Anyone who has read Gary Paulsen’s books, many of which rely on his autobiography for their plots, knows he has led an amazing life. At age 80, he still has more stories to tell and has now inked a three-book deal with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which will publish a memoir, Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Boyhood on the Run, in early 2021, followed by two middle-grade novels. The deal was brokered by Jennifer Flannery of Flannery Literary and Wes Adams, executive editor at FSG.
“I can’t overemphasize how enthusiastic my colleagues were about this acquisition,” Adams said. “The idea of giving Gary a new home and treating him as the national treasure he is, everyone here from top to bottom to back up to the top again was all in.”
Paulsen, who lives in New Mexico, is equally thrilled. “It’s like a dream come true for a writer,” he said. “I’ve paid my dues, but to have a publisher who is willing to work this tight with you but also let you do what you want to do is incredible.”
The seed for the deal was planted years ago when Adams, who calls himself a “middle-grade section junkie,” mentioned to Flannery at a luncheon how much he loved Paulsen’s Lawn Boy, and told her, “If it ever worked out, I’d sure love to work with Gary someday,” Adams recalled. “Lo and behold, she hadn’t forgotten.” The memoir arrived on Adams’s desk earlier this year, “fully formed and deeply affecting.”
Adams and Paulsen had a long telephone conversation before the deal moved forward, not as easy a task as it sounds when you consider that Paulsen lives “on a mountain in the western wilderness, which is exactly where you want Gary Paulsen to be in your imagination,” Adams said. (In an interview for this story, Paulsen warned a reporter that “cell phones don’t work here,” and if the call drops, he would have to “jump in my truck and drive six miles on bad road, so it might be a half hour before I can call you back.”)
Author and editor spoke for hours and by the end of their conversation, each knew they were sure they wanted to work with each other, Flannery said. Adams prepared an offer that blew her away. “Wes rallied the entire house,” she said. “The offer he sent to me had comments from everybody who was going to have something to do with bringing Gary’s book to readers and when I called Gary to read it to him, we both cried.”
The new books will join a vast body of work: Paulsen has written more than 100 books for children and teens, including his best-known novel, Hatchet, and two other Newbery Honor winners, Dogsong and The Winter Room. He also received the Margaret Edwards Award, a prize that recognizes lifetime achievement in writing for young adults, 22 years ago.
Before he began writing for young people, Paulsen also wrote dozens of westerns and mysteries under work-for-hire contracts that paid “barely enough to buy coffee,” he recalled. “I had a contract to write three mysteries and had finished two right before I did the Iditarod for the first time, and the publisher’s secretary called and said her boss wanted the third one immediately,” he said. “She said, ‘He thinks you will be killed in the race and wants the book done before you are,’ ”
Flannery says that hardscrabble path is part of what makes the three-book deal with FSG so well-deserved. “When [Gary] first started writing in the ’60s, it was an uphill battle for him. He wasn’t connected, and wasn’t educated in writing, but he’s turned that into his leitmotif—the outsider looking in. That’s still where he is,” she said.
Though a lot of his work for young readers relies on his personal history, the new memoir fills in blanks and contains many stories Paulsen has never before shared, taking him from the age of six when his mother put him on a train by himself to go from Chicago to Minnesota to live with relatives, to his childhood years during World War II in the Philippines, where his father was assigned to General George Patton’s staff, to his own decision to join the Army as a teenager. “It’s a survival story literally written by the survivor,” Adams said.
The second book, not yet titled, is another Paulsen staple: the middle-grade comedy. This one involves a father character who thinks he and his son can live without money, scrounging what they need from garage sales and thrift stores. The son finds a pamphlet in a bag of dog food detailing ways in which a pet owner can use positive reinforcement to train a puppy, and decides to try the methods suggested on his father. The book is scheduled for release in fall 2021.
“It’s funny as hell,” Adams said. “With the memoir, it’s a great one-two punch.”
The third book is not yet determined, though Paulsen has already written much of it and plans to spend his time getting down everything else he wants to say. “I’m done with the sled dogs. I’m not going to buy another Harley or sail to Fiji and back,” he said. “I’m just going to write myself out now and it’s a grand feeling to be able to do that.”