Dancing around the fire
Gary Paulsen on the dishonesty of war lit and why writing is primitive
Speaking with Gary Paulsen is like reading Gary Paulsen. The acclaimed young adult novelist is a storyteller, all the time. He is also a hearty laugher, a casual curser and an eternal devotee of the natural world—characteristics that are happy confirmations of what fans of his young adult novels would hope to be true.
The author of over 200 books, Paulsen needs little introduction. His novels Dogsong, The Winter Room and Hatchet won Newbery Honor Medals, and his personal life is almost as famous as his characters. The son of “appalling drunks,” Paulsen disliked school growing up, and he lived as a “street child” in Manila when his father was stationed in the Philippines right after World War II. The adult Paulsen’s wilderness adventures sound like plots from his books. In 2006, he had to drop out of the Iditarod because he’d cut a vein on an old piece of pipe after 80 miles of racing; he almost died from the blood loss. He has sailed across the Pacific Ocean three times.
But currently, Paulsen says, he is concentrating on work: writing work, that is, rather than dogsledding or sailing. “I’ve got to settle on other things right now,” he said in a recent phone conversation with BookPage. “One of the things I’ve got to settle on is writing.”
Paulsen devotees can look forward to a busy 2010. Lawn Boy Returns, the follow-up to 2007’s Lawn Boy, comes out in March. And Woods Runner, Paulsen’s most recent novel, is a suspenseful Revolutionary War story that will grip both boys and girls, both young readers and their parents and educators.
The tale focuses on a familiar theme: a boy must fend for himself in the woods. It is 1776, and Samuel is a “child of the forest.” He lives in a settlement in Western Pennsylvania, far away from any large city. As Samuel hunts in the woods to find food for his family, he is comfortable, familiar with his surroundings, and at peace. “His skills and his woods knowledge set him apart, made him different,” Paulsen writes. “[His neighbors] marveled at him, thought of him as a kind of seer, one who could know more than others, divine things in a spiritual way. Samuel knew this was not the case. He had just learned to see what others could not.”
When Samuel’s parents are captured by British soldiers and Iroquois, the boy travels to New York City on a rescue mission. Along the way, he meets a group of memorable characters: a young girl he adopts as his sister, a traveling tinker with a big heart. By the end of his impossible journey, Samuel remains thankful for “the haven of the forest.”
That Paulsen would choose to set Woods Runner and so many of his novels in the forest is unsurprising. When he speaks about his own difficult adolescence, his voice softens when he mentions the woods or the sea: his sanctuaries.
“The woods themselves have always been a place where if things were not working well for me I could go there and live,” he says. “As a young person at the age of 11, when we got back from the Philippines we moved to Northern Minnesota. The town was right on the edge of the forest. And I would skip school and go down there. I just lived in the woods to get away from my parents.”
Many readers will forever associate Paulsen with 13-year-old Brian Robeson, the hero of Hatchet. When Brian fights for survival in the Canadian wilderness, the woods become “a place where he could become what he was,” says Paulsen. When Paulsen turned into an “outcast drunk” prior to starting his writing career, the woods served the same purpose for him.
Paulsen invokes a mystical tone when he writes about Samuel and the forest, a quality that also emerges when he talks about the craft of writing. For Paulsen, writing is primitive. “It’s very old,” he says. “It’s like putting skins on your back and dancing around the fire and telling what the hunt was like.”
His voice hardens when he speaks about “intellectual carbon monoxide”. . . or television, as the rest of us know it. “You think you’re seeing facts, but you’re not,” Paulsen says of the viewer’s experience. “You’re dying. You’re dying intellectually by watching it. I hate it. I think it’s appalling.”
On the subject of intellectual death—and more specifically, misinformation—Paulsen is strident. “People will watch a 30-minute show on Napoleon and think they know everything about him. You’re only getting 19 or 21 minutes, the rest is commercials. You’re getting at the most 30 minutes in an hour show and you couldn’t begin to understand Napoleon in less than 10 years.”
The same goes for the Internet. “What’s appalling to me is the phrase ‘Google it,’” he says, “that you can actually think that you can get all the information there is off of Google.” He pauses. “Not that the company’s particularly bad, but the idea that all the information you could want is there. It’s not.”
The author is a firm believer in the importance of digging for truth by reading historical documents. This philosophy was part of his impetus for writing Woods Runner. In Paulsen’s opinion, young people get a “sugar coated” version of history in most war literature, and in Woods Runner he seeks to be more honest. The novel includes short historical segments between chapters so that readers have ample background information to fully understand the narrative.
He wanted the novel to be a lesson, in addition to a good story. “What is dysentery? How did the weapons work?” Paulsen asks, referring to facts addressed in the historical segments. “I wanted those things to be real so that readers wouldn’t have to hang a pig carcass in a tree and shoot it just to learn what it was like.”
Whether describing a gruesome attack on an innocent family or explaining how to dress a war wound, Paulsen doesn’t scrimp on details in Woods Runner. War novels don’t have to be all “blood and guts” to be accurate, Paulsen says, “although that is a real primary part of combat.”
“My father was on Patton’s staff and I was in the army as far as that goes, but when my father invaded Sicily each man carried his own body bag. That’s a horrible thing to do to a man—to say not if you’re killed, but when you’re killed the bag is with you. Those are things that you don’t learn from history books.”
And though Paulsen did use weapons on animal carcasses to find out “what the weapons did and how they did it and what the different weapons did to the bodies” as part of his research, he is no advocate for violence. “What did Ben Franklin say?” he asked. “There’s no such thing as a bad peace or a good war. And that’s very true.”
In spite of contemporary obsessions with Google, television and other shortcuts to information, Paulsen remains passionate about serving young people with his books.
“Children want to know,” he says. “Young people want to know everything about whatever it is—math, humor, sports, whatever it is. The primary curiosity is still there.”
To feed this curiosity, he gives simple advice: “Read like a wolf eats.”
He clarifies: “I tell young people to read when they tell you not to read and read what they tell you not to read. And I get in trouble sometimes, but not so often. That’s the truth.”
Photo by Tim Keating.
Read our interview with Paulsen from 2003.