Gary Paulsen by the numbers is an intimidating prospect for an interview: over 175 books in print, 200 article and short stories, three Newbery Honor Books, and over 30,000 miles spent running dog teams in Alaska. I admit it, I was nervous waiting for the phone call. I had built a mental image of a crusty, no-nonsense, suffer-no-fools outdoorsman and literary legend. I had my questions neatly organized in logical sequence, pen ready, cell phone fully charged, copy of his latest young adult novel Woods Runner to hand – and a bad case of the jitters.
Gary Paulsen in person (or on the telephone) is a delightful interview. Blunt spoken, and iconoclastic, yes, he does not seem to suffer fools at all gladly (he has a particular wrath for some of the founding fathers), yet warmth and humor fill his voice. This is someone who by his own admission prefers solitude and may “like dogs better than people,” but he clearly cares deeply for humanity. It’s no wonder Paulsen is such a prolific writer; the man has stories bursting out of every corner. In an hour and 40 minute conversation we covered sled dogs, the military, his military experience, his childhood, rattlesnakes, antelope, the American Revolutionary War (with detours into WWI, WWII, the American Civil War, and the Vietnam War), New Mexico, sailing, libraries, forests, horses, bear grease, literary figures, founding fathers, and – oh yes — Woods Runner.
The conversation began with me stammering out something about how much I had enjoyed Woods Runner. Gary’s response put me instantly at ease. “Oh, good. I wasn’t sure how it would be received.” He sounded genuinely pleased and honestly a bit nervous about his book. Nervous? This is the man who wrote Hatchet, a novel used in almost every junior high curriculum, and he cared that I liked his new book? He did. He cares passionately about Woods Runner, and as he launched into the story of his inspiration for the novel, it became clear that the standard Q and A interview format would be of no use here.
The author’s note at the beginning of Woods Runner states that Paulsen wrote the book because he “wanted the Revolutionary war to be seen in its reality.”
“I wanted to dispute the mythic, clean, even antiseptic qualities in many histories, because war is never ever clean.” While on a book tour in New Hampshire 10-15 years ago, Paulsen was staying in a Bed and Breakfast. “I don’t like them; feels like you’re staying in someone’s house.” Presumably to escape he went for an early morning walk, and found an obelisk standing near a church. “On it were six names. Young boys – men – boys who didn’t come home. They did the best they could. It was very much like Vietnam – went on forever – eight slaughtering years.” Emotion choked his voice as he described how those six names affected him much as the names of friends upon the Vietnam memorial.