S.E. Hinton, 2002
By Dottie Witter
Perhaps being a writer revered by young people around the world isn't such a hardship when you can get hugged by Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon on the same day. Neither is watching Jeopardy and finding you're an "answer."
Critics usually consider 1967, the year Oklahoma writer S.E. Hinton's first novel The Outsiders was published, as the birth of the contemporary young adult novel. The book about social class warfare and high school cliques immediately thrust Hinton into the spotlight as the spokesperson for teenagers of that era. "Thank God I never really looked at it that way," she said. "I never meant to be a spokesperson for anything. I just wanted to write a book. My books are really tame, by today's standards."
A tomboy, she was comfortable with writing from the male point of view. "I like guys," she said. She used her initials instead of Susan Eloise so "I could reach a larger audience because girls would read boys books but boys wouldn't read girls books," she said.
The novel, considered a classic today, wasn't an overnight success, but grew through word of mouth. "Teachers started using it in classrooms, and that's where it really started building," she said. In fact, her son Nicholas had to read The Outsiders for his seventh grade class. When Hinton could no longer stand the suspense, she asked him what he thought of it. "Well, it's okay, but you're no Tolkien," he told his mother.
About that Tulsa Rogers High School creative writing teacher who gave her a "D" the year she was writing The Outsiders? "I heard her say that if she heard one more time about giving me a 'D' in creative writing, she was going to change it to an 'F,'" she laughed. The Outsiders is now the second biggest selling book in its category in history, just behind Charlotte's Web. "And it didn't beat me by much," she said. The University of Tulsa education major treasures letters from young people, especially those who tell her they've never read a book and didn't think they liked to read until they read her book. "That is my biggest accomplishment," she said. "That book (The Outsiders) has done more good than I'm personally capable of ever doing in my life."
Her early books were made into movies directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring young actors who are now legendary. "I gave them good parts; they gave me good acting," Hinton said.
Writer's block crippled her for four years following that first novel. "There's no dealing with writer's block. It's just God-awful," she said. Her boyfriend at the time, now husband David Inhofe, was tired of her being depressed and told her to write two pages a day. "Nobody drops dead from two pages," he told her.
She complied, but only because if he came over and she hadn't written two pages that day, he wouldn't take her out. "My big motivation for writing was I wanted to go out," she said.
David, a mathematician and computer scientist, also shares her offbeat sense of humor. "He doesn't read and I can't add, and we get along great," she said.
Nicholas, now in college, came home from his first day of kindergarten and told his father there was a man there who looked like him and was named David. So mom and dad assured Nicholas it was his father. He was skeptical and daily "tested" his dad, who was kept briefed by Hinton on how to answer.
"I figured he was going to be in therapy anyway, he might as well have something to say," she said. "So we went ahead and tortured him like this. He'd come home and say, 'Okay, if you're the real David...'"
A departure from her usual writing style was the 1995 The Puppy Sister, a delightful children's book featuring a mother, a father named David, a son named Nick, and a dog, Aleasha. Hinton got the idea when her son referred to their dog as his sister. "I think it took all the whimsy out of me and I don't think I'll write like that again," she said.
She has recently written several short stories, is excited about nearing completion of her first adult book and has written two screenplays. "I don't know whether they'll get produced or not, but I'm writing like crazy," she said.
She doesn't read anything similar to what she writes. "I think if you want to write better, read better," she said. Her best tip for aspiring writers is to go to the library. "If you want to write, the best instructors in the world are in the library, and it's free."
Hinton tries to avoid the public eye. "People think they're going to get someone really great, and they get me," she laughed. "I'm a housewife and a pretty good horse rider. I just live a normal life in Tulsa."
Teresa Miller interviews Hinton for "Writing Out Loud"
That Was Then, This Is Now
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