Three-time Newbery Honor winner Gary Paulsen believes that young people are our hope for the future, and that hope drives his writing. An Army brat, he remembers his father’s last posting in the 1940s where he ran the streets of Manila in the Philippines to avoid his abusive alcoholic parents. The family returned to Minnesota after Paulsen’s father was dismissed from General Patton’s staff, and Paulsen began his slow migration to the Northern Forest at the edge of their small town. “I was never in the house when my parents were awake or conscious,” he says. By the time he was twelve or thirteen, he gave up on school and either lived in the woods or hid in the basement of his parents’ apartment building. He trapped animals for food, set pins in a bowling alley, and hustled the drunks at local bars to support himself. At 15 or 16 he jumped a truck to hoe sugar beets in the Dakotas with migrant farm workers and worked the Tilt-A-Whirl at a carnival. His real occupation, full-time survivor.
“I tried several times to fit in [at school], but it was always a disaster,” he says. At his first and last Boy Scout meeting he received instruction in tying knots. Knots led to a merit badge and merit badges led to a camping trip. “I had a 25-mile trap line at that time,” Paulsen says, and could teach knot-tying. “I was already camping. It seemed absurd.”
Paulsen never dated in school and counted his friends on one hand, yet they would occasionally turn up in the woods. “We’d kill a grouse and cook it on a stick,” he says, “but it was a diluted version [of my life]. Fun for two days.” His friends returned home; Paulsen returned to the business of surviving.
One freezing winter night, Paulsen stepped inside the library to warm up before hustling drunks for extra change. The librarian gave him a library card with his name on it. “For the first time I believed I was someone,” he says. Then the librarian handed him a book. “I felt honor-bound to read the thing.” It took him about a month because he was such a poor reader, but he returned the book and the librarian handed him another. In this way, Paulsen devoured mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and survival tales. “Everything I’ve become I owe that woman, and she never knew,” he says. “Reading became a way to breathe.”
A stint in the Army led to a great job at a satellite tracking station for an aerospace firm in California. “I was getting $500 a week in the 1960s,” he says, yet he walked away from it all to be a writer. He embellished his resume and landed a job in Hollywood as a proofreader for a company that published several magazines. In the evenings, his bosses taught him to write. “They were wonderfully vicious,” Paulsen says. Every night they tasked him with writing a short story or a chapter in a book which they’d rip apart the next night.
Paulsen published several mysteries, westerns, and how-to titles before finding his way to children’s literature. He believed no one understood young people and wanted to write for them. Boys especially. Never conventional, Paulsen drove an old Chevy Chevette all over the U.S., sleeping on the front porch cots at countless teachers’ homes, alternately visiting wealthy schools and poor schools. He showed children his slides of the Iditarod, the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog sled race in which he participated twice (see Paulsen’s website for his Iditarod journal). During his travels, Paulsen studied children’s rhythms by sitting in the cafeteria and observing. “I listened to the curl of their voice like when dogs talk at night alone when they forget you’re there.” A year later Dogsong won the Newbery Honor.
The idea for DogSong came from an Inuit boy during Paulsen’s first Iditarod. For centuries, Inuit culture had been tied to dogs, but young people lost that part of their culture when snow machines replaced dogs. The concept of a young boy trying to find his heritage appealed to Paulsen because he had hunted with the Inuit people and learned from them during the 15,000 miles he logged on dog sleds, One of Paulsen’s best known and best loved books, Hatchet, is based on his life. “I’ve done everything in that book,” he says. He wrote the story in long-hand while camping with his dogs and training for the Iditarod.Hatchet received the Newbery Honor and generated thousands of letters from fans asking what happened to his main character, Brian Robeson. “They didn’t want him to quit,” Paulsen says, who also fielded a telephone call from a national magazine asking where Brian lived. Four additional spin-off titles complete Brian’s journey.
The 72-year old Paulsen divides his time between his home in New Mexico, his dogs in Alaska, and a boat on the Pacific. He lives simply, spending a lot of time at a run-down shack in New Mexico. “I never wanted more,” he says. “I have a pressure cooker, a garden, and a gun.” The author of more than 200 books, he works furiously, constantly, every story worked out in his head before he begins the physical act of writing. “If I’m not writing, I’m researching…I love writing the way you fall in love. The hair goes up on my neck. I quicken. I get aroused like wolves when they smell blood when a story works for me…The stories to me are like a river that goes all the time. I’m at least 150 books behind. I’ll write ‘til I die.”