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Remembering Gary Paulsen, author of 'Dogsled' and 'Hatchet'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today, we're going to remember author Gary Paulsen. He wrote about 200 books and sold about 35 million copies. The National Book Foundation described him as one of the most honored writers of contemporary literature for young people. Paulsen died last week of cardiac arrest at the age of 82.

In his New York Times obituary, Paulsen's main theme was described as mankind's violent collision with nature, often in situations in which a character - typically a teenage boy - has to learn to fend for himself in the wild. Paulsen's own life was filled with adventure and adversity. He worked as a teacher, soldier, actor, trapper and migrant farm worker. For a few years, he was addicted to alcohol and for a while lived in incredible poverty. He published his first book in 1966, and nearly 20 years later, started winning major awards. He won Newberry honors for his books "Dogsong," "Hatchet" and "The Winter Room."

Earlier this year, he published a memoir. One of the things he talked about on FRESH AIR was running the Iditarod - the 1,000-mile dog sled race across Alaska, which he did three times. We're going to hear two interviews with him today, starting with my 1992 interview, which we recorded after the publication of his book "Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass," which is about life on a small farm.


GARY PAULSEN: When I was young, living at home wasn't really fun for me because of the drinking. And except for a stint in the Philippines, most of my life was spent in northern Minnesota when I was young. And I would try and go stay with as many friends and relatives as I could to get out. I didn't like to be home. So I'd stay with an uncle for three months or six months, and they were all on small farms all across northern Minnesota and North Dakota. And I was raised on those farms. A good amount of my time - I mean, I don't know what percentage - over half, say, when I was young - was spent on farms like that. I'd just go and stay for the whole summer, you know, kind of the cousin who showed up. And I wound up - I did many of the things that are in the book. In fact, most of those things I saw or was involved in - thrashing and working with workhorse teams, raking hay with them, things like that. Even as a child, I did some of those things.

GROSS: And that was good for you?

PAULSEN: I think it was. I didn't - it's kind of an interesting dichotomy here. I didn't - it was just stultifying work. I mean, they work until they drop - you know, those people did. It was just - and they had joy and great happiness. But they also worked very hard. And mostly what I remembered for many years was the hard work.

And then as I got older, some other things in my life made me start to understand the beauty of what they had been, how those people had lived. And I started to look at the beautiful parts of it. And now I think it was a great thing for me to do. It was wonderful for me to do. But I wasn't so sure at the time. You know, shoveling wheat all day or working on a combiner threshing machine was just - you can't breathe. You know, it's dust and everything. I remember that as very hard work.

GROSS: I'd like you to read something from a recent novel for young adults called "The Cookcamp." And there's a prologue in this that I think relates to your own life. Let me ask you to read it, and then we'll talk about how autobiographical it is.

PAULSEN: (Reading) At first, his mother hired a babysitter and kept him in an apartment. But the babysitter was a crazy woman who sat and drank red wine and listen and talked to the radio soap operas all day and didn't bathe and smelled bad.

And so he was sent to live with his grandmother in the North. But even then, what happened was not to be as gentle and as smooth as that. He learned to be around the babysitter and to live with her, so his mother did not know how bad it was. And when she asked if he liked the babysitter, he shrugged and said, sometimes she makes me hot cereal. He did not add that the hot cereal was shredded wheat with hot water from the faucet poured over it and did not say how he had to drain it himself and find a spoon for himself or that the cereal came only in the afternoon when he was hungry and whined.

So his mother was fooled. And he could have stayed with her and not gone to be with his grandmother in the North woods, except for the man. The man was tall and had blonde hair like his mother's, only much shorter. He had a thick neck and full shoulders and a wide smile with large, white teeth, and his name was Casey.

Casey came home from the factory with his mother one night. You must say hello to Casey, his mother said. He is your uncle, and he's going to stay with us for a while. But of course, he was not an uncle at all. And the first night, the boy came out of the bedroom in the small apartment and saw his mother with Casey on the couch, making sounds he did not understand, but did not like - sounds he did not understand, but that made him want to not like Casey forever and ever. And his mother saw him staring at them on the couch. She put Casey away. She held the boy and cried.

And the next day, she pinned a note to his jacket and put him on a train. And he rode alone a day and a night, sleeping in a Pullman berth, and a part of another day, to get to the small town by the Canadian border, where he would meet with his grandmother, who was working as a cook for a rough crew of men building a road up into Canada. And that was the way it finally happened.

GROSS: How close was that to your story?

PAULSEN: It's exact, absolutely exact.

GROSS: So your father, I believe, worked for patent during the war.

PAULSEN: Yeah, he was on patent staff. He was an officer on patent staff.

GROSS: So your father was away during the war...

PAULSEN: I didn't...

GROSS: ...At the war?

PAULSEN: Yeah, I didn't really meet him to know him until I was seven years old. I was born in '39, and that's when the - when it all started, really. And he was, from that time on, involved in wars as a military man. And I didn't - I mean, I met him and saw him, but not really - you know, I didn't remember him at all.

GROSS: And your mother went to work at a munitions plant in Chicago?

PAULSEN: Yeah, she went to work in Chicago and then later in Minneapolis, too.

GROSS: And you think she left because she was bored?

PAULSEN: Mother worked all the time. She was a hard worker. And I think perhaps she thought the money would be nice, but we didn't really need it because of the money coming from father - the allotments and stuff. Well, I mean, it was nice to have, I'm sure. But I think part of it was that she just didn't want to sit in an apartment all the time. She was very party-oriented. And even - many nights I would go to this bar in Chicago with her called the Cozy Corners (laughter). I remember the name. And she would drink beer and dance with different men and one thing and another. And I would stand on bar stools and sing, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey. And people would buy me dinner - fried chicken and Coke.

GROSS: You know, in the section that you just read, the mother sends the son off on the train with a little note pinned to his lapel for the Pullman porter to read. Did you have a note pinned to you?

PAULSEN: Yeah, I did, all the way from Chicago. I mean, you couldn't do that now. But then you could. And she put me on a train in Chicago and told the conductors and the Pullman porters to take care of me, and they did. And I changed trains in Minneapolis. And in Minneapolis, I rode north all the way up to the North woods, where my grandmother was. And I was fed and taken care of by the porters, and they would watch over me. It was really - it's a very caring thing, the way it was.

GROSS: So was your grandmother a cook for a road crew?

PAULSEN: She was. She was just - at that time, she was a widow. She remained a widow, I mean, from then on. But at that time, she was, I suppose, in her 50s - yeah, in her 50s. And she had already become, in her own mind, old, in a way, you know? And so she did those things that were not young-womanish anymore. You know, she wore her hair in a bun, different things like that. But she cooked for these guys. And these guys kind of adopted me. She cooked for many different people in her life. She cooked for Norwegian bachelor farmers. And I went to live with her then, too, one summer.

GROSS: She must have been a pretty tough lady.

PAULSEN: Oh, God, she was wonderful. She was just incredible. I took my son back to her. In fact, I think that's in "The Cookcamp," too. My son, who is now 23 - I took him back, and she stole him completely in about a minute.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSEN: I mean, he got up in her lap. He was 4, I think. And I envied him. I envied him being in her lap. And she asked me - she says, you still writing them books? You have to - first have to back up. She's a Norwegian. She was a Norwegian. And I am Swede, Dane and Norwegian, by - you know, my father was Danish and Swedish, so it mixed in. So she asked me with my son sitting in her lap - she says, you still writing them books? And I said, yeah. That's the Swede in you. (Laughter) She thought I ought to be a farmer. She wanted me to do something honorable. And she wasn't too sure about writing them books.

GROSS: Well, living this kind of active life of living in other people's - living on other people's farms and living with different relatives, did you read?

PAULSEN: I didn't. I was a poor student. At first, I flunked the ninth grade, pretty much. I had to take it over and probably graduated from high school with, like, a D-minus. I mean, I was a really miserable student. And a librarian turned me on to reading when I was about 15. And we didn't have television. And I read to escape. I would hide in the basement of this kind of apartment we were living in when they were drunk. And they were drunk all the time. They drank every day.

GROSS: Your parents.

PAULSEN: Yeah. And I would go down to this basement and hide from them. And around back of the furnace, there was an old easy chair with wires sticking up through the springs and a single light hanging from the ceiling, with the filament showing in the bulb. I'll never forget that corner. And I would hide down there and read and - as an escape, mostly. And then after a while, I got to where I read more and more. And then it became totally obsessive.

GROSS: What kind of books would you read?

PAULSEN: At first, I think it was Westerns and adventure stories and different things. But this librarian, she'd slip in a Melville every once in a while and, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSEN: Or Moby Dick 'cause it was really great because I think everything that has happened to me - and I've been very lucky - everything - and I'm extremely grateful. I'm not at all arrogant about my success. Anyway, the things that have happened to me largely go back to that moment that that woman turned me on to reading - that librarian. None of this would have existed without that.

GROSS: From what you've said, what disturbed you most about your parents and what was most upsetting as a child was your parents drinking?


GROSS: But you became a drinker yourself.

PAULSEN: Yeah. I started when I was - in fact, I fought it for a long time. And I was - you know, I just hated it. I swore that I'd never drink. And I got to be about 26, and I hit it just like a baby with a bottle. And by the time I was - you know, within three years or four years, I was a full-blooded alcoholic - if you can be, you know, a full blood. But anyway, I was into all the things - blackouts and the whole works. And I drank for six years total. And in those six years, until I was 31, I got to do everything. I mean, I really did. I got to do all the drunken things that people do - blackouts and paranoia and remorse and got to see a couple of jails and - oh, all the things that the drunks do. And then I sobered up in '73. And I have not drank since - or drunk since.

GROSS: When did the writing start?

PAULSEN: It started about the time I started to drink, oddly enough. And I published a couple of books right away. And then the drinking kind of took over, and I didn't write much for about five years, four years. And then when I sobered up, I started again. I mean, I wrote, but it was pitiful, you know, through that drinking. And when I started to write again in '73, it was about 2 1/2 years when it just seemed impossible. And then '75, I started selling little things here and there and stayed with it. And I've been working - writing ever since - working at it.

GROSS: Now, I know you went through a period of several years when you were very, very poor, living in the woods.

PAULSEN: About 17 of them, yeah.

GROSS: Wow. Yeah.

PAULSEN: I - we had 17 years of way below poverty. I mean - and we didn't take any money from the state. So we lived - we had four gardens and a few goats. And we lived up in the north woods. And then I got into sled dogs (laughter). And I wound up running the Iditarod twice - went up and ran that thing. And all of that seemed to just be part of that set piece of life - about a 10-year period.

GROSS: Did that period overlap with the drinking, or was this after?

PAULSEN: No, it was way after the drinking. I'd been sober 10 years when - and working kind of construction, different things for 10 years. And then we wound up in Minnesota. And that's where real poverty set in. I mean, we really went broke up there.

GROSS: Now, why did you go broke? Was it because you were just trying to write full time...

PAULSEN: Yeah, I couldn't...

GROSS: ...And you weren't selling much?

PAULSEN: I couldn't sell much. And after a while, I just realized that I would have trouble working. I would, you know, be a roofer or a truck driver or a construction - all those were fine. But when you come home after a day like that, it's just hard to write. You're just wrecked. I mean, I would be so tired. And I realized that if - I was going to have to just live and write. And so we found a way to live without money in northern Minnesota. I mean, we lived on a hundred dollars a month total and existed that way, with gardens and doing all our own food - canning. We had goats. We did - I got really good at cheddar cheese.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSEN: I make really good cheese. And we hunted. I hunted. And we grew some of our own meat - hogs and beef and stuff. But we lived without money. We farmed, actually, is what we did. We had a small farm. We stayed alive on it.

GROSS: And that was changed when your books started to sell?

PAULSEN: Yeah, as a matter of fact, it was a strange thing. I ran the Iditarod in '83. And something happened in the Iditarod that made me think of a book called "Dogsong." It was - an Eskimo boy asked me to teach him about dogs. And I thought then of a book about an Eskimo boy using a dog team to find his heritage. And I wrote the book, and then it won a Newbery honor. And that kind of - everything took off then.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded in 1992 with writer Gary Paulsen. He died last week at age 82. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1992 interview with author Gary Paulsen. He died last week at age 82. He was best known for his young adult novels about adventure and survival. He had plenty of adventures himself, including running the Iditarod, the thousand-mile dog sled race across Alaska. When we spoke, he was working on his memoir "Winterdance: The Fine Madness Of Running The Iditarod." It was published two years later.


GROSS: You can explain to me, a non-adventurer (laughter), what is so thrilling about the Iditarod?

PAULSEN: It's insane to do it. I'm working on a book about it now. And it's like writing about madness. My wife says you got to kind of crank your IQ down to about 13.

GROSS: (Laughter) Why?

PAULSEN: But I think - there's also a cliche that says no marriage survives three Iditarods. And it's maybe not accurate in my case. But it does put a strain on your life. What happens is you become a cave painting. You go back thousands and thousands of years. The dogs don't know that it's high-tech. They don't understand technology. And so to run those dogs, to bond with them the right way, you have to become very primitive in your mind. I'm not talking about macho crap here now, but I'm talking about becoming purely human, truly human, without the modern trappings. And that is - becomes a very desirable state. It still is. I miss it terribly.

GROSS: What does that mean? What kind of state is this?

PAULSEN: Kind of a primitive exaltation. You begin to realize what's very important in your life, and it isn't how you look, and it's not money, and it's not - you just understand the basics of what you're doing, of breathing, of living, of thinking, of reacting to the nature. I think part of it is we have lost - in fact, that's part of the reason for "Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass" - is that we've lost the bond with the Earth that we need. And farming and the race are similar in that they reestablish that bond. It has to be there. When you run dogs, you cannot run them like a snow machine, you know? You have to understand that they are dogs, are very primitive, and you have to go back to that earlier bond, and farming is the same, I think.

GROSS: I find it interesting that somebody as verbal as you, both as a speaker and as a writer, would spend all this time in a completely non-verbal situation.

PAULSEN: (Laughter) I got over 20,000 maybe 22,000 miles on sleds. And most of that time, you're silent. You don't say anything 'cause the dogs don't need you to talk much. And it's interesting because I became - I lusted after it, the solitude. I just loved it. I wrote all the time I ran dogs. So when you train dogs, you run, say, four hours on and four off. And you just stop wherever you are and build a fire or sit on a snow bank. And I had notebooks with me, and I would write. I tried a laptop for a while, but the batteries got cold, and they don't work when they're cold.


PAULSEN: I really did. I tried. About 10 below, you're done with a laptop. It won't work after that, and close to zero, even, is kind of rough. They don't like it much.

GROSS: What's the most awful or frightening part of running the Iditarod?

PAULSEN: The hallucinations become really mean about the third night, and deciding what's real and what isn't real becomes kind of a nightmare in some cases. I mean, I had - at one time, I thought my whole team was on fire. And I was out throwing snow on them, trying to put them out. They thought I was nuts. God, they just couldn't understand what I was doing, you know? But I'd seen light flicking from the snow, from their feet. In the light from my headlamp, and I focused on it, and it got more and more. And then it started to look like little fires on their feet. And then the whole team went up, and I stopped, and I ran up, and I was screaming, you know? God, I said, you're on fire. And I was throwing snow, and I'm trying to put them out.

GROSS: When did you figure out it was just a hallucination?

PAULSEN: It just lasted like, I don't know, a minute, something like that.

GROSS: Where do the hallucinations come from?

PAULSEN: From sleep deprivation. You simply don't sleep for the race. And you kind of catch dozes here and there, but you really don't sleep. And by the third night, everybody's wonky. I mean, it's really - from about midnight to about 6 in the morning is just a fright. It's just incredible. That's the best time to run 'cause the dogs are - it's cooler, and they like to run at night. And so you run during that time, but your brain is just fried, you know, and you - I had this guy with a trench coat sitting in my sled for hour after hour, and he had a clipboard. He was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and he talked about government educational grants. He was the most boring human being in the world. And I had this bastard on my sled night after night.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSEN: God, I was ready to kill him. And he would sulk. I would yell at him. I'd say shut up for God's sake, and he'd sulk for about a mile. He'd (laughter) It's the most incredible thing.

GROSS: When you were doing the Iditarod, would you take a book with you?

PAULSEN: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: What would you take?

PAULSEN: I worked every day, too. I really did. I had a notebook. I wrote.

GROSS: What would you read?

PAULSEN: I took - I know you want me to say Jack London. I don't think people like Jack London ever ran dogs. He didn't know what he was talking about mostly, but - which is kind of sad 'cause he was a good writer. But I took philosophy. I would take historical works - like, study the first century, that kind of thing. Sometimes when the dogs were resting and you couldn't sleep - and you get to where you don't sleep very well. You can't sleep. You sit with your eyes open. I would read something - you know, just short pieces, a half a page or a page. And then I wrote too. A lot of the writing was incoherent, though. I would look at it later and think, my God, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSEN: Just scrawled across the paper.

GROSS: This was the same time that you were hallucinating.

PAULSEN: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Exactly. God, once I came into the village at night, and I could see people all over on snow machines. They were waving at me and yelling at me, and I was trying to turn my dogs up to in between these two cabins. There were lights in the windows, and I could see people inside eating at their table in the windows. And I blinked, and it was all gone. It was all hallucination, the whole thing, and it was really complex. I mean, God, I could - you know, snow machines were going by me. Guys offered me a beer. You know, it's just incredible.

GROSS: Is this at all useful to you as a writer to hallucinate?

PAULSEN: I don't think so, no. I don't think - it was an interesting study in maybe a kind of temporary madness, but - maybe that's what the Iditarod is. And what's really sick is I'd be doing it still.

GROSS: If not for?

PAULSEN: My heart. I would have gone again. I'd have gone last year, the year before, and I'd be going this year. It's just - it just grips you. It just does, and it - nobody who runs that is ever the same again.

GROSS: My interview with Gary Paulsen was recorded in 1992. He died last week. After we take a short break, we'll hear more about his experiences running the Iditarod as we listen back to an interview from 1994, after he published his memoir about the race. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On today's show, we're remembering author Gary Paulsen. He died last week at the age of 82. His over 200 books sold about 35 million copies. Mostly, he wrote books for young adults about adventure and survival, including the books "Dogsong," "Hatchet" and "The Winter Room," which each won a Newbery honor for children's literature. But he also wrote books for adults. In 1994, two years after the interview we just heard, he published the memoir "Winterdance" about his first time running the Iditarod, the over-1000-mile dog sled race across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. He ran it three times. At one point, he had as many as 91 dogs. When the memoir was published, Paulsen talked about the Iditarod with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane, who hosts the popular show Radio Times on WHYY, where we produce FRESH AIR. In his interview with Marty, he elaborated on why he decided to run the race.


PAULSEN: (Laughter) It was not sane. I had been completely shattered financially. My wife and I, we went broke in Colorado. And we went to Minnesota to live in the woods and live off the land. And I started trapping for the state and for myself. I mean, it was a job. And Minnesota had a law that said you couldn't use a four-wheeler or a snow machine for trapping, so I was on foot. We didn't have a car. But somebody also knew that there was a statement in the law that says you could use a dog team. So somebody who'd heard about me, they gave me four older dogs and a busted sled, which I fixed up. And I started using them for transportation. In fact, I got an Army training manual called "Transportation, Dog, One Each."


PAULSEN: And - honest to God, honest to God. And it was invaluable. It tells you, I mean, how to take care of them and how to do things, when to water them. I mean, just basics, you know, that a lot of people don't know.

MOSS-COANE: When you were out running with these dogs and trapping and working together, was that when the idea of the Iditarod came to you?

PAULSEN: Well, what happened was I came off a long run. I'd been on the trapline. And I'd quit trapping because I don't - I decided that it was not correct to kill animals. And I'm not going to get into a big controversial thing, but for me, it's not the right thing to do. I can't - I'm a vegetarian now. And I'd quit that, and I had not told anybody that I'd quit trapping because I loved running dogs so much.

And I was on a long run. It was a seven - almost an eight-day run. And as I was coming home off this run, I crossed a lake in the moonlight. It was about 30 below. It was midnight - a beautiful full moon. And when dogs run, they're silent. They never make a sound. And as I crossed the lake, at the end of the lake I went up through these trees, and their breath inverted and came over their backs, the steam. And it hid the dogs, and it was like I was being pulled by this silent steam ghost through the moonlight. God, it was beautiful. And at the top of this hill, there was a fork. And if I'd taken the trail straight home, it would have been about two hours, and I'd have been home with noise and people and everything. And if I took a right, I'd see it again, and so I hung a right, and I ran five or six days - seven days.

When I came off the run, somebody told me about the race. And I thought that the Iditarod must be the maximum expression of that beauty, that running the dogs 1,180 miles - well, I thought it was 1,049 then, but it turned out to be 1,180. Running them 1,180 miles would all be beautiful. And by God, it was. I mean, I ran it twice, and it was all beautiful both time.

MOSS-COANE: Now, I assume in assembling a dog team, personality plays a big part in it about who's going to be the leader, who's going to follow the leader. How complicated is it to put together a team of dogs?

PAULSEN: The first team that I ever ran when I was trapping, I didn't have a leader. And I tied a rope around my waist, and I was the leader. And I left the yard pulling these four dogs in the sled, and I thought, this is really stupid. It didn't accomplish anything, you know?


PAULSEN: I was still out in front of them somewhere. But then I found out one of the dogs wanted to lead. You could tell this dog named Beya (ph) kept looking ahead, trying to get over the next hill, and that's what a leader does. It wants to get out there and see what's ahead. And they don't all want to lead. Some of them would rather just run in the team. But the ones who want to lead will actually stand when you're stopped and jump up and try to see over the next hill, over the next rise. They'll actually try and see ahead. And you keep moving dogs forward until the leaders kind of select themselves. It's not a social thing. It's not the pack structure and all of that. That's - Jack London was - I don't think he ran dogs very much (laughter).

MOSS-COANE: Well, in - when you're with - doing the Iditarod or with a team of dogs, who's the boss? You or the lead dog?

PAULSEN: It depends on how you look at it. It's a shared responsibility. In - I mean, an interesting situation develops in that the person can think they're in charge, but the truth is that dog out in front can kill you. It has to know where to go to avoid bad ice and to handle situations that occur before the human gets there. So the dog really - the lead dogs are really kind of the bosses. And it's all a shared thing, and it's very friendly and all that. It's not a competitive thing. But I learned, finally, that when I made a decision to do something, it was almost invariably wrong, and we would get lost. And if I allowed Cookie, who was my leader in my first race, the primary leader, if I allowed her to make the decision, we were almost always right. And so I finally shut up and let Cookie run the show, and she took me to Nome.

MOSS-COANE: How did you communicate with your dogs? Did you ever develop a kind of growling that they understood?

PAULSEN: Yeah, you get to where you can growl at them. I'm not sure that - yeah, you do. I mean, you can stop a fight sometimes. If a couple dogs start fighting, you can growl really - just rahh (ph) - and they'll stop the fight. They know that you're interested in what they're doing. But you communicate in language. Cookie knew three names. She had a nickname of Ducks. And at one point I said, what's up, Ducks? And her tail wagged, so I started calling her ducks. And then Mama. She had good pups, and she was a good mother, so I called her Mama, and she would wag her tail. She knew that she had three names, and you could communicate. And in her case, if I wanted to go right, I would say gee - or left was haw, which is the standard terms. But if I said gee a little, she'd go about 18 inches over.


PAULSEN: Yeah, so I could go a little gee a little, gee a little, haw a little, gee a little, haw a little and go through a room full of furniture with her. She knew exactly what my voice meant when I did those things. She knew - actually, she knew me better, I think, than probably anybody ever has.

MOSS-COANE: Anybody including your wife?

PAULSEN: Yes. Yes, she - I spent 16- or 17,000 miles with her, with Ducks, before she got a little arthritis. And then I retired and brought her in the house, and she would sit next to me all the time in the house after she retired. If we were watching television, she'd sit on the couch next to me and not allow other people to sit there.

MOSS-COANE: Well, when you're training dogs for the Iditarod, do you bring them in the house? Do you give them special treats? Do you snuggle with them and do all the things that most families do with a family pet? Or is there something different you have to do?

PAULSEN: I would not normally want them in the house because it's better for them to grow their hair if they're outside more. But I would go out and sleep in the kennel with them frequently. And sometimes when it was a warm day in the summer and everybody was just kind of lazy, I'd let them all go. And they'd all run to the house. And we'd bring eight or 10 in the house at a time or whatever. We'd have to hide the cats first.

MOSS-COANE: You write about having some trouble, at least in the beginning stages of training your dogs. And you decided to sleep in the kennel with them. Actually, I think you had been sprayed by a skunk, and your wife suggested that you both...

PAULSEN: (Laughter) That's exactly right.

MOSS-COANE: ...That you sleep in the kennel. But how did that change your relationship with them, to sleep together?

PAULSEN: Well, it was more than sleeping. It was the concept of becoming dog. If you want to learn, I mean, there's no substitute for personal inspection at zero altitude in life, really. That's the best possible way to learn something. And the idea of finding out what a dog is like and how they live and how they think - for instance, they have houses. Each dog has a house in his own little kennel. And you would be amazed at how little they go in that house. They don't - they'll - they sit out in the rain. They love rain. And it never penetrates. So they would sit out in the rain. And they don't understand why you don't want to be in the rain. If it's raining, it doesn't bother them. Well, then why would you have to go to the house? So I was - just put on rain gear then and stay out there with them and work and do things. And they finally - they become part of how you think, and I think you become part of how they think.

GROSS: We're listening to an interview with author Gary Paulsen. He died last week. He spoke with Marty Moss-Coane in 1994, on a day she guest hosted FRESH AIR. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering author Gary Paulsen today. He died last week at the age of 82. Let's get back to the interview he recorded in 1994 with Marty Moss-Coane on a day she guest hosted our show. When we left off, they were talking about the first time he ran the Iditarod, the grueling dog-sled race across Alaska.


MOSS-COANE: So how did you prepare yourself for this 1,200-mile run? I mean, are there books written about how to survive the Iditarod?

PAULSEN: (Laughter) I don't think - no.

MOSS-COANE: No (laughter)?

PAULSEN: At the time, I called two different people. One of them told me to wear mukluks and then hung up, which is...

MOSS-COANE: What are mukluks?

PAULSEN: Mukluks is the kind of footgear that (laughter) keeps your feet warm. But that's all he told me. This is a man who had run the race. He says, yeah, you better wear mukluks. And click, that was it. And the other guy called who had run the race said, get good dogs (laughter). I mean, that's it. And that was my sum total of advice. I then started just trying to glean whatever I could anywhere. There are books, I think, now from people who - and pamphlets and stuff - from people who run. But in '83, when I ran my first race, a lot of that didn't exist. Now you have to have qualifying races, too. But then you didn't have to. You could just go run the - in fact, the first race I ever ran was the Iditarod.

MOSS-COANE: Well, the race begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome. And you were voted (laughter) least...

PAULSEN: (Laughter).

MOSS-COANE: ...Likely to get out of Anchorage. And I'd love to have you tell us what the start of the race looked like for you, what the observers saw.

PAULSEN: I drew position No. 32 to leave the chutes. And I had never been in a race. So I had a trapline leader named Cookie who was a wonderful leader, but she'd never been in a race either. So I decided - somebody had given me a dog named Wilson, who was a sweet dog, but not inordinately intelligent. And they had said he was a race leader, so I put him on in the front just because I thought he would be good. And he got us out of the chutes great. But you go four blocks, and then you turn right, and he kind of weaved through town to get out, and he just blew a hole through the crowd. And we didn't even try the turn. I mean, he just was going everywhere. And I was going - you know, I saw way more of Anchorage than most mushers see. I was wandering around. I'd have to ask people where the Iditarod Trail was, this full dog team with all my gear on. God, it was just embarrassing.

MOSS-COANE: Were you in control in any way of your team of dogs?

PAULSEN: No, not at all. I couldn't stop them. I couldn't slow them down. Wilson was just going ape. He had a great time. And we went through people's yards and stuff.

MOSS-COANE: (Laughter).

PAULSEN: It was just awful. And finally, I got - I hooked a stop sign and got the sled stopped. And then I put Cookie back on the front end. And she - I had really good control with her, and she got us out of town OK.

MOSS-COANE: You say the race is about caring for the dogs.

PAULSEN: Oh, God, is it ever.

MOSS-COANE: What do they need? And how do you take care of them in this - what? - 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-day run?

PAULSEN: You take constant care of their feet. You rub ointment in their feet every chance you get, different types of - like, Vaseline is one of the good ones. And then you put booties on them so that their feet don't get sore, depending on the dog. Some dogs don't need booties. Many do. You feed them. In my case, I fed almost every 40 minutes, literally. So I would go up the line and snack them every 40 minutes. And then you watch them. And if they get even a little tired, you stop and rest them. I mean, it's just this constant - there are - I've talked to guys who have run that whole race and never looked at the scenery and never seen anything but their dogs. They'd never look up. They just watched their dogs all the time, taking care of them.

MOSS-COANE: When you got close to the end of the race, did your mind change? I mean, did you feel somehow - or your mood change, realizing that you were going to make it?

PAULSEN: No, no. When I was about 25 miles out - you run on a beach the last 40 miles. And I got in late at night. I got in at 9:30, so it was dark. And I could see the lights hours before I got there. I could see Nome. And lights, you don't see in the race. You just never see lights. It's something we're not used to down here. But up in Alaska, the whole way's not lighted. And so you're so used to darkness that when you see all these lights in the distance, it just seems so - it seemed like a major city. I think Nome's got 3,000 people. It just seemed like - God, it was New York up there. And I didn't want to go in. I didn't want to be with people.

MOSS-COANE: Why not?

PAULSEN: I had found a kind of solitude and beauty. And I still have some of that, by God. I really do.

MOSS-COANE: You got into Nome. And then...

PAULSEN: I stopped about 20 miles out. I stopped and - well, 18 miles, maybe, or something. I stopped, and I stood there looking. And I decided I'd go back. I decided I'd just not go in. And there was another man running near me. And he stopped and said, what are you doing? And I said, I think I'll turn around. And he said, no, you've got to finish. You don't get your buckle, he says, unless you finish.

MOSS-COANE: (Laughter).

PAULSEN: You get a belt buckle, you know? And I think maybe that was one of the things. I thought, well, I ought to get my buckle, you know?


PAULSEN: I mean, you have to understand. My mind was completely fried by this time. I was just gone. But a lot of that wishing for solitude still exists in me. I still - I mean, I'm out here in California right now restoring a sailboat that I'll probably do some solitude on.

MOSS-COANE: So when you got into Nome in the middle of the night, anyone there to cheer you across the finish line?

PAULSEN: Yes, my wife and son were there. And they had flown up. And Cookie didn't want to - we got to 12 feet from the finish line, and she - there was a big crowd there and people yelling stuff, so she stopped. And then she sat - she just...

MOSS-COANE: Maybe the same feeling you had, right?

PAULSEN: Yeah, she just sat down. And so I went up and helped her get - I grabbed her harness, and we went across together. And then somebody took my dogs. And you have to understand. During the race, nobody touches your dogs. I mean, that's just never - you just don't do that. And they have these mushers - Iditarod mushers - who take your dogs because you can't think right. And they put your dogs on beds. And your handler's there, you know, taking care of things. So all this was going on, and I turned away. When I turned back, the dogs were gone. And there was a man right in my face. And he said, you know, welcome to Nome or something. And I said, where's my dogs? And he said, don't worry about that, and I said, I want my dogs now. And I was going to hit him. It was the mayor of Nome, Leo Rasmussen, welcoming me to Nome. I was just completely gone. My wife came up really quick. She was standing there, and she said - Ruth said, it's OK, it's OK. I said, can we go to the dogs? So she took me down to the dogs. And I crawled around in the straw with them, petting them and thanking them for the run. And she stood with her hand on my head, crying, because she thought I was permanently insane (laughter). And actually, I probably was - am.

MOSS-COANE: (Laughter).

PAULSEN: I mean, it's an altering experience.

GROSS: Gary Paulsen, speaking with FRESH AIR guest host Marty Moss-Coane in 1994 after the publication of his memoir, "Winterdance." Paulsen died of cardiac arrest last week. He was 82. His memoir, "Gone To The Woods," was published earlier this year. After we take a short break, John Powers will review Todd Haynes' new documentary about The Velvet Underground. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TODD SICKAFOOSE'S "BARNACLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.