The Portable Humanist Podcast SeriesListen to Vermont Humanities talks while you’re on the go.
Katherine Paterson on Bridge to Terabithia
Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books, including 16 novels for children and young people. She has twice won the Newbery Medal, for Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and for Jacob Have I Loved in 1981. In 2000 she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.
In this episode, she discusses and reads from Bridge to Terabithia. Her talk was recorded at our Fall Conference in 2015. The theme of the conference was “Why Do Stories Matter?”
Katherine Paterson: I got a phone call from Virginia Buckley. And Virginia was the editor on all 16 of my novels. And she said, “I want to talk to you about your new manuscript.” She said, “I laughed through the first two thirds and cried the last.” So I began to breathe again. And she said, “Now, is this a story about friendship or is it a story about death?”
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books, including 16 novels for children and young people. She has twice won the Newbery Medal: for Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and for Jacob Have I Loved in 1981. In 2000 she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.
She’s also a longtime friend of Vermont Humanities. We’ve twice selected her books – The Day of the Pelican in 2010 and Bread and Roses, Too in 2018 – for Vermont Reads, our statewide one-book reading program.
In this episode, she discusses and reads from “Bridge to Terabithia.” Her talk was recorded at our Fall Conference in 2015. The theme of the conference was “Why Do Stories Matter?”
Katherine Paterson: I began to write Bridge to Terabithia to explain well, not to explain, but to try somehow to deal with something that I could not understand. The year 1974, I was in the living room reading and David was also in the living room and the telephone rang and I went to the phone and it was the Hills, our next-door neighbor. He said “Katherine, I thought you ought to know that Lisa was killed this morning.” She had gone with her family to Bethany Beach, and someone who was there at the time told me later that they’d looked up and they saw this little girl dancing on a rock above the beach. And while they were watching this joyful child, a bolt of lightning came down from heaven and killed her.
Katherine Paterson: Now how are you supposed to explain that to your 8 year-old son. I couldn’t explain it to myself. And so I began to write the book to try to deal with it, because I know that even when life doesn’t make sense, a story somehow has to. It has to have a beginning and a middle and an end. And when you get to the end, even if it doesn’t make sense, intellectually, somehow, emotionally, you know it, you’ve come from chaos to order.
Katherine Paterson” But I got to the day when I knew that when I wrote the next chapter that Leslie Burke would die. So I did the only thing I could do to keep her alive. And that was not to write, not to go to work. I rearranged my shelves, caught up with my correspondence. I think I even mopped the kitchen floor. But I couldn’t write the chapter. And then it just happened that I was having lunch with an old classmate of mine. And she asked the rude question, “How’s your work coming?” And my family knows they never ask me how my work was coming. But, you know, Estelle had known me longer than my family had, and she didn’t have any respect for me. So she asked. And I just blurted out, “I’m trying to write a story about a friendship between a boy and a girl, and the girl dies.” And I said, “I can’t let her die.” And I thought I was being very wise. I said, “I just don’t think I can go through Lisa’s death again.” And Estelle looked me straight in the eye and she said, “I don’t think it’s Lisa’s death you can’t face. I think it’s yours.”.
Katherine Paterson: And I thought, well, if it’s Lisa’s death, it’s one thing. But if it’s mine, I have to face it. So I went home and finished the chapter and in a few days finished the draft and then I did what no real writer would ever do. I mailed it off to my editor before the sweat had evaporated. And as soon as I mailed it, I knew that I’d made a terrible mistake. I kept waiting for that letter that said sort of sorrowfully, perhaps, that my career as a writer was obviously over, that what little talent I’d had previously was obviously gone.
Katherine Paterson: But I got a phone call from Virginia Buckley. And Virginia was the editor on all 16 of my novels. So she’d already edited three books with me. And she said, “I want to talk to you about your new manuscript.” And she said, “I laughed through the first two thirds and cried the last.” So I began to breathe again. And she said, “Now, is this a story about friendship or is it a story about death?” And I thought until that moment it was a story about death because it had been a year about death and facing death. But as soon as she asked me that question, I said, “Oh, it’s a story about friendship.” And she said, “I think so, too. But now you’ve got to go back and write it that way.”
Katherine Paterson: And that was the question that would turn my pitiful little cry of pain into a real story. She said “In a real friendship, both friends grow and change because they know each other. I can see how Jesse has changed because of Lisa. But I can’t see how Lisa has changed because she knows Jesse.”
Katherine Paterson: So up from the playground of Calvin H. Wiley School, rose Pansy. Isn’t that a wonderful name? Pansy and her two seventh grade cohorts who terrorized me on the playground of Calvin H. Wiley school. And I said, “Pansy, I’m going to get my revenge.”
Katherine Paterson: I couldn’t name my villain Pansy because I didn’t want Pansy to come and get me. But Janice, Avery is Pansy. But the problem was, I didn’t know why Pansy was such a bully, but I had to know why Janice Avery was. And when I finally figured it out, I kind of liked her. So it ruined my revenge. But I think what Virginia did was what great editors do. They ask the right questions. They never tell you what to do. They ask the question that makes you solve the problem.
Katherine Paterson: Well, if we’ve have five minutes, I’ll read the very end. And I always read this when there’s time for no more questions, because I don’t think people ask questions after this. This is the end of the book. After the tragedy has occurred.
Cremated. Something clicked inside Jess’s head that meant Leslie was gone. Turned to ashes. He would never see her again. Not even dead. Never. How could they dare?
Leslie belonged more to him than anyone in the world. No one had even asked him. No one had even told him. And now he was never going to see her again. And all they could do was cry.
Not for Leslie. They weren’t crying for Leslie.
They were crying for themselves, just themselves. If they cared at all for Leslie, they would never have brought her to this rotten place. He had to hold tightly to his hands for fear he might sock Bill in the face.
He, Jess, was the only one who really cared for Leslie. But Leslie had failed him. She went and died just when he needed her the most. She went and left him. She went swinging on that rope just to show him that she was no coward.
“So there, Jess Aarons.” She was probably somewhere right now laughing at him, making fun of him like he was Mrs. Myers.
She had tricked him. She’d made him leave his old self behind and come into her world. And then before he was really at home in it, but too late to go back, she’d left him stranded there like an astronaut wandering about on the moon alone.
He was never sure later, just when he left the old Perkins place, but he remembered running up the hill toward his own house, with angry tears streaming down his face. He banged through the door. Maybelle was standing there, her brown eyes wide.
“Did you see her?” she said excitedly. “Did you see her laid out?”
He hit her in the face as hard as he’d ever hit anything in his life.
She stumbled backward from him with a little yelp. He went into the bedroom and felt under the mattress until he retrieved all his paper and the paints that Leslie had given him at Christmas time. Ellie was standing in the bedroom door fussing at him. He pushed past her. From the couch Brenda, too, was complaining, but the only sound that really entered his head was that of Maybelle. Whimpering. He ran out the kitchen door, down the field, all the way to the stream without looking back. The stream was a little lower than it had been when he’d seen it last above from the crab apple tree. The frayed end of the rope swung gently.
I’m now the fastest runner in the fifth grade.
He screamed something without words and flung the papers and paints into the dirty brown water. The paints floated on top, riding the current like a boat. But the papers swirled about soaking in the muddy water being sucked down, around and down. He watched them all disappear.
Gradually, his breath quieted and his heart slowed from its wild pace. The ground was still muddy from the rains, but he sat down anyway.
There was nowhere to go, nowhere ever again. He put his head down on his knee.
“That was a damn fool thing to do.” His father sat down on the dirt beside him.
“I don’t care. I don’t care.”
He was crying now, crying so hard he could barely breathe. His father pulled Jess over on his lap as though he were Joyceann.
“There, there,” he said, patting his head.
“I hate her,” Jess said through his sobs. “I wish I had never seen her in my whole life.”
His father stroked his hair without speaking. Jess grew quiet. They both watched the water. Finally, his father said “Hell, ain’t it?” It was the kind of thing Jess could hear his father saying to another man. He found it strangely comforting, and it made him bold.
“Do you believe people go to hell? Really go to hell, I mean?”
“You ain’t worrying about Leslie Burke?” It did seem peculiar but still.
“Well, Maybelle said…”
“Maybelle? Maybelle ain’t God.”
“Yeah, I know. But how do you know what God does?”.
“Lord boy, don’t be a fool. God ain’t gonna send any little girls to hell.”.
He had never in his life thought of Leslie Burke as a little girl, but still God was sure to. She wouldn’t have been 11 until November. They got up and began to walk up the hill.
“I didn’t mean that about hating her,” he said. “I don’t know what made me say that.”
His father nodded to show he understood.
Katherine Paterson: And because I’m not going to leave you there…
The next day after school Jess went down and got the lumber he needed carrying a couple of boards at a time to the creek bank. He put the two longest pieces across a narrow place upstream from the crab apple tree. And when he was sure they were as firm and even as he could make them, he began to nail down the cross pieces.
“What are you doing, Jess?” Maybelle had followed him down again, as he had guessed she might.
“It’s a secret, Maybelle.”
“When I finish, OK?”
“I swear I won’t tell nobody. Not Billie Jean, not Joyceann, and not Mama.”.
She was jerking her head back and forth in solemn emphasis.
Oh, I don’t know about Joyceann. You might want to tell Joyceann sometime.”.
“Give Joyceann something that’s a secret between you and me?” The idea seemed to horrify her.
“Yeah, I was just thinking about it.”.
Her face sagged. “Joyceann ain’t nothing but a baby.”.
“Well, she wouldn’t likely be a queen first off. You’d have to train her and stuff.”.
“Queen? Who gets to be queen?”.
“I’ll explain it when I finish, OK?”
And when he finished, he put flowers in her hair and led her across the bridge, the Great Bridge to Terabithia, which might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully.
He said, “Look.”
“Can’t you see them?” He whispered, “All the Terabithians, standing on tiptoe to see you.”
“Shhhh. Yes. There’s a rumor going around that the beautiful girl arriving today might be the queen they’ve been waiting for.”
Katherine Paterson: Thank you.
That’s Katherine Paterson, beloved author, reading from her book, Bridge to Terabithia.
Thanks for listening to The Portable Humanist.