‘The best advice to a writer – at least the best I took because you only take the advice you want – is from Dickens: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em weep, and above all make ’em wait!” I go through the full circle of human feelings in the course of a book.’
She certainly does – a Katherine Paterson novel is a tough emotional experience for anyone. She is a gutsy lady, whose full life has known sorrow but whose laugh is positively boisterous. ‘My theory is that your book is you – you’re revealing yourself willy-nilly. So it’s not that I insert hope artificially because I believe you should for young readers; it’s because I’m basically a hopeful person that it will come out that way.
‘As everyone points out, I write the same book over and over: the story of the child on the outside trying to get in.’ She has been that child. Her parents were missionaries who had already lived in China for nine years when she was born. Her father, unlike most foreigners, was deeply interested in Chinese culture, and they lived in the walled compound of a boys’ school with the only other foreigners some miles away in the town, so that her early years completely absorbed the Chinese way of life.
‘In those days there were always revolutions and things, but the summer I was four, while we were away in the mountains, war broke out in earnest. My father returned to our home, but had to cross alternately Chinese lands and Japanese lands and bandit country, while my mother waited for weeks with us five small children for news of him. A year later, in 1937, the children were sent to America (via Japan and England: I used to say I’d seen every zoo in every port-city in the world’), but after Japan had occupied great expanses of China and the country seemed stabilised, they returned.
‘My mother was teaching us then because we lived out of Shanghai, so we’d have mixed feelings when the Japanese came to interrogate my parents – it meant school would be let out, but although they were only sitting in our living room drinking tea and asking questions, it was still pretty edgy.’
Eventually, in 1940, they all came home to America. She grew up in various parts of the South, but it took time to make her way as an American child: ‘I had this British accent from my schooling in Shanghai, and I was weird anyway from this Chinese upbringing… I have no real roots at all!’ Her father was a pastor but at first had no job. ‘We were refugees, really, and lived with my aunt – a wonderful, good-humoured artist who made an awful situation bearable. Later we moved house all the time, sometimes four in the same city; after the war we were all ready to return to China – packed, shots, the lot – when the situation deteriorated badly.’ Her parents never saw China again.
This was the child who played games in her head, the private and secret games she sees now as the direct parallel of the first draft of her novels. ‘I’m only really happy when I’ve got a good book going, but it has to come from something I care about – until an idea takes root I don’t feel whole, yet it often takes so long I think I’ll never write another book. That’s when my family suffers!’
She took her first degree in English, with an advanced degree in Bible studies; at 24 she went to Japan for four years, before returning on a fellowship for another degree at Union Seminary, New York. John Paterson, a graduate of Union, had returned on a three-week programme for ministers who had been out for some years, and she met him just the night before he left. He, like her father, is a pastor, and she is the only one of her own family who has remained professionally linked with the Church.
The price of success in the States is the demand for lectures and public speaking. ‘It leads to total schizophrenia, because what makes you a writer is not what makes you a public person! It was after such an event, fuming over the way she had been turned into the Katherine Paterson – ’either a thing or a god, but not a human being’ – that she remembered a school in Virginia she had been to when she was 13. ‘All the children from outside the system were put into one “misfits” class, and with me was Anita Carter, from the famous Carter family who were among the first to record country music – every Saturday night she sang on a live radio programme with her sisters and mother. So here we had this little celebrity in our class, but she was extremely shy and, because of all the touring, behind her work, and I was asked to tutor her. I’d like to say I was kind to her, but in truth I was always awkward around her, and we never treated her like one of us. She was always something else just because she was on the radio. And I thought, if it’s hard for me now, what must it have been like for a child’?
‘And that was the germ for Come Sing, Jimmy Jo – not the music, which arose only because it was the one medium where there wouldn’t be the money to go with the fame. So my family had to hear country music all the time while I learnt about it! I did have fun with that book, composing take-offs of country-style songs. I haven’t much training, but I love to sing.
Even more of an outsider is the great Gilly Hopkins, that rascal who is a match for everything the world throws at her except real love – more splendid lump-in-the-throat stuff, in spite of being intended as her funny book. ‘I thought Gilly would be my little orphan child, because she came after the National Book Award for Master Puppeteer and the Newbery for Terabithia, but no, she got the Newbery honour book and the National Book Award!’ Two of the Patersons’ children are adopted: their elder daughter, now 24, was rescued from the streets of Hong Kong when she was a few weeks old, and their younger, at 18, is a full-blooded Native American. In between come two sons of 22 and 20, and an outstandingly handsome bunch they all are in the photograph she proudly passes over.
Had she been trying to draw in two other ‘outside’ children to the warmth of belonging? ‘I’ve never thought about it that way. We were nearly 30 when we married, and it was the fashion then to worry about adding to the world’s population, so if we wanted kids… It turned out well for us, they’re all lovely children.’
The realisation that many adults remain crippled by childhood jealousies bred Jacob Have I Loved. ‘I always want to say to them, let go of it, don’t be crippled for the rest of your life by the true or imagined hurts of childhood! Louise and Caroline are twins because I’ve always wanted to use the Jacob and Esau story – if you need a potent story the Bible’s a good place to go. It probably calls for the oldest readership of my books, and I’m appalled when I hear of young ones reading it.’
But, strong though the idea was, she couldn’t move until it had its own place, its own setting. ‘A friend gave me a wonderful book called “Beautiful Swimmers”, which is the Latin name for the crabs of the Chesapeake Bay, and I suddenly knew my setting. The island people are still fiercely independent and very interesting, still speaking an archaic so-called Elizabethan dialect. I shifted the story back to the war so a woman could he allowed to do men’s work on the boats, and to increase that sense of isolation.’
Jacob Have I Loved brought her a second Newbery Medal. The story of the first, of how Bridge to Terabithia was born out of her own peculiar hell, is as devastating as the book itself. Terabithia followed her Japanese novels, the first two of which were well reviewed in Britain but didn’t sell, so that the last, The Master Puppeteer, was turned down, though it went on to win the National Book Award in America.
‘I was working on Master Puppeteer when I was diagnosed as having cancer. Then my son’s best friend, Lisa, was killed. By lightning. One child on a sunny beach. It was too bizarre to happen in a book! Lightning to a child – to any of us – seems like the Hand of God. So here are my children thinking that their mother is going to die, and David’s best friend is killed. He was eight. It was a dreadful autumn, for him, for all of us – he was a wreck. He said to me one night, “I finally figured out why God killed Lisa. Lisa wasn’t bad – he killed her because I’m bad. Next He’s going to kill Mary, then you, then Daddy, then John” – and he went on down the list… God was going to knock us off one by one.
‘Well, the reason the book got written was because at that time we were living a block out of Washington D.C., in Maryland, and I belonged to a group called the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, and at one meeting someone said casually to me, how are the children? It just pushed a button in me, and out it all poured, all about David’s grief, and when I finished, an editor from New York, whom I’d not met before, simply said, “You should write that story.”
‘Lisa had died in August, and this was February, so it was still too close, but I thought it might help me to sort it all out. I kept coming at it, round and round, writing on the backs of envelopes to pretend I wasn’t really doing a book, sneaking round the subject… When I thought I was ready, I tried a typed draft, but I became stuck just before the chapter where Lesley dies. I couldn’t stand that – the only way to keep her alive was not to write it.
‘Then a close friend said to me, “I don’t think it’s Lisa’s death…” I hadn’t put that together at all, but I knew then that if it was my own I had to face it. I had to. I can feel it right now: goosebumps and sweat pouring down while I forced myself to finish that book, knowing it was no good but that it was simply an exercise in finishing.
‘I sent it to my editor absolutely terrified, sick – it was so personal, so me – for she didn’t know anything about the cancer or the death or anything. Then she called me on the phone: “I laughed through the first two-thirds and cried through the last. Now let’s make it a real book!”
‘I had had the catharsis, and after that painful, awful first draft the re-writing was the happiest experience I’ve ever had! I sent it off with the note, “I know love is blind, because I’ve just sent you a flawless manuscript!”’ – and she leans back and shouts with delighted laughter. It’s as if the tension of that nightmare had been broken all over again.
That was thirteen years ago. Today, though the cautious check-ups continue, good health and vitality beam out from her, and the talk drifts easily enough to other topics. She regards Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom as her hardest book, because of the sheer complexity of its subject, the Taiping rebellion in nineteenth-century China. Her first stories were set in eighteenth-century Japan and, like writers in Britain, she had been told children don’t read historical novels. ‘I thought we can’t know that until they’re in paperback. because that’s what children themselves buy. Now they are, and they sell.
‘I believe in historical fiction, because part of the problem in the States, and maybe elsewhere, is that children have never understood what history is for – why bother about it? One of the reasons America is in such a mess is because Reagan never read history.
The tragic story of the Taiping is exactly the story of our nation: here is a country founded on these wonderful ideals, not discovering them on the way but founded on them, and we’ll kill anyone who doesn’t agree with us.’
She is ‘a very active member of the Democratic party’, and fiercely loyal to her fellow Southerner, the maligned and misused Carter, yet touches only lightly on the struggle of blacks in her novels. ‘I’m white – I’d be crucified if I tried. Eventually maybe, but not now. But I hate to pretend there are no black children in the States… I was nervous about tackling Eleazer Jones in Jimmy Jo, but some of my children’s friends did talk like that – you can’t spell it as it is or it will be as unintelligible as Uncle Remus, but you must get the sound, the rhythm, in the reader’s head – and there are such black kids who are outlaws, whom teachers half-fear, half-hate.’
The emotional turmoil of her books inevitably produces letters from children with problems of their own, which she finds scary. ‘It’s one thing if you’ve got your arm round a child right there with you, another thing if the child’s thousands of miles away.
‘There’s a lot of Blume-bashing among the literary elite of America, but the truth is that they’re probably jealous of the response she gets from children. She was the centre of a particularly celebrated case in Michigan where three of her books were removed from the shelves, and our Authors’ Guild asked me to sign a protest letter – six of us signed – and she wrote thanking me, saying how isolated she had felt. (And she is, simply because her sales are so far beyond everyone else’s, and people like to think, “Oh, I’m a better writer than she is”.) But she made a point I have quoted over and over, it’s so important: when we remove a book from the shelves we have to look at what we’re saying to children, and that is, “If you don’t like someone’s ideas, get rid of them!”’
A rootless outsider maybe, but the child Katherine grew into a passionate writer, a fighter for truth, and a generous, tolerant woman.
Photograph courtesy of Gollancz.
(published in hardback by Gollancz and in paperback by Puffin)
Bridge to Terabithia, 0 575 02550 6, £6.95 hbk; 0 14 03.1260 9, £1.75 pbk
Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, 0 575 03737 7, £6.95 hbk; 0 14 03.2176 4, £1.95 pbk
The Great Gilly Hopkins, 0 575 02587 5, £6.95 hbk; 0 14 03.1302 8, £1.50 pbk
Jacob Have I Loved, 0 575 02961 7, £6.95 hbk; 0 14 03.1471 7, £1.75 pbk
Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, 0 575 03329 0, £6.95 hbk; 0 14 03.1735 X. £1.95 pbk
Star of Night: Stories for Christmas, 0 575 02886 6. £6.95 hbk