Gary Paulsen has captivated readers of all ages for more than five decades. A prolific author of more than 200 books for children and adults, Paulsen was awarded the Newbery Honor for three novels: Dogsong, Hatchet, and The Winter Room. Though Paulsen is primarily known for crafting adventurous or humorous fiction for young readers, his books include a wide range of genres such as nonfiction and westerns. His most recent work, Gone to the Woods, is a powerfully honest recounting of the turbulent early-life experiences that culminated in his extraordinary career as a beloved children’s author. We spoke with Paulsen who, with his signature candidness, shared what led him to write a memoir, how books have shaped his life, and what he’s currently writing.
How did this memoir emerge?
I initially thought of doing several books about my life. Then Wes Adams, my editor, and my agent, Jennifer Flannery, strongly suggested that I make it one book. They were right, of course. This book shows the pivotal points in my life where things changed abruptly and catapulted me to the next stage. It was a memoir in that sense, but I wrote it in third person so that I could view it a little more abstractly.
Let’s talk about that decision. The main character is known for most of the book as “the boy.” Why did you choose to write from this perspective?
I thought about this for a long time. It was actually a suggestion from my agent. My life has been interesting, to say the least—terrifying in places. I wanted to view the more ragged events from my past objectively and not become immersed in who angered me or didn’t anger me. So many of the events in this story—the time in the Philippines and in the woods, or when the librarian gave me the notebook and that bright yellow brand-new pencil—still have a profound effect on me. It became necessary to find a better way to convey the things that happened to me, and third person worked really well.
You describe how you found solace and escape through books. Can you share a little about how books, and that librarian, impacted you?
When I met the librarian, I was flunking high school. In fact, I was doing so poorly that the state stepped in during my senior year because I wasn’t going to graduate. They said they didn’t want me to be “a burden on society” and wanted me to take an auto mechanics or TV repair course instead. I’d already been doing some electronics with a friend of mine, so I said I would take a course in TV repair. About that time, I wandered into our local library and the librarian got me to read a book. I staggered through it, I was such a poor reader. I can’t even remember what the book was. I had to reread it and reread it, so I could go back and tell her about it. She became a friend, and the library became another kind of sanctuary for me, the way the woods were. I started reading a book every month and then two books a month. Then, it worked into a book a week. She’d throw in a Melville or a Dickens and ask me about it. It’s a staggering thing to climb into a book and learn from it. Now, when I do tours, I tell kids to read like a wolf eats—just gobble books up.
Was the process of writing this book similar or different from writing your other books? In what ways?
My original concept is always to write the best story possible. I will do anything to make a story work well. Somebody told me before this book came about that I would love working with Wes. He brings joy to the process of writing a book. Though, I will admit that this book surprised me sometimes. When I said at the end of the book, “I should write all of this down,” that surprised me. So did how it felt when it was done. But it’s not really done. There are other things I want to write and will write.
In this book, you are very honest about the difficult home life you endured as a child and a teen and how you survived it. Given the difficult subject matter, why did you choose a younger audience over an older one?
A lot of children are living the same way I lived. When I was touring a lot, I would try to visit schools where they were not going to get a writer, where they would pass the coffee can and whoever put change in, that was your honorarium. Those kids are living really close to the bone. If there’s any hope for them at all, it’s from people like me who have gone through some of those same things. I try to be honest about it. But the truth is, if I can make it, any kid can make it.
You often rely on your own experiences to tell your stories. How important is to you to have lived something for you to be able to write about it?
A lot of the research I do for my books is either what I’ve personally lived or what I’ve observed being lived by other people. There’s an enormous difference between going to school, which I was never good at, and going to the archives in Washington, D.C. to find true historical data, the actual letters. But they both can become real. In this book, you can read about how I went fishing with Sig and Edy, and carried buckets of fish guts to the pigs and staggered under the loads. That was real. I can write about those things later, having done them.
This book ends right as you are beginning to write. Can you tell us a little about your early career?
When I started writing, I wrote what I was reading: westerns and mysteries. I started writing westerns for $300 each. Big money! Then, a few years later, I was training for the Iditarod, and had signed I a three-book deal to write mysteries for like $650 a book. I’d written two of them and was using the money to buy dog food. The third book wasn’t due until after the race. But the publishing house called me and said, “Could you please do that third book right now?” I said, “That book’s not due for another year!” They said, “Well, we think you’re going to die in the race and we want to get the book first.” I didn’t do it. I turned in the book after the race.
You have two more middle grade books in the pipeline. What can readers look forward to with them?
When I decided to be a writer, we didn’t make much money, so we bought a lot from garage sales. This next book is a humorous story about a boy whose father is like that; he’s trying to live off the grid. The main character—this boy—is pouring dog food into a bowl for his rescue dog one day. This pamphlet falls out about how to train your puppy using positive reinforcement. So, the boy decides to reboot his dad.
The other book coming up is called Northwind. It’s about a boy who is forced to take off in a carved wooden canoe up the northwest coast of North America to get away from cholera. I actually did that trip from Ventura, up all the way to Seattle and the inside passage to Alaska. The things that happened in this book all happened to me.
One last thing, though. Don’t just read my stuff. Read everything. This book is one person’s ragged life. But there are moments of just incredible beauty in it, and moments that weren’t beautiful at all. But I’ll keep doing this. I’m not going anywhere. I have lots of books I want to write still.
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen. FSG, $17.99 Jan. 12 ISBN 978-0-374-31415-6