Gary Paulsen was born on May 17, 1939, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father served in the military and Paulsen did not meet him until 1946, when the family joined him in the Philippines. Paulsen remembers running wild at age seven, learning about street life firsthand. Eventually, in 1949, he and his parents returned to the United States, moving frequently about the country as his father’s postings were changed. He recalls being antisocial and a very poor student until he was a teenager.
He sold newspapers to bar patrons and learned that if he gave them time to have a few drinks, they would pay 25 cents instead of ten cents for a paper. One cold day, while waiting for the right time to start selling his papers, he entered a library to get warm. An elderly librarian asked whether he had come for a library card, and Paulsen defiantly said that he had. According to Paulsen, the library card with his name on it made him feel like he was somebody, and he used it to check out books, becoming a voracious reader; he can recall reading only one book before that time.
When he was seventeen, he joined the army, and although he did not see action himself, he served with veterans of World War II and the Korean War and absorbed their accounts of combat. He used these accounts to create realistic experiences for Charley Goddard in Soldier’s Heart. While in the army, he became an expert in missiles, and after his discharge he found work as an engineer at Lockheed. He eventually worked on satellites.
In the 1960s he changed his direction in life, deciding that he would become a professional writer. His first book, about the Vietnam War, was followed by a river of fiction and nonfiction-a river that was dammed when he was sued for libel for his book Winterdance (1977). His publisher gave him far less support than he expected, his finances were drained, and he was dispirited. Even though he won his case, he stopped writing and headed to the Midwest to live in the wilderness. His experiences from that period show up frequently in his young adult books about surviving in the wilderness.
In the early 1980s his life took another turn, this time back to writing. Perhaps his third wife, the artist Ruth Wright, helped him recover. In any case, he began turning out books for all ages. His pace picked up each year, and he not only became one of America’s most prolific writers but also prospered, owning his own ranch in Wyoming. During this period he tackled controversial topics, often surprising readers with fresh points of view and resisting the stereotype of the tough-guy mountain man.
My Life in Dog Years offers insights into Paulsen’s life, beginning as a seven-year-old boy in the Philippines, when he learned to think like a dog and to experience life like a dog. This may account for his everlasting affection for dogs. Although the focus is on dogs, Paulsen’s bleak youth is presented unaffectedly, especially the period when he had to cope on his own as a small kid who was easy to beat up and who more or less raised himself after his parents lost themselves in alcohol.