Katherine Paterson’s Stories of My Life is a loving look back at an extraordinary life. Paterson was born in China in 1932, the child of Christian missionaries. War twice forced the family to flee the country, the last time permanently, and Paterson always longed to return. But even after she graduated from King College in Bristol, Tennessee, and earned a master’s degree in education, China was still closed to missionaries, so Paterson took a post in Japan instead. Later, while her four children were young, she began a writing career that came to include Newbery- and National Book Award-winning children’s classics like Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob Have I Loved, and The Great Gilly Hopkins. Paterson recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email about her new memoir, the relationship between her characters and the people she knows, and whether she ever thinks about giving up.
Chapter 16: At a conference several years ago I had the pleasure of sitting next to you for about an hour to help you as people came up to get their books signed. One woman gushed, “I’m so glad you’re still alive!” which silenced you for a second or two until you said, “So am I!”
Paterson: And still plugging along!
Chapter 16: You had a childhood that some would call turbulent, although the solidity of your loving family kept you and your siblings grounded and healthy. If you could tell your child (or teen) self something, what would it be?
Paterson: Cheer up, old girl, it gets a lot better.
Chapter 16: You served as the second National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2010 to 2011. What was your favorite part of that year?
Paterson: Getting to know folks young and old that were just a delight to meet.
Chapter 16: And what do you like best about being a writer?
Paterson: Readers who take my little stories and make magic with them.
Chapter 16: When you’re starting a new book, what comes to you first? Characters? Plot? Relationships? Something else? Or does it all grow together?
Paterson: Different books start at different places. Bridge was born from the death of my son’s best friend; Gilly Hopkins began with the name Galadriel Hopkins, but no story to go with the character. Jip started with a picture of a child rolling off the back of a wagon and no one coming back to look for him. Jacob started with my concern for the sibling relationship. So you see….
Chapter 16: You mention in Stories of My Life that several of your characters were inspired by people in your life, and I enjoyed trying to line up people you encountered with characters I’m familiar with from your books. Are there are any characters that you think resemble you, either as a child or as an adult?
Paterson: All of them are really me because my feelings are the only feelings I really know.
Chapter 16: Do you outline your books before you write, or do you let them take off on their own?
Paterson: With one exception (Come Sing, Jimmy Jo), I know where I’m headed before I start. As a beginning writer I tended to decide what must happen in each chapter to bring me to that ending. Is that an outline?
Chapter 16: Has there ever been a time when you thought you would quit writing?
Paterson: After I finish every single book, I’m sure I’ll never write another. Oh dear.
Chapter 16: I know I’m not alone when I say that I’m glad that so far you’ve managed to overcome this feeling!
Tracy Barrett is a writer who lives in Nashville. Her tenth novel, a young-adult retelling of Cinderella entitled The Stepsister’s Tale, was published in 2014 by Harlequin TEEN.