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Conversation with a Master: An Interview with Acclaimed Author Gary Paulsen

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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.

Gary Paulsen’s feelings regarding war death seem to closely approach rage. “If you watched Coop (a character from Woods Runner) die, you’re never gonna be normal again…It’s stupid that anybody dies in a war. There’s a cruel joke about combat: if you have to describe it to anybody they’ll never get it…if they get it, you don’t have to describe it.”

Speaking from his car on the side of the road leading to his New Mexico ranch, accompanied by a pound dog who “from the side looks intelligent, but when you look straight at him, he looks like Pluto,” Paulsen spoke with intensity of the hideous atrocities of war, and of the incredible spirit of the average soldier. When asked what had surprised him during his research for Woods Runner, the answer was immediate: “the slog, the incredible slog…that these guys kept coming back. The officers treated the guys like crap.” He paused. “Time and again, they stood to. That was the surprise – the courage of the young soldiers. They gave up everything.”

Paulsen may laud the courage and spirit of the average soldier, but he has harsh words for those who commanded them. “Washington … was horrible to his men, arrogant, slave owning …”

“Washington was not much of a general.” Indignation filled his voice as he told the story of Hercules, a man that George Washington shuttled back and forth between the capitol and Mount Vernon in order to keep him a slave – because Washington liked his cakes. A chuckle rose up as Paulsen described how Hercules eventually escaped and began a bakery; Washington’s acquaintances made it a point thereafter to have a "Hercules cake" at every party to which the first president was invited. “Just to grind it in…Washington was not likeable – this was not a man who would go out of his way to be good to his troops. But they believed what they were doing.”

In writing Woods Runner, Paulsen said he tried to show the extent of the atrocities that were common without “ruining the honor of those young men.” Though, in the book, he does hold back from describing the full extent of common war crimes, Woods Runner does contain scenes that depict the incredible brutality of the war “of the Hessians in particular.” He also describes how the British paid the Iroquois to “slaughter the frontiersmen.” He stops, and adds slowly. “Both sides – I’m not saying that the American soldiers were pristine. Things were done on both sides.”

Woods Runner’s Samuel finds peace in the wilderness. It became clear throughout the interview that Samuel’s peace is “kind of mine. The way I live – I used to feel that the forest was a sanctuary. I still do.” Indeed, even conversationally, Paulsen returns periodically to the forest. As the discussions of man’s inhumanity to man grew intense, the talk and stories would shift almost seamlessly to the Alaskan bush and Paulsen’s beloved sled dogs. A mention of his use of sensory detail in Woods Runner particularly in the descriptions of odors led Paulsen immediately to the dogs. “I’ve spent a lot of time with dogs. Logged about 30,000 miles with a dog team. The dogs are so keyed to odor that you start looking for the indications of odor in them. They change – physically and psychologically.” He described how one learned to sense which smells a dog was picking up — moose, deer, bear. A pause and a softening led the imagination far into the woods. “They’re amazing, dogs. That love, that kind of unconditional love, you don’t find that anywhere else. It’s just incredible.”

Perhaps he finds in his dogs the love that was missing from his childhood. Perhaps. Born to parents that he refers to as “the town drunks…horrible people,” Paulsen talked of his childhood, first as “a street kid in Manila,” then in the cold of the upper Midwest. It was there, in a small town in Minnesota, that he had an encounter that would change the course of his life. Waiting to deliver papers to the local bars one evening, he went into the library “to get warm.” The first hint of the importance of that library comes as he mentions “that golden light outside … above the door.” The librarian who “probably knew who I was” offered him a library card. He paused in his story, “and, Christy, it was the damndest thing. It had my name on it; nothing had my name on it. It was the damndest thing.” Sent home with a book, he went home to the basement and “staggered through [it].” It took six or seven weeks. Gradually, the intervals between books grew shorter, and after a year or so, “[the librarian] would throw in a Melville or a Dickens.” “Everything that I am is because of this one librarian.” “For them to use my books in schools…”

For all the influence of that early librarian, and although Paulsen has continued to be a voracious reader, “at one point I was reading two to three books a day,” his iconoclasm extends to literary figures. While he is currently studying the naval writings of Patrick O’Brien whose “command of language is amazing,” in Paulsen’s eyes, Hemingway was “a jerk,” Melville “a horrible man,” and Jack London “didn’t know anything about dogs.” Yet, he concedes that A Moveable Feast is incredible – “that that could have come from Hemingway…” He may have little love for Melville the man, but calls Moby Dick “an astonishing book.” And, he concedes that London was “a tough guy.” His unstinting literary praise was reserved for the recently deceased – and much missed – Robert B. Parker. Paulsen calls Parker, “an amazing writer,” refers to Parker’s western Appaloosa as a classic, and says quietly, “I wrote him a fan letter once.”

Gary Paulsen does not merely write adventure stories; he has lived them. He seems to deeply regret the reluctance of his body to continue sled dog racing. Regarding the Iditarod: “it’s a sort of primitive exaltation. It’s amazing what you and the dogs become.” Even as he described the antelope in the pasture next to his car and the dreams of his pound dog companion, Paulsen’s mind travelled northward to Alaska and his beloved sled dogs. “They get to live their lives out as pets. I miss the bush in Alaska, but if you’re not running dogs, the dark is not intrinsically fun.” He calls the Iditarod “the maximum expression of dog sledding,” and speaks wistfully of his desire to sail around Cape Horn, an endeavor he calls “the maximum expression of sailing.” He goes on to talk about Magellan’s exploits and how, though Magellan was a religious man, his rounding of Cape Horn jump started the Renaissance. “It blew away some of the Church’s control over the world.” Gary Paulsen is not a man with a fondness for established hierarchy.

In addition to his palpable disdain for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (he did have some praise for Benjamin Franklin), he spoke of his time in the Army – “3 years, 8 months, 21 days, and 9 hours” – with little fondness. “There are people over you who can kill you who can barely think.” He conceded that “you need that discipline, but it gets old.” Then, his voice grew faint as his thoughts drifted back to the young soldiers of the Revolutionary War – perhaps of any war – “and again, they stood to.”

Throughout a meandering conversation that took us through anecdotes about the harvesting of bear grease, rushing to a television interview covered in blood from cutting meat for his sled dogs, the peculiarly aggressive breed of rattlesnake that inhabits the pasture adjacent to his car, and various celebrity figures (Paulsen has little use for television and news media, and seems astonished by our culture of celebrity), he returned always to the plight of the young. When asked what story hadn’t he told, he paused incrementally, “huh, I’ve never been asked that.” However, the question did not set him back long. In the next breath, he said “I haven’t written, but I think I should write…the book I’m thinking of is called The Day They Hang the Children.”

My gulp may have been audible. He went on to explain that England had once had a special day to hang children, due to the need to readjust the gallows. Since any property crime such as theft, even pickpocketing (think Dickens) was a capital offense, this special day was needed, and used. He continued to explain his desire to tie the horrors of this custom to child labor in pre-20th century England and to the abuses of children worldwide today. “I’ll probably write it someday; it’s like an itch that needs scratching.”

If anyone could weave the powerful image of resetting the gallows across a nation for children into a revelation of the exploitation of children throughout history, it would be Gary Paulsen. Paulsen has an amazingly associative mind – one thought flows to the next without hesitation – and a tremendous store of knowledge. I particularly enjoyed the tracing of the roots of NASCAR back to the Whiskey Rebellion.

I was sorry when my interview with Gary Paulsen came to an end. I had run out of questions, but I’m pretty sure he had more stories…

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