Mr. Paulsen receives hundreds of letters a day. But his publisher can barely keep track of where to forward them, since Mr. Paulsen restlessly ricochets around the globe: training horses in New Mexico, running dogs in Alaska, riding his Harley across the American West, gunkholing around the South Pacific in his beat-up sailboat.
It’s deliberate: Mr. Paulsen is an unapologetic misanthrope, children excepted. “I don’t have anything against individuals,” he says. “But the species is a mess.” His throat tightens. “The last time I was up in Santa Fe, I wasn’t there 20 minutes before I brewed up, almost slugged a tourist on the steps of my wife’s gallery.” Ruth Wright Paulsen, his third wife, illustrated four of his picture books and a prose poem about an early American farm. “Now I try to be alone,” he says, pointedly.
Compulsively prolific, Mr. Paulsen produces a fresh book for young adults every few months, the vast majority of them novellas. His latest, “The Legend of Bass Reeves,” was published this month by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. It is identified as “the true and fictional account” of a slave who became the most successful federal marshal in American history.
“He’d ride alone into the center of hell and bring the men out, alive, if possible, or, if necessary, draped dead over a horse,” Mr. Paulsen writes. “He did this 3,000 times. Miraculously, he was never wounded. He rejected countless bribes, and when his own son killed his wife, he tracked his son down, brought him to justice and sent him to prison for life.”
All true. But Mr. Paulsen’s book is a novel, and he openly fictionalizes his protagonist, imbuing Bass Reeves with some of his own traits and experiences. The best writing, he says, is “like carving pieces off your self.” An outcast who survives abuse and a hardscrabble upbringing, Reeves is an expert shot with a sixth sense for tracking and a shamanlike kinship with animals. “Reeves was honest and honorable, and just flat tough,” Mr. Paulsen says, as if he’s fiercely defending a friend’s good name.
Compact, with wolf-blue eyes set in a grizzled face, Mr. Paulsen strongly resembles Ernest Hemingway. There are other parallels. Mr. Paulsen’s prose is spare and well acquainted with death. At various points in his life, he has been tormented by Papa-like demons: too much anger, too much drink, too much emphasis on virility, too many wives, too much loneliness.
Receiving the first overnight guests he’s allowed onto his desert ranch, Mr. Paulsen seems wary but not unfriendly. He wears tall boots and walks gingerly along the overgrown path beyond his door, pointing out rocks and crevices where he’s spotted five rattlesnakes in recent days.
This is bear and mountain lion country, which is why he often carries a snub-nosed .38. “Cats kill you before they eat you,” he says. “Bears like to hold you down and rip your buttocks while you’re still alive.”
All right then.
“Shall we eat?” Mr. Paulsen asks, pulling a few bloody steaks and a plastic vat of potato salad out of the fridge and opening a can of beans.
He is wearing the Iditarod belt that he earned in 1983 on his first try at the brutal 1,049-mile dog-sled race across Alaska, when he finished 42nd in a field of 73. Since then, his love affair with sled dogs has been one of the few constants in his peripatetic life.
“The dogs have affected me in all ways,” he says. “In my understanding of people, in my understanding of love and hate. Once you break down the interlock between species, it’s astonishing.”
Mr. Paulsen also keeps a 40-acre spread north of Willow, Alaska, where he breeds and trains dogs for the Iditarod (which he ran for the third time last March). “From the northwest corner of my land, there’s nothing for 4,000 miles,” he says, his voice quickening with excitement. “There’re no towns, no roads, no people all the way to Siberia.” And few of the provocations of modern society that make him “brew up.”
Mr. Paulsen is a prodigious ranter of the Luddite persuasion; it takes little to set him off. The Internet: “It’s just stupid, faster.” Lawyers: “Miserable human beings.” Organized sports: “Mindless dreck!” Television: “Intellectual carbon monoxide, but hey, TV’s are fun to shoot!”
He grew up poor and lonely in the small town of Thief River Falls, Minn. “My folks were the town drunks,” he says. “We lived in this grubby apartment building. My parents were brutal to each other, so I slept in the basement by an old coal-fired furnace.” He pretended to sell newspapers in pubs, raking the drunks’ money off the bar into his pockets when they were good and juiced. “I became a street kid,” he says. “Occasionally I’d live with aunts or uncles, then I’d run away to live in the woods, trapping and hunting game to survive. The wilderness pulled at me; still does.”
He said he was 13 when he stepped into a library for the first time. It was a frigid winter night. The library stayed open until 9 p.m., and its gold-tinted windows looked invitingly warm.
“The librarian typed my name on a card,” he remembers. “I looked at it and somehow that made me somebody.
Mr. Paulsen became a voracious reader, but not much of a student. “School didn’t work for me. I hated it,” he says. At 17, he forged his father’s signature to join the Army. Once, while he was testing missiles at White Sands, N.M., a Nike Ajax missed its target, locking onto a tagged buzzard instead.
In early 1965, he packed his Volkswagen Bug and drove to Hollywood, where he helped write dialogue for the television series “Mission: Impossible,” and the 1969 Steve McQueen film “The Reivers.” Then Mr. Paulsen left. “I started to like it too much,” he says.
In 1966, he checked himself into a cabin in the Minnesota woods, where he wrote his first book, “Some Birds Don’t Fly,” a collection of humorous essays about the missile industry.
Mr. Paulsen has lost count of how many books he has written since then. His Web site, garypaulsen.com, puts the tally at more than 175. Whether his subject is a slave who risks his life to teach others to read in “Nightjohn” (a book he adapted for a 1996 television movie), or an orphan on the streets of Juárez, Mexico, in “The Crossing” (a film version is now in preproduction), Mr. Paulsen is always writing to conquer his own dark, painful experiences.
“I’m a teller of stories,” he says. “I put bloody skins on my back and dance around the fire, and I say what the hunt was like. It’s not erudite; it’s not intellectual. I sail, run dogs, ride horses, play professional poker and tell stories about the stuff I’ve been through. And I’m still a romantic; I still want Bambi to make it out of the fire.”
Mr. Paulsen stopped writing for adults 10 years ago. “It’s artistically fruitless,” he fumes. “Adults are locked into car payments and divorces and work. They haven’t got time to think fresh. Name the book that made the biggest impression on you. I bet you read it before you hit puberty. In the time I’ve got left, I intend to write artistic books — for kids — because they’re still open to new ideas.”Continue reading the main story
Born May 17, 1939, Gary Paulsen is one of America's most popular writers for young people. Although he was never a dedicated student, Paulsen developed a passion for reading at an early age. After a librarian gave him a book to read --- along with his own library card --- he was hooked. He began spending hours alone in the basement of his apartment building, reading one book after another.
Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dogsled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.
Paulsen's realization that he would become a writer came suddenly when he was working as a satellite technician for an aerospace firm in California. One night he walked off the job, never to return. He spent the next year in Hollywood as a magazine proofreader, working on his own writing every night. Then he left California and drove to northern Minnesota where he rented a cabin on a lake; by the end of the winter, he had completed his first novel.
Living in the remote Minnesota woods, Paulsen eventually turned to the sport of dogsled racing, and entered the 1983 Iditarod. In 1985, after running the Iditarod for the second time, he suffered an attack of angina and was forced to give up his dogs. "I started to focus on writing with the same energies and efforts that I was using with dogs. So we're talking 18-, 19-, 20-hour days completely committed to work. Totally, viciously, obsessively committed to work, the way I'd run dogs....I still work that way, completely, all the time. I just work. I don't drink, I don't fool around, I'm just this way....The end result is there's a lot of books out there."
It is Paulsen's overwhelming belief in young people that drives him to write. His intense desire to tap deeply into the human spirit and to encourage readers to observe and care about the world around them has brought him both enormous popularity with young people and critical acclaim from the children's book community. Paulsen is a master storyteller who has written more than 175 books and some 200 articles and short stories for children and adults. He is one of the most important writers of young adult literature today, and three of his novels --- HATCHET, DOGSONG, and THE WINTER ROOM --- are Newbery Honor Books. His books frequently appear on the best books lists of the American Library Association.
Paulsen has received many letters from readers (as many as 200 a day) telling him they felt Brian Robeson's story in HATCHET was left unfinished by his early rescue, before the winter came and made things really tough. They wanted to know what would happen if Brian were not rescued, if he had to survive in the winter. Paulsen says, "I researched and wrote BRIAN'S WINTER, showing what could and perhaps would have happened had Brian not been rescued."
In Paulsen's book, GUTS: The True Stories Behind HATCHET and the Brian Books, Paulsen shares his own adventures in the wild, which are often hilarious and always amazing: moose attacks, heart attacks, near-misses in planes, and looking death in the eye.
Paulsen has written a time-travel novel, THE TRANSALL SAGA, which was named an ALA Quick Pick. And in the heartwrenching story SOLDIER'S HEART, Paulsen brings the Civil War to life battle by battle, as readers see the horror of combat and its devastating results through the eyes of 15-year-old Charley Goddard.
Paulsen and his wife Ruth Wright Paulsen, an artist who has illustrated several of his books, divide their time between a home in New Mexico and a boat in the Pacific.
Books by Gary Paulsen
Six Kids and a Stuffed Catby Gary Paulsen - Animals , Children's 8-12, Fiction, Friendship, Humor
Fishbone's Songby Gary Paulsen - Animals , Children's, Children's 10+, Family Life, Fiction, Youth Fiction
This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaursby Gary Paulsen
Field Tripby Gary Paulsen and Jim Paulsen - Young Adult 10+, Youth Fiction
Family Tiesby Gary Paulsen - Children's
Road Tripby Gary Paulsen and Jim Paulsen - Children's, Family, Fiction
Paintings from the Cave: Three Novellasby Gary Paulsen
Hatchet: 30th Anniversary Editionby Gary Paulsen - Adventure, Coming of Age, Fiction, Young Adult 12+