Interview: Katherine Paterson, Author Of 'Stories Of My Life' Katherine Paterson describes the inspiration behind her best-known children's book, as well as tales from her childhood in China and missionary work in Japan, in her new memoir, Stories of My Life.
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Author Of 'Bridge To Terabithia': Messages Are Poison To Fiction

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Author Of 'Bridge To Terabithia': Messages Are Poison To Fiction

Author Of 'Bridge To Terabithia': Messages Are Poison To Fiction

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In the world of children's literature, "Bridge To Terabithia" stood apart for a long time. When it was published in 1977, not many books for kids took on bullying, complicated emotions and death in such a direct and sophisticated way. It's an unusual story from an unusual writer. Katherine Paterson was raised by Christian missionaries and was born in China. She considered China her home and lived there until the Japanese invasion during World War II.

KATHERINE PATERSON: I really think of myself as having an idyllic childhood until the age of five - or just about five. And that's when the bombing started and the invasion followed soon thereafter. And those years were very scary years.

RATH: Now, you also spent a lot of time in Japan when you were a young woman, before you began writing bestsellers. What is it that took you to Japan?

PATERSON: I, of course, really, truly longed to go back to China and because I'm of a missionary background and because I have not just inherited my parent's faith, but I have my own faith. And I had a Japanese friend in seminary and she suggested that I go to Japan, which was a little bit horrifying for me because my memory of the Japanese was pretty scary.

RATH: Right.

PATERSON: And she said, well, if you give the Japanese people a chance, I think you'll get to love them. And what I learned in those four years I spent in Japan was how wonderful it is to be loved by people that you had thought you hated. And I thought maybe everybody in the world needs to have that experience, to be loved by someone they thought they hated.

RATH: Do you feel like there's something of a missionary impulse in your writing? I don't mean so much that there's a religious message, but the desire to spread a message.

PATERSON: Well, you know, I try very hard to stay away from the word message, because I think it's poison in fiction. I think you tell your story, and then the reader gets to decide what he or she will learn from your story. And if they don't want to learn anything from it, that's their choice.

RATH: Well, let's talk about your most celebrated story, your book - and you know we would be talking about this - "Bridge To Terabithia." And for those people who don't know this story, I should say there's a major spoiler. So maybe come back in a couple of minutes. The main character in the book is a girl named Leslie Burke. She's a tomboyish, clever kid. Can you talk about the girl who inspired the character?

PATERSON: Well, Lisa Hill, who was my son David's best friend when they were in the second grade, was in many ways like I've pictured Leslie Burke. Lisa was only 8 when she died. Actually, she was struck by lightning. So there were certainly similarities. She was bright, and she was funny, and she was athletic, and she was a wonderful kid. And it broke all of our hearts when she died.

RATH: And in writing "Terabithia," you actually get stuck at that moment in the story at the chapter were Leslie will die.

PATERSON: Yeah. The only way I could keep her alive was not to write that chapter. As I tell in the book, going to a friend's house and the friend says how's your book coming? And I just blurted out that I was writing a story about a friendship between a boy and a girl and the girl was going to die, but I couldn't let her die. And so I said to Estelle (ph), I think I just can't face Lisa's death again.

Well, Estelle knew very well that I, in that same year, had been operated on for cancer. And she said, I don't think it's Leslie's death you can't face. I think it's yours. And I realized she was absolutely right. And if that was true, then I would have to go home and finish the book, because I would have to face my own death.

It was a great freeing thing for me, to face that death and then to move on.

RATH: There's this amazing moment once you get the story out with your editor, which is what makes this into a book. She asks you the question is this a story about friendship or is this a story about death.

PATERSON: Yes, and I think that's what a great editor does. The great editor asks the right question. And I had thought until that moment that I had written a story about death, because it'd been a year about death or fear of death. And as soon as she asked me the question I knew I was wrong. And I said, oh, it's a book about friendship. And she said, well, you need to go back and write it that way. And she said, you know, in a real friendship, both friends change and grow.

RATH: You know how much this book is loved by so many people. But, of course, there were people who were - well, attacked "Bridge To Terabithia" - that didn't think that, you know - thought that death in this way was kind of a taboo subject. Did the attacks bother you or get to you at all?

PATERSON: Well, of course, you're always - you love your own book. I certainly love my books. And it's like someone attacks your child, initially. But then, the more you write the more you realize that if a book has any power, it also has the power to offend. And there were many people offended by this book. And I'm sorry, because I didn't, you know, I don't like to offend people. But I know it was a story that I had to tell, and I had to tell it in the way I told it.

So I can't apologize for it. I can feel sad that it was hard for them.

RATH: And for the people who love the book, you've connected. You write it in the book how you've connected with a lot of the people who've read the book. And they share the deepest and kind of darkest parts of their own experience with you.

PATERSON: Yeah, I thought that was the most amazing thing that happened to me after the book was published, because it was such a personal story and such a family story that I wasn't even sure it would ever be published. You know, the most wonderful thing about being a writer is having readers. And they've taken my little story and made something really wonderful with it, because they have brought to it their own lives.

RATH: Katherine Paterson is the author of so many award-winning books for young people including "Bridge to Terabithia." Her new memoir is "Stories Of My Life." It was so nice speaking with you Katherine. Thank you.

PATERSON: Well, thank you very much. It was lovely speaking with you, too.

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