(Please note that the following profile was compiled by IPL staff who corresponded with this author in 1996. It has not been updated since. Those wishing to write to this author should not write to the IPL, as we do not have a way to contact her via e-mail. They should write her in care of her publisher at the following address: Clarion Books; 215 Park Ave. South; New York, NY; 10003. The address is also listed on her official web site at: http://www.terabithia.com/ )
People are always asking me questions I don’t have answers for. One is, "When did you first know that you wanted to become a writer?" The fact is that I never wanted to be a writer, at least not when I was a child, or even a young woman. Today I want very much to be a writer. But when I was ten, I wanted to be either a movie star or a missionary. When I was twenty, I wanted to get married and have lots of children.
My dream of becoming a movie star never came true, but I did a lot of acting all through school, and the first writing for which I got any applause consisted of plays I wrote for my sixth-grade friends to act out.
On the way to becoming a missionary, I spent a year teaching in a rural school in northern Virginia, where almost all of my children were like Jesse Aarons. I’ll never forget that wonderful class. A teacher I met at a meeting in Virginia recently told me that when she read BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA to her class, one of the girls told her that her mother had been in that Lovettsville sixth grade. I am very happy that those children, now grown-up with children of their own, know about the book. I hope that they can tell by reading it how much they meant to me.
After Lovettsville, I spent two years in graduate school in Richmond, Virginia, studying Bible and Christian education; then I went to Japan. My childhood dream was, of course, to be a missionary to China and eat Chinese food three times a day. But China was closed to Americans in 1957, and a Japanese friend urged me to go to Japan instead. If you’ve read my early books, you must know that I came to love Japan and feel very much at home there. I went to language school, and lived and worked in that country for four years. I had every intention of spending the rest of my life among the Japenese. But when I returned to the States for a year of study in New York, I met a young Presbyterian pastor who changed the direction of my life once again. We were married in 1962.
I suppose my life as a writer really began in 1964. The Presbyterian church asked me to write some curriculum materials for fifth and sixth graders. Since the church had given me a scholarship to study and work in Japan, I felt I owed them something for their money. So I began writing. By the time the books were published, I had moved three more times, acquired three children, and was hooked on writing. But I decided I didn’t want to write nonfiction. I wanted to write what I love to read–fiction. I didn’t know that wanting to write fiction and being able to write fiction were two quite separate things. In the cracks of time between feedings, diapering, cooking, reading aloud, walk-ing to the park, getting still another baby, and carpooling to nursery school, I wrote and wrote, and published practically nothing.
A friend in the church in Maryland, where we were living, felt sorry for me. There I was, four babies in just over four years (two adopted and two home-made), trying to write but with no success. So she decided to take me to an adult education course in creative writing one night a week. Eventually the novel that I wrote in the course was published, and I had become a writer.
Do I like being a writer? I love it. I often tell my husband that it’s the only job I could hold now. I’m spoiled. I work at home in my own study, wearing whatever I please. I never have to call in sick. From time to time, I get to schools and other places where I meet delightful people who love books as much as I do.
But there are days when I wonder how on earth I got involved in this madness. Why, oh why, did I ever think I had anything to say that was worth putting down on paper? And there are those days when I have finished a book and can’t for the life of me believe I’ll ever have the wit or will to write another.
Eventually someone like Lyddie Worthen and her family come along, and I’ll spend a couple of wonderful years getting to know them and telling their story–LYDDIE. Then it all seems worth the struggle, and I know beyond any doubt that I am the most fortunate person in the world to have been given such work to do.
Katharine Paterson’s FAQ’s
- I was wondering where you get your ideas? I’ve read Bridge To Terabithia and Park’s Quest and I am looking forward to reading Jacob Have I Loved. I’ve noticed in both of the books I’ve read you involve kings, queens and medieval times. Do you have a special interest in this subject?
I think I get mine the same places other people do–from life, observation, reading, dreams. Sometimes they just seem to come out of the blue and I have no idea the actual source. I wasn’t aware of a special interest in medieval times–I’m interested in a lot of things.
- What was the inspiration for Bridge to Terabithia?
My son’s best friend, an eight year old girl named Lisa Hill, was struck and killed by lightning. It was out of this tragedy that I began to write what became the book.
- Of all the books you have written, what is your favorite?
I have no idea.
- Were you treated with contempt by parents for being a writer in the way that Jesse’s father treated him because he was an artist?
No! My parents loved my books, especially, The Great Gilly Hopkins.
- Jacob Have I Loved is my favorite children’s book. I was wondering if any of the characters or places in the book are based on real people or places?
The book is truly fiction, though the fictional Rass Island resembles both Tangier and Smith Islands.
- Are you going to write a new story about the Dessos leaving the general store business?
I don’t know the Dessos. Should I?
- Please describe as specifically as possible your process as you work from idea to completed piece.
Oh dear. You’re hoping that I have some organized system. Believe me, it’s different every time and I just bumble along the best I can.
A group of questions about Bridge to Terabithia:
- Why did Leslie have to die?
I was writing it to find meaning in a tragedy.
- How long did it take to write Bridge to Terabithia?
It took about a year.
- Did you have a secret place when you were a kid like Jesse and Leslie did?
I moved a lot so I had a lot of secret places. Now my secret place is inside me.
- Why did you use curse words in Bridge?
The characters in Bridge speak the way the people I knew who lived in that part of Virginia.
- Why did you call the book Bridge to Terabithia?
I’d rather you figure that out.
- Do you like being an author?
- Is there going to be a sequel to Bridge?
- Did you just make up the story (Bridge) or did something like this happen in your life?
- Why did you put Jesse in a house full of girls? That was cruel.
I wanted him to be lonely until Leslie came along.
- Why did they cremate Leslie?
I’m not sure.
- Why doesn’t Leslie believe the Bible?
She didn’t have the opportunity to know about the Bible. But Im not sure you want to conclude that what May Belle thinks is what the Bible really says. I surely don’t.
- How did you come up with the name "Terabithia" for Leslie and Jesse’s imaginary world?
I thought I’d made it up, but actually I think it comes from the Terebinth tree in the Bible via C. S. Lewis’s VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER.
- Do you like to read? If so, what books do you like?
I love to read. Whew. Ask me again when neither of us has anything to do.
- What do you think is the best book you’ve written. Which is your favorite?
I’m not sure. Maybe JACOB is the best written.
- What do you do when you’re not writing?
Well, right now I’m answering questions.
- Where do you get ideas for your characters?
Different places. But in my new book JIP is based on a real man I read about in a history of the town of Hartford, VT.
- What advice would you give to 5th and 6th graders who want to begin to write?
- What inspired you to write The Great Gilly Hopkins?
I was once a foster mother and not nearly as good a one as I meant to be.
- What caused you to be involved in children’s literature, rather than adult literature?
I became a children’s writer almost by accident. But I love being one.
- How do you decide on the topic you write your story about?
I fumble and bumble and fool around until something seems to emerge.
- What advice would you give to young writers about what to do when you’re writing a story and come to a roadblock?
Oh, dear. Go weed the garden or something. Sometimes the best thing to do is to leave it a while and not even think about it. Your subconscious can work on it while you sweep the floor.
- Do you keep a "writer’s notebook" of things you see, hear, think about? If so, how long have you been keeping one?
Not really. But I understand real writers all do.
- In your book The Great Gilly Hopkins I was touched to find how incredibly well you seemed to understand foster children. Were you a foster child yourself or are you a foster parent?
A foster parent, briefly.
- What do you consider your most personal work?
All my work is pretty personal.
- Where was your favorite place to curl up and read a good book when you were little?
- Why do you write what you write? What is the message you want to get across? If you had a wish, what would it be?
I write what I can. I get so much more than I could possibly wish for that I hardly dare wish.
- As a child, which author’s books did you enjoy the most?
I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kate Seredy, Robert Lawson, Rachiel Field, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, A.A. Milne–and still do.
- Do you have difficulty organizing your ideas? What are some of the strategies for organizing your ideas?
I fiddle around until they seem to come clear. Sorry not to be more professional.
- Why do people want to ban Bridge to Terabithia? I read it and it was awesome. I think someone doesn’t get it.
I think you’re right. There are folks who believe that children’s books should teach lessons to children. I believe they should tell a story about people as truthfully and powerfully as possible. When you tell a powerful story it nearly always seems to offend somebody.
- How did you decide on Rass Island for the setting of Jacob Have I Loved, and is Rass island a real island?
Rass is fictitious, but I wanted to tell a story about a child who felt isolated and an island seemed the perfect setting.
- What is your favorite food?
I love all kinds of food, especially Chinese food.
- What was your favorite subject in school?
- Do people recognize you on the streets as Katherine Paterson?
Hardly ever. Twice in my life, I think.
- Did you have a terabithia as a child?
Yes. Lots of them.
- Who is your favorite author besides you?
Either Leo Tolstory or Sigrid Undset both of whose books I like better than my own. But I do like my own books. You’re right about that.
- Did you pattern your character Jesse Aarons after anyone you know or is he totally fictional?
Well, if Jess is like anyone, he’s like me.
- Did anyone ever dislike your writing and tell you?
Oh, yes. People often tell me they dislike my wiiting. I always find it interesting that people feel free to say so right to my face as though it doesn’t hurt your feelings for people to say rude things to you if you’re "famous." Of course, it hurts me when someone hates my book. I love those characters. They’re like my children, and when someone says rude things about them, I feel terrible.
- When you are finished with one of your books, how do you feel?
Depressed. I hate for a book to be over.
- Have you ever written a book about your parent’s childhood? If not will you?
No. I’d like to write about my parents, but I’m not sure that I can. Maybe someday . . .
- How do you feel societys views of children have changed over the years, and in what ways is it represented in Gilly?
I think society fails to value children–to take them seriously. We pet them or abuse them or ignore them, but we fail to respect them as people. We need to do better.
Some books by Katherine Paterson:
THE SIGN OF THE CHRYSANTHEMUM
OF NIGHTINGALES THAT WEEP
THE MASTER PUPPETEER
BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA
THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS
JACOB HAVE I LOVED
REBELS OF THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM
COME SING, JIMMY JO