Katherine Paterson Interview Transcript
The author Katherine Paterson was interviewed by Scholastic students.
What inspired you to become an author?
I love to read. But I loved to read a lot longer than I started to love writing. I actually wrote my first book because I was asked to by the Presbyterian Church when I was 31 years old.
Did anyone inspire you when you were a kid to become a writer?
No, and if you saw my early work, you would understand why.
Did you always want to be a writer?
No, I always wanted to be a reader. But when I was 10 or 11, the time when most people know they want to be writers, I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a movie star or a missionary.
Do you have any favorite authors?
A lot. I'm rereading a book by Siegrid Undset, which is one of my favorites, even though it is huge. It is called The Master of Hestviken.
What writer has influenced you the most?
I'm influenced by everything I read.
What is the best thing you think you have ever written?
I prefer to let readers decide that, but perhaps the book I'm most proud of having written is Jacob Have I Loved. It was so hard to write, I thought I would never do it, and I finally looked at it and thought yes, that's what I meant to do.
What inspired you to write Jacob Have I Loved?
I began to worry about people, adults who are still tied up in their childhood jealousies. It seemed like such a waste of life. I love your books!
Which book is your favorite?
I think that's my favorite question. It's asked more often than any other. So I feel apologetic to say, I don't know. It's like asking which of my four children is my favorite.
Which one of your books was the most fun to write?
Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, and coming in a close second would be The Great Gilly Hopkins.
How many books have you written?
What was your favorite book as a kid?
Depending on my age, I loved as a very young child Winnie the Pooh, when I was about 8 it was The Secret Garden, and when I was 11 it was The Yearling.
I really love Bridge to Terabithia, what inspired you to write it?
I wrote Bridge because our son David's best friend, a girl named Lisa Hill, was struck and killed by lightening. It was trying to make sense out of that tragedy that inspired me to write the book.
Did you have a secret place as a child, and was Terabithia based upon this?
Because I moved so often, I had a lot of different secret places. And yes that's where Terabithia came from.
How long did it take you to write Bridge to Terabithia?
The whole book, with writing and rewriting, was done in a year.
Will you ever consider writing a sequel to Bridge to Terabithia?
No. I feel the book is complete in itself.
What did you think about the movie Bridge to Terabithia?
I liked some things and I was very uncomfortable about others. I thought the kids were great. However, I thought that strange things were done to the story — the script and the way they handled certain events.
How did you come up with the name Terabithia? What does it mean? Does it really exist?
I thought I made it up. Then I was rereading C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and realized there is an island in there called Terebinthia. I was appalled and at first thought I must change the name of my imaginary country; but that was so much work that I decided Leslie Burke would have done the same thing. She read those books and she made up a name of a country something like something she had read. And of course, Lewis got Terebinthia from the terebinth tree in the Bible. So I decided if he could borrow it from the Bible, I could borrow it from him — even if I hadn't meant to.
What was your favorite part in Bridge to Terabithia?
I think my favorite part, which was left out of the movie, is when Jesse's father comes to him at the creek and they talk about Leslie's death together.
I read the book The Great Gilly Hopkins. When you were growing up did you have characteristics like Gilly?
Oh, yes. (laughing) Don't tell!
You said you really liked the book The Great Gilly Hopkins, why do you like it?
Because I love Gilly and Maime Trotter and everyone in that book.
How do you create your characters?
Sometimes they just walk in and they are just there. I describe this person that has walked into my life, an imaginary person. Maime Trotter did that. Sometimes it takes me a long time to get to know a character.
I have to know where they are born, what was happening in their family before they were born. Even after I begin writing the book, I don't know them very well. So after I finish the first draft, I know them better. When I rewrite, I see the things that they would never have said or never have done, because now I know them better. So with each rewriting I get to know them better.
I have gotten really close to the characters in your story. How do you make them like real people?
Well they feel like real people to me. I love them, whether they are loveable or not.
What is your favorite thing to write about?
I like to write about a lot of things, which is why my books are different. This is probably why I don't like to write sequels, but chiefly I like to write about people.
Do you keep a writer's notebook?
No. I know all real writers do, but I don't.
How do you get your subjects for you books?
Anywhere I can. I think, where does everyone else get his or her ideas. And that's probably where I get mine.
How long does it typically take you to write a book?
If it's a novel, from one year to three years.
What is the place that you write your books? Are they “normal” like a bedroom or desk, or something like a bathroom?
I have a study with desks and “normal” things. I did write a story in the shower, but I had to get out of the shower to write it. It was The King's Equal. The whole story came to me while I was taking a shower. I keep taking showers and hoping, but it hasn't happened again.
Do you always intend to write a book when you're writing?
What I do is write books. If I sit down to write a short story or an article, book review or speech, I know what I'm going to do when I sit down to work.
What is the hardest part writing a book?
How do you create the mood or setting in your books?
I'm a great believer in research. I have to know about a place before I write a story that is set in that place. I was just in Cuba for a week, but I'm not going to write about Cuba because I don't that much. I had to live in Vermont a couple of years before I could write about Vermont.
What inspires you to write?
I love to write. Just like painters love to paint, runners love to run. It's what I do. If I'm not writing, for a period of time, I feel lost.
Is it hard to write for young adults?
It's hard to write for anybody, but it's also deeply satisfying. I love writing for young adults because they are such a wonderful audience, they are good readers, and they care about the books they read.
Do you enjoy reading the books after you have written them?
I usually don't read a book immediately after it is published, maybe I might read a little bit of it. It's usually several years before I read a book I've written straight through. By that time it's almost as if someone else has written it. They give me a great deal of pleasure.
Do you write every day?
No. I know I should, but my life is very complicated.
Are you working on a novel now?
Have you ever considered publishing a book about what inspired each book, similar to Gary Paulsen's book Guts?
No. I've written speeches usually about the time I've written a book. They've been collected.
Are you going to write an autobiography someday so we can learn all about you?
I don't really want to write an autobiography, because I don't want the people that I love the most to feel that they are minor characters in the story of my life.
I am reading Park's Quest, what inspired you to write this book?
A number of things; one idea is not enough for a novel. It takes several ideas to make the texture necessary for a book. So I could easily name three things, maybe more: 1) The Vietnam memorial; 2) The ancient romantic poem “Parzival;” 3). I wanted to write a story set on the farm in which my father grew up.
I belong to a mother/daughter book club (9–12 years old). This Friday we will be discussing The Great Gilly Hopkins — do you have any thoughts or special insight for the girls?
What thrills me is that parents and kids are reading books together and talking about them. I think that's wonderful. The stories I read with my children are still part of what we shared together. I wouldn't give anything for that.
What inspired you to write the book Preacher's Boy?
I was being asked to write a number of stories and essays related to either the turn of the century or the turn of the millennium. I thought it would be fun to go back 100 years and see how people felt about the turn of the century.
How do your books affect your life and why?
They always come out of something that matters to me. In writing the book I'm usually asking myself a question that the writing of the book may or may not answer, but helps me make sense of whatever it is. Most of your books are serious.
Have you ever written a funny book or a book with a lighter topic?
Well, I think I have this great sense of humor (laughing). I don't know why no one else understands that. I think there are a lot of funny things in my books.
Are any of your books based on a true story?
Bridge to Terabithia is loosely based on my son's friendship and the death of his friend. But the resemblance stops there, because they [Leslie and Jess] are different people. Their families are different. They live in a different place. So it is fiction and not fact, but it grew out of a real incident.
How much does God and religion play into your writing?
My writing goes out of me; my faith is very important in my life and whatever happens most to you will come out in what you write, even if you don't intend it to.
What is your favorite thing to do besides read or write?
I love to eat. Chinese food is my favorite.
What is it like to travel around the world while writing books?
I don't get a lot of writing done when I'm traveling around the world, but one thing that has been wonderful for me, has been the chance to get to know people around the world through children's books — people that I would otherwise never know. I have just returned from Cuba, where life is very hard and yet the people that I met know how important it is for children to have books to read and are doing everything possible to bring books to children. It makes me realize how fortunate we are in this country.
What other places have you been to while traveling around the world?
In the last very few years I've been in India, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, China, Venezuela, Columbia, Scotland, Canada, and Cuba. That's just since 1998. This is all connected to what I do.
Have you ever been to the Middle East, and have you done mission work there?
I have never been to the Middle East, I've been to the Far East. I've been Turkey.
Who was your role model when you were young?
I suppose my father, my mother too.
Did you have a very vivid imagination as a child?
Far too vivid (laughing).
Do your plots come from mission experiences?
Because I was born in China, my parents were missionaries. When we came to the United States I was a foreigner and people treated me like an outsider and they didn't care that I traveled around the world. They thought I was stupid because I didn't know what they knew. So I think that helped me become a writer because I had to watch other people and wasn't included naturally in groups at school. That helped develop my imagination because I had to make up my own friends. I read a lot because nobody in books made fun of me and I knew what it felt like to be left out of things. You'll notice that many of my characters are on the outside looking in.
Did you like living in China?
It was home to me, I loved it. But when the war began it was a very frightening place to be. We moved so much; my parents were the constant in my life. I looked up to them; they were good people and they had a wonderful sense of humor, and they loved me a lot.
Do you have any favorite teachers or childhood memories?
I was pretty miserable my early years in school. The librarian at Calvin H. Wiley was wonderful to me, and the music teacher I remember was very kind and thoughtful person.
Do you ever get writer's block?
If you mean are there days when I can't figure out what to do, of course. But I try to think of it as a symptom, and not as a terminal illness. It means that something is wrong with a story, and sometimes all you need is to get away from it for a while, and then it comes to you what the matter was.
Do you write poetry?
Sort of secretly.
Did the events of September 11 influence your writing?
I think they'll influence everything we do. Somebody said to me, will you now write stories about children going through difficult times and having sad lives? And then she started laughing, because she realized I've been doing that for 30 years. In a sense I'll still be doing that about people who have difficult lives. I've realized how important art is to us, in such uncertain and tragic times. People have turned to music and stories. The director of one of our local art galleries told her volunteers to go home on September 11 because no one would come, and to the contrary more people came than would ordinarily come on a weekday. Art has a healing effect on us in these terrible times.
Which one of your books would you recommend for reluctant readers?
It depends on the reader. You never know what book it is that will inspire someone to read. I've been told, however, that The Great Gilly Hopkins is a book that kids who say they hate books tend to love.
What would you say to a young author?
I want to become a writer. Do you have any tips?
Read and write, and also don't be afraid to get to know all kinds of people.
Have your books been published in other languages because they have won so many awards?
Yes, I'm now [published] in 28 languages. The usual: European, Hebrew, Chinese, Slovak, African. Adults are always asking me: Do children read anymore? And I'm always happy to say, yes. Today is proof of that, isn't it? People want to talk to an author, and they care about reading. I just want to say to all of you out there, keep reading. We writers can't do without you.