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Author Chat with Gary Paulsen

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Transcript from Live Chat
July 9th, 2003

NYPL: Good afternoon and welcome to the first in a series of four on-line author chats. Today's special guest is Gary Paulsen, author of more than 180 fiction and nonfiction books. His fiction has ranged from "Hatchet," a gripping story of survival in the wild, to risk-taking of different sorts. "The Crossing" tells of a 14 year-old Mexican boy's attempt to cross the Mexico/US border, while "Nightjohn" is the story of an old slave who risks punishment for teaching a younger slave to read. Among his nonfiction books are titles on sailing, hiking, backpacking and "Woodsong" in which he describes racing a dog team in the Iditarod, a 1200 mile dogsled race through Alaska. "My Life with Dogs" is a hilarious and touching description of how dogs have been a part of his life. Gary Paulsen is the recipient of many awards for his work as an author. It's a pleasure to talk with you this afternoon, Gary.

Gary Paulsen: It's good to be here. I'm looking forward to this.

Charles: What inspired you to become a writer?

Gary Paulsen: I'm not really sure. I was a poor reader and a poor student in school and when I was about 13 a public librarian got me to read. I mean I flunked everything in the 9th grade - I had to take it over. This librarian got me to reading, and somehow the reading triggered something in me that made me want to be a writer. That was much later. I didn't start writing until I was 26.

Coqui: What libraries did you use as a child?

Gary Paulsen: The one that helped me was in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, in about 1953. The librarian was a wonderful lady, and just steered me into books. I was a street kid, probably on my way to jail. My folks were drunks. And she saved me, she really did.

Bronxite: Does your family worry about you taking risks and living dangerously?

Gary Paulsen: LOL! The short answer is "yes." Sometimes I worry! But they're strange, calculated risks. They know that I've done things that are potentially lethal, but I never came close to being hurt even, but then I've done things that I thought were perfectly safe, and they turned out to be dangerous.

Elisa: Are your stories for the most part fictional or do you base them on true events?

Gary Paulsen: They're based in many respects on true events that happened to me, or historical events.

Rachael: I have two younger teenage children that love to read. Do you have any recommendations for books?

Gary Paulsen: Reach past where they are, so Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth." It's fun to read Harry Potter and my books and all those things, but they should read classics too. "Moby Dick." "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is a grand book! The classics. Oprah's starting to reorganize, and to promote classics, and I think she's right. There's a lot of really good writing that is very old.

Maureen: I understand that you were sailing solo on a sailing expedition. Can you tell us about your adventure?

Gary Paulsen: I've been sailing for 9 years, and I sailed to Fiji and back. The Sea of Cortez for 3 years, and up to Alaska and back from California. Right now I've sailed my boat to Hawaii, and it's there now. I hope to sail to the Horn. I sail alone much of the time - often with friends, but often alone.

Marmite on Toast: Are you actually at sea at the moment?

Gary Paulsen: I'm in a shack in the mountains of New Mexico. I left the boat in Hawaii to come to this spartan shack so I can do some work. I've been here about 10 days, and the boat is Oahu.

Nicole: Did you write any other books besides "Hatchet"? If so, what are the names of the books?

Gary Paulsen: I have about 180 books in print, and I just finished another book in the Brian series that will be out in the Spring, called "Brian's Hunt." And there are prequels to that - "Brian's Winter," "The River," "Brian's Return."

Bronxite: Do kids have a favorite book of yours that's not an "assigned" book? I love the White Fox Chronicles, myself.

Gary Paulsen: I think "Hatchet" and a book called "Harris and Me" are becoming tied for being favorites. I think "Hatchet" is assigned almost everywhere now. Those two I think are the favorites, and "Brian's Winter" too.

Kenton: Why did you write "Harris and Me"? Does it have to do with your life or family?

Gary Paulsen: It's all true. LOL! It's all essentially true. I spent one summer with a cousin, and we spent the whole summer getting in trouble. He was 9 1/2 and I was 7 or 8. I can't believe we lived through it. It was wonderful to write it. I had a grand time with that book!

Kenton: When will you write another book like "The Tortilla Factory," which we use during bilingual storytime? The two books (Spanish and English) are terrific!

Gary Paulsen: Thank you! I have other picture books, but none that are the same as "The Tortilla Factory." None that are bilingual. It's a good idea though! I think I may do some more, and thank you for the suggestion.

Jackie: What books do you enjoy reading?

Gary Paulsen: I read a lot of nonfiction now for research. Right now I'm reading a book about organized crime in Victorian England, written at the time. It's an old, old book that I had to special order. It's research for a book I'm doing about a boy living in Dickens' time in England. I read a lot of nonfiction now for research; very little fiction.

Fran: Do you have one or more favorites from all the books you've written?

Gary Paulsen: It's a toss-up between "Hatchet" and "Harris and Me." I've done almost everything that happens to Brian in "Hatchet." I fostered myself to the woods when I was a kid - lived in the woods to get away from my family. When I write about it it is like going back. And "Harris and Me" was such a fun book to write.

Dee NYPL: Are you planning any adventure stories with a girl as the main character?

Gary Paulsen: Actually I am. About a girl on a boat in the Pacific, set in about 1870. I haven't written it yet, but I'll probably do it while I'm on the boat. I have written several books with girls as protagonists, although not adventure stories. Most of them are historical fiction, or just fiction.

Elaine: Do you prefer to write mostly for younger or older children?

Gary Paulsen: I prefer to write for young people. I think it's artistically fruitless to write for adults. Adults are locked into their lives - divorces and car payments and jobs, and they are not open or receptive to new ideas the way young people are. I have written a lot of things for adults, but I would much rather write for young people.

Alisa: Where do you come up with the ideas for your books?

Gary Paulsen: From my life. Or from history. I'll think of something, or have a curiosity about some historical fact and I'll start digging at it, and pretty soon it's a book. I go to the archives in Washington and the western archives in Colorado and Minnesota, and do direct research.

Leslie: Would any of your books appeal to adults too?

Gary Paulsen: Many of them do. I get between 200-400 fan letters a day, and a pretty large number of them are from adults. "Hatchet" is a very popular book among adults as a matter of fact. And those are real letters, not email. I don't believe in email. I think that what computers have done is just disastrous to the language. I equate them with television; I think they destroy the concept of language, email especially. And here we are. ;-)

Kenton: We love "Nightjohn" and would like to see it re-issued with historical references. Any chance?

Gary Paulsen: I don't know about the references. Yes, it's still in print. I've had the strangest mail on that book. Some organizations have wanted to use the fictional character and make him an historical hero. They want to have a Nightjohn day. It's very strange, and very complimentary. I have a lot of gratitude. Many people lived through that life as slaves, but he was not a real person. It started out as a story of Sally Hemmings, who was a slave who was molested by Thomas Jefferson. I wanted to do a biography on her, but there wasn't enough historical material, it was all destroyed by the Jefferson family. Historical references would have to include the slave chronicles or slave narratives which are in the Library of Congress. I read through them and just cried and cried. God it was awful what they went through.

Surfergirl: In "Harris and Me" the main characters attach a washing machine motor to a bike. Did you actually attempt something similar the summer you spent with your cousin?

Gary Paulsen: LOL! Exactly that! Washing machine motors used to be gasoline-driven on the farms. We took one off a machine and attached it to a bike. It just about killed Harris! It tore his clothes off. He also really peed on an electric fence. That nearly killed him too! I haven't talked to him many years. I don't even know if he knows there's a book.

Vicki: Is there a special place that you would prefer to be while writing a book?

Gary Paulsen: No. The book becomes the special place. I write on boats and in motels. I wrote during the Iditarod - I tried to write longhand by the fires at night. The book is the place, and if it doesn't work there's no place special. You could be in the Taj Mahal and it would still stink!

Maria: Who is your favorite author? Besides yourself of course.

Gary Paulsen: Not myself. :-) I don't have a favorite author; I have favorite books. "Moby Dick" is a favorite book, but Melville was a drunk who beat his wife. "Moveable Feast" by Hemingway, but I would not like him personally. He was a stupid macho person who believed in shooting animals for fun, but that book was incredible! So yes, I have favorite books, not favorite authors. I have a favorite hero: Rosa Parks. What an incredible person! Unbelievable. That picture of her sitting on the bus. My God what courage!

Kellie: What made you get into writing for young people, as opposed to adults?

Gary Paulsen: Again it's the only place where you can be artistic and have it accepted. To do experimental work and try to do new things with writing. The adult world is so structured and so limited. Writing for young people is the only way to go. And other people are coming to that. It's not just me. It's an interesting shift.

Thomas: What other things do you enjoy doing besides writing?

Gary Paulsen: Running sled dogs, sailing, took a Harley up to Alaska and back from Mexico, playing no-limit poker, riding horse. I'm a writer who does those things. I don't do them to write about them. I love writing the way you fall in love. I can't NOT write. I'll never retire. When a story works, I quicken, the hair goes up on the back of my neck. Those other things just don't do it. I have 27,000 miles behind dogs, I've been across the Pacific twice, but writing is everything there is.

Kenneth: How difficult is it for you to write a book? Do the ideas keep flowing?

Gary Paulsen: They do now. Now it's this roar that I just try to hold on to the bar and catch up to. But when I started I never thought I'd be able to write a book when I first started. It just seemed impossibly long. But now it's just - whooosh! - hang on!

Curious: What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?

Gary Paulsen: LOL! Some of them can't be printed! I'm a recovered drunk, and I'm in AA (giving you some background). I spoke to a huge university back east. There were like 3000 people there, and I was terrified. I wasn't used to speaking in public. I was so nervous that when I stood up I just blurted out "Hi, my name is Gary and I'm an alcoholic." And about 50 women in the audience said "Hi Gary!" I don't know if we can even write that! ;-)

Irina: Do you have any children?

Gary Paulsen: I have three. Two by my first marriage and one by my present marriage. They're all grown and I have grandchildren. And everybody's doing fine.

Karen: What is your next book about?

Gary Paulsen: I have one just out now called "The Glass Cafe" about a boy whose mother is an exotic dancer/stripper in L.A. It's a comedy, sort of. She loves her son greatly, and is a great mother, and in the end there's a court problem and she stands up and wins, and beats California. So there's a serious element, but it's funny too.

Curious: Is there one book you wish you could rewrite? Come on, be honest!

Gary Paulsen: LOL! Yeah, a book I wish I'd never written, called "The Green Recruit." And PLEASE don't read it. It's about an 8 foot tall basketball player from another planet. I co-wrote it with a friend who couldn't finish it. I wish I had not written it. I get letters on it! "Did you write The Green Recruit?!" Everybody has one of those puppies - the dogs.

Maureen: Have you, or are you planning to, resume author visits to schools and libraries?

Gary Paulsen: The problem, and it is a problem, is that I get between five and ten requests a day, and there's no way that I can do it. If I do one, then everybody else gets upset. I've tried, and I get really disappointed letters! I'm trying to do kind of limited things that might promote reading in general on a larger venue maybe. So I'm doing NCTE in November, and that sort of thing.

Sally: What is "Puppies, Dogs and Blue Northers" about?

Gary Paulsen: Sled dogs, and how they kind of took over and raised me. I love dogs. They are God's gift. I don't have sled dogs any more, but I have six dogs. When I get low on them I just go to the pound and say "Give me the next one on the list you're going to whack." They're wonderful - 2 border collies, a basset, and 3 chihuahuas - they live at my shack. Oh, and I've got a horse named Joey. And no, they're not on the boat. ;-)

Mason: Does traveling around the world inspire you to write more books in different settings?

Gary Paulsen: In a way yeah, but they're settings of nature. I don't particularly like cities, so most of my stories are based in nature or a natural setting. I'm pretty happy with where I've been. I would like to see the Horn, but arthritis is kicking in at 64, so I might not get down there. I'm doing that a day at a time.

Chat949: Rosa Parks is my hero too, because of the "content of her character." Would you consider any of your characters heroic in this special way?

Gary Paulsen: Nightjohn. And Charlie Goddard, who is in a Civil War book called "A Soldier's Heart." There really was a kid named Charlie Goddard. It's a true story. He fought all through the war, was shot twice, and died right afterwards of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Then they called it Soldier's Heart. If you were wounded in combat, you were said to have a soldier's heart.

Dave: Do the books of Brian's Saga have to be read in order to understand them? Or would any single one be enjoyable to read?

Gary Paulsen: "Hatchet" should be read first, and after that I don't know that the order is that important, but "Hatchet" should be read first.

James Prendergast: Do you currently have any dogs? We like "My Life in Dog Years."

Gary Paulsen: Yes! I have six.

Curious: We know you like dogs, but do you have other favorite animals?

Gary Paulsen: A horse named Joey. He and I cover a lot of territory together. I've had cats, but the situation here is the coyotes eat them in the desert, so you can't really have cats very long. A lot of places like to have cats because they keep the rattlesnakes away, but then the coyotes come along and get them.

Aunt Betty: How do think an average young man like Brian, or a young woman, would survive the North country.

Gary Paulsen: If they're open to ideas and open to what goes on around them, fine. But if not, they'll die. It's very unforgiving. I know in one Iditarod one guy lost his eyes because he didn't blink enough. Things can happen very fast when weather or circumstances are extreme. I've been attacked by moose, and I've had acquaintances killed by them. It would depend on whether or not a person like Brian is able to accept his position and learn from it. Then yes, you can live. And lose weight. ;-)

Cateyes: Hi, Gary, will your next book be on a boat?

Gary Paulsen: Probably not. Maybe later.

Meihua: Do you prefer to write on the computer or by hand?

Gary Paulsen: I write on a laptop. I don't have a motor on the boat so I have solar panels that give me power to run a laptop - and to watch movies. In that sense I like the concept of not using a typewriter. I used to hate rewriting, but now I've made it an art form. I love to rewrite.

Mason: What was the scariest situation you have ever been in?

Gary Paulsen: Going through the ice running dogs. I went through in about 12 feet of water. I stepped off the sled and went through the ice. As I went down there was a rope tied to the sled and I grabbed the rope and yelled. My lead dog Cookie heard me and she got the team up and they pulled me out of the ice. I lit a whole 50' tree on fire - it was about 30 below - and got my clothes off and dried. And I hugged Cookie. She was wonderful. There was one storm on the Pacific, where I thought I was going to die. There must have been 50' waves - but I had a good boat, and the boat worked.

Jerto9999: How do you expand your initial idea into a full length book?

Gary Paulsen: Oh my. I will sometimes think about it for 2 years before I write it, and it's during that process that the expansion occurs. Before I sit down and write it's completely thought out. The actual typing of the book is the easiest part; I just sit there and type.

James Prendergast: If you were a kid today, who are some of the children's authors you would be reading?

Gary Paulsen: Cynthia Rylant. Ted Taylor. I never even thought of this. It's a great question. I know these people; they're friends of mine. I think I would do as I recommend, and go back to the classics. I was reading "Moby Dick" when I was 13, and I might read some of them.

Meihua: About how long does it take you to write a book?

Gary Paulsen: 2-3 years to think about it, and then 2-3 months to type it, but that's the easiest part, like I say.

Mason: Has your writing been affected by the war?

Gary Paulsen: I have had my writing affected by many wars. I was in the army until '62 and I had friends die in Vietnam. My father was on Patton's staff. And I lived in the Philippines from '46 to '48 and saw what the Japanese had done to the place. It was still gutted. It was terrible. All of those affected me. In the army I had close friends who fought in Korea, fought in WW II, and fought and died in Vietnam. These guys today are doing a great job in a terrible place with terrible conditions. I'm not putting them down, but this happens again and again.

Rick: When are you making a new monster book?

Gary Paulsen: I don't know. I think about things, but most of them are humor. I have one coming out called "Time Hackers," with monster-things from the past and stuff. So that will be out in a year or so.

Dee NYPL: You wrote 2 different sequels to "Hatchet." Which ending do you prefer?

Gary Paulsen: I've written several now. "The River," "Brian's Return," "Brian's Winter," and now "Brian's Hunt." The original was not going to have a sequel, but I get so many letters from hundreds of thousands of young people, wanting more Brian. One of the books said "This is the last one." But they just want to know more about Brian. I have one coming out next spring called "Brian's Hunt" with a bear attack where they kill people. Bears have good press, but they'll kill and eat you in a New York minute, to use the phrase.

Nicole: Why did you decide for Brian to be in a plane crash and then be stranded on an island?

Gary Paulsen: I was in two forced landings in bush planes. They were the same plane as Brian. While they were not crashes, and we took off again, I thought as we went down that if we lived through it I was going to write about it. And everything in the book is what I've done, hunting with a bow, living off the woods, the moose attack. I can still do it.

Barbara: Do you have an easier time writing short books (Dunc & Amos) or longer ones like "The Beet Fields"?

Gary Paulsen: Incidentally, "The Beet Fields" is all true. Neither one is hard or less hard. Depending on story content it can be more or less difficult. "The Beet Fields" was hard because of some of the memories it evoked, but there were also good memories. The Dunc & Amos books were fun to write and were funny, but with humor the pacing is critical, and you have to pay attention to what you are doing. I worked in Hollywood for a year, and it's true that comics tend to have un-funny lives. It's hard to do comedy. It's very serious business.

Jessie: What do you do when you have writer's block?

Gary Paulsen: I don't get it any more, but I used to. What you do is you write the next thing that comes into mind. You can erase it later. Like "I wish I had a taco" or "The cat walked into the room" and frequently it will blow the block. The man who told me that, who's been dead many years, said he used it a lot.

Betty: If you had it all to do over again, would you change anything? If yes, what would you change?

Gary Paulsen: I would not drink. I drank for 6 years. I have 30 years of sobriety; I quit in '73. And I didn't do drugs (apart from alcohol). To destroy clarity through alcohol or drugs is literally insane.

Gary Paulsen: Maybe some marriages that perhaps I shouldn't have done. But you know, you're young. Things happen. I would have started to read earlier if I could. And I would read more.

NYPL: Thanks for a great chat! We are almost out of time, do you have any parting words for us?

Gary Paulsen: Read like a wolf eats, read when they tell you not to read, and read what they tell you not to read. Read all the time, and turn the television off. Drive a stake through its heart. God I hate television.

NYPL: Gary, our time is almost up. Before we close, we want to thank you for talking with us today and answering so many questions about your life and writing. We know your fans will be on the lookout for your next book.

A Production of LiveWorld. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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