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Gary Schmidt

The Grail Is Real

A conversation with Katherine Paterson.

I sit in John and Katherine Paterson's cottage living room on a day whose tones are as perfect as a bell. A corridor of evergreens leads down to the lake, and the water reflects a sky that holds only a single cloud for accent. We watch and wait for a white sailboat to come by, and it does, as if it knew that it alone was needed to complete the picture. I listen for my five children whom John and my wife have taken down to the beach; the sixth lies asleep in the next room, having had his fill of driving up and down and up and down the long slopes that led us there, thank you.

Katherine is just back from a retreat, an annual one that she would never miss, and is beginning to think about the conference up in Maine in a couple of weeks. Tomorrow she will be in Boston, where she will meet with a group of Newbery and Caldecott Award winners to work on a citywide literacy project. We sit down, and one of her editors calls. Then another. I look at the stacks of books around me and pick up The Seed People while I wait. Katherine is reading through these in her work as chair for the National Book Award. When she comes back, she waves her hands and gives an exasperated laugh, long and deep. "I am," she explains, "on vacation this month."

I am reluctant to turn on the tape recorder, to establish the protocol and formality of the literary interview. Katherine is the neighbor next door, the friend who gladdens the day, the favorite aunt who wants to know—who truly wants to know—how it is with you. You would no more tape her laughter and easy talk than you would theirs. Later, when we are all swimming in the lake, I have to keep reminding myself that this is the winner of a couple of National Book Awards and more Newbery Medals and honors than you can shake a stick at. As more people come down to the water, I wonder whether they know, whether this prophet is honored in Nazareth. My son, who is eight and always hungry, wonders if the prophet has anything to eat back up at the house.

So, reluctant to begin, I turn instead to what was then the most recent of her novels, Jip: His Story (1996). The structuring of the title suggests his singular experience, but really it is a novel that asserts the impossibility of singular experience—it is a novel that pictures the expanding rings of charity, rings that grow out of the previous novel, Lyddie (1991). Jip is not a sequel to Lyddie—"I don't write sequels!" Katherine asserts—but the rings of charity that move out into Jip certainly began with Lyddie.

When Lyddie is abandoned by her father and sent away by a mother who maddens and finally dies, she resolves that she will keep her family together on their farm, and she devotes all of her energies to the Lowell textile mills so that she may earn the money for this hope. But as one by one everything that she loves is taken away—her brother is adopted by wealthy folks, her sister cannot live in Lowell because of the racking coughs that assail her, her friends are driven away by manufactured scandal, and finally even she is blackballed and turned away from the mills—Lyddie must decide how she will deal with loss. For a moment, she has the ripe opportunity to pay the world back: She may turn in an escaped slave and recover the needed money. But she does not, and in fact helps Ezekial Freeman to escape north. So begins the first circle of charity—and it makes no difference that that charity is at first reluctant.

In Jip: His Story, Jip throws more than one circle of his own. His responses to the other inmates of the Vermont poorhouse in which he lives are responses of an easy, unaffected kindness. When it is discovered that he is the son of a slave and thus a slave himself, only one of the inmates—the lunatic Put—will return his kindnesses and help him. But Put's help is impotent, and it is the Teacher, Lyddie, who has learned the lessons of charity, who offers yet another circle: She will swear that Jip is her illegitimate son, thus saving him while destroying her own career and reputation.

But Jip, who knows his lessons as well, will not allow the sacrifice, and so escapes to Canada where he meets none other than Ezekial Freeman. He too has learned his lessons and takes Jip into his household, thus, as Katherine says, "completing the circle of Lyddie's gift to him." But the charity does not end here: Jip resolves to return to join the Negro regiments being formed in the Union army. Thus he expands his circle of charity to a world of people.

"People say to me that Jip is too good to be true," Katherine explains, "but he isn't to me. I know people pure of heart, and to me Jip came as a boy without guile; that sweetness about him is very much his nature. Even so, he sometimes gets into trouble because his goodness is not always wise." Katherine speaks slowly and thoughtfully here, and considers now a moment before proceeding. "Good characters are notoriously hard to make believable. Maybe there is so much sin on our own hearts that they are hard to see."

But she has seen this one, and we speak of him together in the present tense, a character who is as real as either of us sitting in that cottage room. When Lyddie first came out and I fussed at Katherine about an ending in which Lyddie seems to refuse happiness even when it is finally, lovingly offered to her, Katherine responded, "Oh, but she does marry Luke. She goes to college, comes back as a teacher, and marries Luke Stevens." I had wondered then how it could be that an author did not seem to remember the ending of her own novel, but I saw that, for her, the novel is only a small part of a much larger and fuller life whose boundaries are not contained within 200 pages. I remember that now as we talk about Jip.

If there is a single theme that imbues Paterson's work, it is the theme of hope, what she calls the radical biblical hope, the hope that marks Moses and all of his spiritual descendents. "I want to be like Joshua and Caleb," she announced in the speech accepting the National Book Award for The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978). "I want to be a spy for hope."

In Jip: His Story, this theme is suggested by Put's confident hymn, "All Is Well":

Weep not, my friends, my friends weep not for me,
All is well, all is well!
My sins forgiv'n, forgiv'n and I am free,
All is well, all is well!
There's not a cloud that doth rise, To hide my Jesus from my eyes.
I soon shall mount the upper skies,
All is well, all is well!

The lines are moving as Katherine repeats them; unlike the similar lines of Julian of Norwich, they assert that all is well in the present—something sometimes difficult to see in a Paterson novel.

These lines suggest to me that this novel is her most explicitly Christian yet, but she shakes her head. "Novelists write out of their deepest selves," she says. "Whatever is there in them comes out willy-nilly, and it is not a conscious act on their part. If I were to consciously say, 'This book shall now be a Christian book,' then the act would become conscious and not out of myself. It would either be a very peculiar thing to do—like saying, 'I shall now be humble'—or it would be simple propaganda."

She leans forward and speaks quickly now to dispel some of the connotations of the word. "Propaganda occurs when a writer is directly trying to persuade, and in that sense, propaganda is not bad. When I think of Who Am I? (1992), I think of propaganda. But persuasion is not story, and when you try to make a story out of persuasion then you've done something wrong to the story. You've violated the essence of what a story is."

Here she had spoken with none of the easy laughter of earlier. I ask, "Would you then say that you are a Christian writer?" expecting her to quail at the label.

But she does not, and the laughter returns. "A Christian first," she says. "I have a vocation as a writer; that is my calling. But a Christian first."

Sometime about now I remember to turn on the tape recorder. Here we are at the heart of Katherine Paterson as a writer: The Christian given the vocation of writing, and called to write about the radical biblical hope that lies in her deepest self.

But there is no greater irony about Katherine Paterson's work than the fact that it is so frequently—one might almost use the word consistently—attacked and censored by Christian groups. And there seem to be so many problematic scenes from which to choose. Jess and Leslie pray to imaginary gods in Bridge to Terabithia (1977). Takiko not only returns home with her stepfather at the end of Of Nightingales That Weep (1974), but marries him and has a child in the novel's joyous climax. Come Sing, Jimmy Jo (1985) has a mother who fools around—even, perhaps, with her husband's brother; in Park's Quest (1988) it is the father who has had an illegitimate child while on duty in Vietnam.

And there is Gilly Hopkins, whose surname comes from one of the poets Paterson most admires. The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) is one of the most frequently attacked of her books. It is about a child who seems about as far from her Tolkienesque namesake Galadriel as might be possible. She lies and steals. She deceives and manipulates. She is not above a fistfight, and neither is she averse to anonymous racial slurs. And she swears. Creatively. This would hardly seem to be the book for the Christian home or church library. Many, many Christian readers have been at pains to point this out.

"If you want to look for the most openly Christian book I have written," Katherine explains now, "it isn't Jip. I think it's The Great Gilly Hopkins. My commitment as a writer is to be honest, and I have to be honest all the time, not just when every character behaves well and doesn't cuss. A novel concerned with sin and redemption will have real characters, and there are real characters who lie and steal and cuss." In fact, The Great Gilly Hopkins is a retelling of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and, she explains, you need to be with the son at the hog trough if you want to be with him when he is welcomed home.

In fact, many of Paterson's characters are Gillys. Jip is unusual as a protagonist, though there are other characters who share his sweet nature: the maternal Trotter of The Great Gilly Hopkins, the silent Fukuju of The Sign of the Chrysanthemum (1973), Shozo of The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks (1990), who gives up his samurai status for the sake of an act of kindness, and Rosamund of The King's Equal (1992), who teaches royalty the poverty of a life without goodness. But most of Paterson's protagonists are much closer to Gilly Hopkins, in search of what they do not know, blundering about and unable to find it because, like the Fisher King, they do not know the right question to ask.

What keeps these novels from despair is that the Grail is real, and always the ways to it become clearer. Sometimes it may even be approached, as at the end of Park's Quest (1988), where three broken and isolated characters come together in a moment of hurt and healing and reconciliation and, most especially, forgiveness: "Then they took the Holy Grail in their hands. … And it seemed to all who saw them that their faces shone with a light that was not of this world." The only witnesses are, in fact, the heavenly hosts.

I wonder aloud, Is it character that Katherine begins with then?

She considers this, then speaks slowly and thoughtfully again, smiling broadly. "I resolved that if I ever became a published writer, I would not be hokey about this, because there is something mysterious about the process of writing. I have trouble finding the language to explain it to people for whom this is not an experience. How do you create a character? I suppose, for me, I get to know people. I have this sense that the person is there, and it's up to me to get to know him. Sometimes characters are right there. In the case of Trotter and Jip, they just sort of arrived; the essence of them was quite complete. But sometimes this is a long, laborious process; with Jesse Aarons, I didn't even know his name for quite a while. It's the same as it is with human beings.

"Character is the most important thing to me, but it is not always where I begin. With Lyddie I had been reading the letters of Vermont farm girls who had gone to work in the factories of Lowell. With Jip, the initial impetus was the picture in my head of a child tumbling off the back of a wagon and nobody coming back to look for him. Why would such a thing happen? So it began as an adventure story."

But it certainly does not come off as an adventure story, I suggest, and she nods. "When I woke up one morning and knew why he had tumbled off that wagon, I knew it wasn't going to be my adventure story."

The phone rings again, a neighbor this time. She is laughing when she comes back. "Nobody believes you're working if you're a writer," she says. "You're only writing." She laughs again, and there is no real frustration here; she has made her peace with constant interruption long ago, though, she says wistfully, her most productive years were when her children were at home. "John would be off and the children would go on to school, and nobody knew who I was, and I would have all this time to write."

It is striking that the busyness of Katherine's family life—rather than the busyness of her literary life—seems not to hinder, but to spur her creativity. She thinks of the writing of The King's Equal, and the encouragement toward that project by a Harper & Row editor who hoped that she would join the Russian illustrator Vladimir Vagin on a joint project following a symposium in the Soviet Union. "But he does fairy tales," Katherine pointed out when she heard the suggestion.

"So why don't you write a fairy tale?" suggested the editor.

"But I don't do fairy tales," she countered. Nevertheless, during the following summer she faithfully read batches of Andrew Lang's tales, looking for one to rewrite. She did not find one.

Then her focus changed. "Around Christmas the house is full of people, and the children would go off skiing and John would go off to work. And I would stand there and think, 'Well, should I start by going to the grocery store? Or cleaning the house? Or figuring out how to feed all of these people?' But I got in the shower instead, and even though I hadn't thought about fairy tales in months, when I got out I had the full fairy tale in my head. I couldn't believe it. The story appeared full blown. I rushed downstairs and wrote as fast as I could. It never had happened like that before—or since."

That memory leads to talk of Virginia Buckley, Katherine's editor for lo, these many years. "I do have an editor in my head too," Katherine suggests, "but when I write, I send her off on a vacation. Your critical mind and your creative mind just cannot work together at the same time; you can always bring your critical mind back, but you're not going to want it on the first draft.

"But when I do finish and send the novel off, I know, since I work with Virginia, that I'm going to have plenty of work to do after she sees it." Sometimes, she explains, though rarely, she has sent off manuscripts to Virginia before they have been conceptually completed. "With Bridge to Terabithia, I couldn't stand having it around anymore. And with Jacob Have I Loved, John finally said, 'It's not getting any better. Send it off.' So I did, even though I was very unsure about it." Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved (1980) became Katherine's two Newbery Award winners.

To think about Jacob Have I Loved is to think about the unlikely redemptions of Katherine Paterson. In that novel, the narrator, Louise, is crusted to a hardness by the jealousy that could destroy her life, but she is only one of many Paterson characters who dwell east of Eden. Seduced by the glories of the imperial court, Takiko in Of Nightingales That Weep could easily have missed the joy that awaited her with Goro. Convinced of a delusion, Gilly could have defined her life by an illusory love while rejecting all authentic love. Both Lyddie and Jip could have succumbed to the bitterness that terrible loss tempts with; Park could have rejected the presence and identity of Thanh and, along with her, the presence and meaning of the Grail.

But for each of these poor on'ry people like you and like I, there is redemption, unlikely though it seems. There is that radical biblical hope that is introduced. Sometimes it comes through other characters: Goro, Shozo, Trotter, the Captain. Sometimes it comes through inner resolve: Lyddie, Gilly, Jimmy Jo, Louise. Sometimes it comes through reconciliation and acceptance: Raphael, Park, Thanh. And sometimes it comes through new understandings: Louise, Jesse. But however it comes to the poor on'ry people, it comes. This is the distinctive mark of a Katherine Paterson novel.

Now Katherine leans forward and spreads her hands. "When Flannery O'Connor was trying to explain to people why all of her work is Christian, she said that the moral and ethical foundation of the story had to grow directly out of it. It is foundational. If it is not intrinsic and growing out of the story, then it doesn't make any sense at all—at least in terms of the story." She sits back. "I guess I just write what I write because I'm me."

Gary Schmidt is professor of English at Calvin College and the author of many novels, including most recently Anson's Way (Clarion).

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