What if You Could Control Memory: Writing The Giver

Lois Lowry explains her inspiration for writing The Giver.

Transcript (Text)

I told a group of teachers earlier this, and perhaps some of them are here. And now they have to listen to it again. So I'll try to make it very brief.

But before I wrote The Giver, my parents were still alive, and they were very old. And they were both in a nursing home. And my mother was very frail and weak and blind, as well, but her mind was quite intact.

And what she wanted to do in those last months of her life was tell me the stories of her own life. And I became her receiver, I guess. And she was the giver. And she told me of her childhood, her teenage years, her romance with my father, and her marriage and the births of her children and the death of her first child.

Some of her memories were silly. Some of them were unimportant. All of them were important to her. And some, like the death of her first child, my sister, were very sad.

And clearly, as she told them to me, she re-experienced them. And she would chuckle, lying there in the hospital bed in the nursing home, or she would weep.

And then I would go to visit my father when my mother got tired. And my father was up and around. And he could walk around and go to the dining room to eat dinner with the other old guys in his part of the nursing home. But the trouble with my father was that he couldn't remember anything anymore, and he couldn't remember my sister.

So when I looked with him at some photograph albums, and a picture of a pretty teenage girl popped up—I can show you. The same little girl who had read The Gingerbread Boy to me.

He looked, and his face lit up. And he said, oh, there's your sister. And then he said, I can't remember what happened to her. And I told him she died, Dad. And even though it had been 50 years before, for him, it was as if it had just happened. And he was terribly sad.

A few pages on, after he'd looked at other pictures of houses, cars, dogs, grandchildren, there was another picture of Helen. And his face lit up. This was five minutes later. And he said, oh, there's Helen. Whatever happened to her? And I had to tell him again.

At any rate, after that experience with my parents, and it was sort of time to write a new book—I don't know what the last book had been. But I always feel a time when I should be sitting at my desk doing a book. And sometimes I feel, that's it. I'm never going to get another idea. It's all over. But then something happens and triggers an idea.

And in this particular instance, having visited my parents, I was driving back to the airport to return my rental car and get on a plane to come home to Boston. And I started thinking about my parents, and I thought, what if there were some way that you could control memory?

What if Mother could lie there and remember those silly little stories from her past and all those nice things that happened to her? But what if she didn't have to remember the sad stuff?

And when a writer starts thinking like that, what if this or what if that, a story begins to take shape. And so by the time I got home and went to my desk, I began to think, to create the community that would become the Community of The Giver.

I knew it had to be set in the future sometime, because obviously, we haven't yet figured out how to manipulate memory. I had to decide, the way I always do, who is the main character in this book going to be? And there are a lot of choices one can make. Boy or girl? Man or woman? Dog? I even wrote a book once in which the main character is a dog. It's told from his point of view. That was fun.

But I decided this one would be a boy. I don't know why. Perhaps just because I had written about a girl in the book before that. Then I had to decide how old would he be? I knew I was creating this Community of the future, which was so highly technically evolved that they could create and manipulate memory. But who would be—I've forgotten the train of thought I was on.

I knew what the Community would be like, but I had to decide who the main character would be. And so I decided it would be a boy. And I decided to make him just that age, 12, 13 when he's entering adulthood. Because I knew—I didn't know how it would end or what form it would take, but always in a book, the main character has to make some decisions which will change either just the immediate circumstances or the character him or herself, or in the case of a book like The Giver, decisions that will change the whole world.

So I marked this place because it's set at Christmas, and Christmas is coming up. And this is when Jonas, who has never known Christmas or any of these things, receives this memory for the first time.

It said, "he felt the joy of it as soon as the memory began. Sometimes it took a while for him to get his bearings to find his place. But this time, he fit right in and felt the happiness that pervaded the memory.

"He was in a room filled with people, and it was warm with firelight glowing on a hearth. He could see through a window that outside it was night and snowing. And there were colored lights—red and green and yellow—twinkling from a tree, which was oddly inside the room.

"On a table, lighted candles stood in a polished golden holder and cast a soft, flickering glow. He could smell things cooking, and he heard soft laughter. A golden-haired dog lay sleeping on the floor.

"On the floor there were packages wrapped in brightly colored paper and tied with gleaming ribbons. As Jonas watched, a small child began to pick up the packages and pass them around the room to other children, to adults who were obviously parents, and to an older, quiet couple, man and woman, who sat smiling together on a couch."

Now, I'm jumping over some, but I will point out to you that the older man and woman are clearly, you and I know, grandparents. But in Jonas's world, grandparents no longer exist. They are taken off to live in a place called the House of the Old, and they have no contact any longer with what has been their family.

Later, Jonas says, "'I wish we still had that,' he whispered. 'Of course,' he added quickly. 'I do understand that it wouldn't work very well. And that it's much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.'

"'What do you mean?'

"Jonas hesitated, he wasn't certain really what he had meant. He could feel that there was risk involved, though he wasn't sure how. 'Well,' he said finally, grasping for an explanation. 'They had fire right there in that room. There was fire burning in the fireplace, and there were candles on a table. I can certainly see why those things were outlawed. Still,' he said slowly, almost to himself, 'I did like the light they made and the warmth.'"

So this is a world in which, with the eradication of memory, feeling has been destroyed as well. And it answers the question I asked myself in thinking of my parents, would it be a good thing if we could get rid of bad memories and just remember good stuff?

And of course, the answer is no. Everything has to be in a perspective. And if you don't have any sad or bad memories, how would you appreciate the good? Jonas lives in a world where nobody has any depth of feeling left because they have no memories of the past. And of course, he, as the protagonist of the book, is the one entrusted to receive and to keep all the memories for his world.

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