Friday, April 23, 2010

man of the woods: gary paulsen

"Go home and kill your t.v.'s. Television is carbon-monoxide for the mind." That was just one of the statements made by famed Newbery Honor writer, Gary Paulsen, at last night's reading for his new book Woods Runner (Wendy Lamb Books, 2010). You might know Paulsen for some of his other works like Hatchet (1987), probably the most famous and beloved of all his books and one that is adored by millions of young readers, or Dogsong (1985) (another Newbery Honor winner). In fact, the first three books he wrote for kids were Newbery Honor winners.

After a month of touring with Woods Runner, Mr. Paulsen, gray-bearded, wearing a baseball cap, navy suspenders, a turtleneck and blue jeans, wound down the tour in the town of Danville, CA, where my critique partner and I saw him last night. We arrived early and stepped into a fast-growing line filled with excited kids holding various Gary Paulsen books in their eager little hands. And I'm happy to say that the majority of kids last night were boys. No surprise there really (if you've ever read a Paulsen book you know they're filled with weapons, woods and wounds) but great to see, nonetheless, given the fact that boys are notoriously reluctant readers. In fact, Paulsen said that when he first approached a major publisher back in the 1980's, "You'd know his name if I said it," the editor told him that a book for boys would never sell because boys don't read. "Why not?" Gary asked. "Because," said the editor, "there are no books for boys." Mr. Paulsen laughed and hit his forehead.

Gary Paulsen signing a book

Mr. Paulsen admits that he was a terrible student when he was younger. "I'd like to stand up here and tell you that I went to Harvard and got a degree in literature. I'd like to tell you that, but it wouldn't be true," he said. No, instead he found himself, raised by poor drunk parents who didn't really care, repeating grades and skipping the majority of 9th grade to escape to the woods - the one place, he says, where he can always go, despite what's happening in his life, to feel better. The tipping point in Mr. Paulsen's young life was the day he stumbled into a library and was given a library card. "I'd never been given anything in my life," he said. "That librarian changed my life." She gave young Paulsen a book. He took it home to the basement in his apartment building to read. Six weeks later he'd finally finished the book. He brought it back to the librarian. She gave him another book. This time it took him five weeks to read. Then he was given another, until eventually he was reading two books a week.

When he was 17-years-old, Paulsen forged his parents signature and enlisted in the Army. There he met a man who would further change his life - a rough man who didn't have a problem putting his hands on you. Paulsen found himself pushed down to the ground numerous times when disobeying orders, but each time he was walloped, he'd pick himself back up again. After the Army, he married and aimed high, getting a job as an engineer and making more money than most people in those days. He was living the American dream, yet something was still missing...

Eager readers lined up to get their Paulsen books signed

He quit his high-paying job and comfortable life, and moved to Hollywood, CA where he auspiciously discovered that two of his neighbors were editors. They made him write one short story a night and over 60/cent martinis they'd critique his work. They tore it up, but he learned. The best thing was that he learned. While in Hollywood, he met actor Steve McQueen, worked on scripts and got sucked into the "Hollywood scene" which was not for him. So what did he do? He escaped to the woods...

Fast-forward a bit and now living in a remote part of the Minnesota woods, Paulsen wrote his first two stories (and sold them for about $350/each). While there he also tells us how his love of dog racing began, and his feeble start, "I was saying 'Mush! Mush!' but these dogs had no idea what I was talking about." In fact, it was in the woods, while competing in the 1,180-mile Alaskan dog-sled race called the Iditarod, that he wrote the first draft of Hatchet. A funny side note was his story about the first time he competed in the Iditarod. His lead-dog, Cookie, was panicking the first day of the race, so someone loaned him another lead-dog who he was told had done races before. "Instead of turning, that dog went straight, cutting a path through the crowd." He laughs. The audience pictures sixteen dogs and Paulsen being dragged on a sled over pavement and through streets and neighborhood yards. "We passed a cocker-spaniel who I'm sure never left his yard again."

At one point, Paulsen mentions what inspired him to write for children and about the woods. He was out with his dogs, during one of the races, and while passing over a hill and cluster of trees, he saw the dogs' breath rise up and fall over their backs in a ghostly mist. He stops to remember and takes a deep breath "I've never seen anything so beautiful."

Paulsen didn't read from his new book, I was hoping he would, but he didn't. And at the end of telling his life story, he only had time for a couple of questions. He mentioned how he never knew Hatchet would become such a success and was honored, when in 2007 the book actually helped save a young boy's life. The 12-year-old boy wandered off from his North Carolina boy scout troop and was lost in the woods for several days. His father said he was hopeful that some of the lessons his son had learned from reading Hatchet, had sunk in - most importantly, staying calm. Paulsen said that he was in the middle of butchering some of the catches from his trappings in the Alaskan woods, when he was called in to be interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN. He said he showed up at the studio in Alaska covered in blood. "It would have been really interesting if I'd been carrying my axe, too," he laughs. You can read a transcript of that CNN interview, here.

Paulsen signing away

I didn't stay to get my copy of Hatchet signed. I brought it with me but the line was filled up quickly with kids. I always love going to author events like this, especially with writers as well-known as Gary Paulsen, because it's interesting to see the writer's interaction with his fans. At the beginning of the night, the principal of the school where the event was being held, told the kids they could come up to the front and sit on the ground. Wow did they move fast! Before you knew it the entire floor in front of Mr. Paulsen was covered with little Indian-style sitting bodies. As I mentioned, I wished there'd been more time for Paulsen to answer questions. Dozens of anxious hands were waving in the air. But in the end only three questions were asked (and only two of them I remember): "What was your favorite book to write?" a little girl with black hair asked. "Woods Runner, and Hatchet." "What was your favorite dog?" asked a round-cheeked boy in white. "Cookie," said Paulsen, matter-of-fact. "No doubt, Cookie."

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