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Author of The Giver Talks About the Writing Process, Adaptations, Streep, and Bridges

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Answers by Lois Lowry, Author of The Giver

What is the process that a writer goes through while writing a novel?

I sit alone in a room every day and do my work, and that's what I love doing. I enter the lives of these characters that I know are fictional and have appeared in my imagination. But they become so real to me that when I finish a manuscript, its like leaving behind a family that you've been close to, and I love that process.

Part of what I love about writing (as compared to moviemaking) is I get to write the screenplay of course, I write the dialogue, I design the set, I design the costumes, I do the casting, and I choose the camera angles. I do it all, all by myself. So, it was interesting to get involved with the moviemaking and see how it becomes a collaborative act. It's important how all those people work together with those things but I confess, I love having the control myself, I like being in charge of my own imagination. But that's what I do - I sit there, all day, day after day, and I never get tired of it.

Part of the process of course, is constant revision. In the old days, when I began writing books, I worked on a typewriter with carbon paper. You took out a page, rolled in the next page, and that was all you had. That was your only copy. There was no Xerox machine. It was very tedious, and then somebody invented computers. That was life changing for me because it meant that:

a) I could have it in a computer and print out five copies or a hundred copies if I wanted to.
b) I could make revisions easily.

With the typed manuscript, if I wanted to revise three paragraphs on page 83, it meant I'd have to go back. I'd have to reformat the whole thing, go back, and retype all these pages. So I didn't do as much revising as I should have often.

With the computer, it became so easy and so exhilarating to revise that I found it hard to quit. It is always very difficult to type the end, because you keep thinking you can go back, change this and that. You have to say goodbye. You have to know when to let it go, and that's hard.

Which books have you read that influenced you deeply?

I can remember the first book that affected me as a child. It was a book my mother read to me when I was 8 years old. It was published as an adult book, but now I think it's found its way to young adult sections of bookstores. It was called "The Yearling." I was a voracious reader at 8 and I'd been reading since I was 3 (I had read everything that was there for me to read), but this was the first book that portrayed a child (a boy my age) in a real life situation where things are tragic and painful. I remember my mother cried when she read one chapter. I'd never seen my mother cry before, and it was the first time that I realized (though I couldn't have articulated it then) that a book had that power, that literature had that power to affect you emotionally. I had been reading books like Mary Poppins, The Secret Garden, and suddenly here was this devastating book. My mother and I were weeping for words on a page together, and an author had made us do that. Plus, our particular copy of that book had illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, which were just beautiful, so it was the combination. That was the book that I remember most.

What important messages or lessons do you hope your younger audience will take away from your work?

I must confess that I hate the term messages and lessons in regards to a book, a piece of fiction. Because when I was 7, seventy years ago, half the books I read, (maybe all the books I've read) were trying to give me moral lessons, when what I really wanted was just a good story. So what I really want to write is a good story, and I don't want to superimpose messages on a story for kids.

But having said that, I will say that if you write a good story, out of it will arise certain themes and messages (if you want to use the word) because they are part of me. Certain things that I feel will arise out of that material, and maybe you could call it a message, but I would hate to sit down and think "now I'm going to write an instructive book for young people so they will be better human beings."

Identify with the main character - that's what I want my readers to do. To identify with the main character, to follow him and ponder the decisions that he makes, and to relate that to your own life somehow because you're going to have to make decisions. I can't tell you what decisions to make, but you may arrive at those choices through things that you've read.

One of the essential ingredients for fiction, I think, is that the main character (and probably other characters as well but most importantly the protagonist) must be changed by what he undergoes. He must be a different person at the end from what he was at the beginning. I've seen movies, for example, where I've come away thinking '"that was a wonderful performance, why didn't I like that movie?" I will realize that's because the characters are this way at the beginning, and they're still that way at the end, and they haven't changed. Therefore, I haven't changed either by watching them.

How has the social relevance of dystopian novels like "The Giver" changed over time, especially in today's society where surveillance has become such an issue?

One of the things the book is about essentially is the question of what we are wiling to sacrifice or compromise for the sake of our safety and comfort. It's a relevant question because we've seen, in recent years (certainly since 9/11), an erosion of our freedoms. Its something we need to be vigilant about. The book presents a world that has probably experienced the same kind of decision-making process, has made too many compromises, and has sacrificed too much. Freedoms are gone, and now it's seemingly too late to get it all back.

What expectations will readers of the book 'The Giver' have for the film adaptation?

It will probably depend on the age of the reader. The book has acquired a broad spectrum of readers, from age 10-12 to age 80. Readers will take away different things; they'll have different expectations. If they've read the book, I think the youngest readers (the 7 year old who's very gifted or the 10 year old who doesn't like to read but had to read the book in school) will have an enjoyable experience reading what they see is an adventure story. They'll go to the movie, and they'll see the same thing - an adventure story. They won't get anything more from it than that, but that's enough for them. The person who is 70 and who has read the book and thought deeply about issues - political, religious, theological, and philosophical, will find those things in the movie as well. It will depend entirely on individuals in the audience, what they'll expect and what they'll get from the film.

I would love to write for her a truly evil person, because she isn't in The Giver. She's portrayed as an antagonist, but at the end you can see where she's coming from. I've seen Meryl Streep play so many different roles and all of them well. You could almost write anything and be quite certain that she would create that character beautifully." If you could write a character specifically for Meryl Streep, what would it be?

I would love to write for her a truly evil person, because she isn't in The Giver. She's portrayed as an antagonist, but at the end you can see where she's coming from. I've seen Meryl Streep play so many different roles and all of them well. You could almost write anything and be quite certain that she would create that character beautifully.

How do you feel about Jeff Bridges being cast as The Giver in "The Giver"?

Jeff Bridges acquired the book 18 years ago. He was too young to play the role at the time, but now he's gotten old enough to play it. When he acquired the rights to the movie, I was pleased because he was passionate about the book. That meant that he was not just going to buy the book, use the title, and make whatever movie he wanted to make. He was going to take the book and translate it into film. It didn't happen for a long time, but he maintained his passion for it and his dedication to the book. After his father died, he gradually (because he had hoped for his father to play the role) decided he could play the roll. He continued for all those years, and I never lost sight of the fact that I trusted him with the book. I was delighted when they cast the other members of the cast. I didn't know the kids of course, because they were new, but I was astounded at first when they told me Meryl Streep was going to play the role of the chief elder. I hadn't yet read the screenplay and I thought, "Why would she take that role? It's not a very important role. She stands on the stage and gives out the certificates." But of course, the screenwriters had made that role into a much more complex one. She also brought her vision to it and made it even more nuanced. She's incredible and I couldn't have predicted that.

It was interesting to me - Jeff was like the spiritual leader of the community and Meryl's like the political leader, so there's this conflict. That wasn't in the book. I wish I could go back, rewrite the book, and put it in because that added a great deal. Both of them did a terrific job in that final scene. There was also a hint, I thought, that was very nuanced, that she and Jeff had history together. It was a glance or a look. It's amazing how they can do that. That wasn't in the book either, but that could be a whole other book, the two of them.

All of the casting has been remarkable, I think. Alexander Skarsgård playing the father, for example. Alex Skarsgård is known as being a handsome sexy guy, so suddenly it was a very interesting casting because here's this very attractive guy playing this really deeply treacherous role. Katie Holmes - same thing. Katie Holmes is glamorous, young, and you expect her to be playing the romantic lead in a movie. Instead, she's playing this chilling character and doing it beautifully. She made me nervous watching her. So whoever did the casting did a fabulous job.

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