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Author Profile — p. 1
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(The following essay has been excerpted and updated from Jim Trelease's anthology Read All About It!, one of the nearly 50 profiles contained there with each of the collected stories. See INDEX for a listing of all stories in the anthology.)

by Jim Trelease

Updated: 6/18/13

Gary Paulsen writes award-winning survival stories and he does it as good as anyone in the business. But the best of his survival tales is his own, the one you find spread through his books. All the abandonments, the runaways, the drunks, the bitter days and nights, the lonely split-lip searchings and gropings, and, yes, the weary fist-in-the-air gasp of "I made it!"—they're all Gary Paulsen's story.

Gary Paulsen Gary Paulsen

   Paulsen, you must understand, is not one of those make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of writers. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Lord knows, the world could do with more Ray Bradburys or J.R.R. Tolkiens. I am simply declaring there are those who invent it and those who live it—Paulsen lived it. He never had a choice.

   His father was a professional soldier who spent most of World War II away from home and his mother did likewise working in a munitions factory. They could also be abusive drunks.

   When the war was over, the family marched from one base to the next and Paulsen never spent more than five months in any one school.

   "I was an 'Army brat,'" he recalls, "and it was a miserable life. School was a nightmare because I was unbelievably shy, and terrible at sports. I had no friends, and teachers ridiculed me." His Thief River Falls, Minnesota, high school grades were mostly C's and D's, and his schoolyard fighting wasn't rated much better.

   There was never enough money for clothes, so Paulsen began working at an early age—setting pins in a bowling alley, or selling newspapers in hospitals and bars. When family life became intolerable (like the one he describes in The Foxman (Puffin), he either ran away or was shipped off to live with his grandmother and aunts, whose warm support were his "safety nets" (as in The Cookcamp.)

A light in the darkness

   And then, in the midst of his pain and tumult, he discovered a beacon in the darkness—the same one that had rescued writers like Robert W. Service, Ray Bradbury, and Cynthia Rylant (to name but a few). "One night, in a small Minnesota town (Thief River Falls) where I was selling newspapers, as I was walking past the public library in twenty below temperatures (image right), I could see the reading room bathed in beautiful golden light. I went in to get warm and, to my absolute astonishment, the librarian walked up to me and said, 'Would you like a book?'

Tjief River Falls libraryTjief River Falls library

   "I said, 'Sure.' And she said, 'Bring it back when you're done and you can get another one.' This went on for a long time. The librarian kept giving me things to take home and read— westerns, science fiction, and every once in a while a classic. She didn't care if I wore the right clothes, dated the right girls; none of those prejudices existed in the library. When she handed me a library card, she handed me the world.

   "I roared through everything she gave me. It was as though I had been dying of thirst and the librarian had handed me a five-gallon bucket of water," Paulsen recalls today. (See recent excerpt at page bottom.)

   Hiding from his parents' arguments, Paulsen would retreat to their apartment basement, snuggle beside the furnace with a book, a quart of milk, and some peanut butter sandwiches, and read into the winter nights.

   While books gave him an anchor in the storm, the tempest was a long way from over. He used trap lines to pay his way through one year of college, then quit to join the Army. There he worked with missiles, thought his future lay in electronics, and took enough correspondence courses to land a job in the aerospace industry when he finished with the service.

   But the long hours behind a computer console in a darkened tracking station in California convinced him there must be better ways to spend a life. In fact, he thought writing would be an ideal way to live. So, faking an impressive resume, he landed an associate editor's job with a men's magazine. His bosses soon discovered he didn't know much about writing or editing, but he was certainly a willing and hungry student. For the next year, every night after work, he wrote something and brought it to them for criticism the next morning. After 11 months, he sold his first article.

A drinking, writing life

   From there he returned to Minnesota to write full time, which left little money for food and necessities but he struggled through—producing a handful of articles and two forgettable books. Thinking he was now an "author," he moved to an artists' colony in New Mexico to write the great American novel. What he did instead was to become an alcoholic. He spent the next six years drinking, fighting, ruining his marriage, and rusting his talents.

Finally, in 1973, he quit drinking, came back to earth and Minnesota with a new wife, and began writing again, this time not looking for greatness as much as money for food and clothing. When his readers meet characters who live off the land, they should know Paulsen has been there. Living in a converted chicken coop with makeshift electricity and no indoor plumbing, surrounded by chickens and goats, he and his family planted three gardens and lived off them—making their own ketchup, butter, and cheese.

   They were so far into the woods, his son spent nearly five hours a day on a bus going back and forth to school. Paulsen averaged $3,000 a year writing books whose titles would make impossible author-trivia questions: Dribbling, Shooting, and Scoring Sometimes; The Building a New, Buying an Old, Remodeling a Used Comprehensive Home and Shelter Book; and Careers in an Airport.

cover of The Foxman

   When he turned to fiction, however, he opened not only a vein to his heart and ultimately success, he also opened a Pandora's box. In 1977 he published what is still one of his most important and powerful books, an antiwar novel called The Foxman (Puffin paperback, above right). That year he also published Winterkill, about an alcoholic family. Unfortunately, some people back in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, thought they recognized themselves in the book and sued him for libel.

   Already on the edge of poverty, he looked up and saw a team of high-powered lawyers bearing down on him from one direction, and, in the other direction, he saw the retreating back of his publisher (Thomas Nelson Publishers) who wanted no part of a problem. Taking the case to the state supreme court, Paulsen eventually won but it left him nearly bankrupt and bitter beyond reason. If this is what writing did to people, he wanted out, and quit.

   To support his family, be ran a beaver trapline. He worked a 20-mile line on skis until someone gave him some dogs and a sled, allowing him to expand the line to 60 miles. His book Woodsong, excerpted in Read All About It!, is based upon those days and nights running his dogs—first for trapping and then, when he quit hunting for good, running the most grueling race in the world—the Iditarod, a 1,200-mile sled dog race into the Arctic Circle.

   The Iditarod is both intensive and expensive   with an entry fee and expenses running into thousands of dollars. Paulsen didn't know how he was going to afford it until he received a phone call one day from Richard Jackson, then editor in chief at Bradbury Press. Jackson, who had read Paulsen but never met him, wanted to know what he was writing. Paulsen told him, "I'm not writing anything. I'm running dogs and I don't have the money for the Iditarod!" Jackson saw an opportunity and promised to send him the money if he could get first shot at the next thing he wrote. It was a deal.

   Eventually, age and the 18-hour days of running dogs would catch up with Paulsen. But by then he had resumed writing and, under Jackson's guidance, was writing from the heart and years of experience. He wrote three young adult novels before the Zen-like Dogsong (Bradbury/Puffin) won a 1986 Newbery Honor Medal. All of a sudden, librarians and teachers were "discovering" a guy who had already published 50 books.

   On the heels of this, came his most popular book to date, Hatchet (Bradbury/ Puffin), winning another Newbery Honor Medal. This story of a 14-year-old from a broken home surviving 54 days in the northern wilderness was so believable that National Geographic called Paulsen looking for the boy's name and address for a feature. It's just a story, Paulsen explained. Except for the lonely heartache and pain, that is. (As Paulsen later told Book Links in 2003, it was turned down by three publishers.)

Paulsen page 2

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In 2003, Paulsen edited a collection of short stories by authors for young adults, each story dealing with the power of books. His Introduction to the volume gives us one of the most intimate glimpses of the young Paulsen, beyond what he's al;ready given us in his novels. Here is a small piece of those pages.

Excerpt from SHELF LIFE: Stories by the Book, edited by Gary Paulsen
(Simon & Schuster, 2003)

cove of Shelf Life

INTRODUCTION

by Gary Paulsen, © 2003

Books saved my life.

First reading them, then writing them . . .

. . . A few years later, when I was thirteen, another woman, a librarian, gave me another book and I consider every good thing that has ever happened to me since then a result of that woman handing me that book.

I’d been wandering the streets of the small Minnesota town we lived in one bitter winter evening, waiting for the drunks in the bars to get juiced. I sold newspapers, trying to scrape together a little money so that I could buy better clothes, believing, as kids do, that the right clothes might somehow lift me from my wretchedly unpopular social life. And if I waited for the men who hung around in the bars to get a few drinks in them, I could hustle them for extra change.

I stopped in the library to warm up. The librarian noticed me, called me over, and asked if I wanted a library card. Then she handed me a card with my name on it and gave me a book.

Later that night back at home, or what passed for home—a crummy apartment in the bad part of town—I took the book, a box of crackers, and a jar of grape jelly down to the basement, to a hideaway I’d created behind the furnace where someone had abandoned a creaky old armchair under a bare light bulb.

I sat in the corner, eating jelly-smeared crackers, plodding through the book. It took me forever to read. I was such a poor reader that, by the time I’d finished a page, I’d have forgotten what I’d read on the page before and I’d have to go
back. That first book must have taken me over a month to finish, hunched over the pages late at night.

I wish I could remember the name of that first book—I can’t even remember what it was about. What I do remember about that evening at the library was that it marked the first of many nights the librarian would give me a book. “Here,” she’d say, handing me a few battered volumes. “I think you’ll like these.” She would hand select books that she thought would interest me—Westerns, mysteries, survival tales, science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs. I would take them home to hide in the basement and read; I’d bring them back and we’d talk about them, and she’d give me more books.

But she wasn’t just giving me books, she was giving me ... everything. She gave me the first hint I’d ever had in my entire life that there was something other than my drunken parents screaming at each other in the kitchen. She handed me a world where I wasn’t going to get beaten up by the school bullies. She showed me places where it didn’t hurt all the time.

I read terribly at first but as I did more of it, the books became more a part of me and within a short time they gave me a life, a look at life outside myself that made me look forward instead of backward.

Years later, after I’d graduated from high school, joined the army, gotten married, had children, and made a career as an electronics engineer working in satellite tracking, books once again changed the course of my life. This time, though, I wrote them.

I was sitting in a satellite tracking station at about nine o’clock at night when suddenly I knew that I had to be a writer . . .

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