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Sat August 16, 2014
Author Interviews

Lois Lowry Says 'The Giver' Was Inspired By Her Father's Memory Loss

Originally published on Thu August 21, 2014 10:09 am

Just for a second, imagine a world without war, conflict or grief. Refreshing, right? But it's also a world without memory, at least in the premise of Lois Lowry's 1993 novel The Giver. The movie adaptation opened this week and stars Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges.

The Giver swept up nearly every prestigious prize for young adult literature, including the Newbery Medal and the William Allen White Award. It's assigned reading in thousands of schools. Lowry came up with the idea of a scary, sterile world where nearly everyone takes drugs to suppress their memories and emotions after her father was put in a nursing home.

"He didn't have Alzheimer's, but he began to lose pieces of his memory, the way people do as they age," she recalls. One day, she showed her father a photo of her sister, who died at the age of 28.

"And he said, 'I can't remember her name,' and I told him her name," she says. "And he said, 'Whatever happened to her?' And I had to tell him about her death."

Like so many who've suffered the pain of losing someone, Lowry considered — just passingly — how much better our existences might be if we didn't have memories at all.

"And so I began to think about writing a book about people who had found a way to manipulate human memory, so they wouldn't have to remember anything bad," she explains.

Lowry has written more than 40 books for kids and young adults, ranging from a historical novel about the Holocaust (Number the Stars) to a rollicking series about a suburban preteen and her family (the Anastasia Krupnik books) to a fictionalized account of her sister's passing (A Summer to Die). Many have been wildly popular, but The Giver has been Lowry's greatest success. It's sold more than 12 million copies and has been adapted into a play, a musical and an opera.

That's not to say that writing the movie version was easy.

"It was extremely intimidating," admits Michael Mitnick, who's co-credited for the script. "I think I did about 87 drafts of the screenplay."

Mitnick read The Giver as a fifth-grader. Now he's 30, but it's still one of his favorites, he says, for its spare but haunting language — and the questions it raises for young readers.

"Would I prefer a world where there isn't war and there isn't starvation and greed and envy?" he asks. "Or would I instead believe that with the good there comes the bad — and there always has to be both sides of it?"

The Giver includes controversial topics such as euthanasia, and that made Walden Media, which bought the rights to the book early on, at first hesitant to make the movie. "Because it had been banned in some places," explains executive Chip Flaherty.

But then came The Hunger Games. Suddenly, a dystopian fantasy with a built-in following of millions of readers seemed like a worthy risk. Some critics credit The Giver with kicking off the entire dystopian YA trend, but Lowry immediately dismisses the notion.

"I didn't think of it as futuristic or dystopian or science fiction or fantasy," she protests.

Instead, she says, it was just a story like so many of her other ones, about a kid making sense of a complicated world. As the child of an Army officer, Lowry moved all over the globe — often after the school year had started.

"So I would be thrust into classrooms as the new kid," she explains. That made her hypervigilant about recognizing subtle differences between the rules of each new place. For instance, in one school, the girls might wear their socks artfully scrunched down.

"And then you'd be in the next place and the socks were carefully folded over," she laughs. "And it was important to know that. So I would observe those things."

In retrospect, it was perfect training for a writer, Lowry says. She refuses to say what she's working on now — besides her garden, at her renovated farmhouse in Maine. "As female hormones decrease, they're replaced with an overwhelming urge to grow delphinium," she cracks.

At 77, Lois Lowry says it was worth the 18 years it took to see The Giver transferred to the big screen. And she hopes it won't take quite as long to see the three other books in The Giver series become movies, too.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Just for a second try to imagine a world without war, conflict, grief or memory. Now that's the premise of Lois Lowry's novel "The Giver." Since it was published in 1993, it's won nearly every major award for young adult literature. "The Giver" is assigned reading in thousands of schools. The movie version with Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges opened this weekend. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The Giver's world is a scary sterile world. Every person in this dystopian community must wear uniforms and take drugs to suppress their emotions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE ACTOR: I can tell why you've been acting this way. Your injection levels are extremely low.

ULABY: Only two people get to feel deep emotions. The Receiver, whose job it is to remember humanity's history and the Giver, who passes those memories on. Everyone else has an orderly but colorless existence.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GIVER")

ODEYA RUSH: (As Fiona). I know that there's something more -

KATIE HOLMES: (As Mother). Fiona.

RUSH: (As Fiona). - Something missing from our lives. No, not missing - something that has been stolen from me and from you.

ULABY: Author Lois Lowry came up with the idea for "The Giver" after her father went to a nursing home.

LOIS LOWRY: He didn't have Alzheimer's but he began to lose pieces of his memory the way people do as they age.

ULABY: One day, Lowry was showing him family photos, including one of her sister, who died when she was only 28.

LOWRY: And he said I can't remember her name. And I told him her name. And then he said whatever happened to her? And I had to tell him about her death.

ULABY: That made Lowry think the way perhaps so many of us have after the pain of losing someone. Wouldn't it be easier if we didn't have memories at all?

LOWRY: And so I began to think about writing a book about people who had found a way to manipulate human memory so that they wouldn't have to remember anything bad.

ULABY: Lowry's written a lot of books - more than 40 - but none with the impact of "The Giver." Since it was published over 20 years ago, it sold more than 12 million copies.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing together). On this day.

ULABY: "The Giver" has been turned into a play, a musical and an opera performed last year in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing together). On this day.

ULABY: Something about the book lends itself to adaptation, says Michael Mitnick, who co-wrote the movie version. That's not to say it was easy.

MICHAEL MITNICK: It was extremely intimidating. I think I did about 87 drafts of the screenplay.

ULABY: Mitnick read "The Giver" as a fifth-grader in school. Now he's 30. He says the book works in so many different forms because of its spare but hauntingly visual language and because of the questions it raises for young readers.

MITNICK: Would I prefer a world where there isn't war and there isn't starvation and greed and envy?

ULABY: Or instead believe -

MITNICK: - That with the good there comes the bad and there always have to be both sides of it.

ULABY: A book for young people that includes euthanasia and thought-control was controversial.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GIVER")

MERYL STREEP: (As Chief Elder). The boy must hold in the pain.

ULABY: Walden Media bought the book's rights early on and it's co-producing "The Giver" now. But executive Chip Flaherty says the company hesitated about the project at the beginning.

CHIP FLAHERTY: Because of the fact that it has been banned in some places and things like that, you know, you would take a second look.

ULABY: Meaning "The Giver" did not seem like the world's most bankable property. But then came "The Hunger Games." Suddenly, a dystopian fantasy with a built-in following of millions seemed well-worth a second look. Lois Lowry, the book's author, says "The Giver" did not presage any trends.

LOWRY: I didn't think of it as futuristic or dystopian or science fiction or fantasy.

ULABY: It was, she said, just a story like so many of her other ones - about a kid making sense of his or her complicated world. Lowry was a military brat who moved all over throughout her childhood - often after the school year had begun.

LOWRY: So I would be thrust into a classroom as the new kid.

ULABY: Training her, she said, towards hyper-vigilance to each place's rules and culture. For example, in one school the girls might wear their socks artfully scrunched down.

LOWRY: And then you'd be in the next place and their socks were carefully folded over. It was important to know that. So I would observe those things.

ULABY: Lowry says that's what made her a writer. She refused to tell me what she's working on now except in terms of her garden at her farmhouse in Maine.

LOWRY: As female hormones decrease, they're replaced with an overwhelming urge to grow delphinium.

ULABY: Lois Lowry says it was worth the 18 years it took to see "The Giver" transferred to the big screen. And at 77 years old, she hopes it won't take quite as long to see the other books in "The Giver" series become movies too. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.