Questions and answers with Katherine Paterson
Q) We were wondering how you were able to come up with two such totally unrelated ideas as Gilly Hopkins and Bridge to Terabithia. Did anything happen in your life, or did something you read inspire you to write any of your books?
A) Both Bridge and Gilly grew out of real-life experiences. I wrote Bridge because our son David's best friend, an eight-year-old named Lisa Hill, was struck and killed by lightning. I wrote the book to try to make sense out of a tragedy that seemed senseless. I wrote Gilly after I'd been a foster mother for a couple of months and didn't feel as though I'd been such a great one, so I tried to imagine how it might be to be a foster child. How would I feel if I thought the rest of the world thought of me as disposable?
Q) I'm curious about what you're working on now. When will your next novel be published, and is it something appropriate for fifth graders?
A) I'm not sure when the next one will be ready. I am one of those terrible people who just can't talk about what I'm currently working on. Sorry!
Q) Who has had the greatest influence on your life as a writer?
A) Many people and books have had a lot of influence on me, but I suppose I would have to say that my husband has had the most influence. He believed that I could write during all those years when no one wanted to publish anything I had written. He was the one who made me put "writer" on the IRS form instead of "housewife." He is my first editor and my best booster. And no matter what I say, he always thinks I can write another book.
Q) Was there ever a time when you felt as though you could not muddle through the writing or rewriting of one more manuscript?
A) Every time. My husband listens to me while I moan and then says calmly, "Oh, you've reached THAT stage." It makes me so mad I go back and finish.
Q) Which of your books' characters have surprised you the most during their evolution?
A) Hmm. Great question. I've never thought of it before. Let's see. . . . Perhaps Lyddie. I guess I was surprised that she became so grasping almost losing sight of why she needed money. It dawned on me later that she became for a while a reflection of the greed of the mill owners. There is always a danger that one will become like one's enemy.
Q) Why do you use swear words in your book Bridge to Terabithia? We do not read them aloud in class, and yet we still understand the context of the sentence. What was your motivation to write Bridge to Terabithia? Where did the name Terabithia come from?
A) Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jess and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, simply to care about them and understand them. I wrote Bridge to try to understand for myself the tragedy of Lisa Hill's death and, though I was not fully aware of it, to help me face my own death.
I thought I'd made up "Terabithia." I realized when the book was nearly done that there is an island in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis called Terebinthia. I'm sure I borrowed that unconsciously, but, then, so would Leslie, who loved the Chronicles of Narnia. And, by the way, Lewis got Terebinthia from the Biblical terebinth tree, so it wasn't original with him, either.
Q) In what ways has your religious conviction informed your writing? And would you comment on the presence (or lack) of religious content, specifically Christian, in recent children's literature (say, the last fifteen years or so)?
A) I think it was Lewis who said something like "the book cannot be what the writer is not." What you are will shape your book whether you want it to or not. I am Christian, so that conviction will pervade the book even when I make no conscious effort to teach or preach. Grace and hope will inform everything I write.
You're asking me to comment on fifteen years of 5000 or so books a year. Whew! We live in a post-Christian society. Therefore, not many of those writers will be Christians or adherents of any of the traditional faiths. Self-consciously Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) writing will be sectarian and tend to propaganda and therefore have very little to say to persons outside that particular faith community. The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories that will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress.
Q) What was your favorite book/author/illustrator as a child? Did this person influence your writing when you grew up? Which books stand out in your mind from the years you were six to fifteen?
A) We have several questions here for which there is no single answer. At different ages I had different favorite books. I loved being read to, and my mother read to us a lot. Those early books were mostly English A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, Kipling, and Stevenson. They have all stood the test of time and I'm still rereading all of them. My new novel coming out in the fall was certainly influenced by Kidnapped. All of my work is an attempt to write something that will touch a reader the way The Secret Garden affected me at eight. The Yearling, which was my favorite at eleven or twelve, certainly influenced me. I loved Kate Seredy, Robert Lawson, Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Heidi What can I say? I read a lot.
Q) What is something fun from your elementary school years that you can remember about yourself? What kind of child were you?
A) When I was in the sixth grade, I wrote plays that my classmates and I acted out on the playground and sometimes on rainy days in the classroom. I loved those plays. I was a very shy child who loved to show off. Still am.
Q) Do you enjoy receiving mail from kids, and do you respond to it?
A) Hard question. Nothing means more to a writer than to get a letter from a reader who has deeply connected to one of your books. I love to get that kind of letter. In the olden (pre-Newbery) days, it was almost the only kind of letter I got, and I loved responding to them. Since Newbery, I am more often the subject of a class assignment, so it means I get lots of mail, very little of which I can respond to adequately. It makes me feel constantly guilty. But I know if I answered every letter personally I would never get another book written, much less have time for family and friends. I've had to make choices which make other people unhappy.
Q) Do you base your characters and stories on real people and events in your life? If so, could you share a personal moment that was related to one of your books?
A) I've already mentioned Bridge and Gilly. Perhaps I should mention a different book. I wrote Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, while I was still struggling with the dilemma a very private person (who is also a showoff) meets when she is suddenly "famous." I loved parts of being famous (being, as I say, a natural-born show ff), but I hated the parts of it that seemed to invade my private spaces.
I remembered my junior high days and a girl in my class called Anita Carter. Anita was painfully shy. But that wasn't why none of us knew how to treat her. The problem was that she was also famous being a country music singer with her mother MayBelle and her two older sisters. In my own little struggle with celebrity, I began to think about how hard it must have been for Anita, who was so shy in school and such a star on stage. By the way, Anita wrote me to say how much she loved the book, but then said, "I feel terrible that I can't picture you." Of course she couldn't; in the story of her life I was the totally forgettable Will Short.
Q) What are your hobbies and outside interests?
A) I love to read. (Surprise.) I love to sing. I play both the piano and tennis badly, but still like to do them. I have a wonderful family who are definitely outside interests in my life and two terrific granddaughters. I've made six quilts. (Vermont has long winters.) I like crossword puzzles and Scrabble with my daughter. I like some movies and some TV. My latest interest is pastels. I take a class every week. I'm not a gifted artist, by any means, but I'm learning a lot and I love doing it.
Q) What would you like to see children doing more or less of today?
A) Well, of course I want children to read more. I am not of the "Throw the TV and computers on the dump" school. I just feel that a life in balance is better than one that goes off the deep end in any direction. My admittedly limited experience on the Internet and with computer "information" has revealed that this is a rather shallow sort of knowledge and impersonal sort of human connection. I think great books and real-life human beings do a better job of making us wise, compassionate people.
Q) What would you like to be remembered for when you are gone, aside from your writing?
A) Hmm. Something on the tombstone, eh? I guess I want my children to remember how much I loved them and how much time I spent reading to them.
Q) What aspect of writing brings you the most joy (research, writing, etc.)?
A) I love to rewrite. First drafts are usually painful. But a good rewrite morning is bliss. Teachers love to hear me say this, but I must hasten to add that when I was in elementary school I didn't even know what a revision was.
Q) What would be your words of wisdom to a person who wants to write but is paralyzed by failure in the middle of every project? What advice would you give people starting out?
A) When a teacher (still a dear friend) of mine in graduate school suggested I ought to be a writer, I was appalled. "I don't want to add another mediocre writer to the world," I said. She helped me (it took years of nudging) to understand that if I wasn't willing to risk mediocrity, I would never accomplish anything. There are simply no guarantees. It takes courage to lay your insides out for people to examine and sneer over. But that's the only way to give what is your unique gift to the world. I have often noted that it takes the thinnest skin in the world to be a writer and it takes the thickest to seek out publication. But both are needed the extreme sensitivity and the hippo hide against criticism. Send your inner critic off on vacation and just write the way little children play. You can't be judge and creator at the same time.
Q) When in your mind did you know you were a writer?
A) I'm not sure even yet.
Q) What are your writing habits? Do you write daily or when inspiration strikes? Same time and place?
A) No, no, no. You can't wait for inspiration to strike. It's like lightning. Hardly ever does it twice in the same book. You go to work every morning. It's day labor. Having said that, it is the best job in the world.
Q) I read that your son had an experience like Jesse's in Bridge to Terabithia losing a close friend in a freak accident. How did your son respond to the book? Was there a therapeutic value in this for him?
A) David still, at age thirty-three, with two little boys of his own, finds Bridge a very difficult book to read. It's too close to the bone. Any therapeutic value the book had was for me, facing not only Lisa's death but my own mortality call. I had cancer that year and was hearing the bell toll.
Q) Have you ever thought about another book for Jesse? Does he still live in your mind, growing older, continuing his art, etc.?
A) No. I feel strongly that Jesse has earned his privacy.
Q) How do you respond to those who wish to censor/remove your books from the libraries (Great Gilly Hopkins)? I loved Gilly! My favorite book!
A) Gilly is a lost child who lies, steals, bullies, despises those who are different or perceived to be weaker a child like this does not say "fiddlesticks" when frustrated. I could not duplicate her real speech without drowning the story in obscenity, but I had to hint at her language. She would not be real if her mouth did not match her behavior.
Q) Many of your first books were set in Japan, which I enjoyed immensely. Are you planning to write any other novels with Japan as the setting, or more folktales such as The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks?
A) I'm not sure. I love writing about Japan, but I've gotten a bit shy about writing about a culture that I was not born into. When I wrote the novels set in Japan, it was close to the time when I had lived there. That was more than thirty years ago! Japan has changed a lot since then, and so have I.
Q) What influences your choice of settings for your books?
A) I don't know. I'd like to, but I just can't predict what I'll be doing next.