Katherine Paterson is the two-time Newbery-winning author of Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, among many other acclaimed titles. Her new novel, The Day of the Pelican, traces a Kosovar family’s experience in the 1990s during the Serb-Kosovo conflict. Paterson lives in Vermont with her husband.
What inspired you to write this book?
This is the first time in my long life as a writer when somebody has suggested a story to me and I’ve taken the suggestion. Some years ago, our church sponsored a refugee family from Kosovo, and a good friend of mine said you should write the Haxhuis’ story. And so I went over there, and it was one of these situations in which the parents hardly spoke English and they showed me pictures of their home, and served me tea and everything was lovely. But I didn’t really get much in the way of information from them.
Then Avi had asked me to do a breakfast serial, and I thought I could write about a refugee family’s adventures in three pages and a cliffhanger without having to know an awful lot. That wasn’t true, of course, and I had to do an enormous amount of research, because what did I know about Kosovo or the war there or anything? But the Haxhui family’s story is not the story of the Leshi family in my book. I tried to cobble together the stories of various families, so that it would be authentic in that respect.
How did you research this book?
I had done the historical research pretty thoroughly before I wrote the serial, but you still don’t know from newspapers what people ate, how they spoke, what their customs were. You just knew the outline of the horrors they had endured. So I went to the Internet to try to get pictures of the landscape and everything. I found this wonderful, almost 200 picture collection of scenes from Kosovo, and I thought whoever took these pictures knows this country and loves this country. And I was able to get in touch with the photographer, Mark Orfila. I told him what I was trying to do and not having ever lived in Kosovo I needed help from somebody who knew the country and knew the people. He answered me right back and gave me answers to my questions and said of course he’d be delighted to help me. Mark had lived in Kosovo for seven years, and he and his wife worked in a Macedonian refugee camp. Mark speaks Albanian and he has close Albanian friends, and so when he couldn’t answer a question he would talk to one of his friends to get me the answers. And so I couldn’t have done it without his enormous help on it.
Was the process of writing this book any different from your other novels?
I haven’t before written about a place I haven’t been to, or actually I haven’t written about places I haven’t lived, or lived close to, like the Chesapeake Bay. I had never lived on an island in the Chesapeake Bay but I had been to them and I had lived close to them. Of course, I’ve never lived in 12th-century Japan either, but I’ve lived in Japan and I know the language, so writing about China or Japan even as historical novels I felt much more comfortable than writing a story about a place and a language that I didn’t know. I used to say I don’t write about places I can’t smell. I’ve never smelled Kosovo and so I felt that I was at a distinct disadvantage. I know I had very good responses to the serial from people from that part of the world. Of course the Serbs didn’t love it. But those who were sympathetic to the Kosovars felt that I’d gotten it right. But the book is much expanded from that.
How did you craft your heroine, Meli?
I think you go inside yourself. I drew on our own refugee experience as children. Because when we left China [Paterson was five], we were refugees and we had no place to go except we had relatives in the U.S. A lot of that feeling of being an alien is very natural to me and of trying to figure out how to operate in a society in which you do not belong and which lets you know you don’t belong you know comes out of my own experience. The fear part, the fleeing, I understand that very well. Of course, we didn’t have to go through the horrendous things that the Leshi family has to go through in the book. But we did have to run. And leave everything we loved behind. But my parents called America home, I didn’t, but they did. And there were relatives here to welcome us.
How did you create the other characters?
Kids often ask me if characters are real or made up—and I always tell them, I hope they’re real but I made them up. It seemed to me that a boy like Mehmet would be very patriotic and also having gone through that experience, would be very wounded and bitter. The father needed to hold the family together and to stand for something bigger than all the conflict and hatred that they were experiencing. And of course it is always the case that immigrants come to this country and suddenly he’s the one who’s dependent on his own children, and every time I see that in an immigrant family it just breaks my heart for the parents who have to surrender their authority as parents. I think it’s hard for the children, too, to be suddenly in that position of knowing more than their parents.
How did you strive to balance the portrayal of ethnic cleansing and prejudice with hope in this novel?
Towards the end of the book the father said that his children are strong and that they can do this. I cry every time I look at that scene, it the most important scene in the book really. And I’m always very wary, when people say what is your message in this book, because you want it to be a story and not a propaganda piece, but that’s what the book says to me.
The family in this novel emigrates to the U.S. and discovers both greater freedom and an instance of all-too-familiar prejudice here. What made you want to include this in your story?
That’s certainly what happened after 9/11 with any Muslims, even secular Muslims, in this country. They were looked on with suspicion. How many of us got on an airplane after 9/11 and looked around warily? That was a very traumatic event for us as a people, and of course we need to get beyond that. It’s eight years ago now and a lot of my readers will have been very small children then.
What are you working on now?
My husband and I have done a book together. It’s a re-abridgement of an early 20th-century book called The Flint Heart. My husband loves this book and wanted it to come back into print and no one would bring it back into print. It’s full of jokes about England and politics and chapters about fairies, and it would be an impossible book to bring back as it is, and so we went to work on it and turned it into a book that kids today might want to read.
What’s it like to work together?
This is our fourth book. We work well together. It’s a lot more fun than wallpapering with him.
The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson. Clarion, $16 Oct. ISBN 978-0-547-18188-2