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Transcript from our 2002 interview with Katherine Paterson

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' 2002 interview with Katherine Paterson. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Katherine Paterson

Born in China

I was born in China, because my parents were missionaries in China. And I lived there my first five years, and then the summer I was turning five, World War II began in China. It hadn't begun in the United States yet. And we were evacuated to the United States, and we were refugees at that time.

A year later, the Japanese had occupied most of eastern China, and it was considered safe for us to return to China. So, we went back to China, but not to our home. Our father went to our home, but we lived in Shanghai for most of that time. And then it seemed that war with Japan was imminent, and we were evacuated once again.

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Getting to know them

If anyone had told me when I was nine years old that I would spend four years in Japan and love it, I would not have believed it; because when I was nine years old, Japan was the enemy. They were the soldiers that invaded our beach. They were the people who were bombing us from above. I hated and feared the Japanese.

And the fact that I went to Japan as a young adult and loved it seems very strange to people who know about my childhood. And they say, "Well, how could you go to Japan then?"

And I said, "Because I had a Japanese friend in graduate school." And I think that makes all the difference. If you have a friend, then that changes your attitude towards a country. And may I put in a plug for books here? Because not all of us can have friends in Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, but if we had a book that gave us characters that we truly cared about, our attitude towards those countries would be different.

I remember as a child I read a book about children in the Soviet Union, and I could never believe it when people told me they were the "evil empire," because I had friends there from having read a book that made me identify totally with those children.

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Naming characters

Naming a character is a very important thing, because the name has to signal a lot about the character. Of course, it has to fit the time and the place, but it also has to fit the person. And so I spend a lot of time thinking about names, and I often start a book without knowing exactly what the name is. And then I discover, as I get to know the character, I discover his or her name. Or, sometimes, as in the case of Gilly Hopkins, I had a name for a character long before I had a story. It took me years to discover who this child was, whose parent named her Galadrial Hopkins.

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International acclaim

Well, winning the Newbery when you've been pretty unknown, or the National Book Award, when you've spent all those years writing and writing and nobody ever wanted to publish what you wrote, of course, is very gratifying. But the award that I think reduced me to tears was the Hans Christian Andersen award, because it was given to me by a jury of people from South Africa and Iran and Croatia. There was one member of the committee who was from the United States, but it was from people all over the world, who said, "Your books mean a great deal to children all over the world," and that was staggering to me.

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Behind the pages

I think the favorite question that I'm asked is, "Which is your favorite book?" And it's sort of like, "Which of your four children is your favorite child?" It's a little hard to do that. I know which were the most fun to write, like Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, and Gilly Hopkins were great fun to write. I know which ones were terrible to write, like Bridge to Terabithia and Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom.

I guess the one that I'm probably the most proud of is Jacob Have I Loved, and for various reasons. One, because I never thought I could finish it. And when I finally, finally finished, I looked at it, and I thought, "By Gum! I did it!" I guess you're not supposed to say that. You're supposed to be very humble and think, "Oh, I didn't reach my great dream for this book." That book outdid any of my dreams for it. I'm very proud of that book…

I couldn't start the book until I knew where it was set. I did all of these false starts. If you could see the mess I had trying to get that book started, you would see why it's such a triumph to me that it ever got finished. But as soon as I knew where it was set, then it became a book because the Chesapeake Bay is as much of a character in the book as one of the people in it.

So, it was very important to me to finally find where these people lived, and then everything fell into place. I had the language for the book. I had the metaphors for the book. I had all the imagery I needed from the setting. I had to do as much research as I would do on a book for twelfth-century Japan, but if you have that rich of a setting, it gives you everything you need.

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A writer deals with tragedy

I wrote Bridge to Terabithia because I couldn't do anything else. Our son's best friend, who was a girl, was struck and killed by lightning when they were both eight years old. The previous spring, I had been diagnosed with cancer, so my children were already upset. And then Lisa was killed, and it was a mess.

And, of course, if I could've done anything I wanted to do, I would've brought Lisa back from the dead. But I couldn't do that, and I couldn't even comfort my son, who was totally distraught. So, I did what writers often do when they can't do what they really want to do. They write a story to try to make sense of something that doesn't make sense. And you know that a story has to make sense. You have a beginning and middle and end. And when you get to the end, the end informs the beginning and the middle. And it's not that it's an intellectual argument, but emotionally something has happened. So, that's why I began to write the book. And people always want me to say that it comforted my son; but, no, it was really for me.

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Read, read, read

Well, my great advice to people either who want to have readers in their family, or writers in their family, is read. Read to them. Read with them. I was very fortunate. My mother read to us from birth, and that's when I learned to love books. In fact, I cannot remember when I learned to read for myself, because it was such a natural process. It was just like people talked to me in two languages. I learned to speak in two languages. People read to me all the time. I learned to read.

I say to children who're always saying, "What advice to you have for young writers?" I say, "Read, because that's the way you learn how the language works." That's the way you learn about emotion, on paper. That's where you find out how stories are fastened, by reading and reading and reading. And you just absorb it. Nobody's giving you rules in working it out. You're learning, and you're enjoying it while you're learning – which is very important.

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For the heart of a child

People always ask me about my favorite books, and, well, of course you always think that the books you read or were read to you when you were tiny… All of A. A. Milne and Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Graham and Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry and those things which were very much a part of my childhood. There are so many wonderful writers for little children.

I had a wonderful experience with my older granddaughter when she was tiny. She had gotten into some kind of a snit when they were visiting us. And her father exiled her to the living room, and her mother came in and said, "Mom, I think that Katherine needs a visit to the Bunny Planet." And you know, The Bunny Planet by Rosemary Wells is a wonderful book. For a child who is in trouble, there's such a comfort.

I know my own children loved Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats. And Vera Williams does wonderful books for little children. Because they have such heart, and such understanding for the heart of a child.

There's a book by Steven Kellogg called Best Friends, which is wonderful about the difficulties you have with your best friend.

But the best books are not just about problems. They're about a child's heart. And Charlotte Zolotow is another person who knows truly how a very small child feels and is able to translate that to a beautiful story.

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No role models in my books!

I never think about characters as being role models, because if somebody gave me a book with a role model in it, I'd run as fast as I could, when I was a kid. I think of them as people in circumstances of difficulty. And that makes some people stronger and some people weaker. But it's a more interesting story if it makes the person stronger.

Gilly is not what you'd call an admirable character. In fact, the first time someone told me she was a wonderful role model for today's children, I nearly died. I thought, "Do you really want a role model for your children who lies and steals and bullies the handicapped and is terribly racially prejudiced? I don't."

But, of course, she's a very angry child, and she acts out her anger in very inappropriate ways. We understand why she's angry, but she has to change, or the book fails as far as I'm concerned.

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"A book is a gift you can open again and again." — Garrison Keillor