Extreme author Gary Paulsen pushes writing and life to new limits
From running dogs in Alaska's famous Iditarod to sailing around treacherous Cape Horn by himself to writing more than 190 books, author Gary Paulsen seems to have a passion for life like nobody else. In his new book, The Glass Café (or the Stripper and the State; How My Mother Started a War with the System That Made Us Kind of Rich and a Little Bit Famous), he takes his writing to a new extreme by capturing the unique voice of 12-year-old Tony.
A young boy Paulsen met while living in Hollywood, Tony is, of course, no ordinary kid. He is thoughtful, intelligent, incredibly artistic and the son of a stripper named Al (short for Alice). Even though Al dances for a living, she too is an intelligent, thoughtful person, with a sensibility Paulsen brings out in unsurpassed form. Through a series of misunderstandings, prejudices and comedic moments, he creates an entertaining yet true-to-life account of the struggles single parents often go through and the intense love, protectiveness and loyalty they have for their children.
Paulsen has written numerous books for young readers as well as adults. While he admits there is more adult writing he would like to do, he prefers to reach out to the younger crowd. "I think it's artistically fruitless to write for adults. They're locked into car payments and divorce, and not open to new ideas," he explains. "If you really want to write artistically, you have to write for the eighth or ninth grade. Adults just don't have time to appreciate artistic, new things."
Paulsen has won several Newbery Awards (for such books as The Winter Room, Hatchet and Dogsong), and his titles continue to gain critical acclaim. Oddly enough, English was never one of his favorite subjects in school, and his decision to become a writer came about in a surprising way. "I had become an electronics engineer in the Army, and I was tracking satellites one night when I had an epiphany and realized I needed to be a writer," he recalls.
Even though he had never composed a single story, that night Paulsen walked off his engineering job to begin a career in writing. And the rest, as they say, is history. His many titles have ranged from adult westerns and mysteries to children's picture books. But his favorites of the bunch are books for young readers that center on tales from his childhood, "all true stories," he says. Paulsen's next grown-up adventure will be sailing his boat, an 1820s-design sailboat with no motor, around Cape Horn.
"Sailing the Cape is the maximum expression of sailing a boat," he says, "the same way the Iditarod is the maximum expression of running sled dogs." And the maximum expression of writing? "I'm going to write until I die," claims the author.
His trick is to approach the craft the same way he did dog running. "When you're racing dogs you focus for 20 or so hours at a time, so that's what I do for writing," says Paulsen. But one thing has changed where his working habits are concerned: instead of writing from the frigid north, he now works on his sailboat, which he navigates on his own for months at a time. "I set the steering vane and write for hours," says Paulsen. During one recent trip, he cranked out four books. "I write until I'm finished," he says, "then I fly back to do book tours."
Paulsen loves the inspiration that being on the open water, miles from land, brings him. "When a story works for me, the hair goes up on my neck," he says. "It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, it is elegance." Make no mistake about it: although he has run dogs through 1,200 miles of frozen tundra and although he sails through some of the most treacherous waters on earth, Paulsen's true passion is writing.
"I am a writer who runs dogs and a writer who sails," he says. "To me, writing is everything. Everything else is just a place to write."
Heidi Henneman writes from San Francisco.