Esteemed children’s editor Virginia Buckley died on October 21; here, Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson pays tribute to their long and fruitful editorial relationship.
On the dedication page of Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, are these words:
For Virginia Buckley
A thousand thoughts—ten thousand thanks.
Since her daughter, Laura, called to tell me of her death, I have had many thousand thoughts about Virginia and will be thanking her for the rest of my life. After all, for the Chinese and the Japanese “ten thousand” equals the infinite number.
“How do you do it?” I asked her once.
“How do I do what?”
“I send you a manuscript that I have revised and revised until it is as good as I can make it, and in return I get a single-spaced, multi-page letter from you essentially pointing out all the flaws in my work. I should be in despair, or at least, deeply discouraged. But instead I’m so excited I can hardly wait to get back to work. I know I can make it better. How do you do it?”
Virginia never tried to explain to me how she “did it.” But since her death, I have given it countless thoughts. How did she do it? Why did her critical comments fill me with joy? Here are a few of those thoughts.
When Virginia took on the task of editing my first novel, it had already been rejected by every major children’s publisher represented in my public library. I was a slush pile refugee, and yet, from the first letter she wrote me, dated March 29, 1972, I realized with amazement that this New York City editor regarded both me and my work with respect. Although I might often doubt my own ability as a writer, she never seemed to.
Virginia always accepted the book I had sent her to be the book we were going to work on together. She made it clear that each book was mine, not hers. There was never the suggestion, after three books in a row set in feudal Japan, that perhaps something a bit more marketable might be in order. She simply waited patiently for me to send her a manuscript on a subject of my own choosing.
I only recall once her asking gently if I might be working on anything new. It was in 1979. Since early 1976 I had been mired in a book set on an island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and was getting nowhere fast, when I, a writer nobody much knew, won a National Book Award in 1977, a Newbery in 1978, a National Book Award and Newbery Honor in 1979. How in the world could I ever finish this miserable book about jealousy? Now that the previous three had won all these awards, I was afraid Harper might publish anything with my name on it, no matter how awful. I determined that if (and that was a big if) I could ever finish it, I would send it to Virginia in a plain brown wrapper and mail it with a fake name from a distant post office. Then, if she thought it worthy of publication…. So when Virginia asked me for the first time in our life together if I was working on something new, I mumbled that I was, but I didn’t know if it would be any good or not.
“Well,” she said with a sigh, “just promise me you won’t send it anonymously.”
She was determined for her writers to shine, but she told me she thought editors should be invisible. She was never invisible to me. I loved her wonderful sense of humor and her enormous generosity of spirit. She was a lady in the best sense of the word, always making sure that you were at ease, listening attentively to your stories and ideas. Eager for the world to know what she had discovered you to be.
There were times, to be sure, when that generous spirit was stretched a bit too far.
“She was always the editor,” said Gary Schmidt, when he shared a story about Virginia that I had never heard. It seems that one day in the office, she had some sort of a heart incident. She didn’t want to stop work on whatever she was editing, but her colleagues insisted, calling an ambulance to take her to the ER to be checked out. She boarded the ambulance most reluctantly. As the medic settled her in, he asked her what she did, and when she told him, he looked at her and said, “I’ve written this children’s story. Would you be willing to look at it?”
“Not right now.”
At least that’s what Gary remembers she said. She did have a wry sense of humor, so it fit the Virginia I knew.
The closest she ever came to defining her role as editor was saying to me that her job was to be an “intelligent reader.” Surely the mark of an intelligent reader, and, not incidentally, a great editor, is the ability to ask the right questions.
The most dramatic example of this ability came with her editing of Bridge to Terabithia. By 1974, we had become Katherine and Virginia, but our friendship had not deepened to the degree that we were discussing our personal lives with each other. She did not know about my cancer operation of the spring nor about the death of my son’s best friend in the summer. I began to write because I thought a story that had to make sense, might somehow make sense of a tragedy that made no sense. I knew as soon as I posted the manuscript that what I had mailed to Virginia wasn’t publishable. It was too raw, just a cry of anguish—something no real writer would ever submit to an editor.
Before she wrote her many-page letter, Virginia called me to talk about what I had sent her. Her first words, as always, were of respect and reassurance. “I laughed through the first two thirds and cried through the last.” I began to breathe. “Now,” she said. “Let’s turn it into a book.”
She followed with the question that changed everything. “Is this a book about friendship or is it a book about death?” she asked.
Until that moment, I had thought of it as a book about death, but, of course, it wasn’t. “It’s a book about friendship,” I said.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “Now you need to go back and write it that way.” And then she continued: “In any true friendship,” she said, “both friends change and grow because they know each other. I can see how Jesse changes because he knows Leslie. But I don’t see any change in Leslie. How has knowing Jesse changed Leslie’s life?”
As I pondered the answer to her second question, Pansy, the eighth-grader who bullied me when I was nine, was transformed into Janice Avery on whom the gentle Jesse would take pity and send Leslie to find out why the terror of the schoolyard sat weeping in a bathroom stall.
Virginia always asked the definitive questions. The answers were always up to me.
“Just tell me what to do,” I said in 1972, “and I’ll do it.”
“No,” she said gently. “It never works. If I tell you what to do, it becomes my book. This is your book. You are the one who must solve the problem.”
I can only think of two times when Virginia and I strongly disagreed. She was unhappy with the ending I had written for Of Nightingales That Weep. I wrote and rewrote it to the point that my husband, no mean editor himself, said, “They’re not getting any better. How do you want to end it?”
“I like my first ending,” I said.
When I finally worked up the courage to tell Virginia that, she said: “It’s your book. It should end the way you want it to.”
She also questioned whether May Belle, so unlike the elegant Leslie, should immediately be named queen of Terabithia. I, raised on the Gospel words that the “last shall be first,” kept the word “queen.” Unhappy reviews of either book invariably criticized these same points. So, as usual, Virginia was right, but they were my decisions, and I’m still happy I didn’t change them.
Virginia and I worked together for almost four decades, through years of takeovers, firings, dissolving of imprints and the disappearances of historical publishing houses. I’m a bit more hardened to it now. But when Harper and Row bought Thomas Y. Crowell and fired most of the juvenile books staff, including Virginia, I felt as though an airplane had crashed with my family aboard.
At the time I had just sent The Great Gilly Hopkins to Virginia, so I asked her to send it back to me until she found her new job. She had two small children. When she began to search, no company would agree to let her work part-time from home, so when Harper repented and asked her to come back and said they would not require her to come into the city every day, she was torn. Harper had fired her mentor, Ann Beneduce, and most of her colleagues. She called me on the phone to discuss their offer. This time, it was my turn to say: “It’s your job. It’s your decision.” Over the years, I have quoted the Biblical Ruth each time there was a prospective change: “Whether thou goest, I will go….” I knew when I was well off.
I asked Virginia years into our partnership if I had ever learned anything as a writer. “Yes,” she said. “You’ve learned how to be a better self-editor.” If only. Oh, Virginia, I still sprinkle commas like pepper on scrambled eggs, and I’m not quite sure to this day when “which” should be “that” instead.
When she retired from Clarion, I thought that I, too, would have to retire. After all, she was only three years older than I, and so much wiser. I’d never written a novel without her. As much as I miss her friendship and her editing, I’m still at it, and I truly believe that she, who was always the soul of generosity, would be glad for me.
And so, once again, dear Virginia, chien szu wan hsieh—a thousand thoughts, ten thousand thanks.