George Hunt interviews two writers, one American, and one Australian, who seem to bridge the gender gap in enthusiasm for reading here in the UK.
‘When I was 16 I sent a story in an old exercise book to the Australian Women’s Weekly. They sent it back, and I felt mortified. I thought, I’m no good, I’m simply no good. It just goes to show how authors feel about what they do: if you present something you’ve written to somebody, you’re revealing your secret self, you’re definitely offering your love, and if you get it rejected, it’s devastating. I never wanted to go through that again, and I didn’t even think about writing again until I was 39.’
Paul Jennings is a reserved man, and when he talks about his work, there is a tremor of restraint in his quiet voice that might come from modesty, or from mild astonishment that the hurt he suffered has been redeemed by massive success as a writer of surreal and hilarious short stories. He returned to writing when he became concerned about his son’s reluctance to read. Unimpressed by the material the child was offered at school, he realised he could do better himself. His first collection, Unreal!, set the pattern for the sequence of similarly entitled books which have followed. Combining his gift for telling jokes, an Australian outback talent for exaggeration which he claims to have inherited from his Yorkshireman father, and his own childhood love for the works of Richmal Crompton, Enid Blyton and W E Johns, he creates brisk, fantastic rhapsodies whose outlandish episodes, often involving contortions of time and identity, suddenly resolve themselves in spectacular punchlines.
Jennings’ sentences tend to be short, simple and rhythmic. Before returning to writing, he worked as a teacher of disabled children and as a speech pathologist. His linguistic expertise is evident in the highly accessible prose that he painstakingly constructs, but such is his skill as a storyteller, there is not a trace of condescension or of contrived simplification in his books. ‘The thing about reading is that you’ve got to get kids to love doing it. You’re not going to do that by writing down to them. Sure, your writing’s got to be accessible to kids who are struggling, but I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as a good book that’s just for reluctant readers. If a book’s too dull to appeal to a good reader, it’s sure as hell not going to appeal to a reluctant one.’
The content of Jennings’ stories celebrates children’s sense of limitless possibility, and their love of the absurd and the taboo. His heroes and heroines learn how to fly, traverse dimensions, and practice telekinesis. Bullies and pompous authorities are humbled. The more embarrassing bodily functions are winkled out of their closets and subjected to the gaze and the laughter of the crowd. However, the stories do share a profoundly serious emotional element: the intense vulnerability that is at the core of so much childhood experience.
‘I can remember so vividly what it was like to be small and powerless, frightened of what was to come next, worried about getting it wrong.’ Jennings recounts his own experience of being forced for the first time to strip for school showers, and being jeered at by his classmates. This sense of intensely fragile carnality permeates much of his fiction, along with an adolescent dread of losing control of one’s flesh as the body, relentlessly and mysteriously, transmutes itself. A boy’s own face appears in the wallpaper of his room and pursues him around the house; an extra eye grows on a fingertip, a youth watches horrified as his nails multiply and overspread his entire skin. There are also scarifying accounts of social degradation, from the everyday plight of the fame-craving child who is never even picked for the football team, to more bizarre ordeals like being sent to a sewage plant to reclaim a set of false teeth which have fallen down the toilet. The power that parents have to inflict massive embarrassment on their children is explored in all of its shameful variants.
In his more recent work, Jennings’ interests seem to be bifurcating. A set of picture books written in conjunction with Ted Greenwood and Terry Denton (a pun collection, Duck for Cover and the Spooner-inspired Spooner or Later, to be followed by a book of conundrums) are recreational wordplay compendia which combine a linguist’s love of lexis and phonology with a raconteur’s delight in a joke well cracked.
His fiction, on the other hand, seems to be shifting towards less obviously comical themes. The opening story of his latest collection, Uncovered!, is a lachrymatory account of the relationship between a dying, Tiny Tim-like figure and his autistic brother; another story deals with bedwetting, and the finale, ‘Pubic Hare’, is a re-enactment of his own purgatory in the shower room. He concedes that this is daring ground for a writer who has established a reputation for making children laugh, but the absurdity remains undiluted, and the stories extend into more quaggy territory the foundational principle of empowerment which underlies all his work. In ‘Ringing Wet’, for example, the enuretic heroine deliberately wets herself in order to trigger the alarm which leads to the abduction of a neighbourhood burglar, thus liberating herself from a sense of shaming helplessness.
‘I want to reassure children who are worried about things that it’s good to be alive,’ he concludes. ‘Don’t be scared of growing up. Don’t be scared of the world. It’s a fascinating place.’
We’re sitting in the lounge of a posh hotel in Kensington, and Gary Paulsen, a bearded, youthful-grandfatherly figure with a meditative American drawl, is giving me a bit of man to man advice.
‘If you want to kill a bear, you’ve got to hit them real hard and fast. They have a very slow metabolism, so even if you get one right through the heart, he still has two or three minutes before he drops, which can be a hell of a long time if he manages to grab you. I used to use a high-calibre rifle, and great big slugs with expanding heads. The trouble with high tech rifles though, is that they let you kill from too great a distance. I gave mine up after I shot a doe at 200 yards, not seeing she had a faun inside her. Now I prefer to hunt with an old muzzle loader or a bow.’
Wilderness is the central idea in Paulsen’s fiction and in his life. His history is of the type that many would-be fiction writers might envy looking back on, but only if they didn’t have to live it first. His biography, Eastern Sun, Winter Moon, is a harrowing chronicle of sexual abuse and early exposure to extreme violence, both in his native Chicago and in the squalor of post-war Manila, where his mother and serviceman father were reunited before descending into alcoholism. Back in America, Paulsen ‘fostered himself to the forest’ whenever things got too rough at home, and discovered a second haven in literature when a librarian gave him a ticket after he’d wandered in freezing from his newspaper round. Later, he ran away with a carnival, joined the army on false papers, learned aeronautics, and then took to journalism after the ‘epiphany’ that turned him into a writer.
‘We were satellite tracking one of the Gemini probes through deep space one night, I think it was heading for Venus, and I was sitting at one of those consoles with all the dials and so on in front of me, when I suddenly realised – instantly, fundamentally, to the core of what I was – that I had to be a writer.’
So Paulsen chucked his job and became a Hollywood proof-reader and freelance copywriter, contributing to everything from men’s mags to plumbing journals, and working the 18-hour day that he still adheres to. Early success came with Mr Tucket, a highly gung-ho children’s book about the Wild West, but the hopes of fame it aroused were soon dashed. Having fled Hollywood for an isolated cabin in the backwoods of Minnesota, he survived through trapping and hunting, while continuing to write hungrily and to drink destructively. ‘I used to get drunk every night and go brawling in redneck bars. Hardly ever won a fight. It’s a miracle I’m still here.’
He conquered alcoholism, and 10 years later won the Newbery medal with Dogsong, a story based on his encounter with an Inuit boy while competing in the Iditarod, a gruelling trans-Alaskan dog race that Paulsen is one of the few people to have completed. Hatchet, a detailed, how-to account of a boy’s survival in the Canadian bush after being marooned by an air crash, consolidated his success.
Many of the books that have followed have focused on adolescent rites of passage and survival ordeals, endured in vast solitude or with the spiritual support of tough, venerable mentors. In Canyons, a youth embarks on an obsessive quest to return a murdered Native American’s skull to its ancestral home; in The Fourteenth Summer, a teenage farmhand is sent into a remote pass to protect a huge herd of sheep from wolves and bears; in The Voyage of the Frog, a boy is swept out into the Pacific while on a mission to scatter his uncle’s ashes. Paulsen’s prose has the lupine leanness and acuity of perception essential to a believable realisation of such potentially melodramatic themes; its sentences are as terse and densely packed as those of a taciturn philosopher, and its sawtooth rhythms seem to imitate the adrenalinised thought flashes of a reckless adventurer faced with his final come-uppance.
He is unapologetic about the macho aurora around much of what he writes. In The Car, his most recent publication, a neglected 14-year-old builds a custom auto from a kit, heads west, and teams up with a couple of golden-hearted ex-professional killer ’Nam vets. An intensely laddish, turbo-charged peregrination follows, involving car chases, gambling, voluptuous ladies and righteous combat. The book climaxes in a miniature revision of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, with the vets kicking the shit out of a horde of predatory thugs. The book is a strident and defiant paean to gasoline and testosterone, just as Paulsen intended it to be. ‘I wanted to write a boys’ book, because I happen to be a boy; I love gear and tools and fixing engines, and girls don’t tend to go for that stuff.’ Snarling assertions of gender equality do, however, punctuate the story, and Paulsen is quick to point out that many of the 200 to 300 letters he receives from readers every day are written by girls. His readers often describe experiences of abuse that Paulsen devotes much effort to ameliorating, though he doubts the therapeutic role that some assign to his work. ‘I’m a storyteller,’ he concludes. ‘Someone who puts on bloody skins and dances around the fire and tells what the hunt was like. I don’t presume to say I help or heal.’
PAUL JENNINGS’ BOOKS MENTIONED:
Unreal!, Puffin, 0 14 037099 4, £3.50 pbk
Uncovered!, Puffin, 0 14 036900 7, £3.50 pbk
(and several other books with similar titles are published by Puffin)
Duck for Cover, ill. Ted Greenwood, Viking, 0 670 83719 9, £9.99
Spooner or Later, ill. Ted Greenwood, Viking, 0 670 83745 8, £9.99
GARY PAULSEN’S BOOKS MENTIONED:
Eastern Sun, Winter Moon, published by Gollancz in their adult list
Mr Tucket, Hodder, 0 340 65127 X, £3.99 pbk (for reviews of this title, see page 13)
Dogsong, not available in UK yet but Pan hope to publish soon
Hatchet, Pan, 0 330 70077 4, £3.99 pbk
Canyons, Pan, 0 330 34520 6, £3.99
The Fourteenth Summer, Pan, 0 330 70080 4, £3.99 pbk
The Voyage of the Frog, Pan, 0 330 32181 1, £3.99
The Car, Pan Macmillan, 0 333 66204 0, £9.99