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Gary Paulsen's Memoir Taps Into The Childhood Experiences That Inspired His Stories


Gary Paulsen, the beloved children's author, is most known for his wilderness survival stories, including "Hatchet," "Tracker" and "The Haymeadow." Now at the age of 81, Paulsen's latest survival story is his own. "Gone To The Woods" is a memoir about his turbulent childhood, experiences that influenced the stories he wrote for young readers. NPR's Samantha Balaban has this profile.

SAMANTHA BALABAN, BYLINE: "Gone To The Woods" opens in 1944, when Gary Paulsen is just 5 years old. His father is off fighting in General Patton's army. He and his mother, a former Minnesota farm girl, are living in Chicago.

GARY PAULSEN: She suddenly found herself in this whirlwind of a world working in a munitions plant. And she discovered alcohol at the same time.

BALABAN: Her drinking and partying form some of Paulsen's very first memories.

PAULSEN: She would take me to bars and have me sing in a soldier's outfit to meet men and to get more to drink. I lived on Coca-Cola and (laughter) fried chicken. That's what the bartenders gave me a lot of. My grandmother heard about it, was horrified by it.

BALABAN: So a young Gary Paulsen was put on the train alone with a $5 bill and a cardboard suitcase, bound for his aunt and uncle's farm in northern Minnesota. There, he learned how to catch and eat fish over a campfire and use the smoke to keep the mosquitoes away at night. But this idyllic part of Paulsen's childhood was short-lived. When he was 7, he reunited with his parents.

PAULSEN: They were drunks. They were just awful. They really were. I started running away later when I was about 12, 11. And I wound up in the woods all the time.

BALABAN: The escape he found in nature later became a theme for many of Paulsen's characters. In his book "Hatchet," 13-year-old Brian is in a plane crash and survives for 54 days in the north woods of Canada until he's rescued. In "Tracker," a boy named John must hunt for deer alone in order to make it through the winter. While Gary Paulsen is the protagonist in his memoir, "Gone To The Woods," he still writes in the third person, referring to himself as the boy or sometimes just he.

PAULSEN: Writing in first person, there's a tendency to want to make it better than it was. And so I thought by doing it third person, you're more abstract - or I'm more abstract. And I could be more realistic about what it was.

BALABAN: And growing up was really bad. The boy would sleep in an old easy chair in the basement of his apartment building with a hot plate and the rats for company. And the boy caught fish in the river and sold them to a saloon for pocket change.

PAULSEN: In fact, it surprised me. I would sit there thinking, this poor little booger (laughter), almost to the point of, how did he make it? I wonder what he's going to do next. And it was me, of course. It was me, of course.

BALABAN: What ultimately saved a teenage Gary Paulsen was the library.

PAULSEN: And it became a sanctuary for me. The librarian - she watched me for a while. I was kind of this urchin, you know, a street urchin. Then she finally said, you want something? I said, nah I'm OK. And she gave me a card and - hard to talk about it. It was a card with my name on it. And, God, nobody had given me a - anything like that. Nobody gave me anything.

BALABAN: The librarian gave him books, first one a month, then one a week. Then one day she gave him a Scripto notebook and a new number-two pencil.

PAULSEN: She said, you should write down some of your thought pictures, which I called them, you know. I said, who - for who? And she said, me. None of this would have happened except for that.

BALABAN: To this day, Paulsen doesn't know that librarian's name. She likely never knew that he would go on to write more than a hundred books. The first writing he got paid to do was for Westerns under the pen name Paul Garrison. Notice under his real name came years later, in 1986, when he won the Newbery Honor for "Dogsong." Today, Gary Paulsen has 35 million books in print. He thinks the reason he's popular with young readers boils down to honesty and his willingness to confront hard truths in his writing.

PAULSEN: It used to be when I toured a lot, I would always try to go to places like reform schools or prisons or where young people are not doing well. And I'm sitting talking to a kid once. And he had burns all over his arms. And I knew they were cigarette burns from his parents. I said, bad, huh? And it was. And he says, yeah, I want to kill them. I said, yeah, me, too (laughter). I just try to be as honest as I can about everything I say.

BALABAN: Now almost 82 years old, Paulsen writes that, no longer a boy, he lived and filled the years and saw thousands of hills and oceans and forests and mountains and cities. He's run the Iditarod and sailed to the Sea of Cortez. And he's still picking up survival stories.

PAULSEN: I have learned one thing about surviving. You should look down at the water hole before you go down there in case there are crocodiles. And I wish I had done that when I was young. It's still there - the surviving.

BALABAN: Gary Paulsen's memoir, "Gone To The Woods," is out now. Samantha Balaban, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.