Disgruntled teenager Ben and his impulsive father set out to rescue an abandoned border collie in Road Trip, three-time Newbery Honor author Gary Paulsen’s first collaboration with his sculptor son, Jim. Along for the ride are the family dog, Atticus, who periodically chimes in with wry commentary, and a trio of eccentric characters they pick up along the way. The authors spoke to Bookshelf by phone – Gary from his New Mexico ranch and Jim from his Minnesota home. While discussing their collaboration, from Random House’s Wendy Lamb Books, the two never wandered far from the topic of their close relationship.
Inevitable first question: does the sometimes prickly relationship between Ben and his father resemble your father-son interaction, either in younger days or today?
GP: Not really. I never remember yelling at Jim, except for one time when he was maybe 12 or 13. I think we were putting up a TV antenna and it fell apart and hit a power line. It was awful – I yelled and then realized it wasn’t his fault at all. And I said, “I will never do that again. I will never raise my voice with you.” I’d like Jim even if he weren’t my son. Of course we have differences – wonderful differences. And there are some things we do together that we’re horrible at, like plumbing. Oh, the crap we can do with plumbing is staggering. We could flood a basement, even ruin a house.
But writing together worked, even though this is your first-ever collaboration authors?
GP: Yes, writing together was wonderful. It was fun, and it came out well. Years ago when I was writing westerns, other writers who were friends of mine wanted me to collaborate with them. And it just didn’t work. To have this book work so well was rare and wonderful.
How did Road Trip initially get off the ground?
GP: I’d like to say that we planned the book, but it just seemed to boil up. I can’t remember exactly how it started. It might have come from a notion that we ought to take a road trip together, and that effervesced into not actually taking a road trip, but writing about one. Jim’s a sculptor and I write, and writing together seemed like an easier thing than sculpting together.
JP: Yes, I think he definitely started the thing. It wouldn’t have occurred to me initially to do a book. I wouldn’t traditionally think of this as something he and I would do together. We’ve done virtually everything together, and it was perhaps an oversight that we hadn’t done anything collaborative like this. He’s my dad, but I have the privilege of getting to call him my best friend. It was very cool to get to do something like this together. He happens to be a fairly talented sculptor by the way – he dabbled in that even before I was born.
And have you dabbled in writing in the past, Jim?
JP: Some. I’ve written for my own sake. I do like to write, to create stories, but I honestly hadn’t given a lot of thought to publishing. Writing was a personal thing for me.
You live in different parts of the country. How did your collaborative process work?
GP: I guess I started the first part of the book. I wrote maybe half a chapter, then e-mailed it to Jim. But I’m often either on a sailboat or in Alaska, or on a horse somewhere. So to make it go more smoothly we dragged our agent, Jennifer Flannery, into the process.
JP: The whole process was quite spontaneous. We’d go back and forth with e-mails, with each of us adding parts. And, yes, a lot of the exchanges went through Jennifer. She helped bind things together and steer us back on course if things were getting hectic. Of course it’s my father who has the experience here, so I would definitely defer to him in regards to things like timing and rhythm.
Was creating the characters in the novel a joint effort?
GP: Yes, either Jim or I would start one. I might come up with a character and Jim would alter the person somewhat. I would perhaps be more salty, and Jim might back it down a bit. We had some of that going on all the time—in a good way for both of us. What was fascinating to me—and maybe it’s because we’re genetically coded or something about us is so similar – is that writing together worked so well.
Dogs are a focus of Road Trip, given the father-son mission to rescue a border collie and that Atticus has a voice in the book. And you’ve written about dogs in Dogsong, Notes from the Dog, and other novels, Gary. Is it safe to assume that dogs are an important part of your lives?
GP: In our family, we’ve always been owned by border collies or dogs of one kind or another, and have rescued many dogs. We’ve lived in the woods and sometimes have had as many as 70 sled dogs. Or had six or seven dogs living in the house. Dogs have saved my life on more than one occasion – and I mean that literally. A border collie saved me once when I was pinned under a horse in Colorado. And once when I went through the ice, one of my sled dogs saw me go under and she got the rest of the team and they pulled me out of 12 feet of water. I think that dogs offer the only form of unconditional love that’s available to humans.
JP: The bond between dogs and humans is so ancient and so primitive – opening up to loving and being loved by dogs is something that goes back many thousands of years. I’ve tried to have fewer than three dogs in my life at one time, but that usually doesn’t pan out. In fact I just got another rescue dog from the pound. Dogs really are my best friends.
Didn’t you say your father was your best friend?
JP: He’s a good dog – what can I say? There are conditions to human friendship that you just don’t have with dogs.
Would you both agree that writing a book together was a bonding experience?
GP: I’d say it definitely was, but we were already very close. We live differently – I have a sort of insane life, and Jim’s a lot more settled and sane. I break things – arms, legs – all the time. I say I’m 73 and have a 26-year-old brain. Jim is younger, stronger, and more sensible. I feel as though doing this together gave us a chance to learn more about each other.
JP: My dad has taken me on a lot of adventures over the years, and I’ve learned that any story that is worth telling involves something I’ve done with him. Writing this book piles right onto that – it was another notch in that belt. This book was as fun as anything else we’ve done together.
Would you consider collaborating on another book project?
GP: I would like to do something with Jim again. Doing this book was a hoot. I love to see how his brain works. Maybe we have a bit of a mutual admiration society, but I think he’s really smart. Maybe I can help him with a sculpting project next, but that might be as bad as our plumbing efforts.
JP: Part of the fun of growing up with and being with my dad – maybe the greatest thing about it – is that it is always an adventure, and I never have any idea of what’s coming. I’ve learned to never say never. So as to doing another book? I guess we’ll see.
Road Trip by Gary Paulsen and Jim Paulsen. Random/Lamb, $12.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-385-74191-0