PW: What was your initial inspiration to write The Silent Boy?
Lois Lowry: Usually it is difficult to identify a starting point, but in this case it was photographs from my own family. My grandmother's sister was a photographer at the turn of the century, and when she died, she left me her photographs. They were quite mysterious. In particular, the one that haunted me appears on the cover of the book, and there are two others inside that are clearly of the same boy. I have no idea who he was or why she photographed him.
PW: Your acknowledgements mention that one of the photographs is of your own mother. How did you decide to mix photographs of strangers and family members?
LL: I started out with the boy. And then in trying to create a story around him I had to decide who was going to tell it. I decided to use the voice of what writing professors call the "unreliable narrator," the voice of a child.
In thinking of the time period, I realized that my mother would have been the child. And so I went and got photographs of my mother. I began to picture in my mind the place where my mother lived in southern Pennsylvania. The mill that is shown three times in the book—first when it's used as a mill, then when it's burned, and then as a home—that was our summer home growing up. There are two photographs of my mother as a child [in the book].
I didn't have enough [photographs] to complement the story that I was creating. So I solicited a few friends, but many of the rest I found in an antique shop. One that interests me is the photograph of the young soldier standing beside his mother. Clearly that's the mother of that young soldier, yet why isn't she touching him? That's the kind of intrigue that gets me going.
PW: In your memoir Looking Back, you used photographs to help tell a history; how did the experience here differ, in your use of photographs to create a fictional world?
LL: In Looking Back I was dealing with real events, remembered events—and so, of course, they're colored by the subjectivity of memory. But when I set about to do a piece of fiction using photographs, I was able to shape the story to match the photographs. I wasn't married to any fact.
PW: How has your own experience as a photographer influenced the way you look at photographs?
LL: The answer probably goes beyond influencing the way I look at photographs. I think it influences the way I look at everything. I write very visually; I see events in my head as if they were already composed. Or, I am composing them with words and, at the same time, composing them visually and even putting a frame on them. I tend to view the world that way, I think, with composition and with light—manipulated light—shedding light on this and throwing that out of focus.
PW: How did you conduct your research for The Silent Boy?
LL: I didn't have to do a lot of research. Some of the things come from [family] stories. My mother told me a story of herself at age six on the porch of her house in small-town Pennsylvania on a summer day. Her mother was cutting her hair and suddenly they heard a noise. My mother turned her head quickly and her mother snipped her ear with her scissors—not a serious wound, but probably the reason my mother remembered [the incident] so strongly. The noise they were hearing was the first automobile she'd ever seen. It was her own father driving it very proudly. We can only imagine the amazing noise it must have made in this quiet time.
In the book, the child's father is not the kind of man who would buy the first automobile in town, so I gave it to the guy next door. But I had a silly bit of research, I had to look up what kind of car that would have been and what it would have cost, and the answer was $900. As for the treatment of the mentally ill, I think that if the boy in the book were alive today, he would probably be called autistic. The treatment of psychiatric patients in those days is set forth in many books and I was able to look that up in order to see what would have happened to such a boy.
PW: What are you working on now?
LL: I have just completed the third book, which will make a trilogy that begins with The Giver, scheduled for publication in spring 2004. Readers who have wondered what happens to Jonas from The Giver and Kira from Gathering Blue will find them in this third book, in their early 20s. The main character is Matt from the second book; he's now an adolescent and he's the one who has to make the journey and the decision.