Katherine Paterson: An Interview with the Author of Bridge to Terabithia

kpThis telephone interview with the author is reprinted from the Spring 2007 issue of Visual Parables. The review of the Disney film based on the book is also included in that issue.

The release of the Disney film Bridge to Terabithia, based on a Newbery Award book, was the occasion for my interview with its author Katherine Paterson. The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Katherine Womeldorf Paterson, remembers well her early childhood in China, but went to school when her family moved to Virginia because they could see that the US and Japan would soon be at war with each other. The Womeldorfs moved around between North Carolina, West Virginia, and back to Virginia. She attended King College in Bristol, Tennessee, and after graduating, taught sixth grade students in Lovettsville, Virginia for a year. This experience formed an important part of her book Bridge to Terabithia. She reports on her website (terabithia.com) that “almost all my children were like Jesse Aarons.”

When she was a girl the then Miss Womeldorf did not dream of becoming a writer, though she did write plays for her sixth grade friends to perform. Instead, she wanted to be either a movie star or a missionary to China. Apparently deciding on the latter career (she did act in plays during her school years), she attended the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond. Her path to China was blocked by the Communist take over, so a friend suggested she go to Japan, something she resisted because she had grown to hate the Japanese due to their brutal invasion of China. She did go to Japan, learning to love the people and their culture, as her book Sign of the Chrysanthemum shows. After four years she returned to the US to study theology in New York City. She gave up her plan to return to Japan when she met and fell in love with the young Presbyterian pastor John Paterson. Her mission field changed to that of a series of pastorates and her family that grew to include four children.

I caught up with Ms. Paterson by telephone on the morning that she was getting ready to leave her Vermont home for the premiere of her film in Los Angelos. Having seen the one hour PBS (not so faithful adaptation of her book) I asked her how she felt about the new Disney version. She quickly replied, “They’ve done much better in the new production.” She had written the book in the 1970s for her son David, when his friend Lisa was killed by lightning. It was her way of dealing with the girl’s death, for herself as well as for her son. This time it was David who co-wrote the movie script. The studio had their writer, plus a couple of others, she relates, but “David was able, even after the other writers had a go at it, to go back and bring it close to the story in the book and keep it faithful, so I’m very pleased the way it’s come out.”

Although Bridge to Terabithia is labeled a “children’s book,” it is far from the likes of those penned by such writers as Beatrix Potter. There is a touch of fantasy in the book, but the story is grounded in reality where death can intrude suddenly, people live close to the poverty line, and some of the characters utter curse words. We talked about the latter, especially at complaints from a few teachers and parents, and the author replied, “My feeling is that when you’re writing, you’re being as honest as you can be, and you have to be true to your characters. They’re not going to be exemplary human beings; they’re going to be human beings. And they will speak and act the way persons would in those circumstances.” We spoke of movies that include unsavory elements, and she commented, “Violence seems okay, but one swear word, and…”

As to this movie, she continued, “I don’t think it’s a movie for very young children. It’s a tough story. It’s a story even of—you know, I get letters from parents who say death is not appropriate for a ten year-old, and I think, ‘Well, it happens.’” A daughter of missionaries and wife of a Presbyterian pastor, Katherine Patterson is very much a Christian writer, or perhaps, better, to set her apart from some writers whose stories seem as artificial as those old formulaic movies once produced by Christian organizations, she is a writer who is a Christian. She responded with, “I think your writing is who you are, and if you are a Christian, then that comes through willy nilly, and not something that you have to put in.” I stuck in my two-cents worth, saying that the theme of her story is grace, but she does not spell this out—she lets us discover that for ourselves, to which she responded, “Well, that’s what you do in a story. That’s what Jesus always did in stories.”

All through her writing career Katherine Paterson coped with being both a busy mother of four children and a pastor’s wife. She reports that her husband John has been her staunchest fan and critic, often encouraging her, especially when she was starting out and it seemed that no publisher could be found for her novels. “He feels like my writing has been my calling.” (Her first writing was church school curricula for the Presbyterian Church in 1964, but she wanted to go on and write the kind of fictional stories she enjoyed reading.) Amidst the busy life of parish and family she has had to discipline herself to set aside time for writing. “When it was ever mentioned in the odd conversation with parishioners that I wasn’t playing the role of a proper preacher’s wife, he would say, ‘Well Katherine has her own calling.’ I was very much a part of the church, and I cared about it. I sing in the choir; I teach Sunday school. I do things that any concerned member would do, but I don’t try to play the role as in the old time, or the traditional, of being ‘the preacher’s wife.’”

The novelist will be spending much of the next few weeks helping to promote the movie and the book. She recommends the movie without reservation, expressing a great deal of praise for the young actors who play Jessie, Leslie, and May Belle. She also reassured me that the ads and previews of the film, giving the impression that this is a special effects-driven movie, are misleading. The special effects do not overwhelm the story, as has happened in other films. The movie returns to the book, including the touching scene left out in the TV adaptation of the disliked teacher saying just the right words of comfort for Jessie. Her son David told her of the incident on the set when they were shooting this scene and it had to be shot over again because the sound of sobbing was heard, and not from an actor. A burly tattooed cameraman got so caught up in the scene that he started crying.

Katherine Patterson has brought a sense of grace and of self-worth to millions of young readers, and also to adults still young enough at heart to read books in which children, often on the fringe of society, are the main characters. Through her almost twenty fictional works (two for young children co-written with husband John) she has, in words taken from her book “tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world—huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile.” These are from Jessie’s thoughts about what his friend Leslie had done for him, but they are also true for those who read Katherine Paterson’s wonderful books.