Gary Paulsen was born in 1939 and has experienced firsthand many of the adventures and close calls that give life to his books. He has worked as a satellite technician, an engineer, a construction worker, a ranch hand, and on a carnival after he ran away from home at age fourteen; notably as it relates to his inspiration for Hatchet and the other Brian books, he ran the Alaskan dogsled race, the Iditarod, first in 1983 and again in 1985, weathering freezing cold windchills and losing his sense of smell for life. He doesn’t always approve of this method of writing, however. In a 1997 interview with School Library Journal, Paulsen said, “...it’s not necessarily a good way to learn to be a writer at all. It’s just my way; I think my lack of education caused it” (Gale, p. 27).
Paulsen writes with a fiery commitment that consumes all his energy, regardless of location or situation, having published over 175 books and 200 articles, written for youth and adults alike, and having won a Newbery Honor Award three times, as well as the 1997 Margaret A. Edwards Award, a lifetime achievement award for the author’s contribution to youth literature (Penguin Random House, 2015, n. p.). Knowing how transformative reading can be, he aims to fan the flames of love, encouraging his target audience, most often young boys, to never stop reading. Paulsen himself did very poorly in school and only started reading because a librarian issued him a library card and more or less forced him to take a book out of the library, so when he writes of Brian surviving on account of accessing his memories of learned knowledge, Paulsen is writing from an autobiographical place in his own life. One of his oft repeated mantras is “personal inspection at zero altitude is the only way to learn something” (Gale, 1997, p. 27).
Paulsen writes from other places outside his personal experience as well: he researched his 1993 book Nightjohn for a total of five years, making extensive use of the Slave Narratives collection in the National Archives, and has drawn inspiration from his cousin Harris and an old friend of his named Tony (Penguin Random House, 2015, n. p.). However, he receives over 200 letters from readers a day, and the most common questions he gets are in regard to his experiences being totally in line with Brian’s experiences in Hatchet. These letters inspired him to continue Brian’s story in three following books, The River (1991), Brian’s Winter (1996), and Brian’s Return (1999), and for those readers not satiated, he also published two nonfiction books about his wilderness adventures, Father Water, Mother Woods: Essays on Fishing and Hunting in the North Woods (1994) and Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books (2001).
Speaking of the time he roasted a buffalo hump over a bed of mesquite coals, Paulsen says, “It was a grand feast, a feast that made me think of ancient people and how they must have been before there was writing, before there was recorded history, when they sat this way by old fires, cutting meat with stone tools, looking up at the stars and letting the food and fire fill them with life” (2001, p. 147).