Celebrating Gary Paulsen’s Last Adventure: An Interview with Editor Wes Adams
We lost a great number of literary legends in 2021, each one worthy of celebration. For Gary Paulsen, I should like to do a little more. Editor Wes Adams worked with Gary for years, and the book out now, Northwind, reflects a man still in peak writing form. Wes was kind enough to answer some of my questions about Gary, writing, Northwind, and so much more.
Betsy Bird: Wes, I appreciate your joining me today. First, I’d like to offer my condolences on the passing of Gary. I think the outpouring of love and support for him has been a remarkable testament to his life and work. Can you tell us a bit about how you first met and came to work with him?
Wes Adams: Good to be here and thanks for the kind words, Betsy. I know I speak for everyone out there with a special place in their heart for Gary—family, friends, and readers young and old. We’ve all felt completely sandbagged by this loss.
I was a reader of Gary years before I became his editor. For a long time, he was a trusty name I looked for not just on bookstore and library shelves but also in the book stacks at garage sales and inside those great Little Free Library book exchanges that dot so many neighborhoods. He was so prolific there were always countless backlist gems out there waiting to be discovered—and I especially liked finding well-thumbed well-loved old paperbacks. Then I stumbled on LAWN BOY, which I thought was so very funny, and had the irresistible urge to reach out to his longtime literary agent, Jennifer Flannery, just to say so and that I’d love to work with him some day. I never expected that contact to lead to anything, assuming he was one of those authors kept safely locked away in golden handcuffs by their publisher. But Jennifer kept my interest in mind and one day she got in touch to see if I’d like to see a new manuscript she was sending around to a few editors. What a question. Of course I was!
BB: Well, tell us a little bit about how NORTHWIND, one of his last books, came to be. How did you become attached to this project?
WA: The manuscript Jennifer sent was a draft of GONE TO THE WOODS, the memoir that is Gary’s own personal survival story about escaping his scarifying childhood growing up with two abusive, alcoholic parents. My colleagues at FSG and MacKids were fired up, not just about this manuscript but the incredible opportunity in general to become Gary’s new publisher. We elbowed everyone else out of the pool and signed Gary up to do three books—which he and we both were convinced were just the first of many books to come. The first book on the contract was the memoir, and then I was hoping for a middle-grade comedy to be followed by a serious novel, and this was just what Jennifer and Gary were thinking, too.
We published GONE TO THE WOODS last January. The comedy turned out to be HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DAD, the story of a kid with the birdbrained idea of using puppy-training techniques to recondition his dad to become less embarrassing. Truly LOL funny, full of some of the longest, loopiest sentences ever written, and accentuated with lots of heart—just right. We published that in October, a few days before he died. I now keep a copy of the book next to my desk so I can always see the hilarious three faces peeping out from Dan Santat’s great jacket art. It makes me smile.
The third book on our contract turned out to be NORTHWIND. When Jennifer sent it in, she wrote, “This is the book people have been begging Gary to write since HATCHET. Leif is the ancient ancestor of both Brian Robeson and Gary Paulsen, and he does for the sea what Brian did for the woods. That same magic and mystique of a lone young person finding their place in, and their rare and powerful ability to communicate with, nature lives and breathes in these pages. Just as Brian slipped behind the treeline and found his strength and his truest self as he fought for survival, so does Leif take to the sea and connect with, sync with, what Gary calls ‘the heartbeat of the ocean, the pulse of the sea.’”
I read it cover to cover in one sitting and agreed with her assessment completely. In fact, I borrowed some of her phrases for our flap copy.
BB: I love that. But, of course, I’m a sucker for knowing what goes into flap copy. What, to your mind, distinguishes NORTHWIND from Gary’s other projects? Certainly it has some of the same survival elements.
WA: NORTHWIND is a stunning survival adventure, for sure. But in a bigger sense, it is the culmination of Gary’s lifelong work as a storyteller who in all his books relived his own adventures on the ocean and in the wilderness, mining his experiences over and over, always unearthing new treasures. Sometimes the result would be straight autobiography, sometimes fiction. NORTHWIND is both. It is a book in three parts.
The first is a short story-song that introduces the boy at the center of the adventure in the storytelling style it might have been related around a blazing campfire in a Nordic village centuries ago—this is Gary imagining himself in that role as village storyteller. And what could be a more suitable role for him? Gary Paulsen was our village storyteller.
The next section is Gary’s edge-of-your-seat prose narration of Leif’s story. Leif is an orphan who is forced to flee northward to safety in a dugout cedar canoe as the members of his small fishing camp are stricken with a terrifying plague (coincidence that much of this was written in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic? I think not). His danger-filled journey takes place along a rugged coastline that is very like the coast of Norway, but also very like the coast of the Pacific Northwest.
The final section is a blending of author’s note and memoir, as Gary reveals how many of the particular details of Leif’s struggle were taken directly from his own solo sailing adventures in the dangerous waters from Vancouver Island up to Alaska. Gary nearly died more than once on these sailing trips and they changed him in profound ways, just as Leif’s journey does. As Gary shows us in this final section, NORTHWIND is a book he has been imagining for nearly all his life, starting from when he sat on his Norwegian grandmother’s lap in northern Minnesota as a young boy listening to her stories.
BB: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about Gary’s process. When he turned in a manuscript, how much editing typically needed to be done? Was he the kind of author that liked to revise or did he have a vision for the finished product from the start?
WA: From our very first phone call we clicked as editor and author. He knew he could trust me and I knew I could trust him, and we both knew we could trust Jennifer, who has been Gary’s first reader and advisor for so long. She also speaks Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat better than Gary did so I would email my notes and edits to her and she would hop on the phone with him and they would spend hours poring over each and every comment and suggestion. Jennifer would come back to me with Gary’s replies, then we’d repeat this at every stage until we were all satisfied.
Gary said yes far more than STET. He was happy to consider any editorial suggestion, big or small, but as editor I knew it was crucial to appreciate that long before the manuscript came to me, Gary himself would already have given careful consideration to every word, every comma. So generally, if I raised an issue, I wasn’t asking him to consider something he hadn’t thought about—I was asking him to reconsider something he’d already mulled over carefully. I was also endlessly amazed at how thoughtful he was about the poetry of his prose, the rhythm of each and every sentence, the tempo-shifting choice of an unusual word or unexpected punctuation, the mesmerizing narrative chain he was building sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.
In NORTHWIND, Gary envisioned the story-song in the first part to be set in a typeface that echoed Norwegian runes, and we had great fun working with the designer, Trisha Previte, to find exactly the typeface that made him happy. Trisha also made sure that he was keen on every little detail in Joe Miller’s sketches for the jacket and interior artwork before she gave Joe the green light to go to finals.
BB: If you were to typify the ideal reader for this book, what kind of a kid would that be?
WA: Old fans and newcomers alike, kids who love heading out into the wild and those who only like to go there from their favorite reading nook, marine enthusiasts who love the ocean like Leif does and landlubbers who are happy watching a kid not unlike them do the paddling.
BB: Finally, what do you think you will miss the most about Gary?
WA: That’s easy. Everything. I will miss his phone calls late in the evening that would go on for hours. I will miss our conversations that started off about a copyediting query one second then jumped to him sharing an amazing stories from the days when he was cutting his teeth as a writer in Hollywood or running a trap line in the North Woods to feed his family. I’ll miss the whole process of talking about a project with him, reading it for the first time, getting colleagues excited about it, helping him make the book everything he wanted it to be. I’ll miss the communion and camaraderie he established with all of my colleagues. And I’ll miss the pleasure and honor of working on books that I know will be around for a long time and be meaningful to many, many people, now and in the future.
Thank you, Wes. Thank you, Morgan Rath, for setting this up. Thank you FSG. And thank you, Gary. We miss you.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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