art of writing-in-spurts. I go back to the manuscript, re-read, often revise a bit, and then move ahead with it.
When I’m alone here, as now, I don’t worry about cooking or even eating—I just graze and nibble; so I work long uninterrupted days. But when company comes (and the next batch is arriving late this afternoon) I cook (and shop, and plan) so work gets relegated, as it were, to the back burner. Next Monday I will wave goodbye to my company and then I have a full uninterrupted week to work. That’s rare, and very welcome.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
This would be easier to do if I were at my “regular” home, in Cambridge. It would be hard, in fact, to narrow it down to three. But here? I love the old photographs on the wall. They date back 30+ years, when I was a photographer of children, and these are some I have saved form those times. The two large framed prints are by Egon Schiele, of the village in Czechoslovakia, where he lived, called Cesky Krumlov. I have spent time in Cesky Krumlov, during a tour of eastern Europe, and it is a very special place. So I especially love these two views of it. The third thing that is my favorite—it should be listed first!—is my dog, Alfie, who is always at my feet (and is at this moment). You can see a dog bed in the photo of the studio—usually he is curled up on it. But when I took the picture, he was sitting by my feet.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I don’t, really.
What do you listen to while you work?
I sometimes turn on my iTunes, where I have tons of music stored, and find that most often I listen to the Bach Cello Suites. I bet I have played the Bach Cello Suites 200+ times, and always when I’m working.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Right now I have a cup of coffee beside me—I always bring my morning coffee out here. Then I switch, later in the day, to iced tea. I drink gallons of iced tea. In winter, back in Cambridge, usually hot tea. With lemon. No snacks.
I have a MacBook that I take with me when I travel (I should put travel stickers on it, the way people used to do on suitcases!) and an iMac back in Cambridge. You can see the laptop in my studio photograph. Periodically I email my unfinished manuscript to myself so that it will be on my computer back home. Like all writers, I live in fear of losing unfinished work.
I’ve lost the ability to write easily in longhand. But occasionally I sit on the screened porch of my house, and now and then I can putter with writing there. Here’s a photo of work I did on the porch: I was adapting my book Gossamer to the stage, and before I began writing the actual script, I had to go through the book, of course, and break it down into scenes.
I did the same thing with the Shaker Village research—sat on the porch with all those notes and put them in order as I figured out how to structure the book.
I love my porch. I can see the bird feeders from there.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
It is almost always hard to identify the origin of an idea. But here’s a photograph of Alfie, last summer, examining a mouse. I found the mouse, quite unafraid, in my house that day, and carried it outside, Alfie at my heels, quite intrigued. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mouse, and though I was in the midst of another book, I set it aside and started a book in which the main characters are all mice. It’s the one Eric Rohmann has just illustrated so beautifully: Bless This Mouse.
Everything plotwise is in my head rather than in the computer or on paper. I don’t really have an “outline” in the classic sense, but I have a feel for the structure of the book, what will flow into what, which tributaries will veer off, and at what turning they will come back. I always see the ending and aim for it, in my mind. But—to continue the watery metaphor—the actual ebb and flow, the splashing around, the rocks and the quiet pools—they all come with the writing itself.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
The story itself. I get so intrigued by whatever plot I’m working on that I have no trouble at all staying focused.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
Alfie is my best office-mate. But sometimes I will have a writer friend up here in Maine with me: Carol Otis Hurst when she was alive was one. Susan Goodman has often come. My friend Kay Merseth, who teaches at Harvard, and was working on a (since-published) scholarly book. I have internet access in two rooms—one is the studio, of course, and the other is the library on the other end of the house. So when writer friends come, we set up shop in the two places, work in solitude, and meet for meals. (Okay, and wine). I love that system. Writer friends understand that I need uninterrupted time because they do as well.
If I had to share my actual studio, though, it would be with Yo-Yo Ma. He could sit in the corner and play the Bach Cello suites.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
Don’t waste so much time talking about writing. Write.
Thank you so much to both Lois Lowry and Zilpha Keatley Snyder for allowing us a glimpse into where and how they work! Remember to comment on this interview post to win a copy of Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry, signed by both her and illustrator Jules Feiffer. (And you can still comment on yesterday’s post to win a copy of William S. and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.) I’ll draw names and announce the prize winners on Sunday.