Every year new teachers, librarians and readers discover S.E. Hinton and every year they express the same surprised disbelief when they discover that S.E. Hinton is Susan Eloise and that The Outsiders was published when she was a seventeen-year-old student at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was the late Velma Varner, S.E. Hinton’s first editor, who suggested she use just her initials. `She figured that if reviewers saw that a girl had written a story about a boys’ gang, they wouldn’t take it seriously. And we fooled the first reviewers,’ reports the author obviously enjoying the joke.
The Outsiders has been firmly on the list of sure-fire hits for teenage readers almost from the day it was published in this country in 1970. That Was Then, This Is Now, Rumblefish, and Tex which followed proved equally successful and there is now a sizeable following for S.E. Hinton among British teenagers which is growing all the time. Recently made films of three of her books should introduce her to an even wider audience.
S.E. Hinton lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was born, went to school and wrote The Outsiders. Tulsa was, and is a thriving, oil-affluent city where people are defined not so much by race, religion or ethnic origin, as by money. They live on the `right’ or `wrong’ sides of the legendary tracks. In the sixties boys banded together for pride, safety and self-image on the basis of class. Against this background S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders. Ignoring the middle, she took for her story the two extremes of Tulsa’s ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ – the ‘greasers’ and the ‘socs’.
She explains the term ‘socs’ (pronounced ‘soshes’). ‘People were called ‘socials’ in junior high but by high school they were known as ‘sots’. They were the real popular people, the ‘in’ crowd, and usually from the upper middle class.’ Then as now groups defined themselves by possessions, looks and clothes. The greasers with their elaborate, slicked hairstyles; the ‘socs’ with their cars, madras cotton jackets and fluffy sweaters. The Outsiders sums it up in a confrontation between Bob, a ‘soc’ and Ponyboy, the greaser who tells the story.
“‘You know what a greaser is? White trash with long hair” … “You know what a ‘soc’ is? White trash with Mustangs and madras.”‘
In all of this S.E. Hinton was in the middle. ‘I grew up in a borderline neighbourhood. I played with the greasers but I got put in classes with the ‘socs’.’ She understood and had insight into both groups but essentially her sympathies lie with the greasers.
The book had its origins in real incidents – a friend being beaten up, a boy (like the character Dallas Winston) being shot and killed by the police for having stolen a car.
In 1965 S.E. Hinton started to write The Outsiders, she now says for three reasons. ‘I like to write, I needed something to read. I was angry about the ‘socs’ and the greasers – the case of injustice.’ It began as a short story which quickly grew to forty pages as she shared her work in progress with others in the class. When she got stuck they’d make suggestions like ‘Why don’t you burn the church down’. Slowly over a year and a half it became a novel; begun when she was fifteen and written mostly in her sixteenth year.
The ‘liking to write’ had begun while she was in grade school and she had already completed two novels which she had never shown to anyone. This story, she felt, was something different and she gave it to a friend of the family who was a writer. She passed it to someone else who was also enthusiastic and supplied the name of a good New York literary agent. The agent agreed that it was good and sold it to the second publisher that read it. It was an instant success and a landmark in ‘young adult fiction’.
The success enabled her to go to the University of Tulsa where she graduated with a major in education. The ‘landmark’ may well have precipitated a classic case of ‘writer’s block’, for S. E. Hinton wrote nothing for the next four years. ‘I just felt completely paralysed and couldn’t write. It wasn’t as though I didn’t want to write. I think the success of The Outsiders had a lot to do with it. Everyone’s watching for your next book, expecting a masterpiece and I knew I didn’t have a masterpiece in me.’ It was a fellow student, David Inhofe, who later became her husband, who broke through the block. ‘He was so sick of seeing me in such a bad mood that he refused to take me out unless I wrote two pages a day. Most. people start writing again because they want to be published. I just wanted to go out with David.’
That was Then, This is Now was published in 1971. Susan Hinton and David Inhofe graduated, married and moved to Southern Spain where they bought seven acres on the side of a mountain. When David decided to take a master’s degree in Mathematics they moved to California where Rumblefish was written. In 1979 when Tex appeared they had moved back to Tulsa where they live still with three dogs, one cat and a horse. About her life there S. E. Hinton has said, ‘I’ve never been a joiner. In Tulsa I have a reputation for being slightly eccentric. Even my close friends think I’m a little nutty.’ She likes horses, hunting and football. This summer the Inhofes have been awaiting the birth of their first baby, an anticipated event which along with the filming of her books has delayed the writing of the fifth novel. ‘I started a new book after we wrapped up the movie version of Tex and even got the first chapter done. But it was interrupted by the filming of The Outsiders and Rumblefish. And then I got pregnant and stopped wanting to think about teenagers; I wanted to think about babies. I’ll be glad to get back to it though.’
S. E. Hinton likes teenagers, `scruffy ones especially’. She writes with power and tenderness about poor, tough kids, growing up without families in a stark, violent, dangerous world. In the books there is a double struggle, first to survive and also, for her first person heroes, to understand themselves and their world. Friendship, loyalty, duty, heroism, hero-worship, love; all feature vividly and often tragically. The publication of The Outsiders set a new standard for realism in teenage fiction. Yet she says, `I never set out to be a ground breaker or to be controversial. I just wanted to tell the truth about teenage life and to tell it the way it really is. Most adults don’t remember, or don’t want to remember the emotional intensity and the idealism of being a teenager. That’s what makes my work different. Mostly I just remember real well what it was like to be a teenager. The letters I get today are just like the ones I got 15 years ago. Some of the problems change, but the feelings don’t.’
Her memories are in no way limited to the female viewpoint. In fact girls get very sketchy treatment in a Hinton novel. Her central characters are all boys. ‘My close friends were all guys’, she says. `I couldn’t understand what girls were talking about most of the time; but I was a real good football player and a pretty good fighter. I identified with the boys and I was more comfortable writing from the guy’s point of view. In all my characters there is some aspect of myself. Ponyboy is a lot of the way I felt at fourteen.’ Her characters are always her starting point. ‘I have to begin with people. I always know my characters, exactly what they look like, their birthdays, what they like for breakfast. It doesn’t matter whether these things appear in the book. I still have to know them.’ The strong involvement with character makes her impatient of being labelled a writer of `problem books’. ‘Just being a teenager is problem enough for anybody! When I started there was no realistic fiction being written for teenagers. I wrote my first one to have something to read that dealt realistically with teenage life; but I think the genre has gone overboard in the other direction. It’s like, “I’m going to write about suicide”, “I’m going to write about drugs,” I’m going to write about people.’
It pleases S. E. Hinton that it was her teenage readers who got the film-makers interested in her books. Matt Dillon (Dallas Winston in The Outsiders) a young actor for whom she now has a special affection was one of the many teenagers who recommended her books to director, Tim Hunter when he was looking for subjects to film which would capture a new young audience for the cinema.
Mr Hunter put up Tex, a story of two brothers with an absentee father, struggling to make a life and find a future, as a project to Disney Productions. Disney was keen. S. E. Hinton was hesitant. `I thought they’d really sugar it up, take out all the sex, drugs and violence and leave nothing but a story of a boy and his horse.’ But she was persuaded and reassured and there was a special condition that her horse would be cast as Negrito, Tex’s horse (renamed Rowdy for the film).
Almost simultaneously she was being approached by Zoetrope studios for the film rights to The Outsiders. By chance she had just seen and been impressed by Zoetrope’s film adaptation of The Black Stallion and felt happy to trust them with a book she knew meant a lot to millions of teenagers and which she had refused to sell before.
Suddenly a writer who had never thought her books had to be turned into films had concluded two deals within a week – and as a result committed the next two years to an increasing involvement with film-making. Both films were shot on location in Tulsa and she found herself acting as a consultant for both. ‘I had heard that with movies the first thing they do is ask the writer to drop off the face of the earth. The first thing Tim Hunter asked me to do was hang around the set.’ And hang around she did, finding locations, selecting actors and re-writing dialogue.
For The Outsiders she was even more closely involved and on the set every day, even making a brief appearance as a nurse in a scene with Matt Dillon. Halfway through the filming Francis Ford Coppola, the Director, asked her if she’d written anything else. She told him about Rumblefish; he read it and liked it enough to suggest they collaborate on a screenplay. They did, working on their Sundays off from The Outsiders – and making the film straight after.
S. E. Hinton discovered a talent for writing screen dialogue and a liking for working in the film industry. ‘When you’re making a movie you feel like an outlaw. Traffic stops for you and you don’t keep the same hours that anybody else keeps. I like that outlaw feeling. And there’s another nice thing, there’s always somebody else to blame. With a novel you have to take all the blame yourself.’
So, with three of her novels now on film and the fourth optioned is she thinking of a permanent transfer? ‘I might do more films one day, but I still think of myself as a novelist and with the next book I’m writing I’m doing everything I can to make it unfilmable.’
What about writing for adults?
`If I can ever find any adults who are as interesting as the kids I like, maybe I’ll write about adults some day.’ But you can tell she doesn’t think that’s very likely.
The Outsiders Gollancz, 0 575 00515 7, £5.95 Fontana Lions, 0 00 671427 7, £ 1.00
That was Then, This is Now Gollancz, 0 575 00796 6, £5.95 Fontana Lions, 0 00 671399 8, £1.00
Rumble Fish Fontana Lions, 0 00 671210 X, £1.00
Tex Gollancz, 0 575 02710 X, £5.95 Fontana Lions, 0 00 671763 2, £1.00