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Catching up with Gary Paulsen on the 25th anniversary of Hatchet

Three covers of Hatchet that are in bookstores today: From left, a cover from 2006, one from 2000, and another 2006 version.
Three covers of Hatchet that are in bookstores today: From left, a cover from 2006, one from 2000, and another 2006 version.
courtesy Simon & Schuster

Twenty-five years ago, right around this time of year, Gary Paulsen published Hatchet, a slim novel about 13-year-old Brian, who gets stranded alone in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash. Chances are, that description sounds familiar: Over the past quarter-century, Paulsen's adventure story has sold more than five-million copies, won plenty of awards (including a Newbery Honor), and worked its way onto reading lists and into young readers' hearts.

In the same period, Paulsen, now 73, hasn't slowed down. His name is on the cover of more than 200 titles, and he's still living out the adventures he writes about: sailing around the Pacific, racing dogs in the Iditarod, riding his horse on his ranch. We caught up with Paulsen, who grew up in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, via email (he's living on a boat, and doesn't get good phone reception) to talk about maintaining his writing pace, surviving in the north Minnesota woods, and why writing for adults is "artistically fruitless."

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You have a long, complicated personal and geographic history. What parts of your life did you spend in Minnesota?

I learned to feel at home in the bush in Minnesota. I lived there when I was a kid, then after my time in Hollywood, and again with my wife, son, and dogs. I've lived in a lot of different places, both as a kid and as an adult. One of the good things about having the kind of childhood I did -- rough -- is that I've never gotten too attached to any one place. I lived in cabins in the woods more than towns, and I remember the trees and the hills and the sky more than the names of nearby cities. Minnesota is beautiful and I ran a lot of good miles with my dogs, and did a lot of fishing and camping as a kid in Minnesota.

How did growing up in Minnesota give you your hunger for adventure?

Adventure was everywhere when I was a boy. I could go hunting or fishing, or I could camp outside and climb trees and swim in lakes and rivers and brooks and streams. There was always a new animal to observe, or a new tree to study or a new creek to follow. Minnesota gave me a huge wealth of experience with the outdoors. It was so beautiful and so untouched back then.

When you were 13, as you describe in the introduction to Shelf Life, you had a conversion experience with books. You had been "wandering the streets of the small Minnesota town we lived in one bitter winter evening," and took shelter in the library. A librarian gave you a library card and a book. You write, "I consider every good thing that has happened to me since then a result of that woman handing me that book... 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." Can you tell me more about that?

I don't have a great memory for places and dates. I remember the light coming through the window in the library and the dust in the sunbeams. I remember the musty, wonderful smell of old books, and how clean and safe and warm I felt in the library. I remember the librarian's smile and the dry soft touch of her fingers as she handed me a book, and I can still picture my name on that library card.

Who were the authors you fell in love with then, as a boy?

I wasn't a good enough reader to be affected by particular writers when I was young. What I was altered by was the experience of reading. I remember the sensation of, finally, after plugging along page after miserable struggling page, of losing myself in the book. That wonderful dizzying loss of time and space, the kind of reading where you look up and can't remember where you are or what time it is because the book has come alive and you are a million miles away and a different person altogether. I'm always trying to find something, anything, that will recapture that sense of getting lost in a book that I had the first time.

Why do you write primarily for a young audience?

Because it's artistically fruitless to write for adults. They're worried about mortgages and relationships and paychecks and oil changes and if the house is big enough and the car new enough. I know that because I'm an adult and a lot of my friends are adults. Kids, though, they're fresh and they hunger for knowledge and experience and they throw themselves into books and reading and it's real to them, it matters.

You returned to Minnesota from Manila in 1948, and two years later, at 14, you ran away from home and joined a carnival. Were you living in Thief River Falls when you ran away? What drove you to leave? Where did you travel with the carnival, and what were some of the things you saw?

Again, the specific city doesn't stick with me. I never chose where my parents settled down, so I didn't feel invested. What I remember was wanting to get away -- more from my folks and from the sense that I didn't belong than the town itself. I've written about the carnival in Tiltawhirl John and The Beet Fields. It was a great experience for a boy that age. We bummed around all over, one small town to the next. They all look alike when all you see is an empty field and you're worked to the bone. I didn't go sightseeing or take in the local culture. I worked like a beast of burden; in a carny situation like that, something always needs to be fixed or moved or cleaned or worked. I remember lots of elbow grease. And beautiful Wanda.

 

After you ran away, did you ever return home? Did you go to high school in Thief River Falls?

Nope, I never really did go home, even when I had to. I slept in the basement behind a furnace rather than go back to the apartment with my folks and, eventually, started sleeping in the back of a cop car while the local cop did his nightly rounds. I think I graduated, although it might have been that they wanted to get rid of me more than that I actually earned the credits. I've made up for that in the reading and studying I've done my entire life since -- at least I hope I have. What I didn't get in terms of a formal education, I received in the pages of books and by zero altitude at personal inspection.

After a stint living in Hollywood, you returned to Minnesota, rented a cabin in the north woods, and wrote your first novels, including The Special War (1966) and Some Birds Don't Fly (1968). Why did you choose Minnesota as the place to do this work, and what did you write here?

I wrote a lot. Most didn't get published. Those two did. Some ideas I jotted down at that time and later went back to revisit years, if not decades, later. I went to Minnesota because I knew I'd be safe there, because I could survive there and do it on the cheap. And that I'd be alone. And surrounded by beauty.

The author.
The author.
Brian Adams courtesy Gary Paulsen

Brian Adams courtesy Gary Paulsen
The author.

You next moved to an artists' colony in New Mexico, and returned to Minnesota six years later. When you got back, you started dog racing, which would later become part of many of your books. What got you interested in the sport?

It wasn't initially racing, it was cheap transportation. I had a trap line I was tending on snowshoes. It took a long time to work the line on foot. Someone gave me a few dogs and an old sled simply to speed up the process. It was while working the trap line with the dog team that I fell in love with dogs. It was never about racing for me, it was about becoming a part of what they were. The dogs were so beautiful and so complex and so dignified; they were brave and fierce and funny and loving and brilliant. They knew things I couldn't fathom, seemed to see and understand things I totally missed. I didn't want to race them, I wanted to know them. Hell, I probably wanted to BE them.

Where were you when you wrote two of your best-loved books, Hatchet and Dogsong?

I wrote Hatchet and Dogsong in the kennels or in camp, some in Minnesota, some in Alaska when I was training for the Iditarod. I wrote the Brian books [Brian's Saga, an extension of Hatchet] in New Mexico, I think. It doesn't matter though, because the minute I step back into Brian's world, I'm in the Canadian wilderness, so I could probably write about him in an RV in Times Square if I had to. I'm moved by the beauty of the bush, the green curtain of the wilderness. I understand the woods and the sea. I get lost in malls and hotels, and I don't understand streets and blocks and exit ramps.

How do you write at the incredible pace that you do?

Years ago, when I apprenticed myself to two editors in California, they said they'd only help me if I wrote a chapter or a short story a night. Every night. If I ever missed a day, we were done, they'd never help me again. You do that for a while, you get pretty disciplined.

No, you know what? That's not entirely true. It may have started out that way, but here's how it wound up: I write because that's who I am. I can't not write. The hair on the back of my neck still lifts when a story is going right and I still sit down to work and look up at the clock a few minutes later only to find out that I've been at the computer all day long. I write because I would die if I didn't. Writing and dogs and sailing -- that's what and who I am.


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