Today I am thrilled to present an interview I conducted with the amazing Gary Paulsen. His newest novel, Notes from the Dog, is available in stores today. A beautiful and touching story about the impact of breast cancer and the importance of friendship and community, I can’t recommend it enough.
Mr. Paulsen, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview you. I teach 6th grade and my students are always big fans of your books- especially HATCHET and the Brian series. Notes from the Dog is a bit of a departure from those novels. What inspired this particular story?
I know people who have had cancer and there was nothing about it that wasn’t ugly and sad. I had to find a way to write about cancer that was filled with joy and beauty and hope.
Gardening plays an important part in the growing friendship between Finn and Johanna. Do you garden? If so, are you a black-thumb like Finn or more of a green thumb?
I cannot grow weeds. Gardening has never been an interest–and I hope that came through with Finn’s bewilderment and outright horror at the beginning.
Dylan seems like a great dog. I just got a new puppy myself (Australian Shepherd) and found myself laughing at Dylan a lot, comparing him to my dog. The relationship between humans and their dogs is so special, and I know my students will relate to Finn’s relationship with Dylan. Is Dylan based on a dog you own or have owned at any point in your life?
Dylan is probably parts of every dog I have ever loved. They are all smart and loving and wonderful friends. I wish I was as good a person as most dogs are dogs.
In almost all of your books, you place your characters in challenging situations, like Brian’s plane crash in HATCHET. You then let them struggle to find their way and to survive. In Notes from the Dog, Finn is struggling to survive in the everyday; he doesn’t like to socialize with people (and thinks he is terrible around “normal” people) so he avoids it at all costs. When Johanna befriends him he doesn’t even know how to react. I see this a lot with my own students and I think that’s why they identify with your wilderness survival stories- they are surviving their own trials and tribulations in everyday life. Why did you choose to have Finn struggling to survive adolescence?
I barely survived adolescence myself, especially socially; it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but I still remember not fitting in, feeling wrong, feeling isolated and ostracized and awkward. I wish I’d had a Johanna back when I was a kid.
Reluctant or dormant readers tend to flock to your books. What is your advice for kids who don’t necessarily like to read, or at least don’t like to read what a school, class, or teacher mandates?
Keep looking for the right book. For every reader, however reluctant or dormant, the right book is out there somewhere. If you don’t like novels, try nonfiction; if you think that the books are too long, find a shorter one; try fantasy, science fiction, humor, graphic novels, historical fiction, anything, everything. Pick up as many books as you can and skim until one catches your attention. I didn’t like to read when I was a kid, either, but the right book changed all that. Don’t get discouraged, don’t write off reading and books, keep looking for the right book for you. Ask your teachers and librarians and the bookstore employees–between them, there’s someone who can help you find your way to the right book.
Many of my boys struggle to get started with writing. Most of the time it’s because they feel like they can’t write what they want to write in a school setting. Violence, survival, and “gross stuff” have been looked down on by teachers for so many years. They’ve been told it’s not school appropriate or it isn’t good writing. Yet those same boys love your books because they identify with the life and death situations you describe and of course the “gross stuff” that goes hand in hand with surviving20in the wild. And who doesn’t love the idea of peeing on an electric fence?! I’m sure that’s inspired a lot of experiments, even in my east coast suburb (I’ve overheard conversations about trying the same with invisible dog fences)! Your books tell the stories those boys want to be able tell. Can you tell us a little about how you got started as a writer and what your writing routine is like today?
I wrote because I had to, I walked out of my job as an electrical engineer and apprenticed myself to writers at a magazine who taught me. I write every day. On notebooks by hand (if I’m sailing or running dogs), on my laptop wherever I am (if I’m speaking to teachers and librarians or on an airplane) or my desktop computer at home. I make sure that every day, I write for at least a part of the day. I don’t feel right in my skin if I haven’t worked every day.
I’ve read in some of your interviews that you were never really a great student. Education has been at the forefront of national news over the past few years, especially with No Child Left Behind. Do you have any advice for teachers today?
No advice, just thanks. Thank you for putting books in the hands of children. Thank you for caring so much and working so hard and helping so many.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Mr. Paulsen! One last question- can you tell us what you are working on next? What can we20look forward to?
The next book is called WOODS RUNNER and it’s historical fiction about a boy during the Revolutionary War who had to rescue his parents who’d been taken prisoner by the British. I’m working on 6 other books, some funny, some serious, some long, some short, some about girls, some about boys. I’m having the most grandly wonderful time. I’m dividing my time between my sailboat in the Pacific and my dog kennels in Alaska and I’m getting more writing done than ever, which I can’t quite understand.