Fast forward to 2017, and I've got half of an entire bookshelf dedicated to S.E. Hinton. First I fell in love with Tex, which I still re-read every few years, and then The Outsiders, through which I discovered another of my favorites, That was Then, This is Now, and her most recent work Hawkes Harbor. Although there are other books that I'll read more frequently, I credit Tex for inciting my love for novels (and old, worn out books). There's not a single book of Hinton's that I don't love, and for this reason she beats even JK Rowling as my favorite author.
Earlier this week, Patrick announced to me that she would be doing a Q&A and book signing at our local Powell's book store. Today I was blessed enough to attend (and even somehow worked up the nerve to ask her a question-- can you guess which?), after which she signed that beaten old copy of Tex and my beloved copy of Hawkes Harbor. Several months ago I purchased a signed copy of the 50th anniversary edition of The Outsiders, so I've got that as well.
The following text is a transcription from S.E. Hinton's Q&A at Powell's Books (Cedar Hills) for the 50th anniversary of her novel The Outsiders on May 18, 2017.
Hinton: I never know what you all want to hear, so I’m going to open this up to questions so I will know at least one person has interest in what I’m saying… and young people, don’t feel silly asking me a question. You couldn’t possibly feel sillier than I do standing up here answering them.
I’m an English teacher and I’ve taught your book for years. It’s one of those stories that the kids just really latch onto. I know you wrote it when you were a teenager; was it an assignment?
Oh no. Not only was it not an assignment, I made a ‘D’ in creative writing while I was writing it. I’d been writing for years and it was something I wanted to write. Somebody just recently on this tour said, “Oh, weren’t you devastated when she gave you a ‘D’?” and I said, “No, I thought ‘Woman you’re gonna feel like an idiot,’” because I’d always known I wanted to be a writer. I hate that that’s my most known teacher story, because I had really good English teachers that encouraged me a lot throughout my whole history. But I found out that publishers will correct your spelling. They’re not going to can it off, give you a “D”, because you didn’t spell something right.
Where did you get the idea for Ponyboy?
I can’t remember where I got the name, but he’s the character that’s most superficially like me in that he’s very much like I was at 14. I’ve learned as a writer, no matter who you think you’re basing your character on, they’re part you because you’re the filter. All of your characters have to go through you to come out on the page. I don’t care if you think you’re basing it on your best friend; unless you can mind meld with your best friend, that’s some part of you. So while Ponyboy was most like me, there’s some part of me was Dallas, or I wouldn’t have been able to write him.
I was wondering if you could talk a little about harnessing first person voice for each of [your] different books.
First person voice is actually the easiest for me. It’s the easiest and also the hardest in that it’s very emotionally involving for me. I’ve been around enough acting to know that I can compare it to acting. The actor knows his part—he knows the whole screenplay, but he can’t act like he knows the whole screenplay. He’s got to be that person, and of course I’ve got a pretty good idea what the whole book’s going to be like, but I have to be the person I’m writing from. I think if you read my young adult books you’re not going to mistake Tex’s voice for Rusty James’s voice. They all have their own voice. To me that’s one of the fun parts of writing—be somebody else, go somewhere else, do something. I’m not one of those people who will ever write some woman having a midlife crisis and she runs off with the gardener. I mean, why would I want to do that? I want to write something like Hawkes Harbor where I can smuggle jewels out of Burma and run guns for the IRA and do all of this other stuff—to me that’s the fun part of writing. It’s not limiting to your life and not writing about yourself, but getting the habit of other people. That’s one of the big things I learned about reading—I started writing in grade school because I read a lot, and I realized you can be anywhere you want to be. You can bungee jump into the future; you can visit the past. That is the joy of reading, and to me it’s a lot of the joy of writing too.
On the movie set of The Outsiders were you able to help the actors and directors to kind of get it right, like your vision?
I was there every day, and Francis [Coppola] gave me total leeway to help with the actors if I wanted to. He was having a lot of problems financially and he’d go, “Go run lines with the boys and see what’s going on,” so I had a lot of input for them... but they were all so good, I mean, they read the book. They knew what was called for. But I did get to help. The place I helped them most… they were little kids, they were turned loose in Tulsa with no adult supervision whatsoever. Tommy [Howell], that played Ponyboy, was 15. Rob [Lowe] had his 18th birthday on the set. Matt [Dillon] had just turned 18. These were little kids, so I immediately decided I was their mom, and like mothers everywhere I slapped them upside the head once in awhile. I didn’t want to know what was going in the hotel so I stayed out of the hotel… That’s one thing you learn as a mom; there are just some things you don’t want to know. But they remembered that, and I’m very close to all of them still. I just saw Tommy, and Darren Dalton who played the Soc Randy, and Ralph [Macchio]. Last month Rob Lowe came to town; he had his 18th birthday on the set, and he had his 53rd at The Outsiders house location. That was a lot of fun.
Where did you get the idea for the line “stay gold”?
That Robert Frost poem was something I read during the time I was writing the book, and I thought, “This is something like I’m trying to say in the book.” I couldn’t figure it out exactly, couldn’t put my finger on it, but I thought, “Yeah, I need this in the book.” So I went home and wrote the Robert Frost poem into the book. Then later when Johnny is dying and he says, “stay gold”... Ponyboy had talked about the poem, and Johnny had said, you know, it means try to stay as idealistic as you can. So that was where I got the idea for “stay gold”. I wish I had trademarked that. I’ve seen it on greeting cards: “stay gold.” And I’m going, “Where’s my royalty?”. But it’s nice to be known for that phrase because it’s a good phrase.
Is the reason you gave Cherry green eyes because Pony didn’t like people with green eyes?
That’s a thing because maybe Ponyboy didn’t like himself. You know, when you’re a teenager there’s a lot of things about yourself you don’t care for. I think it helped him realize—because they both had green eyes and they both looked at the sunsets at night—and it helped them cross the boundaries to an understanding. So I think that’s why, but believe me, when I was writing the book I had no idea what I was writing. I’ve only figured out this stuff years later when people have written me letters and told me what I was writing.
I have a new Mustang, do you still think they’re “tuff” cars?
Oh, I think they’re so tuff. I think they’re just cool. But since I’ve started watching Supernatural... [‘67 Impala], whatever they drive… I love that car.
What was it like to see your book get turned into a movie?
It was really great. Francis came into town and he wanted me to drive around the locations I was thinking about—which I did, I took a drive through the neighborhoods. He said, “Well, I think I’ll shoot it here Susie, you wanna help me?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ll be fine with that.” He and I wrote the screenplay together, we scouted locations together. One day I was working with Francis on the screenplay and he said, “Oh, we found the house we want to use for The Outsiders house, you wanna see it? I’ve got my bike outside.” And I said, “Sure,” so I go out there... He’s got this old, thick-tired bicycle and he wants me to sit on the bars! He’s got 60 pounds of camera equipment in the basket and he drove me over just a few blocks—where the house was—but believe me it was a treacherous ride. The prop man came by, jumped out, and took a picture of it... it’s really nice. I have it in my office and Francis has it in his.
So few writers will ever have 50 years growing up with a book; I’m wondering if you think of it as a sibling or a child.
50 year anniversary... I don’t like touring, it’s hard on me. I don’t like travelling. I don’t like speaking until I get up here and I realize no one’s going to attack me. But I mean, how many writers get to see the 50th anniversary of any book, especially one like The Outsiders which sold last year better than it’s ever sold? That’s why I’m here today.
When you start writing do you find that you start with a character or a plot first?
Oh, I always start with a character first. I can’t plot my way to a Safeway store. I know the beginning is easy for me because I get to establish my character, or characters, and their background and everything, and the ending—I’ve always known what the ending is for my book, and I could write the last sentence first. But how I get from here [indicates] to here [indicates], I go [demonstrates with index finger moving around in an unpredictable pattern] over here, so the plot is the hardest for me. I know my strengths. My strength is characters and revelation in characters through dialogue, which is why I love writing screenplays. But if I had to write a car chase, I’d go: “Okay the car went over here, and it flipped, and there’s another car, and it flipped…” So I like to play to my strengths.
Why did you use the story Gone With the Wind instead of any other war story?
I don’t know, I was reading it probably. Believe me, I wasn’t thinking about anything when I was writing that book. People are going, “Oh, you did this religious symbolism.”... Oh, I did? And I was reading Gone With the Wind, so I stuck in Gone With the Wind. When I was in high school, some kid dissected his worm in biology with his switch blade, so I thought: “Oh that’s great, I’ll go home and write that in.” People are going, “Is this intentional?” I’m beginning to think nothing is intentional. I just kept writing it. But your subconscious plays such a big part in your writing that I used to think maybe I could take a nap and wake up to find a chapter done. That happened with Hawkes Harbor. I woke up from a dream; I dreamed that I was on the ship that was smuggling gems and Kel Quinn, this Irish story teller, was telling this great story. I woke up laughing and I thought, “I’ll go with him!” That’s definitely subconscious. It’s hard to tell, especially for me, where things really come from.
Did you have any part in helping cast the incredible lineup for your movie?
No, the only part I had in casting the movie was I strongly recommended Matt for Francis because I worked with [Matt] on Tex. Tex was my first movie, and that’s where I met Matt. They didn’t seem to be looking at him, and I finally just asked Francis and the casting director. I thought maybe it was because [Matt] just did a movie with me. I said, “Please look at Matt for Dallas. He’s a whole lot more suited to play Dallas than he was Tex, and he did a great job in Tex.” So they did look, and Francis decided he was perfect.
I’d love to hear the story of how [The Outsiders] came to be published when you were so young!
I’d been writing for eight years. It was the third book I’d written, the first I’d tried to get published. It was just in my drawer in my closet with stacks and stacks and stacks of stuff. A friend of mine at school mentioned that her mother wrote children’s books and I said, “Oh, I write books,” and she said, “Let my mother read it,” and she did. [Her mother] gave it to a friend of hers who not only was published—she had an agent. She gave me the name of an agent. I was a junior in high school; I didn’t know the difference between agent and editor and publisher. But I had a name and an address so I sent it to [Marilyn Marlow of Curtis Brown Limited]. She wrote back and said, “I think you’ve captured a certain spirit here, I’ll see what I can do.” She sold it to the second publisher who saw it. Marilyn remained my agent until she just died like fifteen years ago, and I’m still with Curtis Brown. When kids write me and go, “Well, how do you get an agent?” I go, “Google it!”, because God sent me my agent, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to wait around for God to send you your agent. That’s what happened to me.