S.E. Hinton, a.k.a. Your Majesty
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“I don’t know what I should call you,” Jane Smiley said as the crowd at Moore Hall gave a warm welcome to S.E. Hinton.
“You can call me Susie, or Your Majesty,” S.E. Hinton said. We all laughed, but in a way, it’s kind of true. There are few authors who grab a whole genre by the soul and shake it up, but at 16 years old, when S.E. Hinton wrote ‘The Outsiders,’ that’s just what she did for young adult fiction (also known as YA).
Smiley began by reading from Hinton’s lesser-known and newest work, ‘Some of Tim’s Stories,’ and then the two spent most of their conversation talking about that book and her adult novel ‘Hawks Harbor.’
The one thing she guaranteed about the book, is that Hawks Harbor is not the typical S.E. Hinton novel.
“I wrote that book for fun,” she said of her adult novel. “And it was the loosest I felt about writing since writing ‘The Outsiders.’ ”
When asked what books she read as a child, she said that she wasn’t a good reader back then but that she liked animal books such as ‘The Black Stallion’ or those by Will James. She thought she might grow up to be a cowboy. She read David Copperfield while stuck in a cabin on a lake and discovered Jane Austen while in college. Now, she rereads Austen every year, and a few years ago she took an Austen course.
“It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” she said of that class. “Believe me. I’ve been hugged by Matt Dillon.”
When the panel finally opened up for audience questions, all of the questioners brought it back to those books that she’s best known for — ‘The Outsiders,’ ‘Rumble Fish,’ ‘Tex’ and ‘That Was Then This Is Now’ — each beginning with a heartfelt thanks to her for writing the YA books. It was clear from their gratitude that those books had changed people’s lives.
Hinton said she wrote ‘The Outsiders’ because she wanted to write something realistic, something that she had wanted to read when she was a teenager. It started as a short story, after her friend had gotten beaten up, and the story kept growing.
“When I was young, all the books were about a Mary Jane and the football player and the prom and ending up with the quiet guy and making your mom happy,” she said. “Well, I’d been to a few proms, and it was about who got killed in the parking lot and who’s got the booze inside.”
When she was growing up, she was a tomboy who hung out with the boys, went duck hunting and played football. She grew up in a greaser neighborhood but was in classes on the college track. She knew that girls were confined back then, and she felt that if she wrote the book and said a girl did it, no one would believe it.
“I didn’t think like a girl,” she said. “They’d rat their hair and paint their eyes black, which was fine for five minutes.”
As the story expanded, she began telling her friends that she was writing a book. “I asked my friends what should happen in the story, and they would say, ‘Oh, the church should burn down.’ ” So she would say OK, and then the church would burn down. She didn’t think that she’d get published.
Her road to publication was a series of lucky strokes. A friend’s mom wrote kids books and shared it with another writer who gave Hinton her agent’s name and address. She got her first book contract on graduation day.
She’s clearly humbled by the fact that her books have done such good in the world and moved so many people. “I think that ‘The Outsiders’ was meant to be written, and I was just picked to write it,” she says.
Despite fans begging over the years for a sequel to ‘The Outsiders,’ there won’t be one, although she cheekily claimed that she sometimes writes fan fiction and that the best on S.E. Hinton fan fiction sites is hers. “Pony Boy learns a lot in what happened in that week, and it changed the way he thought.”
She wrote ‘The Outsiders’ at 16, and even at that age she said she knew that Pony Boy’s story was over when the book ended. But it seems to go deeper for her. “I can’t write it again. I’m not 16 anymore. I can’t unknow what I know now.”
The conversation wrapped on a strange note, when Smiley said that books written by adults for young adults were a kind of propaganda. It wasn’t clear what it was propaganda for. Hinton seemed to agree and to imply that there was an optimism of youth that could not be recaptured by adults in a genuine way.
Does this mean that both Smiley and Hinton think that only young people can write authentic teen voices or authentic teen books? I don’t believe that, and I suspect that they don’t, either.
In the end, it doesn’t matter; when it comes to great classic YA novels, ‘The Outsiders’ is a crown jewel. I’ll still gladly call S.E. Hinton “Your Majesty.”
And I’ll remember to stay gold.
— Cecil Castellucci
Cecil Castellucci is the author of three young adult novels and two graphic novels for girls.