In her new book, The Windeby Puzzle, two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry combines both narrative history and fiction to imagine the life of an adolescent child from the first century whose remains were excavated on an estate called Windeby in northern Germany. PW spoke with Lowry about what inspired her to write the book and how she combined fact and fiction.

For those who have not read the book, what drew you to the subject of the Windeby Child and these remains found in a peat bog in northern Germany?

It was the summer of 2020, not that the time matters, except that my husband was in the hospital with Covid. I was home alone and I was not allowed, of course, to visit him. (He survived and is well, by the way.) I was at home and I couldn't go anywhere. The library was closed. The grocery store was dangerous. And I was reading a lot. I found a magazine article that mentioned the finding of this particular body, which was identified as an adolescent. When I read that they identified the body as a 13-year-old girl, I thought, well, those are my people. Those are the people I’m interested in and I think about a lot.

This [finding], of course, had a lot of mystery to it. And there I sat at home and it was amazing the amount of research I found that I could do on the internet. Though I was in Maine and my library was closed, I found, for example, that I could go to the British Museum and go down the wing to the 2,000-year-old artifacts and look at them closely.

Of course, we are all told when we are in school studying writing to write about what we know. And this was something I did not know at all. But I have come to think that it is sometimes more fruitful to write about what you do not know—to write about what you wonder about, what scares you, and what makes you think about it long after you’ve closed the book. That was the origin of this particular book.

How did you conduct your research into this archeological finding and the Iron Age?

I began to order books and books. I do not want to give away any spoilers, but there’s a surprise midway through the book, and that was also a surprise to me because of the order in which I read the books and researched. The only writings about that particular group of people at that particular time were by Roman historian Tacitus, and his books are available in Latin, and I briefly thought of brushing up my high school Latin. But, of course, thankfully it is translated, so I read a couple of different translations and that is where I got the most valuable information about the time and place and the way people lived. The scientific information about the body itself, of course, came from anthropologists and archaeologists.

To imagine the life and backstory of the Windeby Child, this novel alternates between a conversational history of the finding and two fictional retellings. What inspired you to craft the story in this way?

I first became interested in this body and the questions that are raised and the mystery that it was and so I began to write a story about it. I started too soon, because I didn’t yet have all the information, but of course, I could go back and fill it in later. Then I realized that the nonfiction that described the science was also very interesting. There is no rule that says you cannot combine fiction and nonfiction so I just put it all in there. But I really started with the first story. In writing the two [fictional] stories that are in the book, I was basing them on what I imagined the story of the actual body was. And of course, it was a body of a person who lived 2,000 years ago and who died as a teenager. The ending was already written. I could not change it to a happy ending for that child. I think that the most difficult part of these two stories and of this book was figuring out a way to give those characters depths of meaning. And to find a way in which that particular child had left a mark on the world.

Did you find any differences in your writing process as you switched from fact to fiction in this book?

I don’t think I did, but that is because I wrote the nonfiction part as if I were writing fiction. There is some dialogue and description and it was the same process. I had to insert some scientific stuff there, but it is not written as a textbook. It is written like what professors call creative nonfiction. It is very personal. And I have inserted myself and my memories of myself at that age into it as well. So it is almost like memoir as well as fiction and nonfiction.

How do you think The Windeby Puzzle relates to some of your other work and historical fiction?

In every case of historical fiction, whether it is Number the Stars set in 1943, Autumn Street also set during World War II, or The Silent Boy set in the time of my mother’s childhood in the early 1900s, I was dealing with actual events in history, and so it was important to get the historical facts correct. I created fictional people and put them into that history. That for me is the fun part. I am interested in the history, but it is the imagining that appeals to me. What becomes useful for research can vary. In writing The Silent Boy set in the early 1900s, one of the best resources was a Sears catalog. Of course, for The Windeby Puzzle set in the first century there was no Sears catalog. The history here presented a different challenge. The imagining is the same.

The book involves two main protagonists, Estrild and Varick. How did you shape each of these characters?

With every character, even if it is a contemporary novel, I begin to have a very visual sense of the character. I used to be a photographer and maybe the two things are related. I can see the character completely. Even if I do not describe it entirely in the book, I know exactly what color their eyes are and how their clothes fit because I can see them. And once I can see them, and I give them a name, then they feel completely real to me and then I can inhabit them. I can enter their mind and their heart and I can feel what they are feeling. That is just part of the process of the imagination and how it works, at least for me.

Neither Estrild nor Varick conform to the rigid rules of their society, which presents real danger to them as they challenge these roles. What do you hope readers will take away from this element of The Windeby Puzzle?

When I imagined these characters, I gave them those characteristics of wanting to be something more than what they are, which is generally a characteristic of a young adolescent. That conflict is a major function of the plot and keeps the action moving. And what I hope readers will take away is the same thing that I always hope readers will take away—and that is that they will begin to relate to and sympathize with the character. I hope the reader begins to love, or to appreciate, or to like the main character, and that they begin to sympathize with what that character wants. And that is why they turn to the next page and the next.

What are you working on now?

I am actually between projects, because I have finished another book which will be published in 2024. They are already finding an artist for the cover, so I do not have to think about it anymore. Although, of course, I do. I think about it all the time, because it is one more character who I came to think of as in a way myself. It is a girl character and she is out there waiting to be given to the public. The title will not make sense, it is three nouns— Tree, Table, Book. But if you read the book, then you will understand why that is the title.

The Windeby Puzzle: History and Story by Lois Lowry. Clarion, $16.99 Feb. 14 ISBN 978-0-358-67250-0