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Author Interview: Katherine Paterson

Lisa O'Meara / February 3, 2015

Katherine Paterson is one of the most celebrated children’s authors in the world.

Among her numerous accolades, she has won the Newberry Award twice (Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved) and the National Book Award twice (The Great Gilly Hopkins and The Master Puppeteer). For her “substantial and lasting contribution of literature for children,” her body of work has earned the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the Hans Christian Andersen Award. For over 40 years, Katherine’s books have taken us to different places and times and given voice to the insecurities, tragedies, and triumphs of young adults.

What is evident in all her books is how much she cares about her characters and how passionate she is about telling stories for people who need a voice.

Katherine’s emotional and inspiring stories, while often influenced by her own experiences, have always remained firmly in the realm of fiction. Her latest offering, however, turns the focus on Katherine’s family history in a collection called Stories of My Life. The idea for recording these family stories came to Katherine while she was taking care of her daughter during a difficult pregnancy. In sharing stories that her own mother had told her about their family history, Katherine was surprised to realize how many of them her daughter had never heard. Katherine decided to record these stories about her family, as well as the stories of her own life, so they could be shared with her children and grandchildren.

Katherine has talked often about how personal her fiction is to her. She describes writing as a process where one feels so passionately about something that they make a conscious decision to bare their soul and heart and offer it up to their reader. She found that writing nonfiction about her family was easier because, “I shared what I chose to share and what was nobody’s business, I chose not to write about.”

Katherine explains that when she is writing fiction she shares her emotions and her feelings but, in writing her family history, she chose to just tell stories without lingering too much on how she felt about the events in her life. The result is a wonderful book that reads like an old friend sitting across the table from you, sharing anecdotes from their past.

Katherine’s day-to-day writing life had been somewhat on hold until just recently. Earlier in her career, Katherine’s routine was to write in the morning and use the afternoons to catch up on correspondence. Her routine changed when her husband, John, became ill. It was then that Katherine began working on Stories of My Life because, she explains, “It was really all I could write…I couldn’t immerse myself in a sustained narrative during that time.” She wrote when she could, without any set routine.

Katherine always found a way to fit writing into her life because she firmly believes, “To be a writer you have to write.”

Even if it’s five minutes while your children are sleeping; a writer writes. In fact, when Katherine stopped writing altogether for a period of time, she no longer considered herself a “real writer.” She offers further advice for aspiring writers on her website, “Send your inner critic off on vacation and just write the way little children play. You can’t be judge and creator at the same time.”

Her husband, John, passed away in 2013 and Katherine says that after his death she didn’t write at all. She did a lot of other things: went to Greece, moved, and worked on the movie version of The Great Gilly Hopkins, which will be released sometime this year. But she did nothing that demanded of her the mindset that writing requires.

It was only this past fall that she felt ready to become a writer again. She and author Stephanie Tolan had written three plays together in the past, including one Christmas play that they had discarded because it “simply didn’t work.” But writers never really discard anything and Katherine decided she wanted to take a look at it again. She and Stephanie have been working on the play for months and are now in the process of revising back and forth. Stephanie had also recently suffered a devastating loss and Katherine says, “This play was the best thing to happen because we’re both turning back into writers after a difficult time when we didn’t think we would be again. We’re becoming real writers again.”

Katherine Paterson’s contribution to young adult literature cannot be overstated. Her books are used by teachers, treasured by children, and shared across generations. Anyone who loves great literature can celebrate that Katherine has chosen to continue to be a “real writer” because hers is a voice that would be greatly missed.

Katherine Paterson’s books can be purchased at all major booksellers and the University of Arizona BookStores.

You can find Katherine Paterson at the following sessions at the Tucson Festival of Books:

  • "Looking Back: The Story of My Stories" on Saturday at 10 AM
  • "Memoirs Matter: Our Lives as Story" on Saturday at 2:30 PM
  • "Redefining Family through a Child's Eyes" on Sunday at 1:00 PM

Lisa O’Meara is a Program Coordinator for Reading Seed, a program of Literacy Connects. To find out more about the work they do, visitliteracyconnects.org.

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