A Talk with Katherine Paterson
Award-Winning Author Talks Terabithia
Katherine Paterson is the author of the award-winning children’s book Bridge to Terabithia. It is about to debut as a motion picture produced by Walden Media and Walt Disney Pictures. As a former missionary, Katherine’s faith is a key part of who she is. Michael Brunk spoke with her about how that influences her writing and what she thinks of the new movie.
Courtesy of a Hollywood publicist, Michael conducted the following telephone interview with Ms. Paterson.
MB: You’re quoted on your website as saying, “The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress.” How do you apply this to your writing? Do you deliberately address matters of faith or does it come out naturally in your writing?
I think it was C.S. Lewis who said, “The book cannot be what the writer is not.” I think the book is going to be who you are. If you’re a person of faith that will come out in the book. It’s not something that you stick on or worry if you’re clear enough. Because the minute you start doing that you’ve stopped telling a story and started writing propaganda. I think propaganda has gotten a bad name; it simply means you have something you believe that you want to share. That has its proper place and I’ve written it! But that’s different from a story, where you don’t start with an answer that you want to share: you start with a question that you need to explore. And you do that in the form of a story.
MB: So your emphasis is on the story first?
Yes! I have a good example of that: Jesus does a lot of that. He leaves it up to the listener to get the point of the story. He leaves it quite open-ended. I should write this down so I can always quote it; Barbara Brown Taylor has written a wonderful thing about the difference between a story and a sermon. A story is open-ended and invites you to come in; it invites identification and that’s where the transformation begins. But if you can’t identify with the people in the story, nothing is going to happen to the reader. If you start with telling people what they are supposed to feel and what they are supposed to experience it simply doesn’t work. Because it really has to come from the reader, himself or herself.
MB: One of the scenes in your book Bridge to Terabithia that I found very interesting is where Leslie accompanies Jessie and his family to church for Easter. She says, “You have to believe it,” talking about the Gospel and the church service. “You have to believe it but you hate it; I don’t have to believe it and I think it’s beautiful.” Could you comment about that statement and its meaning to you?
There’s a lot of “bad news” in the Good News sometimes when we preach it. It’s supposed to be good news! When it’s something that frightens children, then maybe we’re not telling it the right way. I’m always so moved by the fact that every time in the Gospels you have an angel appear, the first words are always “Fear not!” Why is it that when we preach the Good News that there is a lot of fear involved in what we say? And because children pick up on that very quickly, it makes them afraid of God. The God of grace and mercy gets lost in our telling of it.
MB: Bridge to Terabithia has been made into a movie previously, hasn’t it?
Right. Wonderworks had a series for children years ago. I can’t remember exactly what year. It was a one-hour program during that time. [The book] was truncated and lost a great deal that was important to me, such as the scene we just talked about. That scene is in the new movie. The new movie, thanks to my son, is very close to the book in spirit and plot. They’ve changed the setting in that it’s no longer taking place in the 1970s. But I think the changes they’ve made are perfectly acceptable and I think will be acceptable to people who love the book. The core of the story is absolutely there.
MB: You mentioned your son David; he helped write the screenplay. Were you involved also?
Only in that he would send me examples and ask me to comment on them. I really did things through him rather than directly.
MB: In another interview I’ve read, you talked about encouraging people not to judge the movie by the trailer.
I probably shouldn’t say that since Disney is sponsoring this tour and all of these interviews. The trailer is trying to get in those nine- to twelve-year-old boys who haven’t read the book, I think. But actually the special effects, which are of course very well done because the WETA people did them—the same people that did Lord of the Rings and Narnia—they’re very well done, but they’re not the major part of the movie as the trailer might make you suspect.
MB: I assume you’ve seen the movie already; are you happy with it?
Yes, I am! Which is amazing for a writer! I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I saw it in Seattle at the American Library Association Convention with 300-plus librarians, at least one of whom had been on the committee which had chosen the book for the Newberry—and they did not say a discouraging word; they really, I think to a person, loved it. That’s a very positive point of view. I think the librarians of the country would be the pickiest audience you could hope for… next to the author!
MB: Is there anything you’d like to say to a fan of the book who is wondering about seeing the movie?
The movie will not be exactly like the book. You cannot literally put the page onto the screen; it doesn’t work. In the book Leslie hands Jesse a stick and says, “Thy sword, sire!” We couldn’t have kids hitting imaginary foes with sticks on the big screen. So there will be things that the reader imagined that will now be visualized. But I think the good thing that the movie does quite well is show that the world of Terabithia is something that the children have created themselves from their own imaginations. It starts with the credits where Jess is sketching the enemies that turn up later in Terabithia. So you see that these are creatures that have come out of the imagination of children. The movie does, I think, show very well the depth of the friendship and the power of imagination. Which were things I hoped that it would show. The young actors are really quite wonderful. I’m just so happy with the characterizations.
MB: Thank you very much for your time; it’s been delightful talking with you. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.
I think I can promise that you’ll enjoy it. You can come complain to me later if you don’t!
Please also see Michael’s review of Bridge to Terabithia.