The Paterson Files
The problem with interviewing Katherine Paterson is that she has answered many of the same questions already. Ask her, "When did you first know that you wanted to become a writer?" and she will tell you that she actually never did, at least not when she was a child or even a young woman. Ask her, "When did you begin writing?" and she will say she can't remember. Yet, with an astonishing 39 books to her name and a new appointment as the Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, there is still a lot more we want to know.
Katherine Paterson: You may call me Mom.
JP: We'll go with Mom for the purposes of the interview. Some of the questions I already know the answer to, but in the interest of making it more interesting for everyone else, I am going to ask you to repeat some of the stories of your life. For example, I know that you grew up in China. What was it like to grow up in a foreign land?
KP: It wasn't a foreign land to me! I was born there. It was my native land. It was America that was the foreign land when I was forced by war to come back here.
JP: So you did have to come to the states, not once but twice, through the Japanese invasion. How did the new faces and places impact the characters and stories you would later create?
KP: Well, if you're a kid who is always on the outside hoping to be on the inside, you're watching a lot. You're trying to figure out how to become a normal person in a society that considers you weird. So I am sure the kind of children I write about are mostly children on the outside.
JP: Were there specific books you read when you were young that fueled your love for reading?
KP: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I mean it depends on the age but when I was 8 or 9, I read The Secret Garden for the first time which was a very important book in my life, because just like me, the heroine had grown up in a foreign land, had come as a foreigner to England, had a terrible temper as I did as a child and had no friends initially, yet she was given a key to a secret garden and that was wonderful.
JP: Were there other characters from other books that stand out in your mind?
KP: Absolutely. Jody in The Yearling. The Yearling became my favorite book when I was 11 and my mother gave me a copy of it and I used to pretend I was Jodi and my little mutt dog was Flag playing in the woods behind our house.
JP: Once you began writing, you really only took a break to have some kids. You have four – and you jammed them into a fairly close amount of time, and two of us are adopted. What was the motivation behind having so many kids in a relatively short amount of time, particularly when you could have probably chosen the time of the adoptions?
KP: Oh we chose them. They were all planned. It's just that we didn't have any sense. We didn't realize having four kids in four years was going to turn me into an old lady.
JP: You realize the complex it gave David and I. You had a boy, and then you went and got a girl. You had a boy, and then you went and got a girl. So, we've been carrying that baggage with us our whole life.
KP: Yeah, but if either of you had been a girl, we have gone and tried to get a boy. We like boys and girls. (laughter)
JP: When we four were little, what were your favorite books to read to us?
KP: Well, of course, Charlotte's Web, which I wept over every time and you would start screaming as we approached page 171, "Don't cry mom, don't cry! You always ruin it when you cry!" And of course I would be weeping uncontrollably and I'd hand it to you because you could read at an early age and you would finish the story for the family.
What does Katherine Paterson really think of Bridge to Terabithia?
KP: Well, I didn't really mean to, but I remember the summer I was trying desperately to write The Master Puppeteer and I didn't think it would ever work. We were at Lake George and there was a storm. So, we were all sort of huddled around without any fire or electricity, so I thought, "Well, I will start reading this story and see how it goes." The, when I found you, actually it was you, hunting through the desk drawer the next day to find out what happened in the next chapter, I thought, "Oh, it's not as bad as I thought."
JP: Your first published poem went something like, "Pat pat pat / Where's the rat? / Where's the cat? / Pat pat pat." First, isn't it ironic that you ended up with the last name Paterson?
And next, from that auspicious beginning, at what point did you make that leap from "pat, pat, pat" to "I think I can actually write a novel?"
KP: Oh, it only took me about 30 years...I was a late bloomer.
JP: In a lot of your speeches, you have given Dad a lot of credit for being one of the greatest influences on you as a writer. I mean, I like Dad and everything, but how does that work?
KP: Well, I was growing up in the '50s where proper women stayed home, had children and didn't do anything but take care of the house, the children and be loving wives. Your father, when he asked me to marry him, said, "I know you're a very strong woman with your own gifts, and I am not going to stop you, so I will help you." And he didn't know he was creating a Frankenstein monster, but he's always stood by that and has always helped me. And he's always stood by me and has been my biggest cheerleader.
JP: He is always the first person to read all your work?
KP: Yes, he is always the first editor.
JP: I think Bridge to Terabithia is clearly the book that everyone associates you with most widely, and it has been so successful all these years. Were you happy with it when it first came out? Are you happier with it now? Has your perception of the book grown with it?
KP: I didn't even think my editor would publish the book. It just seemed like such a personal story; I didn't know that anyone else could understand what I was trying to do. When the book came out and there was this enormous initial response to it, I was totally unprepared for that. I couldn't believe that everyone would love this book. And of course everyone doesn't, but so many people praised it. It won the Newbery a few months later, and people began saying they were using it in schools, and I thought, "How can you teach a book like that?" It is such a personal book; it seems a child should be reading it alone in his bedroom under the covers or something. So at first it was very hard for me to accept the fact that this was going to be a book that was loved by many, many people, but through the years I have just seen how people bring their own lives—especially their own grief—to the book. I am at a conference right now in New York City and a woman just handed me a note—she was weeping and she told me about the death of her son. That is what happens to people—they bring their own sorrows to the book, and it makes the book very rich and very powerful.
JP: You wrote the book and David, my brother, your son, wrote the screenplay. Which did you like better—the book or the movie?
KP: Well, I am a book person. I am proud of the movie and am certainly proud of what David did to keep the movie close to the story. I know a movie and a book are two different things and you are going do different media in different ways. No author can want a movie to be exactly like the book because then it will be a bad movie. The book will always be very close to my heart, but I was very proud of the movie, and it is a movie that people should see. It is very lovely, and the acting is wonderful.
What does it mean to be the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature?
KP: (laughter) I don't have a business card, as you might guess.
JP: What do you have? A ceremonial sash, or...?
KP: I have a medal. A large, pewter metal.
JP: You wear that a lot around home?
KP: No, in fact, when they sent the official photographer to take my picture and it wasn't until he was driving away that I realized I should have worn the medal for the picture. I did wear it yesterday because I was going to speak to a group of children and I thought they might like to see the medal.
JP: You definitely gave all of us a love of reading. Did you do anything specific?
KP: Well, I had four children in four years. I was not a well-organized person, and I just sort of made it through the days, but I have often thought I did two things right for my children—I really loved them and I read to them a lot. And the reading was as much for me as it was for you because it was a time when we all got quiet and we read something wonderful together. And you were all great listeners, I must say, as wiggly as you were.
JP: And you are obviously taking that message out to the masses with this new national ambassador role. And you have been doing that your entire life. How does this new role change how you take the message to your fans, to educators and to the world at large?
KP: You're right, I am doing what I have been doing for the past 30 years, as far as talking to people about the importance of reading and the wonderful world of children's and young adult literature—taking the message about how important it is to read and the wonderful world of children's and young adult literature, which some people don't know that much about. It just gives me a title to go with it. I think people like the idea that we are paying this much attention to children's and young adult literature.
JP: Let's talk a little bit about libraries and digital developments in the context of kids and books. Do you still get that special feeling when you walk into a library and connect with a special librarian?
KP: I love libraries. I truly, truly love libraries. I was a little bit taken aback when my local library asked me several years ago if they could name the new children's room after me. And I said, "You know I am not dead yet, don't you?" But it is kind of lovely to have a children's library after me. Children have to have access to books, and a lot of children can't go to a store and buy a book. We need not only our public libraries to be funded properly and staffed properly, but our school libraries. Many children can't get to a public library, and the only library they have is a school library. I really want in these next two years to talk about the importance of libraries for children.
JP: Do you see the greater influence with computers and the advent of e-readers? Do you see that having an impact on kids reading as it does with adults?
KP: Well, I am that much older than you are. I like the feel of a book, and I like to go to bed with a book. But all of our grandchildren have electronic things, but they are all wonderful readers.
I had fun because when they were trying to make me a proper ambassador, they said, "You should have books you recommend," and someone said, "But you are only recommending dead writers." I said, "I have so many friends who are writers, and if I mention one and not the other, I'd lose my friend." And they said, "Why don't you just ask your grandchildren?" And now I have this wonderful list of books recommended by my grandchildren to share.
What are the 5 books Katherine Paterson can't live without?
KP: This is such a hard question, because you want to get the most out of the books you have there. So I would take the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary. Those will keep me occupied for some time. The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset, which is a huge volume and I love it. I can't read it in the original Norwegian, but she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, as a matter of fact. And she has written Kristin Lavransdatter, but I think I prefer The Master of Hestviken. And then I have to take the collective poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, my favorite poet. And Gilead by my favorite modern writer, Marilynn Robinson.
What would you take?
JP: I don't think my choices would be quite as cerebral as that. Actually, I would have a hard time with five, because of you. I can't ever really be without a book. I guess if I had to pick some all-time favorites, it would have to be anything by Wallace Stegner—Angle of Repose.
KP: Oh yes, of course, I hate to leave Wallace Stegner off of any list.
JP: Exactly. Crossing to Safety is fantastic. You know, I also really enjoyed Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. I would take that because it is about 8,000 pages, so that would burn up some good time. The Great Gatsby was always one of my favorites. I could always reread that.
KP:Yes, but do you really want to live on a desert island with the Great Gatsby though?
JP: You know, it is escapism at its best. And the dictionary is a good idea, so I will throw that one on the pile. I am also a very logical person, so I would probably want to dig up one of those Men's Health compilations of how to survive on a desert island, as well. I don't think I could be on a desert island without books.
JPSo, you are an established writer, and I am a new writer.
KP: Yes, congratulations by the way on the publication of your book.
JP: Well, thank you very much. But now that we are both published writers, who do you think would win in a game of Scrabble?
KP: Well, your wife always beats me. Every time she says it is luck and I say, "It is not luck if you beat me every time."
JP: So by transitive property of marriage, I would be able to beat you as well?
KP: You probably would. We will give it a try next summer.
JP: And one last question from me, and this has been great. I have even learned new things that I didn't yet know about you. But, Mom, you know these are tough times. Do you think we could revisit the subject of allowance?
KP: Well, I don't know John, have you been doing your chores lately?
JP: Ambassador Paterson. Mom, thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking with you, as always.
KP: Thank you. It is always a pleasure talking with you.
Check out Katherine Paterson's Children's Reading List
More classic reads for 10- to 12-year-olds
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