Gary Paulsen credits librarians--particularly the one who gave him his first library card in a small Minnesota town--for turning his life around by introducing him to the power of the printed word.
“If it weren’t for dogs and librarians, I wouldn’t be anywhere,” says the author of dozens of books for youths and adults.
The dogs he credits for turning his career around.
His participation in the Iditarod dog-sled race across almost 1,200 miles of harsh Alaskan terrain gave him the book that shifted his career into high gear: “Dogsong,” a 1983 young adult novel published by Bradbury Press and now available from Puffin reprints, earned him the first of three Newbery Honors awarded the best children’s books each year.
The Newbery, he says, transformed him almost instantly from starving writer to best-selling author.
He won his second Newbery Honor in 1987 for “Hatchet” (Bradbury Press/Puffin). The story of a kid who survives being stranded for two months in the woods parallels Paulsen’s path while growing up.
Paulsen, 55, sits below deck in the 44-foot sloop he’s living on this summer at Ventura Isla Marina while preparing for a Pacific Ocean crossing in the fall, and speaks about his parents--"They were the town drunks"--and his method of dealing with them: Escape. Escape to the homes and farms of relatives and his frequent treks into the woods of northern Minnesota.
“It was, I suppose, a kind of self-fostering--perhaps a subconscious seeking of help from nature--although we did not think of it in those terms,” he wrote in the introduction to “Father Water, Mother Woods,” a collection of essays on his childhood experiences in the outdoors that Harcourt Brace will publish in September.
“In the normal run of things our lives hurt,” he wrote. “When we were in the woods or fishing on the rivers and lakes our lives didn’t hurt. We did what didn’t hurt, and as it didn’t hurt more and more, we spent more and more time in the woods and on the rivers--a natural flow of survival.”
During the 30 years since he quit a then-secure aerospace job to be a writer, he has accomplished “one thing that very few writers today manage to do--and that’s reach the boy reader,” says a spokeswoman for Bantam Doubleday Dell, one of three publishers Paulsen contracts with.
“I feel that we’ve dramatically let our youth down,” Paulsen says. “Look at us--we’ve somehow managed to design nuclear weapons. We’ve polluted one jewel of a planet. We’re overbreeding at a rate that’s frightening.
“We’ve generated all these problems and we’re not giving them the tools to survive with. We simply don’t tell them the truth.” He cites a school he recently visited where, as part of anti-drug efforts, students told him that they were not permitted to use the word drugs .
“It’s like with AIDS--if you can’t say AIDS you can’t learn about AIDS. It doesn’t work--ignorance never works.”
Paulsen gained the upper hand over his own alcoholism and has been sober since 1973. In his stories, he wants to pass along truths he has gleaned by living his life in a way he sums up in one word: “Extreme.”
His books frequently involve a boy gaining a new sense of self-worth after surmounting some challenge. Usually, an adult mentor, often someone who has been injured in some way by life, aids the protagonist.
“My life was like that,” he says. “I’ve had various people along the way who have helped me--artists, writers, cops, soldiers, teachers and librarians, of course.”
His real-life adventures, besides the Iditarod, also enter his work. There was the time he confronted an angry bear in his garden. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, and probably will make many more,” he wrote in “Woodsong” (Bradbury Press, 1990), “but I hope never again to throw a stick at a bear.” He has been blown off the side of a mountain in a snowstorm and has fought off a charging moose.
Paulsen’s writings have room for humor as well. In his newly published adult market book, “Winterdance--the Fine Madness of the Iditarod” (Delacorte), an account of his first time in the race in 1983, he describes his Keystone Kops-like leap out of the starting gate:
“We went through people’s yards, ripped down fences, knocked over garbage cans. At one point I found myself going through a carport and across a back yard with 15 dogs and a fully loaded Iditarod sled. A woman standing over the kitchen sink looked out with wide eyes as we passed through her yard and I snapped a wave at her before clawing the handlebar again to hang on while we tore down her picket fence. . . . And there is a cocker spaniel who will never come into his back yard again.
“I heard later that . . . I was unofficially voted the least likely to get out of Anchorage. Bets were made on how soon I would crash and burn. Two blocks, three. Some said one. It was very nearly true.”
Paulsen did the Iditarod again in 1987. An angina attack in 1991 revealed a heart condition that forced him to give up plans to run his third. “God, I miss it,” he says. “I really do.”
Overnight, Paulsen had to find something else to fill his days; he had been spending 18 hours a day, seven days a week training and caring for 91 sled dogs.
He transferred the intense regimen to his writing and two years ago signed a seven-figure, 12-book deal with Harcourt Brace.
He has been prolific in the past. By his own estimate he’s written 130 books. Besides his young adult books, he’s written mysteries, science fiction, graphic thrillers, Westerns, short stories, screenplays (he co-authored the script for “A Cry in the Wilderness,” the 1990 movie made from “Hatchet”) and a children’s picture book (“Dogteam,” 1993), illustrated by his wife of 26 years, artist Ruth Wright Paulsen.
The couple lives in New Mexico. Ruth Paulsen pursues her career there and joins her husband for adventures, such as the sled-dog races.
It’s only since Paulsen gave up working with sled dogs that he began to crack the adult market.
“A lot of those young people who started reading my books when they were 12, which was 10 years ago, are 22 now. And they hit ‘Winterdance’ as adults, because they’d read all my stuff as kids,” he says.
One problem he never faced until just recently was what to do with his money.
“I’ve never been a successful financial person and now I kinda am,” he says ruefully. Success has forced him “to find new things to do with my money.” He is supporting an orphanage in Russia with the royalties from translations of his books there.
Big houses, yachts and fancy cars have no place in his life, Paulsen says, emphasizing the point with hands still grimy from cleaning the boat’s odoriferous freshwater filtration system earlier in the day.
“I could have bought a new boat,” he says, surveying the many repair projects that still lay ahead. “Reason I got this one is because I can do the work on it myself.
“I could live on ‘Hatchet.’ Seriously, I make enough off ‘Hatchet’ that I could live very well,” he says. “Suddenly I’m one of those people who could play golf. But I’m not like that. I just work. I believe in what I do, and I just work.”