[30 October 2004]
The Outsiders. Rumble Fish. That Was Then, This is Now. Tex. Remember all these? Ah, the legacy of S.E. Hinton, young adult fiction writer extraordinaire. Her books will forever be associated with adolescence for scores of readers. And if you were too lazy to read her books, you certainly caught at least one of the film adaptations, which launched the careers of a bunch of kids named Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio and Diane Lane.
As a tangly-haired 10-year-old, I remember watching The Outsiders for the first of about 5,376 times and reciting out loud, along with Ponyboy Curtis, the words to Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” That story made me feel gritty. Real gritty. It made me want to shun my suburban hell lifestyle in Northern Virginia and hole up in an abandoned old church in the middle of nowhere, playing cards with rough-and-tumble greasers like Ponyboy and Johnny, hiding out from the law and cutting my hair with a pocketknife.
The extremely private Hinton graced Austin residents with her presence at this year’s Texas Book Festival, where she announced her new, first-ever book for grown-ups, Hawkes Harbor. While festival attendees sniffed out author readings in various chambers and committee rooms of the Texas State Capitol, where the festival takes place every year, Hinton sat perched at the helm of the House of Representatives chamber, spilling her secrets to success in connecting with young adult readers. The first secret? Hinton hates reading in public; she read one sentence from Hawkes Harbor and then took questions.
But perhaps one of Hinton’s best secrets has been her identity. She was 15 years old when she started writing The Outsiders. Basing the story on rivalries in her own high school between the rich kids (the “socs,” short for “socials) and the poor kids (the greasers), Hinton published the book two years later and went with her initials instead of her full name (Susan Eloise) because the book was written from a boy’s point of view. “Publishers didn’t want readers to pick up the book and see violence and have reviewers say a girl doesn’t know anything about this,” she told festival attendees. “I wanted to get people to read without a gender bias.”
It sounded like the publishers shouldn’t have had anything to worry about in terms of Hinton’s credibility: She grew up in a greaser neighborhood and admitted getting “into a few fights” herself. While the reliance on her initials kept people guessing about Hinton’s gender, The Outsiders went on to sell more than 10 million copies and rank second on Publisher Weekly’s list of all-time best-selling children’s books. (For you nerds wondering what the all-time bestseller is, it’s Charlotte’s Web).
Deemed “The Voice of the Youth,” Hinton has had a tremendous impact on the culture of reading in America. In fact, a panel moderator at the festival noted the irony of Hinton’s session taking place in the House chamber when stating that Hinton’s writing promotes reading among young adults more than Texas legislators do. “Certainly more than they’ve done lately,” quipped the moderator, as the audience erupted into applause.
The real secret to writing young adult fiction, according to Hinton, is the ability to connect emotionally with a character. As for the oft-quoted philosophy of “writing what you know,” well, that’s hogwash. “If you know what it’s like to be cold and can read up on Antarctica, you can do a book on Antarctica,” she said. “It’s the emotions.” In fact, Hinton half-jokingly said raising her teenaged son made it “hard to conjure up sympathy” for teenagers and left her with writer’s block.
The best way to overcome a block? “Just do it,” said Hinton. “Don’t talk it to death.” Instead of trying to write “a gorgeous masterpiece,” start off by writing simple sentences that you can go back and fix later, she said. Hinton also encouraged people simply to “read all the time,” and not just for content but also to notice a novel’s use of paragraphing and sentence formation. By becoming comfortable with the structural and storytelling aspects of novels, when you sit down to write your own book, “You only have to worry about what the characters are doing,” she said.
There you have it, oh ye aspiring writers of children’s fiction. Secrets revealed from a master. Oh, one final secret: Hinton flunked creative writing class.