Grapevine: last updated 07/20/2009

An Interview with Katherine Paterson

Janice Flint-Ferguson: We're here this afternoon with award-winning author Katherine Paterson as part of the community reads program partnership with Gordon College and the Hamilton-Wenham Library Association. I am Janis Flint-Ferguson, professor of English and education at Gordon. It's a real honor to do this interview since I have been a Katherine Paterson stalker. I asked a friend of mine who's a teacher at a middle school in Revere if her students who have read your book had some questions for you. They wanted to know why Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia had to die?

Katherine Paterson: That's the question I get a lot—I get accused of murder on a regular basis. I wrote the book because our son David's best friend when he was 8 years old was a girl named Lisa Hill, and the summer after second grade Lisa went with her family to the beach, where she was playing on a dune, dancing, and a bolt of lightning struck her and she died. If I could have done what I wanted to do I would have brought her back from the dead, but I couldn't even really comfort my own child, so I did what writers do—I wrote a story.

J: I heard you saying that some of the losses you experienced in your own life, you began to realize, were also found in Bridge to Terabithia.

K: Absolutely, because it was the same spring before Lisa died that I had been diagnosed with cancer. And of course my children thought I was going to die. I didn't know if I would or not. So it was really a very difficult year, and I started writing the book to try to make sense of the death and stopped when I knew if I wrote the next chapter Leslie would die. I just couldn't write it. A friend said, "What are you working on?" I said, "I'm trying to write this story about a friendship between a boy and a girl, and the girl was going to die, but I can't let her die." I thought I was being very clever—or psychologically astute—and I said, "I guess I can't bear to face Lisa's death again." And my friend Estelle said, "I don't think it's about Lisa's death." When I realized it was my own death I was going to have to look square in the face, I went back and finished the book.

J: Why a book like that for children? Was it truly just your son's experience that you were working with?

K: I was writing a story I had to write, and I didn't know whom it was for. I knew it was for me. Everyone thinks it was for my son, but I didn't have any illusion that he was going to be comforted or healed by it. I was trying to make sense out of something that didn't make sense to me, and I know a story has to make sense. I wasn't sure it was ever going to be published, and when my editor chose to publish it, I wasn't sure that anyone but my family would understand it. I am astounded at the response.

J: And still that's what amazes me about these questions coming from students who are still reading Bridge to Terabithia; it is still so real and honest and authentic to their experience.

K: I think I learned in writing Bridge to Terabithia that if you're willing to go inside yourself and expose yourself at a very deep level, readers will come to you at that same level. It takes two to make a book.

J: The children were also wondering what your favorite book was as a child?

K: I was very fortunate I had a mother who read to me—to all of us; there were 5 of us. At the beginning it was Beatrix Potter and books like that. As I got a little older, The Secret Garden was my absolute favorite book, and then when I was 11 my mother gave me a copy of The Yearling, and that was my favorite book.

J: And were you writing back then as well?

K: I always ask students if they'd like to hear my first published work, and of course they always do. My first published work went like this: "Pat, pat, pat, there is the rat, where is the cat? Pat, pat, pat." And right beside this, which was published in the Shanghai American school newspaper—I lived in China as a child—was a letter from the teacher that said, "This second grader's work is not up to standard this week." So my first published work was published alongside my first critical review. When people ask, "Did she show any early promise?" No. "Did anyone think she was going to be a writer?" No. "Did she think she was going to be a writer?" Of course not.

J: So it was the story with your son and his playmate that really made you think about writing?

K: No, I had been writing for some time before that book was published. I was asked to write a book for the Presbyterian Church when our older son was born. So I started writing seriously in 1964. I wrote the book the church asked me to write, and then for seven years I wrote and published one short story; the tiny magazine that published it folded the following month. And I sold one poem, and the magazine that bought that folded before it was published. It was seven years between the book I wrote for the church and my first novel, which was The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, which I'll mention tonight in the talk because we're talking about historical fiction.

J: Certainly you've received a lot of interest in your historical fiction—Lyddiebeing one, as well as Jip and Bread and Roses?

K: The ones that are set in this country have done much better than the ones set in Japan or China. I love historical fiction—I wish I could do more of it.

J: Thinking about the book Bread and Roses, Too and the author's note talking about the photo of the children who were sent to Vermont. Was that the first time you had heard about the connection between the children and the abuses in the mills?

K: Yes. I didn't know this part of my town history. After we left China I was raised in the southern part of the United States, and the only thing I knew about the Industrial Revolution was the cotton gin. The New England factory phenomenon was totally unknown to me until I moved to New England and became fascinated with it. I was at a conference where I heard some letters from Vermont farm girls read, and chills went up and down my spine; I said, "Somebody's got to write about these things." I was careful not to go to books in print to see if someone else had because I wanted to write about them.

J: I love the setting in Lawrence of Bread and Roses, Too. I've done consulting work in the schools in Lawrence, so I've seen the mills that are along the river. I had no idea about the strike and the social upheaval that went on there.

K: It's amazing because it was probably the most successful labor strike in American history—certainly up until that time and maybe since then because they got every single thing they asked for. They should have asked for a lot more. But the sad thing is that it just dropped off the radar because the towns and churches somehow made the people ashamed of their triumph. So they didn't talk about it even to their own children. A reporter in the 1960s went to Lawrence because he became fascinated with the story, which is largely untold in American history. He found out that the daughter of a young woman who had been scalped by a machine and testified to Congress was still alive. He was thrilled with the idea of interviewing the daughter. Lo and behold, the daughter had never heard the story. Now if you had been scalped by a machine, I think you might have told somebody. And if you had been taken to Washington to testify before a congressional committee at age 14 and had been entertained at the White House, don't you think you would have told your children? Well, the daughter began to weep when the reporter told her. She said, "My mother liked for me to comb her hair, and she liked for me to comb it over the bald spot; but I never knew why she had a bald spot." I find it absolutely not only incredible but so painful that these people could not be proud of what they had done.

J: And the opportunities that they opened up for other mill workers.

K: That strike inspired other mill workers who were truly oppressed during that time to strike.

J: When you take nuggets of history and think about your young protagonists, how do you develop those characters? Are you working with the information you have in front of you? Do you have an image of the protagonist in your mind?

K: I got the idea of writing Bread and Roses, Too from seeing the picture of the children who had come from Lawrence to my hometown in Vermont. I thought I really needed to have more than one protagonist. That's why I have Rosa and Jake. You look at the jacket and think it's a girl's book, but it's actually Jake's story maybe even more than Rosa's story. I wanted to have a child who would live on in Barry, Vermont—who would not return to Lawrence. I knew that had to be a child who had not really been sent there, because the parents who sent their children to Barry were loving parents, and they would not have stood for their child not returning home. So it had to be a child whom nobody would miss if he were to stay on in Barry. That's why he stows away on the train.

J: I'm going to change directions a bit here. Gordon is a Christian college, and you have your own journey of faith that I've heard you talk about in a number of different settings; one of my favorite was at the children's lit assembly at NCTE (National Council of Teachers) on a Sunday morning. I was thinking, "Preach it, Katherine!" Periodically there is some criticism on how tough and gritty some of your realistic fiction is. 

K: Sadly, most of my criticism comes from my Christian brothers and sisters—not from the secular world.

J: That is sad. Here we talk a lot about the integration of faith and learning, and one of the things we ask students to think about is "What difference does it make that you are a Christian writer?" Have you thought about that in your faith journey as well?

K: Writing is such a deeply personal thing that you're going to get on the page whether you mean to or not if you're writing honestly and as deeply as you can. I'm a person of hope—a person who believes so deeply in the grace of God that hope and grace are going to play a large part in my novels. It's not always recognized. But I'm going to give this message to my reader, and the reader always gets to choose. The wonderful quality of our faith is that God has enormous respect for us, and I try to have respect for my reader in my own small way. I can tell the story, but you get to choose if you're going to listen or what you're going to hear when you listen. Of course if a book is any good, you're going to hear a different message every time you read the book because you're coming at it from a different place. So if you read it with the eyes of faith, you will see that. If you haven't had that experience yet, then you'll see something else.

J: The authenticity and honesty in your work is the human experience and the richness of the human experience. That definitely comes across. How would you say that your writing has changed over the years?

K: One always hopes one has learned something if one has been writing seriously for over 40 years. I've had the same editor on all my novels. She became my editor in 1970, and my first novel was published in 1973. And I asked her not long ago, "Virginia, have I learned anything? Do you see any improvement in my work?" And she said, "Well, you're a better self-editor than you were." The trouble with being the kind of writer I am—I'm not going to write sequels and things—is that I have to learn all over again every time I start a new book because I don't know how to write that particular book. By the time I've learned how to write that book, it's out of my hands and I have to start all over again learning how to write the next book. When people say, "Doesn't it get easier?" No. It's brand new every time. I keep on being a beginner.

J: Do you journal?

K: So embarrassing—I finally have to tell. I go to schools where kids have learned how to write, and they ask me all these technical questions, and it's so embarrassing. Finally I said one day, "Look, let's face it. Whatever a real writer does, I don't. When I started writing I had one child, and then within six months of the first one being born I had two children because we adopted our older daughter. In four years I had four children. I didn't have time to journal. If I had five minutes to write I wasn't going to waste it talking to myself for heaven's sake." So the only time I write anything that looks like a journal is when I can't write what I want to write. Then I'll fuss at myself and talk about how awful it is that I used to be a writer but I'm not anymore. So I've asked God for notice so I can have a week to destroy all of that before I die, because if anybody ever got ahold of it they'd think I was the most depressed person in the world, and I'm really not a depressed person at all.

J: So what have you got going now?

K: I have two books in the works. I have a book coming out in the fall called The Day of the Pelican, which is not my title, but it's kind of an interesting title that I hope people will feel is related to the book somehow. It has its seed in the fact that our church sponsored a family from Kosovo in 1999. It's really a fictitious story because the family is different, but it grew out of meeting them and hearing about their experiences during that terrible period. My husband and I have done a book together that I'm not ready to talk about yet, but it was about as much fun as I've ever had doing a book.

J: Is that in the drafting stage?

K: It's on the editor's extremely enthusiastic desk.

J: Again for our middle school listeners, what does an editor do?

K: When I send something to my editor—the editor I've had for 38 years—I think I've sent her a pretty good book. I've written it and rewritten it. Well, she reads it with a new eye, and I'll get back five or more single-spaced pages of questions. Sometimes in those pages she'll say something nice about something, but mostly she's asking the questions to make me clarify something. What a great editor does is ask the right questions. The best example I can give is when I was writing Bridge to Terabithia, I was terrified because it had been such a painful experience, and I really sent that book before it was ready to go because I couldn't stand to have it around the house. She called me up and she said, "I laughed through the first two-thirds and I cried through the last third." So I knew it was okay. She said, "Now let's turn it into a book." It was a cry of pain—that's what it was. She knew it had to be shaped into a book. She said, "Is this a book about death or a book about friendship?" Until that moment I thought it was a book about death, but as soon as she asked the question, I realized it was a book about friendship. She said, "That's what I thought. Now you've got to go back and write it that way." She said that in any real friendship "both friends are going to grow. I see Jesse changing but I don't see the change in Leslie." So I had to go back and challenge Leslie and have Jess change her life.

J: I love hearing authors talk about their characters like real people because, of course, for all of us readers they are real people. Which leads me to one personal question about a character inJip who owns the poor farm, and he's kind of evil and his name is Flint. I just have to say, Flint happens to be my family name. How could you write a villain with that name? The other joke to this is that the Flint family did start in New England in the Salem area, and then they moved to New Hampshire, and then they moved to New York, and finally to Wisconsin, which is where my direct ancestors lived. But the land they had in New Hampshire, after they left it, became the town poor farm. I thought, "How did she know that?"

K: After the book was published, my husband's sister, whose husband was a dairy farmer, said to me, "When we bought the farm we had no way of knowing; we went up into the attic and there were cages." They had bought the town poor farm.

J: So again for our middle school listeners, what kinds of advice would you give young writers as they're thinking about stories they want to tell?

K: I always say read, read, read. Because that's how I learned to write—by reading. You learn how language works. You learn how stories work. It doesn't always have to be great masterpieces because it's nice to know the difference between good writing and less good writing. Of course it's okay to write too, but I think reading is very important.

J: As you work with some of your own children, your son has done some playwriting?

K: Yes, David's a playwright. He also wrote the script to the movie Bridge to Terabithia, and then he had to fight Hollywood to the death.

J: How did you feel that turned out?

K: David said, "Mom, I don't care if I ever work in this town again, but we have to have a movie we can be proud of." I've seen it five times and I've always cried, so I guess that's a pretty good sign, isn't it? It's not exactly the book, but that's okay. I think it's faithful to the spirit of the book, and certainly, as David said, it had to be a memorial to Lisa that I can be proud of.

J: As David was growing up, did you see some promise in his talents as a writer?

K: Do you mean was he a weird little kid like his mother? Yeah, he was a very imaginative child.

J: And did he write as a child?

K: He used to write and illustrate books, and the librarian would laminate them and put them in the library. I always thought that was the loveliest thing for the librarian to do.

J: What about your other children?

K: John, our older son, has written a book with his father which is coming out this fall, so I guess we can say he's a writer. The girls—Mary definitely could be a writer; she's kept journals from the time she could write. Course I haven't read them because you don't read other people's journals, do you? But she would write when she would be angry with me as a child—she would write letters. I should have said, "What a terrible mother I am." Instead, I said, "Boy, this child can really write." But neither of the girls has really tried to publish.

J: It's great that the interest and enthusiasm in writing that you have kind of filters through the family. Writing is the family business.

K: And the grandchildren are coming along as well.

J: Do they know that their grandmother is Katherine Paterson?

K: It took them a while to catch on, but now they know.

J: When all of us stalkers and groupies start hanging out . . .

K I got an award in Vermont last week, which was a lot of fun; kids on the block and my youngest grandson, who lives in Vermont, came, and he said to his other grandmother, who was there, "I hope I don't go to sleep; I've slept through the last three awards." And I said to Mary, his mother, "Did Liam go to sleep?" And she said, "Not until you got up to speak."

J: Who are some of the writers who influenced your work?

K: I know Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings directly influenced me. When I read The Yearling I can hear the echoes. Robert Lois Stevenson was a great influence on Jip. Mark Twain, of course—my first cousin three or four times removed—was a great influence on Preacher's Boy. I can see those influences directly; I'm sure people see other direct connections. Those are the ones I happen to recognize.

J: And what are you reading these days?

K: Right now I'm reading Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman. I like Walker Percy, but I hadn't read one of his for a long time. My favorite writer right now is Marilynne Robinson. I just love Gilead so much. I don't reread much because there is so much to read, but I've reread that book three times. I just love it. I liked Home too, but it didn't produce that explosion inside me that Gilead caused.

J: And that is, of course, an explosion that you bring to so many of your readers. I want to thank you so much for the catalog of your work and certainly for the time you've been willing to talk to us this afternoon. I'm really looking forward to hearing you this evening. Thanks again to Katherine Paterson."


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