In A Non-Fiction First, Katherine Paterson Tells Her Own Story

Oct 27, 2014

The writer Katherine Paterson is well known, and has been widely honored, for her fiction, with two National Book Awards to her credit, two Newbury Medals and a Newbury honor. Her best known works  include Bridge To Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Jacob Have I Loved. And her novel Day of the Pelican was chosen as the book to be read statewide in Vermont as part of the Vermont Reads project in 2010.

Now, Paterson has blazed a new path with her first work of nonfiction, called Stories of My Life.

She wrote quite bluntly that “this book is not a memoir, and that I swore never to write one.”

“It’s not a coherent narrative, it’s a bunch of stories I want to tell and stories I want to preserve. It’s not an autobiography in the sense that I’m starting with my birth and ending with my old age,” she said.

"It's not a coherent narrative. It's a bunch of stories I want to tell and stories I want to preserve." - Katherine Paterson

“Just ask my sisters if you think I’ve remembered everything correctly.”

Many people who have interviewed Paterson over the years have asked questions about her early years, which seem quite exotic. Paterson was born in China; her parents were missionaries, and the family had to flee twice during World War II.

“It’s the only life I’ve had, so to me it seems quite ordinary. And my first five years before World War II began in China were very happy years, and very stable years for me. The country was in chaos and my parents had a lot of worries that I didn’t know about. But I lived in a small compound and everyone except my family in the compound were Chinese,” Paterson explained. Her father wrote letters home saying that Katherine was speaking both languages equally.

While the family was vacationing in the mountains, the Japanese invaded and began bombing.

They had to move, which Paterson remembers as “very frightening and not exotic at all. It was scary, as it is for children in war.”

Much of "Stories of My Life" is about Paterson's four children and her 50 year marriage to John Paterson, who was a minister.
Credit Courtesy

The family spent some time in the U.S. before going to China again, and again they were forced to flee. She spent her high school years in the United States. After college, she followed in her parent's footsteps and became a missionary, but this time she went to Japan.

“If anybody had told me when I was 9 years old that I would go to Japan and live there for four years and love it, I wouldn’t have believed them,” she said. “Because I feared and hated the Japanese as a child.”

“I had a friend in graduate school who was Japanese and she persuaded me that if I would give the Japanese people a chance I would come to love them, and I did,” she said. “I’ve said more than once that it’s an experience I wish everyone could have, to be loved by people that you thought you hated. It’s life changing.”  

Paterson said as a single woman, living in Japan, she had 11 pastors she worked with, and they all wanted to teach her as much as they could about Japan.

She came to writing much later, at the suggestion of a teacher. “I was a reader, not a writer, as child,” Paterson said. After she was married and raising four children, she started sneaking in writing when she could.

“It took me seven years to publish my first novel,” she said.

But she did eventually find success. Two of her books have won National Book Awards, and two have won Newbury Medals. More recently, she was the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. It’s a cause close to her heart.

"I have a good emotional memory. And that's what makes it possible for me to write for children in a way that children say, 'How do you know how we feel?' I know how they feel because that child who felt deeply is still inside me."

Adults frequently tell her that her books aren’t really for children. “And yet, children love my books. I think it’s because I understand how it feels to be a child. The child that I was is still inside me,” she said. “I have a good emotional memory. And that’s what makes it possible for me to write for children in a way that children say, ‘How do you know how we feel?’ I know how they feel because that child who felt deeply is still inside me.”

Much of Stories of My Life is about Paterson’s four children and her 50 year marriage to John Paterson, who was a minister. He was also a writing partner; the couple wrote two books together. He died a year ago, and Paterson closes the book with that story. She said she started writing this book when he was ill and she couldn’t put the work into a book of fiction, but she could put down stories. She thought it was done, and then John died. She had to add a chapter.

“People can’t understand this, but the last week we had together was one of the most wonderful weeks of our life together, because he made the conscious decision not to go on fighting and wanted to go home.” Paterson said her husband was able to see all of his children and tell them how much he loved him.

“He had a daughter on one side holding his right hand and I was on his left side holding his left hand when he died,” Paterson said. “And so few people in this day and age have that privilege and I’m just so grateful for that.”