Grumpy Old Man and the Sea: Adventures With Gary Paulsen

Life Lessons from the toughest, hardest, foulest-mouthed children’s author on earth. *Parental guidance suggested.

hatchet gary paulsen old man interview

    Photo: Daniel D. Snyder/AP Images/Bradb

“When I’m ready to go, I’ll just drop over the side. The sharks can finish me off.”

I COULDN'T HAVE WISHED for better conditions: the sun was shining, the breeze was fresh, and the meaty hand on the tiller belonged to Gary Paulsen, among the manliest authors in the world. Who better to cruise the waters off the California coast with than a sailor planning to round Cape Horn alone? Who better to entrust my life to than an outdoorsman with 27,000 miles of dog mushing under his belt, a man who could pilot a plane, resuscitate a heart, navigate through Arctic storms, turn rabbit skins into winter garments, whittle his own bows and arrows, and, crucially—if we were to wreck on a deserted island—make a fire with only a hatchet and a rock?

It was that small ax that sucked me into Paulsen’s orbit in the first place. My young daughter and I had recently read Hatchet, his famous 1987 novel about a 13-year-old plane-crash survivor, then ripped through its four follow-ups. Likely the most prolific young-adult author of all time, Paulsen has written more than 200 books since the mid-sixties, which together have sold more than ten million copies. Just this month he came out with Vote, the fourth book in a series about a charming teenage prevaricator, which appeared only four months after Road Trip, about a father and son’s madcap journey to rescue a border collie, which came out just seven months after Crush… you get the picture. Paulsen has published about two books a year for the past decade—mostly lighthearted romps written to pay the bills. But the body of his work, those loners-in-nature sufferfests, have made him a hero to every child in thrall to the literature of survival.

Hatchet starts at 4,000 feet, when the pilot of a small plane succumbs to a fatal heart attack. With fuel running low, the panicked 13-year-old in the copilot’s seat crash-lands on a remote Canadian lake. He struggles to the water’s surface, passes out on shore, and awakens to assess his situation. Materials on hand: just a hatchet. The story of how Brian Robeson endures the next 54 days—how he finds shelter, crafts weapons, kills animals for food and warmth, and learns to make fire—became a bestseller. The novel won a prestigious Newbery Honor Award, for runners-up to the Newbery Medal, and despite the current Y.A. vogue for wizards, vampires, and dystopian futures, it continues to rotate heavily through classrooms.

I’d put Paulsen on a hardcore pedestal long before we met, because I knew that nearly everything Brian does in Hatchet, the author, who is 74, has done in real life. And much more: in just three phone conversations with Paulsen last spring, I learned of his epic runs on Harleys, his bar fights and moose fights, the close calls with frostbite, the storms and starvation, his runaway horses and run-ins with the law. The dude was tough. (And chatty.) Just trying to arrange a face-to-face interview turned into a feat of endurance.

Should we rendezvous at his hideous plastic house in Willow, Alaska? Out of the question: marauding moose. Moreover, the last journalist he invited onto his dogsled ended up with a broken arm, a fist-size cranial hematoma, and temporary amnesia.

Then there was his New Mexico ranch. “We could camp,” I suggested, thinking of Paulsen’s Tucket series, about a boy and his mare alone on the Oregon Trail. “You can show me how to make fire or whittle a spear.”

“I don’t camp anymore,” he said.

“Just a hike then?”

“My knees are shot.”

Paulsen considered. “You know, it’s very muddy and windy in New Mexico now. This kind of wind can peel the paint right off a tank.”

“Huh,” I said. Once, Paulsen was in an Alaskan storm so ferocious, he claimed, that the winds “blew his sled dogs over his head.” On another run, the wind “blew so hard at times it would suck your eyelids away from the eyeball and put snow inside.”

That left his sailboat, a 31-foot cutter named Reunion, which he docked in Southern California at a marina I can’t name (“Too many fans will show up”). Since at least 1997, Paulsen had been talking about his next—or final, depending on his mood—great adventure: sailing single-handed around Cape Horn. Now, all of a sudden, the trip seemed imminent. Paulsen just needed to do a little bit of work on the boat, then he’d run to Hawaii on a shakedown cruise before heading south—big south—in the fall. If I wanted to meet the man, now was my chance.

I hoped there would be enough wind for us to sail.

“I SHAVED FOR YOU,” Paulsen said when we met at his hotel, taking off his billed cap and running his hand around the gray bristles that circumscribe his basketball-size head. He’d also installed on his sailboat a new sleeping bag, a new towel, and a new bucket for me to vomit in. It was hard not to like a guy who showed such consideration.

Paulsen was dressed, as he would be for the next three days, in black Carhartt overalls and a black long-sleeved T-shirt—half hipster, half biker. “Are you hungry?” he asked. My thoughts immediately turned to the exalted morsels of Dogsong (1985), in which Eskimo children tuck into meat that’s “red and had coarse texture and rich yellow fat. All over the children’s faces and in their hair the grease shone and they were happy with it.” Instead we headed toward a seaside restaurant, where the author had a standing order of white rice, veggies, and tofu, hold the veggies. He ordered one of the roughly eight Diet Pepsis he consumes daily.

The meal was surprisingly anemic, but Paulsen compensated with juicy narrative, free-associating from his childhood (“My parents were fucking awful”) to his ailing (and since deceased) mother-in-law (“She hates my guts”) to how animals, over and over again, saved his life. Literally, in the sense that deer fed him when the fridge was empty and sled dogs refused to pull him across thin ice. And metaphorically, when he was in the Army, building warheads that he knew were “gonna just fuck up the block,” and a Weimaraner eased his soul by listening patiently to his doubts.

Unlike dogs, humans have almost always let Paulsen down, starting with his birth in 1939. His father, Oscar: away in the war. His mother, Eunice: a glamorous-looking, round-heeled alcoholic. When a drunk tried to molest four-year-old Gary, she kicked him to death in the alley behind their Chicago apartment. At the age of seven, Gary sailed with Eunice on a Navy troop ship to meet up with Oscar, stationed outside Manila. Crossing the Pacific, the pair watched as a transport plane ditched in the ocean and sharks consumed the women and children swimming for the safety of lifeboats. Paulsen tells these tales, some of which seem beyond fabulous, in his 1993 memoir, Eastern Sun, Winter Moon, which chronicles the first nine years of his life.

Ensconced in a Philippine military compound, Gary escaped his authoritarian, alcoholic father and his philandering mother by tooling around Manila on a bike with the hired houseboy. Once, they crept into a cave filled with cadavers being eaten by rats “as big as small dogs.” On another outing, he visited a prison where American POWs had been burned to death with flamethrowers. Soldiers guarding Paulsen’s compound routinely shot intruders, and the young housemaid, traumatized by the Japanese, routinely sought solace by pulling young Gary into her bed.

Instead of learning to read, Gary played in a downed Mitsubishi Zero and fought in the streets. During a typhoon, he saw a metal roof fly off a building and slice a man in half. His legs continued in one direction, Paulsen remembers, while his head and shoulders pivoted to watch. Other highlights of this period include biting his tongue almost in half, nearly drowning, and watching his houseboy chop the head off a 12-foot snake that had just eaten the neighbor’s pet monkey.

How could so many remarkable things happen to one small boy? I was starting to wonder. But Gary’s adventures were only beginning. In 1949, Oscar Paulsen was restationed in Washington, D.C.—a disaster for the preteen Gary, who had few social skills, couldn’t stand being cooped up, and could barely read. Discharged a couple of years later, Oscar moved the family to Thief River Falls, Minnesota, where they ran a chicken farm. Eunice, trying to counter her son’s slide into juvenile delinquency, frequently shipped him off to rural farms, where kindly Norwegian uncles put him to work: harnessing draft horses, plowing, repairing fences. Gary learned to hunt and trap and, crucially, discovered that the woods were a sanctuary, a place where he was, fundamentally, OK. To avoid his parents, he slept in the woods or in the boiler room of his apartment building. To fill his belly, he hunted with a rifle and a handmade bow and arrow. He lived off of rabbit, grouse, beaver, and deer, which sometimes took him days to drag home, propped on his rattletrap bike.

As a young teen, Paulsen labored for minuscule wages in beet fields and on wheat farms. At 15, he traveled with a carnival. But the wilderness pulled at him. Every cold night on the ground, every missed shot, was a lesson for him. Spending time alone in nature transformed Paulsen, just as it would the characters he’d later invent. Toward the end of Brian’s ordeal in Hatchet, Paulsen writes, “He was not the same now—the Brian that stood and watched the wolves move away and nodded to them was completely changed.”

Paulsen appeals to young people, says Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the children’s literature research collection at the University of Minnesota, “because his characters have to solve their problems using their intelligence, working independently and making alliances. The appeal is less about nature per se than how a child can survive in a world without parents.”

“These are orphan books,” Elizabeth Bird, the New York Public Library’s youth materials collections specialist, says. “They allow no supervision. These books let you live by your wits.” And yes, they’re as much a fantasy as Hogwarts. “But with Harry Potter you know, on some level, that magic doesn’t exist. With Paulsen’s books, you could be that boy surviving in the woods.” Such stories may have new currency, she thinks, at a time when most children don’t go outside. “It’s escapism for kids with helicopter parents.”

I WAS DESPERATE to get aboard Reunion, Paulsen’s Horn-bound cutter. But the weather wasn’t promising. “It’s blowing 30 knots,” Paulsen said, staring at a supersecret military weather website he pulled up on the hotel computer. “You’ll be puking your guts out.”

“I’ve got Dramamine,” I said.

“With this wind, it would take three days to tack back.”

Who was I to argue? We climbed into Paulsen’s Camry and cruised the coast, poking into a boatyard here, a beach parking lot there. Engine idling, Paulsen looked at the waves, the fluttering flags, a digital forecast that scrolls across a brick building. A hibiscus blossom ripped from a shrub and streaked across the parking lot, and suddenly, a trash-can lid took flight, headed for open water. I dashed to intercept it, and Paulsen asked, derisively, “What did you do that for?”

“Maybe we can find a place to rent a boat and do some inland paddling,” I said, picturing the nearby river that wound, through willows and cattails, down to the sea.

“We’re not gonna do that,” he said.

“Why not? I’ll paddle you.” I was thinking of his knees and his three hernias.

 “There are scary people in there,” he said. “Homeless druggies.”

 I was confused. First it was the wind, then the moose, then the mud around his New Mexico ranch. Now the homeless. Was Paulsen just being protective of me? Or was he perhaps contemptuous of my interest in outdoor recreation? In Paulsen’s world, nature isn’t a theme park to be enjoyed for its own sake. It’s cruel or indifferent, a source of salvation or a potential killer. But it’s never just “fun.”

I dropped the subject, and this minor emotional storm lifted. “This isn’t the real world,” Paulsen mused as we drove on, inspecting the waves from various angles. He was referring to the bike paths that looped all around, the boats bobbing in the harbor: it was all too easy. The real world is when you “go inside the diamond”—Paulsen-speak for getting slammed for three days in a violent storm at Point Conception, puking those aforementioned guts out, your useless mate tied to the mast. The real world is getting moose stomped on the Iditarod, bleeding into your bunny boots at minus 40 degrees, the wind so strong it could…

“I’ve gotta get some gas,” Paulsen said, pulling into a service station. “You want a Coke or something?” He filled the tank and went inside. When he returned with a brace of Diet Pepsis, he was scowling.

“Fuckers wanted to charge me ten cents for a bag,” he said, dumping his fix in the backseat.

PAULSEN DIDN'T WRITE his breakout novels, Dogsong and Hatchet, until he was in his forties. But their clarity of tone and specificity owed everything to the crucible of his brutal youth. At 17, Paulsen had had enough of mom and dad. He forged his father’s signature and enlisted in the Army. The experience was hateful, but it honed Paulsen’s electrical-engineering skills so that he could, upon discharge in 1962, track satellites in the California and New Mexico deserts for Lockheed and then Bendix. Until the day he suddenly quit, that is, and split for Hollywood—leaving behind his wife of three years and two children, Lynn and Lance—to become a writer. Why? “I just had to,” he told me. “I didn’t know anything about it. I wanted to write.”

Paulsen was 26. He hired on at a company that published girly magazines, but his bosses quickly realized he couldn’t actually write. And so every Friday night, Paulsen bought three editors martinis in exchange for their critiques of assignments he’d given himself: fiction, nonfiction, essays. This same determination and focus would come into play whether Paulsen was learning to live off the land, run dogs, sail single-handed, or motorcycle long distances.

His articles were eventually published, and he wrote for a few TV shows. “But I started liking the life,” he says, “even while I realized it was full of phonies and people jacking each other up.” Within a year he bolted again, heading for northern Minnesota with his second wife, Pam, in tow.

Back in the woods, Paulsen fished and trapped. A neighbor gave him some dogs and a broken-down sled: he learned to run a team, which allowed him to expand his trap lines by 20 miles. While the dogs rested in the snow, he wrote. Two books found publishers. Fancying himself successful, he left Pam and moved to Taos, New Mexico, to be among the artists. But instead of writing, Paulsen—like his parents—drank.

For six years, he picked bar fights, almost always losing. His marriage broke up. Standing in line at the post office, Paulsen met the artist Ruth Wright, whom he’d eventually marry: “I was like Quasimodo; she was a stocky Mary Tyler Moore.” The couple moved back to northern Minnesota, where Paulsen started attending 12-step meetings and writing—a lot. During the 1970s, he produced as many as seven books a year: westerns, mysteries, how-to’s. The couple had a son by then, Jim. Ruth painted and tended four vegetable gardens. “It was a beautiful life,” she remembers. “It was a fun adventure every day.” All the while, Paulsen continued to trap, running ever longer under starry nights in the bitter cold. Inevitably, Alaska beckoned.

In 1983, Paulsen entered his first Iditarod, finishing 41st, and in 1985 tried again but pulled out early due to injury. (He started again in 2006, at the age of 65, but after his sled hit a gate at mile 85, opening a vein, he scratched.) These trips weren’t a total bust, though: on Paulsen’s first Iditarod, he conceived of the novel that would kick-start his career. Dogsong features 14-year-old Russel Susskit, who travels for months in the Alaskan wilderness with little more than a dog team, a killing lance, and the trance-induced advice of an elderly Inuit. The novel is characterized by rhythmic sentences that loop and repeat à la Hemingway: “The man kept his back to Russel but Russel knew why and didn’t care. He knew that he was the man, knew it and let that knowledge carry him into the man.”

Dogsong won a Newbery Honor and put the author in turnaround. “Movie shitheads started calling,” he says. There were speeches to make. Suddenly, instead of living off of $3,000 a year, the Paulsens had $100,000. After Hatchet came out two years later, winning the second of Paulsen’s three Newbery Honors, the family moved from their remote cabin to a house with a washer and dryer, 15 miles from the small city of Bemidji. “The book changed our lives,” Jim Paulsen, a sculptor in Minnesota with two kids of his own, says today. “We had no running toilets for most of my childhood.”

Hatchet will never approach the stratospheric figures of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, which have sold 450 million and 50 million, respectively. (Paulsen has read neither series.) But this slim novel appears annually on the Publishers Weekly backlist of bestsellers, and it was recently named one of Scholastic Parent and Child magazine’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids.

“Our life didn’t change after Hatchet,” Ruth Paulsen remembers, “just our ability to pay the bills. Gary’s always been the same: nothing has changed him.”

The books and the money kept coming: so, Paulsen says, did a crooked publisher, who he alleges swindled him out of an advance, and then a lawsuit, ultimately dismissed, from a cop in his boyhood town who recognized himself in Paulsen’s Winterkill (1977). Great sums came in, and great sums went out—to lawyers and stockbrokers, for taxes and real estate. Today, Paulsen lives in relative poverty, he says, and carries some serious debt. “That’s why I keep writing. I do one or two books a year,” he says. “I can’t take time to reflect. I’m pulling a thirty-person train.”

IN THE MORNING, we sailed.

“Do you have any sunblock?” Paulsen asked me at the marina. He slathered his Scandinavian skin and shuffled around the boat, hand-folding his legs to climb down into the cabin, stocked with Hormel low-fat chili. He plugged in his electronics, I uncovered the sails, and we motored cautiously out of the harbor, aiming for the Channel Islands.

Paulsen, ever restless, had taken up sailing in the 1990s. He cruised up to Alaska, down to Mexico, and around the South Pacific islands. (During this period, he also motorcycled from New Mexico to Fairbanks, Alaska, and straight back, a road trip of 9,000 miles in less than a month.) Soon, he was dreaming about that voyage around the Horn.

On this day, however, Paulsen and I would stay just a few miles offshore, giving wide berth to an area where humpbacks were recently spotted. “They can turn a boat over,” Paulsen said, warily. I was disappointed to learn that we wouldn’t be sleeping aboard after all: any potential anchorages were dicey, Paulsen said, should the wind come around. The motor stayed on, despite the ten-knot breeze, and the auto-tiller engaged.

Hours passed, dolphins leaped, then my hero briefly shivered. “If I weren’t so tough, I’d be cold,” Paulsen said, laughing. Finally, he decided that it was safe to cut the engine. In the blessed silence, it was my turn to shiver: I was wearing four layers to his two. We watched the pelicans and the ducks. We talked about the recent spate of books about dog intelligence—“The science is all bullshit,” he said—and what Paulsen sees as the public’s misconception of wolves, due mostly to “that drunk” Farley Mowat. “Wolves do kill people, you know.”

The sun passed its zenith. A slave to those Diet Pepsis, Paulsen peed off the bow every 45 minutes. I asked if he ever made up with his parents.

“I was giving a talk in a town where my mother lay dying in the hospital,” he said. “I wouldn’t even visit her.”

And your dad? “That bastard tried to borrow money from me.” No money was lent.

My face must have registered disapproval, for Paulsen ruefully added, “Everyone likes me until I get real.”

Paulsen, it seemed to me, inhabits several different personas, depending on his milieu. He exists angrily in the built environment, which he calls unreal, and more peacefully the farther he gets from people and institutions. And then there’s the alternate world of his fiction, a place where his characters, while confronting their demons, remain nonviolent. Wise and introspective, they don’t curse or beat each other up. They often seek some purity of experience and in the process meld with nature or the object at hand—becoming the doe, the dogsled, the ironworker’s forge.

Paulsen morphs frequently between compassionate authority figure and raging bull. When a football coach invited Paulsen’s son to try out for the team, Paulsen tells me, he threatened to kill him. Football was way too dangerous a sport. Ditto with a high-school Army recruiter, and with an electric-utility clerk who tried to cut the juice for late payment. (It worked: lights on.) As recently as two years ago, Paulsen punched a man who opened his mail. “But he didn’t go down,” he told me.

This is dismaying for Paulsen, a mark of his waning strengths. He mourns not only aging out of fisticuffs and Iditarods, but also the changing social mores. “I’m going extinct,” he said. “I’m not allowed to be anymore: I open doors for women and they get mad. But if someone fucks with you, I’ll fuck them up.”

WE TACKED toward home. When Paulsen moved shakily afore to lower the mainsail, the boat rolling with the swell, I suddenly realized that he wasn’t wearing a life jacket and that we hadn’t discussed any contingency plans. Where was the life ring? The boat hook? Earlier, Paulsen had said, “When I’m ready to go, I’ll just drop over the side. The sharks can finish me off.”

But surely not any time soon?

“I think I’ve got about a year.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Accidents, health issues,” he answered vaguely. “I don’t want you to think I’m a hypochondriac.” Hardly. But I was starting to wonder how much of what Paulsen said, and has written, about himself is true. His life story has the whiff of James Frey’s Million Little Pieces or Jerzy Kosinski’s Painted Bird.

“How can I fact check some of the things that happened to you?” I asked point-blank.

“You can’t, really,” he said, unfazed. “Everyone’s dead.”

I understand that Paulsen writes fiction and that young-adult literature has a glorious tradition of exaggeration. Still, I would have been remiss if I didn’t poke around just a little. Later, I learned that planes ditching in the Pacific during wartime were not uncommon, and whitetip sharks were among the first scavengers. Guards at Clark Air Base, where his family was stationed, did indeed shoot intruders.

I checked out the Hollywood restaurant where Paulsen bought all those martinis: it existed. His three mentors? All dead. The girlie mags? Gone. Top-secret military work in the desert? Bendix, now owned by Honeywell, would neither confirm nor deny Paulsen’s gig. He did start the Iditarod three times and finish once. And that journalist who allegedly broke his arm on Paulsen’s dogsled? It’s true, the journalist told me, a bit sheepishly. “And it was entirely my fault.”

I asked Paulsen’s son, wife, literary agent, publicist, and editor, as well as a New Mexico neighbor, if they ever had reason to doubt his childhood stories. “Never,” they said, surprised by the question. “Gary is an unusual person,” Wendy Lamb, his editor, said. “But he’s consistent and true.”

“I spent time with his dad before he died, so I’d heard about the time in the Philippines,” Jim Paulsen told me. “I’ve seen photos my dad took of the sharks.” Do you think he might embellish just a little? “Not really,” Jim said. “He has an uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

 

I HAD ONE last day with Paulsen, and it didn’t look like I was going to eat yellow fat. We drove to the beach for the 47th time—Paulsen, as usual, wasn’t wearing his seatbelt—and looked at the waves. He cursed a couple for crossing the street when he wanted to make a left. “Fucking idiots.” A woman stepped into his path at a restaurant. “Stupid, rude bitch.”

Must Paulsen react so vehemently to everything? What makes him so pugnacious, so misanthropic and foul-mouthed? It’s facile to lay this behavior on his hellacious youth. I developed another theory: without any imminent threat to his life—whether from a “shit for brains” moose or an arctic blast—the stuff of everyday life must suffice. The ordinary must be heightened, for a compulsive writer of adventure fiction, into the dramatic.

In the months that followed, I checked in with Paulsen periodically. Did he train in the winter storms off Point Conception? No. Did he tune his boat and make that run to Hawaii? No. But he churned out another two books, made some public appearances, and, with work issues squared away, he was talking, once again, about setting sail for the Horn this fall.

On our last day in California, Paulsen and I ended up on a commercial whale-watching boat and got lucky with a humpback that glided alongside our hull, rolling slowly over and over. The wind tugged at Paulsen’s hood and billowed the sleeves of his foul-weather jacket. After three hours standing at the rail, I asked if he’d like to go inside. “Sure, if you want to,” he said. We sat on a banquette, facing the bow. It was warm inside the catamaran, and the thrumming of the engines and the slap of the swell against the boat was lulling. Within moments, Paulsen’s big, doughy head tilted forward onto his chest, his eyes relaxing into sleep. It occurred to me that outside, only the briskness of the wind had been holding him up.               

Elizabeth Royte is the author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash and Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.

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