Best known for her Newbery Award-winning books “The Giver” (1994) and “Number the Stars,” (1990), Lois Lowry has just published a memoir, “Looking Back” (Houghton Mifflin), an updated edition of the autobiography she published nearly 20 years ago. The book, a photo-album-like collection of essays and memories, offers an intimate look at the life of the prolific children’s author. Lowry, who is 79 and lives in Maine, spoke by phone about her long career, how her life story has shaped her work and what she would like to change in her new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How autobiographical is your fiction?
I think I’ve written 45 books, and only two incorporate my actual autobiography: The first one, “A Summer to Die ,” was a fictionalized account of the death of my sister, and a later book, “Autumn Street,” was also autobiographical. Yet I’m aware, looking at my books of fiction, that all of them draw from my own experiences, and I think that’s probably true of every writer.
Even when you’re using your imagination and making up characters, you can’t avoid using the emotions you’ve experienced. The book “The Giver” is the book that most people know me for, and the fourth book in that series has a female protagonist — the young girl who gives birth to a baby on the first page, and then loses him when he is taken away, and spends the rest of the book trying to find him. I think that’s a re-creation of the loss of my own son, and I think that’s why I was able to follow that fictional girl’s emotions as she searched for a lost child.
I’ve also been able to rewrite my own life a bit, by creating characters — young girls primarily — who are the characters I wish I had been. So I did a series about a girl named Anastasia Krupnik. She is as smart as I was, but she’s also popular and funny and witty, and I was none of those things.
Q. The format of “Looking Back” is very striking — using family photographs and quotes from your books. How did that come about?
When we go back through our own lives, using our memories, we do it in fragments. Little things float to the surface. And that’s how the book began to take its form, with things floating up out of context sometimes. So I structured it more thematically. To me it becomes a little bit more interesting than just a chronological narrative.
Q. The book mentions the deaths of your sister at 28, and your son, in his thirties. You don’t linger on these experiences, but they have a big impact on the book as a whole.
Anybody who lives to a certain age has moments of tragedy in their lives, and we try to incorporate that as we go forward. To dwell on them would have defeated the purpose of the book, but to ignore them would have been dishonest.
Certainly those were the most significant moments of my life, first my sister when we were young, and the death of my son when he was young. Those are things that affect you permanently. My sister died in 1962, within weeks of my last child being born, so there was that juxtaposition of loss and the joy of new life. Often in my books, there are deaths and births, too.
Q. In “Looking Back,” you reach the conclusion that family, friends, favorite books, all “teach us how to be on our own.” What do you mean by this?
I came to that understanding after my son’s death. Because he died in a military accident, there was an investigation. People in uniform came to my house and gave me the transcript of his words in the cockpit. That was when I learned his last words, said to the pilot of the plane he’d been flying in formation with: “You’re on your own.” I was putting this book together at the time. I thought about him, of course, but I also thought about how, actually, as we make our way through things, we are essentially on our own.
But just in the last few days, I had a conversation with the man who appears at the end of this book, Howard, who is a psychiatrist, retired. He has lost his wife and a son, and I had lost a son and a husband. Howard had just read this new version of the book with him in it, and he said: “I disagree with you about one thing. I don’t think we’re on our own. We’re made up of all the people who have been part of our lives.”
And of course that’s true — all those people have become part of us. If I were to redo this book again, maybe I would leave that part out.
Carole Burns’s book“The Missing Woman and Other Stories,” won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award by Ploughshares.
Lois Lowry will be at the National Book Festival, Sept. 24, at the Washington Convention Center.
Houghton Mifflin. 272 pp. $18.99