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.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

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.

19 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Lois Lowry”

  1. Toby Speed

    Hi, Jennifer. I love this interview with Lois Lowry, and I love your blog. Your hard work shows! Thanks for sharing writers' creative spaces with us.

  2. Nancy Leek

    I am impressed with how many projects Lois Lowry has going, when she could be resting on her laurels. Back when my daughter was about 10, I could always tell when she was reading an Anastasia Krupnik book by the giggles coming from her bedroom.

  3. Tess

    What a treat this was…thank you for arranging this and thanks to Lois for sharing. It's no surprise she is a long time inspiration to so many of us aspiring writers — getting a peek inside is just plain fun 😀

  4. Jeninthehills

    I just started reading her book about Barnaby A, Barnaby B, Jane, and the older brother last night! Unfortunately, I have 600 chidren's names to remember between my 2 schools (art) and names of books and adults get hopelessly lost in the gray matter. Thank you – if wishes were lives, this one would be mine.

  5. Portia Pennington

    Wow! Another great interview! I follow Ms. Lowry's blog like a true fanatic…and this "conversation" felt so real, so casual…it was like I was the one talking with her!

    Thanks for all your work on this great series–you are doing a great job!


  6. Jen S

    What a place to write. What inspiration. And how wonderful of her to share it with you.

  7. mnw

    What fun to get a glimpse into the minds and work spaces of authors like Lois Lowry. I love this interview. So true what you said about thinking you'll like an author as much as you like her books.

  8. Dianne

    What a great blog idea! I really enjoyed learning about Lois Lowry's workspace and work habits, and am looking forward to checking out the other creative spaces. I'll definitely link this to my blog. Thank you!

  9. Jane Alcorn

    Ah, Lois Lowery – one of the authors whose books I could always count on to be intriguing for kids who asked me (a librarian) for a good book. This glimpse into her life and working spaces is another gem of delight. As readers, we all enjoy a look into other people’s (and characters’) lives, and seeing our favorite authors in their creative spaces and homes feeds that interest. Lois Lowery seems a warm and generous person; just what I expected of a favorite author. Thank you both for this interview.

  10. Rachel

    I adore Lois Lowry's stories. It was fascinating to read about her work space and habits. Thank you for interviewing her, Jenn!

  11. Tracy Barrett

    If I'd had to imagine where Lois Lowry worked, I would have hoped it would be someplace like her actual workspace! It's beautiful, and so like her writing.

  12. Linda Lodding

    Well, in honor of Ms. Lowry, I'm listening to Bach's cello suites while I write this comment. Thank you again, Jenn, for giving me virtual access to another of my writing idols. What I wouldn't give to be a guest at Ms. Lowry's house. And I promise I'd be as quiet as a mouse — except for when we'd meet up for wine!

  13. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files)

    Thank you everyone for your kind words! I'm glad you are enjoying the interview as much as I did.

    Tracy, I've never thought about a person's workspace mirroring their work. What a fascinating idea! I agree with you that Ms. Lowry's does. (My own workspace is currently cluttered and disorganized with a lot mixed in that doesn't belong, which is oddly also how I feel about my novel revisions right now.)

  14. Amy

    I love The Giver and Lois Lowry! I hadn't realized she wrote so many other great sounding books! Will definately have to request them fromo my library!
    What a great giveaway! Thanks a bunch!

  15. Literally Lynne

    Don't know how, but my Lois Lowry comment is on the Zilpha Keatley Snyder Page, so I will leave my ZKS comment here LOL. In any case, LOVE your blog, and LOVE signed books. Even if I don't win, just love all the insights your blog has to offer, so everyone's a winner here :). Hugs!

  16. Jane Heitman Healy

    Jenn, Thank you so much for this peek into a great writer's life. Lois Lowry's work is to be admired and those of us who write should hold her books as a high standard. (And we should follow her advice, too!) Getting out the Bach now….

  17. SusaninNJ

    I love Lois Lowry's books and enjoyed your interview. Thank you! I look forward to reading more of your blog.