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Outsiders author S.E. Hinton is still gold after 50 years

Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio; photos courtesy of S.E. Hinton with permission from Penguin Young Readers
Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio; photos courtesy of S.E. Hinton with permission from Penguin Young Readers

In 1967, Tulsa teenager Susie Hinton published her first novel, The Outsiders. The first-person narrative of Ponyboy Curtis discussed his brothers and friends in the Greasers as they faced off against the local rich kids, the Socs. The novel has never been out of print, having sparked a sense of identification with the first teenagers who read it, and every generation since. The book was also made into a now-legendary movie in 1983, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring seemingly every young actor in Hollywood at the time, including Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise. The success of The Outsiders helped boost the popularity of Hinton’s subsequent books like Tex, Rumble Fish, and That Was Then, This Is Now, all of which were also made into films.

For the 50th anniversary of The Outsiders, the author formally known as S.E. Hinton undertook a book tour to promote the anniversary edition of her most famous novel, and fortunately, The A.V. Club was one of the stops. Unfortunately, the video interview in our studio was unusable due to a microphone malfunction, but still wanting to release the interview, we’re publishing the edited transcription below. Hinton was invariably magnificent, offering us many wonderful stories from her legendary literary life.

Susie “S.E.” Hinton (center), surrounded by admirers from the Onion offices on The A.V. Club set

The A.V. Club: What is it like for you to still be talking about this book after 50 years?

S.E. Hinton: Well, it’s been part of my life for so long, it’s almost like I can’t remember… I started writing it when I was 15, so it’s like, it’s always been a part of my life. I’m certainly glad it’s still going on. My publisher said, “You know, we want you to tour,” and it’s not my favorite thing, but my gosh, how many writers get to see the 50th anniversary of your book? It’s never gone out of print. It sells better every year. So it’s just like, “Okay, I’ll tour! I’ll brag.”

AVC: Absolutely. Hadn’t you just flunked a writing class when you started writing this book?

SH: Well, I was flunking a writing class while I was writing it. It was like The Outsiders ate my homework. But it was creative writing. I had wonderful English teachers. I hate that this is the most well-known anecdote about a teacher, because I had great English teachers who were very encouraging. But all I can think of is this woman who counted off for spelling, which publishers don’t. I said in an interview not too long ago, the interviewer said, “Weren’t you just devastated?” I said, “No, I was sitting there, thinking, ‘Woman, you’re gonna feel like such an idiot.’”

AVC: She probably did. You were growing up in Oklahoma, and watching these social groups. Why tell the story from the perspective of a young teenage boy, as a teenage girl?

SH: Well, I grew up with only boys. I was a tomboy. I couldn’t find anything in the female culture to identify with. What girls got to do was stand in the john, outline their eyes in black, and do their hair and brag about their boyfriend’s car. I didn’t want that. I wanted my own damn car. Even today, my men friends outnumber my women friends. So I think maybe my mind—I’m not saying I have a masculine mind, because god knows my husband does, and I have no idea how that works—but it’s just that I don’t find a lot of female characters as interesting. And, it’s the easiest voice for me.

Another thing is, I figured, if I wrote this and said a girl was doing this stuff, which I was doing, nobody would believe it. It was very easy for me to switch over to the persona of a boy, and I’ve written from a male point of view ever since, just because it’s easy and I’m lazy.

AVC: So these characters were based on actual boys that you knew and were hanging out with?

SH: Loosely based. I couldn’t say, “This is who such-and-such is based on,” because I fictionalized everybody, mixed up their looks and personalities and so forth. But yeah, I knew the situation, being in a greaser neighborhood and hanging out with guy friends like that. It kills me when people say it’s a gang book. It’s not a gang book. I have no idea how organized gangs work, but I’m very aware of the social class warfare that was going on in my school.

Photo of Susie Hinton in high school from her personal collection (Photo courtesy of S.E. Hinton with permission from Penguin Young Readers)

AVC: And you were growing up on the greaser side.

SH: Yep. Then, when I went to high school, I got put in, nowadays what would be called AP classes. They called them college track in those days. So I was in a different group of kids when I was in high school. So I got to see both sides. I refused to identify with either one of them. I’ve always been an observer. There’s people who do things and people who watch, and I’m a watcher. I was very well aware of what was going on.

I went to a huge high school, baby boomer. The senior class that I graduated with was 1,000 kids. That was the smallest class in the school. The bell rings and this mass of humanity, you have to try to find your way through to get to your next class. But you couldn’t have a lot of friends. You got there, and you decided what group you were in, or somebody decided what group you were in for you, and then you didn’t have any friends outside of the group. And I was watching these people obey all these rules—nobody said, “Where do these rules come from? Why do we have to do this? Why can’t we have friends in any group we want to?” And I just thought the whole damn thing was stupid. So I just was watching it.

AVC: I recently reread it, and I immediately get there. Some of our commenters said they can still recite the first lines 50 years later. It’s so atmospheric. It really puts you in a place. After you finished it, how did you get it published as an unknown high school student?

SH: Well, I’ve been writing since grade school, so I’d actually been practicing for eight years. I wrote constantly. The Outsiders was the third book I’d written. It was just the first one I’d ever tried to get published. But I just did it for myself. There wasn’t anything being written realistically for teens in those days: “Mary Jane goes to the prom.” I wanted to read it, and I always told kids that tell me they want to be writers, “If you don’t want to write it bad enough, so you yourself can read it, you’re not a writer.” It wasn’t like I sat down at 16 and thought I could write a book. I’d been writing for a long time. I just had closets and drawers of all my other stuff.

Letter from Hinton to her agent, Marilyn Marlow (Photo courtesy of S.E. Hinton with permission from Penguin Young Readers)

One day I was talking to a friend at school, and she said, “My mom writes children’s books,” and I said, “Oh, I write!” She said, “Oh really, let my mom read it,” which she did, and she gave it to a friend of hers, who was also a published writer, but she had an agent, and she said, “Here’s my agent, send it to them.” I had no idea what was the difference between an agent and an editor. I had a name and an address. So I did send it to her. Marilyn Marlow of Curtis Brown did call me my senior year and said, “I’ve sold it to Viking. It was the second publisher that saw it, and it’s going to come out in a year.” Of course, I was just dumbfounded, and of course, excited. I got a contract on graduation day, which just blew graduation out of the water.

Of course, the funny thing is, four years later, I got my contracts for That Was Then, This Is Now, the second book. I got those on my wedding day. I looked at the contracts and went, “Eh, this is nothing. I’m getting married!” I stayed with Marilyn Marlow as my agent until about 12, 15 years ago. I’m still with Curtis Brown. I know I’m supposed to have starved with rejection slips all over, but it didn’t happen that way. It went real fast for me.

AVC: Everybody has their entry story to The Outsiders. Mine is that I hated my Catholic school so much. We had the worst nun ever, and the only good thing that she did was she read The Outsiders out loud to us in language-arts class. I remember at the end, when Johnny and Dally die, we’re all just sobbing—boys, everybody in the sixth grade—and it was amazing. And then of course I bought it and read everything you’ve written ever since. It’s been mentioned that you kind of had a writer’s block then after The Outsiders? You had such a high bar at that point.

Hinton and her future husband at her first book-signing (Photo courtesy of S.E. Hinton with permission from Penguin Young Readers)

SH: Well, I had never thought about the audience before. When I wrote The Outsiders, I was totally unaware of an audience, since getting published wasn’t my big deal. My big deal was getting the book right. I mean, I wrote it through different drafts before the publishers saw it. All of a sudden, I’m aware of the audience, and everybody’s expecting me to do a masterpiece. I didn’t have a masterpiece in me. I was in college, and I was reading some good writers. And of course, when I reread The Outsiders, I magnified all those faults.

One day, my boyfriend, who’s now my husband, said, “Look, just write two pages a day. Nobody ever dropped dead two pages a day. Can you do that?” Which is spoken like a true non-writer. He’s a mathematician with a graduate degree in stats from Stanford. I can’t add, and he doesn’t read. But he would come over and take me out, and if I hadn’t done my two pages, he’d just sit down and start reading the newspaper. So this is my great motivation for my second novel: wanting to go out. I did two pages a day, put them in a stack. I was very careful about every sentence. With just two pages a day, you can afford to do that. I had a stack about the size of a book, so I sent it off to my publisher. I barely had to do any editing, except my publishers sent me a letter saying, “We’re glad a college education didn’t ruin your spelling.”

AVC: That second book, That Was Then, This Is Now, probably saved me from ever trying drugs in high school or college. M&M’s drug trip with the head through the stomach and the colorful spiders… yep, nope. I don’t think I’ve actually reread it, I was so traumatized reading it the first time.

What’s interesting between those two books is that in The Outsiders, the friends are family. There aren’t any parents around, they only have each other to rely on. Whereas That Was Then, This Is Now is basically about the dissolution of a friendship, between Mark and Brian.

SH: I don’t know what my books are about until they’ve been out for about five years and people have written letters to tell me what they’re about. When I really look back on it, I realize that I’m writing about a friendship that I had, which I thought was unshakable. But then I read this line from somebody. It said, “Growth is betrayal.” At that age, especially, you’re growing so fast, you’re trying to figure out your place in the world. Maybe you’ll personally think Brian made the worst mistake ever, turning Mark in, but he was trying to do the right thing, because he didn’t know what it was. I’ve had kids write me and say, “I thought my best friend and I would never be apart, but we are.”

AVC: It was so powerful. Rumble Fish is really interesting, too, because it’s more narrow. It’s not about a wider cast of characters like the other books—it’s mostly just about Motorcycle Boy and Rusty James.

SH: You know, Francis Coppola, who did the movie—and he and I wrote the screenplay—was the first person I ever talked to that understood the book. I mean, I’ve had teachers saying, “Rusty James displays these 12 points of, if you’re taking a perfect kid, might turn into a gang member.” I wasn’t thinking about that. I was actually thinking about mythology, and I’m just reading a lot of mythology, and I was thinking about people’s need for mythology. A jillion years ago, maybe Hercules killed a lion. You don’t know if it’s a baby lion, and old toothless lion, whatever kind of lion, but it’s gone down as, “Hercules killed this lion.” Hercules was a hero among men. People need their myths. They do need them, and the Motorcycle Boy realizes this. He knows he’s the neighborhood myth, and I think that’s why he chooses to rob a pet store, instead of say, a convenience store. Because everybody does that. It was the beginning of the neighborhood myth.

If you see the movie, at the end, you’ll hear people going, “We don’t really believe he’s dead.” Like Jesse James and Billy The Kid, when they died, nobody believed it. They kept saying, “Oh, he was seen over here, over there.” When Motorcycle Boy says, “I’m tired of being the local legend, the pied piper, the Robin Hood.” And he was disillusioned with everything, he had no myth to follow. And Francis understood all this, which is just so, “Oh, thank god somebody noticed this.” Then he filmed it that way. So he’s got the character Midget coming out, he said he’s like the messenger of God, always coming up and telling Rusty James something’s going to happen, and disappears to the smoke and so forth. If you’re interesting in seeing that movie, I recommend it, but I recommend it to watch on Saturday morning, 1 o’clock at night, when you’re on your third whiskey. It’ll be very beautiful and make perfect sense. But if you try to watch it on a Sunday afternoon and make some popcorn, you’re going to go, “What the hell?”

AVC: Speaking of movies, for The Outsiders, it must have been so daunting to make. The book had been out for 15 years, we all had images of what those characters looked like in our heads, but you and Francis Coppola are bringing that to the screen. You both worked on the screenplay for Rumble Fish, not The Outsiders

SH: I did work. Francis and I wrote the screenplay for The Outsiders, no matter whose name you see on the credits.

AVC: I apologize.

SH: Well, it’s not your fault, it’s the writers guild. I mean, this person had done a screenplay based on The Outsiders sort of, but the only thing that they had in common with the book was the names of the characters. Francis loved it when he read the book, and he decided he wanted to write a screenplay. He came to Tulsa, and I showed him around to different locations, the neighborhoods and stuff like that, and he said, “Oh, I love this. We’re going to shoot it here, and you can help me with everything.” And he said, “You want to help me write a screenplay?” I said, “Sure.” And he took out all the pages of the book in the paperback: He outlined the narration in one color, the action in one color, and dialogue in another color, and cut them up, and put them roughly on a screenplay form, pasted it on copy paper, handed it to somebody, and they came back with it typed up in kind of a screenplay format. He handed it to me and said, “Susie, you want to cut it for me?” I said, “Sure.”

It wasn’t my first film. Tim Hunter, who directed Tex, had also done that in Tulsa the summer before. Tim Hunter’s still one of my very best friends. But I watch what he did with the screenplay, and I was on the set all the time for that, and taught Matt to ride on my horse. My horse Toyota was already the biggest ego, a maniac, because he was a star in that world. He was so used to being called for first place. He’d step out whether he’d won it or not. “You didn’t win this one!” He just knew those cameras and those people were all for him. He adored Matt. Did better for him than anyone. The old rancher where I was boarding him at the time said, “You know this horse is trying to help that boy?” I said, “Yeah, he is.” That horse, after the movies left, there wasn’t much I could do to get him to move without yelling, “Action!”

Matt Dillon on Hinton’s horse Toyota during the filming of Tex (Photo courtesy of S.E. Hinton with permission from Penguin Young Readers)

But anyways, I’d seen what Tim—he was the co-writer of the screenplay for Tex—had done with it. So I was pretty ruthless. I knew you couldn’t slow things down on the screen. You can’t give people big speeches. I’m in my 30s, and I come across some dialogue, and I think, “Ugh.” So I rewrote it, gave it back to Francis. He was fine with all the cuts, because I’m good at that, I’m good at editing. And he goes, “Susie, this line isn’t the same as it is in the book.” I said, “No, Francis, it’s better.” He said, “We’re making it for the kids. We want to use the dialogue word for word.” So that was my big problem with working with the man—he wanted to be true to the book.

AVC: And it was your book, and you were like, “It’s totally fine to change it”?

Hinton and Rob Lowe on the set of The Outsiders (Photo courtesy of S.E. Hinton with permission from Penguin Young Readers)

SH: Yeah, and then I got the cast. We had the luxury of two weeks of rehearsal. Francis had them all calling each other by their script names. They were so much fun. I felt so bad, because they’re these little kids. Tommy [C.Thomas Howell] was 15, who played Ponyboy. Rob [Lowe] turned 18. Matt [Dillon] had just turned 18. Emilio [Estevez] and [Tom] Cruise had turned 19. Ralph [Macchio] was the old guy at 20. I rehearsed with them. I felt bad. They had nobody who had their back. I mean, they were little kids. So I decided I would be their mom. Rob called me “Mom” half the time. They all came to me with their… they didn’t have any big problems, there wasn’t any cliques or backstabbing or any dust-up between them. They were all very cohesive, yet they were all so different. Every once in awhile, you’d get a whimper or whine here or there to take care of. They were sweet boys. I realized what a good mom I could be, because I could just nag and worry needlessly. I thought, “This is fairly easy. If I ever have a kid and he’s a teenager, it’s going to be a piece of cake.” Of course, when mine was a teenager, I realized the words, “I’m going to cut your lines” had no effect on him whatsoever.

AVC: How did you feel about that movie when it came out? How did it stand up for you against the book? Was it an adaptation that you liked?

SH: It was disappointing in that we had shot the whole book, and then something happened in the editing room—I don’t know what it was—but so much of it was just cut to ribbons. All of Rob’s good scenes. And he told me, it cracked him up because he thought he was so bad he had to be taken out. Which was not the case. I thought it looked like an insult to the audience that they couldn’t sit still for five minutes while a story was being told. They had to hit the big climaxes and stuff, and it didn’t even make any sense. And then later, Francis was getting so many letters from kids going, “Where’s this scene? Where’s this scene? Where’s this scene?” And we shot them all. And he was going to go speak to his granddaughter’s high school, and he said, “I knew when I got there, they were all going to go, ‘Where’s this scene? Where’s this scene?’”

So he went back and dug out footage that had been deleted and scrambled them back into another version, and then he later came out with that version. It’s called The Outsiders: The Complete Novel. It has all those scenes in it, including one of the ones I liked best, the opening scene when Ponyboy gets jumped and all his friends from the neighborhood come to rescue him. It’s the only time in the book or the movie you see them all together. Each of the actors had a minute, two lines, to establish their characters, and they did it so, so well. I was so glad to see that. And of course, Rob’s good scenes. So he’s the only director I ever heard of that recut a movie because fans of the book asked him to.

AVC: At that time, Francis Ford Coppola was coming off of The Godfather movies, and then he’s doing your book. And you said you were in your 30s. Was that intimidating for you?

SH: Not really. He invited me down. He was holding a local casting. He went around and tried to look for unknowns. I remember realizing he was a little nervous about meeting me. When I met him, I said, “You know, Francis, I did have one problem that you’re doing this movie.” He said, “What’s that?” I said, “The Godfather is better than the book, Black Stallion is better than the book. Are you going to do that to me?” And he just laughed. We got along real well. We were real close. We’re still real close. It’s like we can pick up where we left off at any time.

Halfway through The Outsiders, he says to me, “We work well together. You got anything else I can do while I’m here? We got a crew, we got a cast, we can go right into something.” I said, “I’ve got this weird book called Rumble Fish, nobody gets it.” He gets in raving about Rumble Fish. “This is so weird, and we’re going to make it weirder. We’re going to shoot it in black and white.” He had it all in his head after one reading. He looks at me and he says, “Susie, you and I can write this on Sunday.” Well, we’re working six days on The Outsiders, 14 to 16 hours a day. We’re going to write this on Sunday? But we did. We had a couple Sundays. We had a workable draft. Then Tex came out. The publicity for that was mad. While we were shooting, still finishing up, starting to shoot Rumble Fish, the boys came back to do some reshoots for The Outsiders. At one point in my life, I was writing a movie, editing a movie, and advertising a movie, all in one week. Different movies. I got a crash course in movie-making. But I enjoyed it. I know I slept for six months after, probably. It wasn’t fun. It was miserable.

AVC: The Rumble Fish shoot?

SH: Yeah.

AVC: A lot of strong characters on set there.

SH: Oh yeah. Mr. [Dennis] Hopper.

AVC: Oh yeah! With Mr. [Mickey] Rourke.

SH: Mr. [Nicolas] Cage. Not a blast. Not in the least. Mr. Rourke, the crew was going to have T-shirts made up that said, “No wonder they killed him.” He was a pill. But he did a great job. I always say he did a great job. It was a hard part—he did a wonderful job. I shook his hand and told him so at the end of the shoot. I said, “Mickey, you did a really great job in a hard part.” Francis was standing right there. He said, “You mean, he did a really hard job in a great part.” One thing that set Mickey for me was he absolutely adored Francis. Just adored him. Okay, he’s a big pill. He doesn’t have to be my best friend.

AVC: When we announced this interview, we got a ton of questions and a lot of comments for you. A lot of people just saying “Thank you.” “The movie and the book still have an impact on me.” “Growing up as a poor kid in the inner city, your book really resonated with me and got me interested in other books and forms of writing. Including Robert Frost.” The Robert Frost line is the one that most people remember from The Outsiders. Was that something that you were reading in your class in high school?

SH: When I was writing The Outsiders, I would just pick up bits and pieces around school and write them into the book. In my much-maligned creative writing class, I just picked up a magazine and read that poem, and thought, “Oh, this is what I’m trying to say with The Outsiders.” I couldn’t define it, but I went in and wrote it into the book. And of course, that phrase “stay gold.” I just hit a penny.

AVC: You could have trademarked it. That’s another question we have here: “How many Outsiders tattoos have you seen?” I bet a lot of them say “stay gold.”

SH: Yep, a lot of them say that.

AVC: What other things do you see?

SH: One of them had a tattoo of the whole opening line. It took up a lot of arm space.

AVC: What’s the best interaction, or one of the best interactions you’ve had with a fan?

SH: Oh, I used to work in a shoe store. My husband and I opened the first Earth shoe store in Tulsa, and we sold some other brands, too. I worked in there, measured feet and all that stuff. These big kids in their 20s came in to buy some construction boots and stuff. My husband went by and said, “Did you guys ever read The Outsiders?” This kid I was fitting, he said to him, “This is her.” He looked at me and said, “You made me cry on the school bus.”

AVC: We touched on the fact that you were a greaser, the audience that you wrote for was yourself, and why you wrote as a teenage boy instead of a teenage girl.

SH: If I’d written it about girls, when it came time to shoot the movie, and I spent months surrounded by beautiful girls, it wouldn’t have been near as much fun.

AVC: But that’s what’s interesting. Rereading the book, Dallas Winston, in the book, is a blond bad boy. Matt Dillonwho you obviously have a strong connection with, he’s in three of your moviesis not how he’s described in the novel, but he completely embodies that character.

SH: Absolutely. People say, “Well, Matt wasn’t a blond.” And I’d say, I’d rather have the right actor than the right hair. [Than do] something like they did to poor Colin Farrell and dye him, bleach him blond for Alexander. But no, they embody the spirit of the character, and that’s what really counted. And of course Ralph, he looked just like the character. Ralph showed me his book report from seventh grade on The Outsiders, and it said, “If I ever get a chance to be in the movie, I have to play Johnny.” Francis did this weird auditioning thing in New York. He had them all play different characters and mix each other up. At one point, when they had Johnny playing, Ralph told me, “I was so mad, I don’t want to play this. I have to play Johnny. I have to play Johnny!” He got the part. Francis thought they’d have fun with it, but they didn’t.

AVC: Yeah, they had an emotional connection to a certain character. You don’t want to go in for Johnny and read for Two-Bit, someone who’s entirely different.

One thing that I’ve always loved about your books is the character names. Ponyboy, Sodapop, Cherry Valance, Rusty James. Where did those come from?

SH: I don’t know. I can’t remember where Ponyboy and Sodapop came from. All I can tell you is I was not drinking at the time. But I’m glad I did, because movies and other TV shows reference them all the time. One time I was watching My Name Is Earl, and they said, “When I was growing up, I had a hideout in the woods, Ponyboy-style.” Well, if I named the kid Steve, nobody would have gotten what he means. If you say Ponyboy, or Veronica Mars saying, “Stay cool, Sodapop,” in the pilot, people know immediately what you’re talking about. Rusty James was actually the name of a cat I had. Beautiful, big old Maine coon, but it was black with rust-tinged fur, and I kept thinking, “Too good of a name to waste on a cat.”

The characters in the book I’m writing now are named Bill and Jim. I don’t know if I’ll get around to finishing it or not. It’s a paranormal suspense-comedy-thriller. It’s so far out there, so goofy. It’ll no doubt be the last book that I write, if I finish it. And I’m thinking, people will go, “Poor ole S.E. was really losing it at the end.”

AVC: You’re also a Supernatural fan.

SH: Oh yeah, I love Supernatural. Eric Kripke turned out to be a friend of mine. After I wrote him a fan letter, he invited me to visit the set of The CW show Supernatural. So I visited the set and had a really good time. When I was leaving, I got so many invitations to come back. Now I go about twice a year, and have for nine years, to visit the set of Supernatural. Most of the crew stayed the same, the actors are the same. So I watched them grow up. It’s really fun. They treat me between royalty and family, which is very nice. I take the crew out. I go in with the director and come back to the hotel with the director. But I love the show. I think it’s great.

AVC: We can’t thank you enough for coming in for The A.V. Club today and joining us. Nowadays especially, people are always like, “Well, I’m just one person, what can I do?” I was thinking about that with you. You were one person, one teenager, and you basically created the YA genre of fiction and these books that have affected generations and continue to every single year.

SH: Let me just say this about The Outsiders: I love it when people write in and say, “I didn’t like to read, and then I read your book, and I realized I can like to read.” Because a lot of them think they physically can’t finish a book. But the letters I get saying “You changed my life” scare me, because who am I to change anybody’s life? So this is the way that I’ve learned to deal with it, because it’s all over the world and I get the same letters from people all over the world: that The Outsiders was meant to be written, and I got chosen to write it. It’s the message, not the messenger.