Gary Paulsen is no stranger to the wilderness. Works such as his seminal Hatchet (1987) have entranced many young people with descriptions of the desolate and daunting but enchanting world of nature. With his latest, This Side of Wild (S. & S., Sept, 2015), Paulsen explores pivotal experiences in his own life, such as running the Iditarod sled dog race; highlights some of the most memorable animals he has known; and muses on nature.
You’ve written numerous fiction and nonfiction works. Is there a difference in how you approach memoir vs. novels?
To me they’re almost the same. I’m just trying to tell the best story I can, to make the words dance.
Stories of the animals and the wilderness seem to resonate with young people. What is it about these sort of books that so attract readers? And what is it that has attracted you to the subject?
The wilderness to me has always been a sanctuary, and I think books present the same feeling to young readers. I think young people are intrigued by animals for the same reason I was—animals are honest. And they are very good friends.
You’ve often been called a storyteller, and in this book, it feels as though you’re directly addressing readers. Do you consider yourself more a storyteller than a writer?
Yes, I do, I really do. I put bloody skins on my back to tell what the hunt was like. People have been telling stories since the days of the cavemen. That’s who we are, who we as humans have always been—we are [creatures] who tell stories to one another.
Though you describe many of the animals, especially the dogs, with their own motivations and personalities, you tend to avoid anthropomorphizing them, and there’s always a sense of respect for nature that permeates your writing. Is that something you consciously cultivate?
Yes, it is. Humans are the only creatures who save their knowledge extra-genetically, and the way we’ve chosen to do that is through print. [Animals] do that through their genes and the habits that they try to teach one another. That’s fascinating, and I try to honor them and the way they are without trying to make them something they’re not.
In one of the stories, you talk about working as a proofreader before you became an author. How did you make the transition to writing?
I asked a couple of the editors at the magazine to teach me how to write. They said they would but only if I wrote an article, a chapter, or a short story every night—so I had to turn in three pieces on Monday morning. If I missed one day, they wouldn’t work with me again. They tore me apart, editorially, every day, but the discipline and their demands and expectations made me a better writer.
You describe running the Iditarod for a second time, at age 67. What drew you back?
To me, it was like an unfinished symphony. It still is. I miss it terribly. I can never run it again, I know that now, and it’s a great loss. This primitive exaltation of being one with the dogs is something I would be a part of every single day if I could. I would run dogs till I died if I could.
Dogs seem to be a theme throughout your work. Would you say that dogs are the animals with which you’ve had the strongest bonds?
Dogs have saved my life, literally saved my life, and continue to do so, emotionally and spiritually and intellectually. I’d be nothing without the dogs. I’d be dead without the dogs—going back to my childhood and when I was hunting and trapping on a dogsled to feed my family, and then when I was running the Iditarod—and even now when I walk in the mountains each morning with my dog Gib.
Do you have a favorite place?
The wilderness—the desert, mountains, the sea, the woods, the Alaskan wilds, pretty much anywhere outside where I am alone. I live in a shack in the New Mexico mountains. I have no human neighbors, but I always see bear and mountain lion tracks on my property. Deer and elk and wild turkeys have been on my porch, looking in the glass windows as they pass by. And there are some snakes that live under the steps out back.
Can you share what you’ve got planned next?
Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat, a short novel, and a one-act play, will come out this spring. Fishbone’s Song, a kind of history, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, told through the eyes of a boy raised by an old, old, old man in the Kentucky woods, will be released in fall 2016. And I’m working on a couple other books, books about the hard things about growing up that were not pretty, which led to beauty or at least salvation when I was younger.
This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.