Talking to Lois Lowry About the Movie Version of The Giver

Lowry at her home in Bridgton, Maine. Photo: Justine Kurland

“So, shall we go to the dump?” Lois Lowry is now a slightly salty 77, with a sort of Elaine Stritch side-mouth speech and no Mother Goose orb about her. It’s a misty morning in late July, and I’m in Bridgton, Maine, watching the young-adult god as she separates cardboard boxes from newspapers and bottles, two days before she heads to Comic-Con, where she’s been roped into a panel with Jeff Bridges to promote the film adaptation of her 1993 classic The ­Giver—the start of a publicity tour, followed by a major movie release, which will make her dystopian novel, one of the most beloved books of the YA “golden age,” a whole other kind of famous. Bridges, a lead producer, plays the supporting role of the title character; the movie also stars Meryl Streep and Taylor Swift. “There are those, I think, who are attracted to the glitz of celebrity life,” Lowry tells me. “I am not one of them.” She bought the dress she plans to wear to the movie’s New York premiere online, she says, from Neiman Marcus. Then Lowry spots a woman at the dump: “If I were writing a short story, I’d be sure to include that woman over there with the back tattoo and the thong sticking out of her jeans.

“I think the movie is very good,” Lowry says, which counts as pretty serious praise considering it was so long stuck in ­development hell (Bridges first bought the rights in 1995) and how hard a time Lowry had at first with the decision to age the movie’s characters from 12 and wondrous to 16 and plausible romantic leads. “And I had a little trouble with the ending: In the book, it’s ambiguous, but the movie ­people—and when I say ‘movie people,’ I mean primarily Harvey Weinstein, the head-honcho guy with the power and the money—felt that the ending should not be so ambiguous. You know, I’m a writer, I like to retain subtlety and nuance.”

Fifty years ago, that kind of thing would’ve sounded a little grand coming from the writer of once-a-year books meant for preteens, but that it doesn’t now is in some basic way a credit to the woman who is bouncing me around western Maine in her Volkswagen Tiguan (the license plate reads llbook). The world of popular fiction is now, in large part, a young-adult world—a term that was just beginning to be thrown around when Lowry started writing. Along with writers like Norma Klein, Judy Blume, Lois ­Duncan, and Madeline L’Engle, Lowry was the first to elevate children’s literature by taking its readers seriously. Her debut novel, A Summer to Die, is a teen-cancer tear-jerker, published the year The Fault in Our Stars author John Green was born; her first Newbery award winner, Number the Stars, is how generations of fifth-­graders learned about the Holocaust; and then there is the Giver quartet, which describes a horrifying false utopia in which suffering has been eliminated through a radically anti-individual policy of “Sameness” (and the one boy tasked with keeping alive the memories, preserved to this point by the Giver, of the world before everything got so ­terrifyingly bland). And which would appear to be, to so many of her fans, their minds molded by her books, the godmother to The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the general teenage-dystopia mania of the last decade (including possibly Kazuo Ishiguro’s quasi-YA Never Let Me Go). Since its publication in 1993, The Giver has sold 11 million copies, been translated into more than 30 languages, and become one of the most banned books in America, mostly for “disturbing” themes like infanticide, suicide, eugenics, and socialism.

We pull up to her stately, built-in-1769 converted farmhouse, and Lowry futzes with her bag: “I have three garage things—one for my house here, one for my house in Falmouth, one for my apartment in ­Cambridge, and every time I drive up, I have to think, How do I open my garage?” This house, in a small town about an hour northwest of Portland, is where Lowry spends her summers and does most of her writing. Her husband, Martin, passed away in 2011, almost 20 years after her son, an Air Force pilot, died in a plane crash. And while her other son, Ben (whom she’s bringing as her date to The Giver premiere), lives 20 minutes from her place in Falmouth, for the most part it’s just Lowry, plus an excitable Tibetan terrier named Alfie, and Lulu, a black-and-white rescue cat.

The animals trot behind us as we walk from the screened-in porch to her impressive Nancy Meyers kitchen: alphabetized spice rack, Viking stove, handmade-ceramic-bowl collection, Downton Abbey datebook by the phone. Even here, in this idyllic New England fantasy farmhouse, Lowry suffers from “real-estate lust,” she says, and on her iPad quickly shows me photos of a one-room schoolhouse she and a friend stumbled on the other day while taking a walk: “It was just so adorable, and it happened to be for sale—but it was too far removed from anything, too remote for me.”

In the corner, Alfie and Lulu appear to maul one another, but Lowry tells me that’s just how they play. “A guy was just here the other day fixing something in the house, and he said to me, ‘Lois … I hate to tell you this, but I think your dog is about to kill your cat.’ ”

As we settle into the two massive easy chairs in Lowry’s living room and she pours me some coffee, I feel for the first time like I am communing with someone not quite of this world. Against her white blouse and white hair, her eyes are a shocking, almost alien shade of pale blue, and it’s impossible not to make the connection to the Giver’s “pale eyes,” which mark him and his successor, the protagonist Jonas, as different—destined to serve as single-body vessels carrying an entire civilization’s memory.

Lowry has frequently described her own memory as “eidetic”: Not only does she have recall on steroids—she can summon hyperspecific details of her childhood, like the white blouse paired with the yellow skirt she wore when she was 10 to visit Great-aunt Mary—but her ­memory “takes the form of reentering those events and feeling them again.” She elaborates: “See, most people remember being 4 objectively, as if they’re seeing a movie of a 4-year-old. But me, if you ask me to think about when I’m 4, I can feel myself being 4, and I am there, looking out through my 4-year-old eyes. I certainly felt special as a child,” she continues, “but not because of my eyes.”

Born Lois Ann Hammersberg, Lowry spent her childhood constantly moving—her father was a dentist in the Army, and she and her older sister and little brother were carted around to Hawaii, Brooklyn, Governors Island, rural Pennsylvania, and Tokyo. “This may sound strange,” she says, “but at a very early age, at around 3, I was aware that I was smarter than the other kids.” When she was a kindergartner at the Berkeley School in Park Slope (which would later become Berkeley Carroll), she remembers, “the teacher would get on the piano and play these low notes, what was meant to sound like ‘elephant music.’ We were supposed to lumber around the room holding our arms like elephant trunks—and I refused to do it. It just seemed so … stupid to me. I would look at these other children pretending to be elephants, and I was almost embarrassed for them. Isn’t that funny?”

Lowry met her first husband, Donald Lowry, as a freshman at Brown and dropped out to follow him to California. “In retrospect, it was probably not a smart decision to just toss out my education. But what’s interesting to me is that no one at the college, nor my parents, nobody said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you’re only 19 years old, why are you doing this?’ It was such a common occurrence back then; everybody wished me luck and waved me off.” She and Donald, a lawyer, had four kids, and Lowry finished up her B.A., then pursued a master’s in English at the University of Southern Maine. They divorced when she was 40, and for the first time, Lowry was forced to make a ­living. (Two years later, she met Martin, her insurance agent.)

She’s written 45 books since, so many of them with their own cult followings that most of her fans don’t even realize she’s written three distinct groups of cherished books (she says she receives about 50 emails a day from fans and divides the notes into folders on her laptop: “cool email,” “ballsy email,” “deranged email,” “Giver tattoo permission email”). First, there are her early, teen-trauma books. Second, her beloved Anastasia Krupnik series (my own ­favorites), which follow a bookish and bespectacled troublemaker living in suburban Boston who does delightful things like correspond with a rich sailboat racer through a New York Review of Books ­personal ad and spill her heart out to a Freud bust she buys at a yard sale. (In a few months, the first two books in the series will be rereleased, and Lowry says that, ­depending on the response—she’s banking on nostalgic 30-something women—she has a half-written tenth Anastasia book that she may go back to.) And then there’s The Giver and its three sort-of sequels (the final installment, Son, came out in 2012), which are—in contrast to the action-packed ­Hunger Games—spare, introspective fables about becoming an adult: the process of forming one’s own set of moral rules, even if that means defying authority when necessary. It’s one reason so many teenagers put quotes from The Giver on their yearbook pages and Facebook walls (“There’s much more. There’s all that goes beyond, all … that is Elsewhere” and “Memories are forever” are two favorites). As for why they’re now including them on OKCupid profiles? “Adults can’t be changed by what they read,” Lowry says. “Only children can.”

*This article appears in the August 11, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Lois Lowry on the Movie Version of The Giver