If you read Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet in middle school, you might know that it received a 1988 Newbery Honor, that it’s sold a cool couple-million copies, and that the 54 days of grim survival for Brian, its adolescent hero, are based on Paulsen’s own early years.
But the man behind Hatchet isn’t just a former boy-survivalist and the author of about 200 other books. He’s also a dogsled racer, a fur trapper, a former missile-tracker, an ex-carny, and, as the The Milwaukee Journal puts it, a “purebred writer [and] drifter-drinker-On-the-Road-American-type writer, always looking for a home base.”
1. PAULSEN IS A MAN OF THE LAND.
From a young age, Gary Paulsen was rounding up his own meals in the forest, but also providing his own clothing and shelter, too. He told TeachingBooks.net in a 2010 interview, “I was raised on farms by people who didn't have Wal-Mart. They had to make their own sleds, harnesses, clothing, etc.”
2. ... AND HE'D STILL RATHER MAKE HIS OWN CLOTHES.
Even today, he prefers many homemade products to store-bought ones. “Look at Inuit clothing. Their stuff still works better than Cabela's. I've made my own parkas, mukluks, footgear, and it is good to 60 degrees below zero. All I did was copy the patterns that came down from the Inuits.”
3. HE’S A BIT OF A MISANTHROPE.
Paulsen is happy to spend his time in all kinds of landscapes—in his New Mexico “shack” or his modest Alaska compound, on his “beat-up sailboat” cruising the Pacific—so long as they’re sparsely populated or even deserted.
“I don’t have anything against individuals,” he told the New York Times in 2006. “But the species is a mess [...] The last time I was up in Santa Fe, I wasn’t there 20 minutes before I brewed up, almost slugged a tourist on the steps of my wife’s gallery [...] Now I try to be alone.” Before choosing to set up shop on the couple’s 200-acre ranch well outside of White Oaks, New Mexico, he said, they first bought a house near town, but then “a nice guy, a neighbor, came over to say hi.” He added, “It was too close.”
4. HE’S ALSO A LUDDITE
Paulsen chooses bows over guns for his sustenance hunting and trapping, and mentioned during a 2007 New York Public Library online forum that he’s not a fan of technology and doesn’t “believe in email” (and then some): “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,” he said during the live chat. “And here we are. ;-)”
5. PAULSEN HATES AUTHORS, BUT LOVES ROSA PARKS...
When asked about his favorite authors, Paulsen told NYPL online audiences:
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!
6. HATCHET AND OTHER BOOKS ARE BASED ON PAULSEN’S OWN LIFE
The 54 days 13-year-old Hatchet protagonist Brian Robeson spends in the Canadian wilderness are based on Paulsen’s own late childhood and adolescence. During that time, he frequently “fostered” himself in the woods away from his parents, whose rocky marriage made Paulsen’s young life unhappy. Among other things, that meant he needed to find his own food, often by extending its definition. In his 2001 non-fiction work Guts: The True Stories Behind ‘Hatchet’ and the Brian Books, Paulsen talks foraging and scavenging (and goes beyond comparatively tasty mouthfuls of grubs) in the chapter “Eating Eyeballs and Guts or Starving: The Fine Art of Wilderness Nutrition," pointing out that hunger is “the best sauce.”
7. ... INCLUDING THE PLANE CRASH AND THE MOOSE ATTACK.
The plane crash that dumps Brian alone in the wilderness is a throwback to Paulsen’s early life, too. As a younger man, he was in two forced landings (but not crashes) in bush planes like Brian’s. He told NYPL chatters, “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.”
8. PAULSEN’S SNOW CAVE EXPERIENCE CAME IN HANDY.
While writing Brian's Winter, which “imagined what it would have been like if Brian had not gotten rescued [at Hatchet’s end] and had to live through the winter,” Paulsen disagreed with his editors, who told him he couldn’t “have Brian sleeping in a snow cave because he would die,” and argued his point from personal experience: “I told them, ‘No, I've been in snow caves. It's okay.’ I was trying to tell them that snow caves are safe for one night. You've got to move every day, because the ice starts to melt over your head."
9. BUT HE NEVER (SUCCESSFULLY) ATE TURTLE EGGS.
Paulsen has explained in interviews that he made a point of trying out certain exploratory acts of Brian’s to make sure they’d be safe for adventurous young readers. One area where Brian succeeded but the author failed, however, was in eating raw turtle eggs. Paulsen tried to do so but couldn’t keep them down, he said. However, he found it reasonable that Brian, being much hungrier than the author was at the time, would have managed.
10. YOUNG FANS LOVED PAULSEN’S TRUE TALES SO MUCH THAT HE WROTE A WHOLE ‘BRIAN’ SERIES.
After Hatchet, Paulsen packed four more books with survival stories from his own life: The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian's Return, and Brian's Hunt. He told NYPL audiences, “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.”
Over the course of the ‘Brian Saga,’ Paulsen addresses starvation, braving the elements, living in winter snowdrifts, moose attacks, and countless other challenges. In 2003’s Brian’s Hunt, the author expanded the series’ repertoire “with a bear attack where they kill people.” He explained, “Bears have good press, but they'll kill and eat you in a New York minute, to use the phrase.”
11. SOME OF PAULSEN’S BOOKS TAKE YEARS TO WRITE, BUT HATCHET ONLY TOOK FOUR MONTHS.
In his 200 or so published books, Paulsen has covered woodland living but also cancer, small town- and big city-life, slavery, Victorian-era hardship, Martin Luther King, Jr., careers in airports, and children’s executions, among other topics. When the subject matter isn’t among his varied personal experiences, his research process is extensive; he told TeachingBooks, “When I'm writing, I crank all day [and] might do research for three years to get to that level.”
However, he explained that writing his most famous book was a different story: “[When] I wrote Hatchet, it only took me four months to write it. But I lived it; I was in the woods for years.”
12. HE’S A CHAMPION OF KIDS, AND OF TELLING THEM HARD TRUTHS...
Above all else, Paulsen tells it like it is. As reviewer Roger Sutton said of Paulsen’s nonfiction work Guts, for example, “He is absolutely candid about the dangers of the wild (such as his eyewitness account of a little boy killed by a young deer) and the consequences of hunger (‘I have eaten grub worms wrapped in fresh dandelion greens’).” Paulsen explained to TeachingBooks that he shares stories of others’ hardships and his own “So [kids will] know. There's so much that we don't tell them, especially with films. I just want them to know about art, life, and death with as much honesty as I can."
And while he’s successfully written for adults, Paulsen’s primary goal as a writer is to tell kids about the world; he told the Sauk Centre Herald, "Adults have too many distractions; car payments, jobs, divorce. They just can't pay attention. Young people have hope and can still benefit from what you write."
13. ...AND HATCHET MAY HAVE ACTUALLY HELPED A STRANDED BOY TO SURVIVE.
As The Baltimore Sun reported, 12-year-old Michael Auberry became separated from his camping group in 2007 and survived in the North Carolina wilderness alone for four days—a feat his father credited, in part, to Michael’s having spent a few weeks reading Hatchet when he was younger.