It begins with an idea, and after pages and pages of notes are scribbled onto paper and then typed into sentences, that idea becomes a story. Rewrites, editing, more rewrites and patience eventually turn that story into a book. Authors Jack Gantos and Lois Lowry have not only painstakingly nurtured their ideas into almost 100 completed works between the two of them, they have both received the Newbery Medal, an esteemed honor among authors of children’s literature. Gantos won in 2012 for Dead End in Norvelt (Square Fish, 2011) and Lowry won in 1990 for Number the Stars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989) and in 1994 for The Giver (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993). We caught up with Gantos and Lowry to discuss reading, writing and the inspiration behind their well-known books.
Where do you currently reside? What do you enjoy about the area?
Jack Gantos: I live in downtown Boston – in the South End. I love everything about the city. The history is rich, the culture is vibrant, the food is great and the libraries are brilliant.
Lois Lowry: I am now living in Maine. For many years I had a summer home in Maine, an old 1769 farmhouse. I still have that, and am in it at this moment. But I always lived in Cambridge, as well … my “real” home … until this past spring.
What books were your childhood favorites and why?
Gantos: I gravitated toward history when I was young. The accumulation of extraordinary events that made up the world was fascinating. It was clear to me as a boy that historical events were great stories full of dramatic backdrops and brilliant characters. I grew up in coal mining country in Western Pennsylvania where towns were small and every person I knew had a personal “history” to them. As a boy, world history and personal history were always mashed together.
Lowry: I was a voracious child reader, and an indiscriminate one. I loved The Bobbsey Twins and similar series books … none of them great literature. But I was fortunate to live in a book-filled home with a mother who had been a teacher before her marriage, so I read the classics as well: The Secret Garden was a favorite I remember, as well as Little Women. When I was 8 or 9, my mother read The Yearling … an adult book … to me and it changed my literate life, made me aware of the beauty of language and the passion one could bring to fictional characters. Of course it didn’t hurt that our volume of The Yearling had illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. I had never before been … and have not been since … so moved by a set of illustrations.
What inspired you to begin writing for children?
Gantos: Reading as a child was infinite pleasure for me, and I think that the characters from childhood books – picture books, stories, novels – always stuck with me. Children’s literature is a great art, and it has to be great because children are the most voracious and questioning readers in the country. They read far more books than adults, and the literature they read affects their lives very deeply – can even change lives one way or another. I couldn’t ask for better readers.
Lowry: I was a writer for adults. But an editor at Houghton Mifflin read something by me in a magazine – a short story – and wrote to ask if I would consider writing a book for young people … my first book for kids [was] A Summer to Die, still in print after 33 years! … I began gradually to realize the challenge and the importance, as well as the responsibility, of this field – the fact that books can literally change lives when the reader is 12 or 13. Although I continued for a while to write for adults, gradually my attention and interest shifted almost entirely to young readers.
Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written? How many have you written, published and unpublished?
Gantos: I believe I have about 45 published books and about a dozen unpublished, mostly from the beginning of my career when I was writing extravagantly flawed material. It’s difficult to pick a favorite character. I’m very fond of Rotten Ralph and his antics. I love Joey Pigza and his big heart and wacky, off-center family. The Jack Henry books are all stories taken from my childhood diaries and are about my friends and family members. And I naturally am forever attached to Dead End In Norvelt, which received the Newbery award, and the new From Norvelt To Nowhere.
Lowry: It’s curious that my favorites tend to be the lesser-known books. I’ve published 41, I think, so far. My favorites include Autumn Street, which was autobiographical fiction; and Rabble Starkey and The Silent Boy. Oh, and I love Anastasia Krupnik, which was set in Cambridge.
Jack, where did your inspiration come from when you wrote Dead End in Norvelt?
My mother and her family were from Norvelt and had a home there. When she married my father they stayed in Norvelt, and all my relatives were there and they were terrific storytellers. But I have to say that Miss Volker, the town nurse who was also the town historian, taught me so much. ... She knew all the local folks inside and out, and just by great good luck she groomed me to help her write all the obituaries for the town newspaper. She had arthritis and could no longer manage a pen or manual typewriter and so she dictated incredibly colorful obituaries that were laced with historical events. ... Years later those childhood memories were the germ for Dead End in Norvelt.
Lois, where did your inspiration come from when you wrote The Giver?
I have never been a reader of science fiction or fantasy, particularly; and “dystopian” was not something I had ever thought much about, though I read the standard dystopian novels – 1984 and Brave New World – in college, and later I very much enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps because it was set in Cambridge. But in 1992 my father was in a nursing home, and I visited him often and observed the gradual diminishment of his memory. He didn’t have Alzheimer’s but was very old … and things were slipping away. When I realized that he had forgotten my sister’s death, I began to think about what it might mean to forget things that were painful and sad. Would that perhaps be a good thing? When a writer asks herself questions of that sort, a story begins to take form. That questioning became the start of The Giver.
What do you find to be the hardest part of writing?
Gantos: In the beginning I just gather note after note, and page after page, and riff upon riff, and random swatches of dialog, and images, and statements about the character’s likes and dislikes, and habits and vocabulary, and the themes and what I’m after ... and this steaming heap of notes then has to be parsed and worked into a book. In the short run all the notes stagger me but after constant sorting and writing (about 100 drafts per book), I manage to blindly piece together the narrative and then work on depth.
Lowry: These days I find that the hardest part is making the time and creating the solitude. I am a person who values family, who enjoys the company of a lot of friends and who has an enormous number of professional commitments. All of that is tangential to the writing but a distraction, and often an enjoyable one. As for the writing itself, I don’t really find any of it “hard.” I will say – this will sound odd – that in a book manuscript, for me the most complex section is the last part of the middle third.
You have written for many different age levels. Do you find it challenging to shift between your audiences? Is there one age group you most enjoy?
Gantos: I shift fluidly from one age group to the next, and I like the variety because it is refreshing to me. After writing a 300-page novel, I find that writing a picture book or shorter chapter book – though full of particular difficulties – provides some contrast. Plus, it is not just the change in form which is refreshing, but also the change in voice and the pleasure derived from taking on the persona of a 6-year-old as opposed to a 12-year-old or a 16-year-old. I like the change in costumes.
Lowry: I enjoy each of them. I’ve written for young readers (6-8), middle-grade (9-12), and young adult (12 and up) and each has challenges and satisfactions. I like switching back and forth. I think the reason it is easy for me to do that is because I have quite a remarkably intact and detailed memory of my own early years. I simply slip back into those memories to re-experience the feelings of them. The culture changes, but the feelings don’t.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Gantos: Read a lot of books and really allow yourself to indulge in what you most love in a story. Follow the pleasure.
Lowry: That is one of the most frequent questions I am asked and one of the most difficult to answer. People and their motivations are so different. I encounter young people who want to “be writers” but what they really mean is that they want to see their names in print. If I point out that being a writer consists, for the most part, of sitting alone in a room, working very hard, day after day and probably not ever making much money, well … maybe they don’t want to be a writer after all. But for those who love the thought of the empty room and the hard work, and the work is arranging words, rearranging words and then rearranging words again … who read every spare moment they have, and think about what they read and the way stories are put together, and who sometimes close a book and sit alone reliving the story, remembering it, re-savoring the words of it … those are the ones who may be beginning writers. And you know what? They don’t need my advice.
Do you have another story in the works that you can tell us about?
Gantos: I’m writing the fifth and final Joey Pigza novel. All I can tell you at the moment is the title: The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza.
Lowry: I’m working on a middle-grade book right now but having a hard time making the necessary uninterrupted time. Lots of company. Travel coming up … The Giver movie will be filmed in South Africa starting the end of September. I tend not to talk about work in progress but I will say that the main characters are an 11-year-old and an elderly neighbor.
What’s your most important role as an author?
Gantos: To write books that inflate the internal life of the reader.
Lowry: As a writer for young people I think my most valuable role is to write books that will hold their interest and entertain them, and to populate those books with characters to whom young people can relate. I do not think the role of a writer is to instruct or provide moral lessons. But if young readers enter the consciousness of a book character they love (as I did, at 9, with Jody in The Yearling) … then they will weigh and measure their own behaviors and decisions against those of that fictional character. They will absorb more and retain more … and value what they have absorbed and retained. It will go deeper and last longer. That means the writer for young people has a tremendous responsibility to the audience.
Cheryl Crosby is senior editor of Boston Parents Paper.
Boston Parents Paper is once again sponsoring the Boston Book Festival. Held on Oct. 17 - 19 at various locations in Copley Square, this year’s festival features world-renown authors including Jack Gantos and Lois Lowry, as well as programming for children, teens and families; writing workshops and competitions; outdoor booths; and poetry and music performances.