Lois Lowry, THE WINDEBY PUZZLE: History and Story

Lois Lowry, THE WINDEBY PUZZLE: History and Story

Newbery Medalist and New York Times bestselling author (and one of Zibby’s childhood author idols!!) Lois Lowry joins Zibby to discuss The Windeby Puzzle: History and Story, an evocative tale of a boy and a girl battling to survive during the Iron Age, inspired by the true discovery of the 2,000-year-old Windeby bog body in Germany. Lois talks about her fascination with the discovered body, which scientists determined was a thirteen-year-old girl and then a sixteen-year-old boy, hence her two protagonists and the dual narrative she so masterfully weaves together. Lois also shares the fascinating details of her life – from a childhood of international moves, new schools, and crippling shyness, to getting married and having four children before the age of 26, to finally getting her writing published.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lois. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, The Windeby Puzzle.

Lois Lowry: Thank you. This is my first opportunity, actually, to talk about that book.

Zibby: I’m honored. I am also honored that you’re coming on this podcast. I have been reading your books my entire life. I was like, do you think there’s any way she’d say yes? I am just over-the-moon excited. This new book is so interesting. I learned so much, particularly, the way you analyzed and thought about how to recreate someone’s life. All the research you must have done — or did you make it all up? Why don’t you tell readers what The Windeby Puzzle is about?

Lois: I first have to explain that timing is all. This was spring of 2020. We all remember. That was the beginning of the pandemic when things started to fall apart. My husband went off in an ambulance to the hospital. I couldn’t visit him, of course. He was gone for eighty-six days. I was home alone. Of course, I’m an introvert anyway. Most writers are. Being home alone is not a hardship for me. I was spending all my time reading. I’m just remembering. We all panicked in those early days. I was also having groceries delivered to my house from Whole Foods. This is more than you need to know.

Zibby: No, I love it. I love all this stuff.

Lois: TMI. One day, I didn’t realize that the groceries had been delivered and were on my front porch, and I let the dog out. The dog went through the grocery bags and removed a roast chicken, which he then buried under my rhododendrons. Okay, that’s neither here nor there. That’s the way my life was at that time. In the course of sitting around and reading everything I could get my hands on, which I always do anyway, I happened upon an article — I don’t even remember where it was; it might have been scrolling through my phone — about this body that had been found in Northern Germany. It had been found in 1952, so this wasn’t new news. I don’t recall why it was being written about at that time. I looked at a picture of this body which had been found in a peat bog. Of course, many such bodies have been found, I now know.

Zibby: I now know too.

Lois: The interesting thing is that although they’ve been there for a long time, they’re not skeletons because the chemical composition of the peat preserves them. Their skin is intact. They have fingernails and facial expressions. It’s all kind of macabre, but I found it fascinating, particularly because this particular body had been deemed to be a thirteen-year-old girl. Those are my people. Those are the people I think about all the time because I write primarily for that sort of person. A thirteen-year-old girl is my ideal audience, often. Also, in order to do that writing, I had to go back into being my thirteen-year-old self. When I saw this body, the face of this child, I started wondering why she had died at that age. There’s no way to know, of course. There’s no written history. That’s when I started doing the research. At the same time — I did this too quickly — I began to write a story about that girl. It had been determined by carbon dating that she was two thousand years old. She’d been alive in the first century. Without doing enough research, I started writing a story. I googled “old German names” on my computer. I gave her a name. She began to be real. I gave her a life.

I was aiming toward, unfortunately, a death because that’s what the story was going to be about. How and why had this child died two thousand years ago drowned in a peat bog? I was writing that story and going about it, as I always do, creating a character, creating a life, secondary characters, a setting. What was her home? Now and then, I would do research. What did people live in in the first century? I was able to create all that. Then of course, as I went along doing more research about that particular body, I discovered that a later scientist with better access to things like DNA and CAT scans, which hadn’t been available when the girl was found, the child was found, a later scientist used all those tools and announced, ta-da, it’s not a girl. It’s not thirteen. It’s a sixteen-year-old boy. Instead of throwing away in anger all the stuff I had written, I kept it, and I wrote a second story about the sixteen-year-old boy. It’s quite clear in the book that these are made-up people. It’s just speculation. What might a child’s life, adolescent’s life have been like at that time? Why would they have died in such a bizarre and horrible fashion? That’s what that book is about.

The original title — I thought of this when you held it up. The original title was what the scientist had called that body. They named all those bodies by the place in which they were found. This one, they called, and still do, The Windeby Child. That’s what I named the book. Often, I don’t name a book until after it’s written. Then I pluck a phrase out or find something that seems just right, but this was called The Windeby Child. Then it was the editor who, at some point, suggested, rightly, I guess — I don’t guess; rightly, I know — that teenagers will not pick up a book with “child” in the title. You didn’t want to leave out a potential audience simply because of what I had called the book. They asked me to rename it. After a while, you start thinking of titles, and you think of too many of them. You try to be alliterative. After a while, they all just seem terrible. Because there was an element of trying to put together pieces of a puzzle in this book, that’s what I ended up calling it. When you held it up and said the name and I saw the name because I’ve got the same advanced readers copy right here, it still doesn’t feel like exactly the right title, but it was the best I could come up with.

Zibby: We’ll run with it. We’ll make it perfect. The sixteen-year-old boy, that was the character who’s the friend, right? They went to the bog together.

Lois: Instead of creating an entirely new sixteen-year-old boy, I used a boy who had been in the first story and then told his story.

Zibby: I figured as much. First of all, the whole bioluminescence of the peat bog, I did not know that is why people thought they were seeing spirits, which I thought was a nice little science fact. Thank you for googling and teaching me a little something for the day. Also, why, when the girl was found, was half her head shaved, did you make that up?

Lois: I jumped over that part. In the original finding of the body, she had long blond hair, which is still visible on the body, but only on one side of her head. The hair had been removed from the other side. She was blindfolded with a piece of multicolored fabric. I had to account for those two things. In doing the research, I discovered — there were many places I could find bits and pieces of information, but the best source, actually, was from a Roman historian, Tacitus, first century, who had traveled to Northern Germany, which was not yet part of the Roman Empire. He had written about the Germanic tribes and how they lived. I can remember thinking, hey, I took four years of Latin in high school. I bet I could read it in the original Latin. I didn’t even try. There were translations. It was in Tacitus that I discovered there were particular crimes for which the hair might be shaved. Drowning in a peat bog was the sentence given to women who were adulterers. That was one possibility, that this thirteen-year-old child had sneaked off into the woods with somebody’s husband. It didn’t feel right for me. I had to account for the hair and the blindfold in other ways while remaining true to what I had learned about the rituals and the religious ceremonies that the people did have at that time. Then later when it was deemed to be not a girl, but a boy, it was also announced that the hair had probably not been shaved as some kind of punishment, but that the peat cutters, in grasping and digging up the body, had torn the hair off of one side of the head, and that it was not actually the blindfold. It was probably a piece of fabric that the boy had used to tie back his long hair. In the burial or the digging up, it had simply been pulled down over his eyes. There are all sorts of explanations. We’ll never know which of them, if any of them, are true.

Zibby: Much more interesting to have it be a blindfold. In the book, you start out by basically telling the reader in part one, when you call it History, exactly what you’ve said here. You start it with an introduction where you discuss it. You do have a portion in here when you talk about your own life and how — can I just read this little paragraph about you? You say, “We live our stories in various locations. Some of us, perhaps, end where we start without ever having explored other realms. Others find it hard to stay put. Me, I was born on a tropical island. I moved later to a big city, then to a small town, then to another city in a different country, then to another and another and another. I had siblings. Along the way, I was educated. Eventually, I married and had four children. I lived in different kinds of houses: big ones, small ones, old ones, new ones. I had dogs and cats, several horses along the way, and once briefly, a pet racoon –” definitely want to ask you about that — “a bicycle and another bicycle and cars and more cars and more. I went back again for more education. I chose a career. My children grew up. One died. I loved, and I was loved. I grew old. Those facts are not particularly interesting, but when I embellish them with the details that surround each fact and what those details meant, how important they were, then the story is filled out and raises questions and takes on meaning, and the story gradually becomes me.”

Lois: That could be said with different details, of course, for any human being.

Zibby: What tropical island were you born on?

Lois: I wish I could say something hugely odd or romantic like Easter Island. Actually, I was born on Honolulu. My father was a military officer. He was stationed there at the time that I was born. Then World War II began. He went off to the war. Now here’s, again, too much information because you didn’t ask me all of this. My mother took her then two children — I had an older sister — back to the little town where our grandparents lived. I grew up in the best-possible circumstances my early life, elementary school in a little college town in Pennsylvania, the place I still feel very fond of, though I no longer have any relatives there. Then the war ends. Dad comes home briefly. I remember going with him — I was eight when the war ended — to the men’s clothing store in that little town for him to buy some civilian clothes. Then he has to go back to Japan. He’s going to be there for who knows how long. After a while, we, my mother, sister, and by then, a little brother, went to Japan. I went through junior high — junior high no longer exists. Now it’s called middle school. I went through junior high in Tokyo. Then the Korean War began, 1950. I was thirteen that summer. Dad had to stay. My father was on the staff of the hospital in Tokyo. Casualties were coming in from Korea. He was concerned about our being there, so he sent us back to the States. We went back to that little town in Pennsylvania until he could return home. When he did, then high school, New York City. It was really the best of many possible worlds. From high school, I went to college, to Brown in Rhode Island.

Zibby: Where did you go to high school in New York? I’m here now in New York City.

Lois: I went to Packer in Brooklyn Heights. At that time, it was all girls. Now it’s co-ed. It probably was much less expensive then than it is now. I loved Packer. I still am in touch with friends from those days. I graduated from there in 1954, many years ago. I still have a very fond spot in my heart for Packer and for where I lived in New York, best possible piece of real estate. I lived on Governors Island.

Zibby: Oh, wow. Very rare.

Lois: I’ve been over there. My house, still standing, is now an art gallery, at least when I was there. Who knows what it is now. People don’t live there anymore. In my day, families lived there. My little brother went to a little school on Governors Island. He was in fourth grade. Many kids went off to boarding school when they began high school. Some, like me, would take a boat and then a train and go to high school in New York City.

Zibby: Did all of the moving around and the different communities and cultures inspire you to write for this age? Am I just making that up?

Lois: You’re probably making it up. I was always an introvert and introspective and painfully shy. Moving around could’ve been very difficult for me, again and again being thrust into a new schoolroom, a new classroom, often in the beginning of the year. Not in the beginning of the year. The middle of the year. Everybody’s already formed their little groups of friends. I always had the fashions wrong. When I moved from one place to another, the fads would be different. Setting that aside, I think the fact that I was curious and introspective made me very — I’m trying to think of the word I want. Henry James allegedly once said a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost. Darn, I can’t think of the word. I noticed stuff. I was observant. Observant is the word I was trying to think of. I would be in a new situation, and instead of being overwhelmed by it or, as my older sister was, annoyed — oh, we have to move. She hated that. I loved it because it gave me new stuff to learn about, to think about, to wonder about. It was a wonderful growing-up experience for me.

Zibby: When did you start writing? How did it relate to when you had kids and all of that?

Lois: I had always, from the time I learned to read, very young because my sister taught me when she started school — from the time I knew people wrote books, that’s what I always wanted to do. That’s what I majored in at Brown, but it was the 1950s. I went to Brown when I had just turned seventeen years old, majoring in English with a concentration on writing. They had a special writing major. It was an honors program. They let me in. I loved that. As I mentioned, it was the fifties. I had a boyfriend when I got to Brown who was two years older, so he graduated when I was a sophomore. He wanted to get married. What did I know? I just dropped out of Brown and got married. I had four children in five years before I was twenty-six. My aspirations of being a writer really got put on hold. When my youngest child, Ben, went to kindergarten, I went back to college, an undergraduate school, and began writing. It did not occur to me to write for kids. Surprising. I had a houseful of books that I read to my kids. I saw myself as a writer for adults. I’m going to write the great American novel, of course. I must have had a lot more energy then than I do now. I had these kids and a big house, dogs and cats and, actually, horses for a while out in the pasture. I had two girls and two boys. I used to make the girls’ clothes. I would clean up the breakfast dishes and put the sewing machine on the kitchen table and make clothes for the kids.

At any rate, at the same time, I was going to school and writing my own papers. In my spare time — now I can’t remember when I had any spare time. I used the same typewriter I had taken to Brown when I was seventeen and was writing short stories, which I would send off to magazines, which sent me rejection slips, very often, wonderful rejection slips. There were more magazines then that published fiction than there are now. There are so few now. Finally in 1975, perhaps, Redbook — still exists, I think, Redbook, but I don’t think it publishes fiction anymore. They bought a story I had written, published it. It was a story for adults, but it was seen through the eyes of a child. A children’s book editor wrote to me after having read that story, wrote to me “In care of Redbook,” which forwarded her letter, and said, “You sound like somebody who might be able to write for young people. Would you consider writing a book for –” It was a distinguished publisher. It had not occurred to me to do that, but it was so rare to get an invitation from an editor. They didn’t promise to publish anything. Still, they were interested. I wasn’t going to have to just send it in cold and hope somebody read it. Then they did publish that first book in 1977.

I was still, on the side — I was doing several things. Forget the house, the horses, and the dogs and the husband and the kids. I was also studying photography in graduate school and doing a lot of professional photography. In my spare time, I was still writing for adults. When that first book was published for what they call young adults, the response from kids was so gratifying, so touching. In those days — this was 1977. No email. Nowadays, I get emails from all those kids. In those days, it was handwritten letters. Sometimes it was, “This is a class assignment. Please write me back by November 27th.” More often, it was heartfelt, kids who said, “This book changed my life.” I began to view with more importance, the task of writing for young people. I continued to do it. I continued doing other things as well. Gradually, that became my primary focus. Also, not surprising, the seventeen-year-old girl who married the nineteen-year-old boy — no, I’m sorry. I was nineteen when we got married. He was twenty-one by then. Those two children grew up and went in different directions, and so my marriage ended. I had to make a living for the first time with my degree in English. At any rate, it turned out that writing books for kids was the way in which I could do that. That sounds mercenary. I don’t mean it that way, but it was the only skill I had, to be honest.

Zibby: Wow. I also have four kids, two boys and two girls. I also got divorced. I’m now remarried. I also got an essay published in Redbook. I also used to be painfully, painfully shy. I’m still introverted. There you go.

Lois: So you can relate to some of that.

Zibby: I can relate to some of your story very much. That’s wonderful, the validation that you got in the beginning. Do you just keep coming up with ideas? Tell me about life now. Was your husband okay when he came home after the eighty-six days?

Lois: Yes, he’s in the other room right now.

Zibby: Great.

Lois: It took him a long time. He lost thirty pounds in those eighty-six days. He had to learn to walk again. That was several years ago. He’s doing fine. We’re both getting old, but that has nothing to do with COVID. Now I’ve forgotten. You had asked me something, and I’ve forgotten.

Zibby: Are you continually inspired to keep doing it?

Lois: How do I come up with things? I have written — I haven’t counted lately, but I think fifty-two books. Some of them have fallen into the category of series. There was a very popular series about a character named Anastasia Krupnik.

Zibby: I am well aware.

Lois: It was fun to do, but if you did nothing but that, I can only speak for myself, it would get tedious after a while. I like to go back and forth with different kinds of books. That particular new book is the first one I have done that reaches so far back in history, but I have done a couple of others. One was set in the time of the flu epidemic. I’ve done two set in early nineteenth century. I’ve done lighthearted books. The one that was published the first years of the pandemic, so our book tour was canceled, was done in verse. I had not done that before. I guess I keep myself interested by trying different things. Some have worked better than others. It’s exhilarating to set out on a new adventure each time. I wait until something strikes me the way this child’s body caught my interest. Professors of writing often are guilty of saying, write what you know about, but I think it’s more intriguing to write what you don’t know about. Write what you wonder about. Write what you’re curious about. Write what you want to know about. I do have another book finished, which is scheduled for publication in 2024. What I’ll do after that, I have no idea. Something will come to me. Some trigger will happen, and there will be an idea. Often, what formed the first idea morphs into something else when I sit down to write it. That’s okay too.

Zibby: What’s the book that’s coming out next year, or 2024, rather?

Lois: It’s a realistic contemporary middle-grade book. Main character’s an eleven-year-old girl. It’s about her friendship with the eighty-ninety-year-old woman who lives next door whom she considers her best friend.

Zibby: Aw, that’s lovely. Can I ask what happened to your child who passed away?

Lois: My son Grey, he was my second child. I had girl, boy, girl, boy. You ask a simple question. It has a background that leads to the answer.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Lois: He went to college, majored in economics. Didn’t really know what he wanted to do. His father, my ex-husband, was a lawyer. He had no interest in law school. He was an adventurer and an athlete. He wanted to fly, so he took the tests to enter the air force and became a fighter pilot in the air force. Sadly, that’s how he died, in a fighter plane. However, he left me an enormous gift. He had one child who was two years old when he died. She’s my only granddaughter. She’s so much like him. She, of course, doesn’t remember him. She lives in Germany. He had married a German woman when he was stationed in Germany as a hot-shot young lieutenant. He went to buy a Porsche, of course. Here was this beautiful young woman who had majored in languages and business and was the office manager of the Porsche agency. She took him out for a test drive. He married her. She and I are still very close. I talked to her by FaceTime last Saturday. She still lives in Germany. Until the pandemic, I went over there every year. She would bring her daughter and would come to Maine to see me.

Zibby: That is so lovely. He took after your dad, then. Is he the only military of your kids?

Lois: My husband now, who was a doctor, spent his military time. Most men of a certain age have spent time in the military because they were required to. Howard was a navy doctor for a while, but he didn’t make it a career. My brother was a navy doctor also.

Zibby: Would you ever consider doing a memoir?

Lois: I have done one of a sort. It’s called Looking Back. I think they refer to it as a photographic memoir. My father was a fabulous photographer. It wasn’t his profession, but we always had a darkroom in our house. I ended up with mountains of old photographs that are much better than the crummy black-and-white snapshots that most people had in the forties. I was going through them and reliving my life by looking at pictures. I put them together in sequence relating them to books I had written. It’s hard to describe. Each photograph that was ultimately selected for the book was selected because it also had some relation to a book that I later wrote. All of that is put together. It’s called Looking Back.

Zibby: I will have to go get that one now. I will get that next.

Lois: There are two versions of it because they asked me to update it a few years ago. I did, and so there’s some added stuff at the end. I’m just remembering the cover. The cover of the first version, published by Houghton Mifflin, whatever year it was, has a picture of me at age four. It’s a very pretty picture of a little blond girl with big blue eyes looking at the camera. Then when they redid it, they used a different picture, which is actually, I think, a better cover. It’s me and my sister. We’re probably six and nine. We’re at the beach. We are wearing the ugliest bathing suits you have ever seen standing next to each other scowling at the camera. You can just see what both of them are thinking.

Zibby: I’m sorry I didn’t read that ahead of time. I would have, but I’ll go back and read it now. This has been so lovely. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. All the TMI parts were my favorites. That’s the best. Thanks for being so open and for all you’ve given the world and all of your writing and just for spending thirty minutes of it with me. Thanks.

Lois: I’ve enjoyed it. It’s like being in a friend’s house. I’m sorry we didn’t have a glass of wine or a cup of tea.

Zibby: That would’ve been lovely. I know. Next time.

Lois: Next time, okay. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Take care. Buh-bye.

Lois Lowry, THE WINDEBY PUZZLE: History and Story

THE WINDEBY PUZZLE: History and Story by Lois Lowry

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