How I started writing YA
I taught English in an alternative high school for fifteen years and thanks to my students, I started writing. When I’d read them a short story or a whole novel (yeah, I read whole novels out loud to my class), we’d stop at certain points and they’d write their own scenes using characters from the story. My students were having so much fun doing this that I wanted to get in on it, so I started writing scenes, too. Soon I started writing my own stories and was writing before school, after school and on the weekends, and all summer long. My head was spinning with so many stories that I left my teaching job so I could write full-time.
Where I live and have lived.
I live in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Alaska, you say? How did a boy from Indiana end up in the far north?
Between semesters in college I went to Alaska to work in the salmon canneries. I worked on the slime line fifteen hours a day scraping blood and guts from dead fish. But no, that’s not why I moved to Alaska, not because of a love for fish guts. Instead, it was the open, wild space I got to play in on an occasional day off. Free flowing rivers. Tide water glaciers. Bears. I’d been bitten by the Alaska-bug, not to be mistaken for the mosquito—that’s our state bird.
But I didn’t just stay in Alaska that summer. I finished college and then wandered around the country for five years—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Idaho, California—working as a Naturalist in outdoor education programs. (I had an English Degree but these programs hired me anyway.) You know, the kind of program where you and your classmates spend a week hiking around during the day, having campfires at night, and then sleeping in cabins, all the while trying not to get eaten by bears and mountain lions. In my five years as a Naturalist no one got eaten by anything. I got bit by an alligator lizard, but that’s another story.
One of the benefits of working as a Naturalist was the time off. I had a winter break and a summer break. One winter I did a sixteen hundred mile solo mountain bike trip through the deserts of Nevada, California and Arizona. Most summers I headed to Alaska where I led backpacking trips for teenagers part of the time, and went sea kayaking the rest of the time.
Settling down. Sort-of.
After a while I got tired of moving around. I wanted a place I could call home. So, one summer when I went to Alaska, I just stayed and got a job teaching English in an Alternative School.
And then I met my wife, Dana. Well, she wasn’t my wife yet but soon she would be. She’s a teacher, too. And she likes sea kayaking and backpacking, too. And reading and writing. We are perfect for each other.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I don’t spend a lot of time sitting around, or even that much time inside. When I was a teacher, I used to ride my bike to school. Even in the winter. When the temperature would drop to fifty below zero, I’d still ride my bike. It was my daily adventure. My students told me I was crazy. Maybe I am a little crazy. I mean, after all, you have to be a little crazy just to live in Alaska.
Another thing I like to do is run marathons. So a few times a week after riding my bike home, I’d go out for a training run.
Where I write
When I started writing full-time I spent a lot of time sitting. And after a year or so my body started to rebel. My back ached. My shoulders collapsed forward and stayed that way. And my neck—you don’t even want to know. The physical therapist who tried to loosen it up said, this is the tightest neck I’ve ever worked on. It’s hard as cement. Ouch!
I didn’t know writing could be so hazardous. I mean, I’d survived ten foot waves in my sea kayak in the middle of Prince William Sound, avoided polar bears in the Arctic (luckily they were busy feeding on a whale carcass or I may have ended up as their lunch), and lost my footing in the mountains and slid forty feet down a steep slope. I landed on my face and was a little bruised but healed up pretty quickly. But writing—in a chair for hours and hours on end—was brutal.
I had a treadmill collecting dust in a little room upstairs so I built a desk-top for it. And now, most of my writing time is also walking time. My back and my neck and shoulders are delighted. My friends sometimes ask: “Paul, how many words per mile did you average today?”
Some other things I do
I read lots of books. Mostly young adult fiction but a fair amount of non-fiction, too. When I taught school most of my students were reluctant readers so I read many very good books just to find a few that my students would connect with. And all that reading was the best education I could’ve had as a writer. So, if you want to write then read, read, read. Never ever stop reading.
Even though I spent a couple summers up to my neck in fish guts, salmon guts specifically, I still love to eat salmon. In Alaska you have lots of opportunities to catch salmon if you are willing to give it a try. One way to catch salmon is by dip netting in the Copper River. You hold a big net on a long pole in the river and you wait until a fish swims into your net. It’s not as easy as it sounds. The river is full of glacial silt so you can’t see below the surface. And the current moves along like a freight train. So, it’s all about feeling the ding in your net and then pulling it up and out before the fish gets away. Then you’ve got to wrestle the fish out of the net and club it on the head. When the fish are running strong my wife and I can catch thirty salmon in two hours. Once she had three fish in her net at the same time. Dip netting is kind of like lifting weights nonstop while balancing on a narrow ledge.
Produce travels a long way to get to Alaska and often it’s not in the greatest shape. I mean, do you like tomatoes the consistency of sandy mush? Or carrots that taste like cardboard? Me neither. Plus, it takes a lot of energy to ship stuff to Alaska. So, yeah, we have a big garden. And a seven-foot tall fence to keep out the moose.
One summer the Fish and Wildlife Service hired me to do stream and lake surveys on the remote and roadless Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I got to fly around in a helicopter every day and tell the pilot where to land so my crew and I could do our surveys. See, you really can do just about anything with an English Degree.