Long a favorite of reluctant and dormant readers, Gary Paulsen’s fiction for young people often takes the theme of surviving harsh wilderness—and sometimes harsher family life. His no-frills, tautly paced books are unmistakably written from the voice of experience. Paulsen, who’s 70, has a dossier of real-life drama and adventures including running the Iditarod in 1983 and 1985, living part-time on a boat in the Pacific Ocean and sailing around the world, and tangling with drunken, abusive parents and leaving to travel with the carnival as a teen. A three-time Newbery Honor winner (Hatchet, Dogsong, and The Winter Room), Paulsen is leaving the icy, open spaces behind this March for a rare book tour—his first in five years—to promote Woods Runner, an unblinking portrayal of the horror of the Revolutionary War, with the story of a teenage boy tracking British soldiers who have made off with his parents. Of necessity, the interview was conducted by e-mail; Paulsen runs sled dogs and is rarely near a telephone. Here are some of the best bits:
Your bios and interviews reveal that your parents could be abusive drunks and you “left home” at 14—what did that mean in practical terms?
That I only went “home” when I had nowhere else to go and, when I was there, I hid in the basement or my room. I spent as much time away from my parents as I could.
You had to quit running sled dogs in the late ’80s after two Iditarods due to health issues, but now you’re running dogs again. What’s the deal?
I love dogs. I wish I’d never left them and that I could run them every day of my life. The demands of taking care of that many dogs in the way I feel they deserve, though, wouldn’t allow me to write as much as I want to. It’s a hard decision to make—dogs or writing. My health is great, though—feeling better than ever.
Can you describe how your ideas progress from your brain to published works?
I think about books and stories and characters for years, sometimes, before I sit to write. Sometimes, like with Woods Runner, I do research for years and years before I know enough to write the book. Others just come to me. I work everything out in my head before I start writing, though, so when I do sit down to write at the computer, it’s more like taking dictation than creating.
Any advice for teens who are struggling with life, or the people who love them?
Things will get better and, if they won’t, you can ask people for help—principals and counselors can help point you in the right direction. What you’re dealing with as a kid, if it’s bad at home, won’t last forever and there will be a day when you look back and realize that the bad times ended and you moved past them.
You’re not exactly embracing social media like Twitter and Facebook, and one writer went so far as to describe you as a Luddite. What are your views on life and technology?
The book doesn’t know if I wrote on Twitter or Facebook; the book only knows if I worked on the book. I care about the book, what I put on the pages of the book. That’s what matters, that’s what lasts. Plus, I need a lot more than 140 characters to tell a story. I love technology—I remember the days of manual typewriters and carbons—and computers make everything so much easier and faster.