Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry’s latest novel pokes fun at the conventions of old-fashioned storytelling and features a quartet of old-fashioned kids who aren’t orphans—but who long to be.
I was going to ask if parody is a new direction for you, but you have a habit of not writing in the same style twice, don’t you?
That’s right. My whole career has been a departure. It’s a way of keeping myself interested. If I just did the same thing all the time, I would bore myself and probably the reader, as well.
Where did the idea for this book come about?
That’s a good question and I don’t really know. However, I should have made something up because people are going to be asking me that question. Let’s see. I have grandchildren to whom I read, and I’ve been thinking about the literature I read when I was young. I was in love with orphans when I was a kid, but that doesn’t seem to be very popular in today’s books. It’s become politically incorrect to do away with parents. We send kids to camp instead, to get away from their parents. So it began with orphans.
Was it fun to write something silly?
Yes. So many of my books, I don’t want to say they have messages, but they have important things to say. So with this one, I thought, let’s just have some fun.
Do you think it was the drama of the orphan stories that appealed to you as a child? I mean, you weren’t hoping to do away with your own parents, right?
The drama, yes. But in this story, in order to do away with the parents, I had to make them truly despicable. And I had them die in a truly silly way, like Roald Dahl in James and the Giant Peach, having the parents eaten by an escaped zoo animal. You can laugh at that because it’s so ridiculous.
Not the book as much as the byline—“Nefariously Written and Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author”—evokes Snicket. Are you a fan?
I haven’t read Lemony Snicket, I’m afraid. The books I thought of as I was writing [The Willoughbys] were by Edward Gorey, so perhaps Lemony Snicket has read him as well.
Were there particular books you tried to read to your grandchildren that led you to the idea of a parody?
Photo: Neil Giordano.
Well, many of the books I loved as a kid, that even my mother read as a child, are very slow going. Today’s children are not as patient. The best example of this is The Secret Garden, which I adored as a child. I reread it just a few years ago because the copyright expired and several publishers were putting out new editions and one asked me to write a foreword, and it was very slow going. I made my way through it, but I don’t think my grandchildren would.
Do you think perhaps we’ve changed as readers then, too? I mean, if this was a book you adored as a child but now find slow, maybe even our tastes as adults have changed?
Well, I’m somebody who likes 1,000 page novels, so that doesn’t apply to me, but I’ll tell you the book I read to my children that just broke my heart that they did not like was The Yearling. It was written as an adult book, but my mother read it to me when I was eight, and I tried to read it to my own kids but they hated it. This wonderful, wonderful book, and they hated it. Boring, they said.
You have also done the illustrations for The Willoughbys. Had you ever illustrated your own work before?
No, in fact the “Ignominiously illustrated” part is meant to convey that the only kind of illustrating I can do is crude little cartoons, but this book lent itself to that style. I often doodle. I wouldn’t call it a hobby. Actually, I’m now recalling that I was in a hotel by myself, as I often am, doodling on a napkin and I drew the woman who became the nanny (in The Willoughbys) and the Commander. I drew those two characters. They exist on a napkin. So, ta da!, that is where the story started.
What else are you up to these days? I read that Gossamer is being produced for the stage.
Yes, it was commissioned by two theaters, one in Portland, one in Wisconsin, and I wrote it. It’ll open in those two cities in the fall, but it’s just been accepted by NYU for a workshop they’re doing in conjunction with the Provincetown Players in June.
Had you ever written a play before?
No, and it’s quite different from the book.
And what is happening with the film version of The Giver?
The poor Giver. Well, the director has been hired by Warner Brothers. It’s David Yates, who did the latest Harry Potter movie and is doing the next one, too. They hired a screenwriter in England but, alas, because of the writers’ strike nothing is happening. I was in London in November and he was in London but he said, ‘Dear, we can’t even have a cup of Darjeeling, not allowed.’ [The strike] is crippling a lot of things and the Giver project is stalled. I’m a great movie fan, so I love being involved even in the background.
You’ve had so much success—is it at all intimidating? Do you feel that every new work has to measure up to the gold standard you’ve already set?
Quite the opposite. It actually works in reverse. I think when you’ve had success, publishers and reviewers and readers are willing to let you try something new if you’ve already proven yourself. They’re excited about what you’re doing, you have people interested in it, and actually waiting for it. It’s empowering.
So no plans to retire, I’m guessing?
Writing is self employment, so you can make your own schedule. I still love what I do. I’ll be 71 in March, but you don’t have to retire when you reach a certain age. Scott O’Dell was working on a new novel when he died and he was 95.
Are you working on a new novel now?
I’m working on a couple of new things but I don’t talk about them at this stage. If I talk about the ideas, they go out into the air.
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine Books, $16 (176p) 978-0-618-97974-5.