I attended that conference nervous, unsure, skeptical, but I left it feeling like I’d found the place I belonged. Lois Lowry spoke with such straightforwardness and respect (and humor!) for writing and so many things she said clicked with me. Here are some of my notes from Lois Lowry’s presentations that weekend:
“People don’t give readers enough credit. Readers can make the jump if a chapter ends one place, and the next opens in another.”
On endings: “There is a temptation to wrap things up and explain everything. Don’t keep going and going, explaining everything.”
“Think of the ending as a new beginning.”
Messages books are bleh. (My notes, I’m not sure “bleh” is exactly how Ms. Lowry worded it.)
“The best way to deliver a message is through strong, engaging characters.”
If you’d like to learn more about Lois Lowry, you can visit her website. She also maintains a blog, which is one of my favorites. But the best way to learn more about Lois Lowry--or at least what I would recommend most highly--is her autobiography, Looking Back: A Book of Memories. It’s a really wonderful collection of photos and anecdotes from her life.
Describe your workspace.
I live in two places: Cambridge, Massachusetts (where my workspace looks like a writer's workspace SHOULD, because it has floor to ceiling bookcases across one entire wall); and Bridgton, Maine, where I am at this moment. I love my workspace here. This is an old farmhouse---1768----and it is attached, as New England farmhouses always were, to a large barn.
Between the barn and the house, connecting them, was a garage (once it would have been the place for the buggies) and a shed with feed bins, which was still in its unfinished state when I bought the property. If you look at the photo in snow, with a wreath on the barn door, you'll see a small window to the left.
But now look at the photograph of what I call the barn garden, the flower garden in front of the barn, and you will get a glimpse of the new windows---three of them---installed when I renovated that unfinished room and turned it into my studio.
And the view from those windows is of gardens, meadow, apple trees, wild life (turkeys here; but could be deer or woodchucks or coyote), and (on the day I took this picture) a rainbow.
But back to workspace (though in truth I think the exterior, and the view, is intrinsic to a workspace). The contractor preserved the old barn boards and beams (with their hand-hewn nails) but turned it into a cozy, warm, comfortable place for me to work.
I spend the whole summer here but come up here frequently also during the winter (and it gets COLD in Maine, in winter!) But I turn the heat on in the studio and it is toasty in minutes.
Describe a typical workday.
So, as you can see, my typical workday includes bits and pieces from whatever projects I am working on (often there are interviews as well). But always there is an ongoing manuscript, and after getting the other things out of the way, I turn my attention back to that. In summer I have a lot of interruptions for company, and in winter I do an enormous amount of traveling, so I have become a master of the art of writing-in-spurts. I go back to the manuscript, re-read, often revise a bit, and then move ahead with it.
When I’m alone here, as now, I don’t worry about cooking or even eating---I just graze and nibble; so I work long uninterrupted days. But when company comes (and the next batch is arriving late this afternoon) I cook (and shop, and plan) so work gets relegated, as it were, to the back burner. Next Monday I will wave goodbye to my company and then I have a full uninterrupted week to work. That’s rare, and very welcome.
This would be easier to do if I were at my “regular” home, in Cambridge. It would be hard, in fact, to narrow it down to three. But here? I love the old photographs on the wall. They date back 30+ years, when I was a photographer of children, and these are some I have saved form those times. The two large framed prints are by Egon Schiele, of the village in Czechoslovakia, where he lived, called Cesky Krumlov. I have spent time in Cesky Krumlov, during a tour of eastern Europe, and it is a very special place. So I especially love these two views of it. The third thing that is my favorite—it should be listed first!---is my dog, Alfie, who is always at my feet (and is at this moment). You can see a dog bed in the photo of the studio---usually he is curled up on it. But when I took the picture, he was sitting by my feet.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I don’t, really.
I sometimes turn on my iTunes, where I have tons of music stored, and find that most often I listen to the Bach Cello Suites. I bet I have played the Bach Cello Suites 200+ times, and always when I’m working.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Right now I have a cup of coffee beside me---I always bring my morning coffee out here. Then I switch, later in the day, to iced tea. I drink gallons of iced tea. In winter, back in Cambridge, usually hot tea. With lemon. No snacks.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
I have a MacBook that I take with me when I travel (I should put travel stickers on it, the way people used to do on suitcases!) and an iMac back in Cambridge. You can see the laptop in my studio photograph. Periodically I email my unfinished manuscript to myself so that it will be on my computer back home. Like all writers, I live in fear of losing unfinished work.
I’ve lost the ability to write easily in longhand. But occasionally I sit on the screened porch of my house, and now and then I can putter with writing there. Here’s a photo of work I did on the porch: I was adapting my book Gossamer to the stage, and before I began writing the actual script, I had to go through the book, of course, and break it down into scenes.
I did the same thing with the Shaker Village research---sat on the porch with all those notes and put them in order as I figured out how to structure the book.
I love my porch. I can see the bird feeders from there.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
It is almost always hard to identify the origin of an idea. But here’s a photograph of Alfie, last summer, examining a mouse. I found the mouse, quite unafraid, in my house that day, and carried it outside, Alfie at my heels, quite intrigued. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mouse, and though I was in the midst of another book, I set it aside and started a book in which the main characters are all mice. It’s the one Eric Rohmann has just illustrated so beautifully: Bless This Mouse.
Everything plotwise is in my head rather than in the computer or on paper. I don’t really have an “outline” in the classic sense, but I have a feel for the structure of the book, what will flow into what, which tributaries will veer off, and at what turning they will come back. I always see the ending and aim for it, in my mind. But---to continue the watery metaphor---the actual ebb and flow, the splashing around, the rocks and the quiet pools---they all come with the writing itself.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
The story itself. I get so intrigued by whatever plot I’m working on that I have no trouble at all staying focused.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
If I had to share my actual studio, though, it would be with Yo-Yo Ma. He could sit in the corner and play the Bach Cello suites.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
Don’t waste so much time talking about writing. Write.
Thank you so much to both Lois Lowry and Zilpha Keatley Snyder for allowing us a glimpse into where and how they work! Remember to comment on this interview post to win a copy of Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry, signed by both her and illustrator Jules Feiffer. (And you can still comment on yesterday's post to win a copy of William S. and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.) I'll draw names and announce the prize winners on Sunday.