Ellen Hopkins has made a career out of mining teen misfortune. Whether it’s methamphetamine addiction or domestic abuse, perfectionism or teen pregnancy, each of the author’s nine novels for young adults has been a New York Times bestseller, including her latest, “Tilt,” released earlier this month. The book is the teen spin-off to Hopkins’ adult novel, “Triangles,” which tracked the troubled lives of various parents navigating their midlife crises. “Tilt” tells the story from their children’s points of view to show the effect of parents’ decisions and neglect. We caught up with the author to talk about her newest bestseller and her unique form of storytelling. All of Hopkins’ young adult novels are written in free verse.
Jacket Copy: You have 10 published novels, nine of which are written for teens, including “Tilt.” But “Tilt” is different in that it’s almost a Rashomon-style retelling of your adult novel, “Triangles.” Why did you want to write the teen spin-off of that story?
Ellen Hopkins: In writing “Triangles,” those three women had teens, so the teen stories became interesting to me too. Writing the adult novel, the adult stories were the heart of the book. But it became an interesting experiment because parents are always trying to figure out what their teens are thinking and teens are always trying to figure out what their parents are thinking.
JC: What are the parents doing in “Triangles” that so adversely affects their kids in “Tilt?”
EH: One of the moms is having an affair, so she’s all tied up in that and not paying attention to what her daughter’s doing. HIV we talk about some because a parent finds the boyfriend’s bottle of anti-retrovirals and she’s like, “Does my kid have AIDS?” A big focus in both books is the little girl who’s dying of spinal muscular atrophy, so her failing days and her death really affect the three characters very profoundly. The idea that life could end this young or this quickly, that touches these three kids very deeply, so their decisions end up being changed by her death too.
JC: In “Tilt,” the three characters are forced to deal with death, teen pregnancy and HIV, among other things. Writing about such hard-core topics, are you ever accused of being sensationalist?
EH: I’m not. First of all, I have a 15-year-old at home, so I’m experiencing teen drama on a daily basis at home. But I also do a lot of high school visits, so I’m out among high school kids. Through social media, I’m talking with teens all the time in hundreds of messages a day, so I understand what they’re going through. What I’m writing about, it’s all there. It’s not stuff I’m making up to be sensationalistic.
JC: You are, obviously, an adult. How do you tap into teens’ emotions in a way that reads as authentic?
EH: I have a respect for teens, not that everything they do makes me happy. It’s really necessary to write contemporary young adult fiction. It’s not about teaching them lessons. It’s not about dissecting their psyches. It’s about respect. To have that respect for them, to listen to what they’re saying, I’ve become almost like a Dear Abby. It’s like you’re the mom. They can’t tell their moms, but they tell me. It’s weird and sometimes depressing and sometimes uplifting too because I get both sides: kids who’ve come through and made it out the other side and kids who don’t have these problems in their lives but who want to know why other kids are doing what they’re doing.
JC: Why do you write your books as poetry instead of prose?
EH: My first novel, “Crank,” was loosely based on a very close-to-me story about my daughter’s meth addiction. I wanted to write that book first person from her point of view, and when I wrote it in prose, she had just gone to prison, and the voice was angry and it was me. I’ve been writing poetry forever, so it struck me to try combining verse and fiction. For that story specifically, it worked really, really well. I continue with it because what verse does when you combine it with fiction is it takes away enough of the extraneous description and language that it puts you on the page, so it’s more like living the story than being told a story.
JC: It’s incredible that you not only had that experience with your daughter but were willing to open up and write about it.
EH: Once kids know I’m willing to share my story, I think they kind of open up themselves. I just did a school event, and this girl waited until everybody left and came up to me and said, “I think it’s fate you came here because I just tried meth for the first time three days ago, and I’m going to stop.” She had a horrible life, but in our discussion, she really wanted not to. She just needed somebody to tell her she could make it out the other side. She just didn’t have that support system. A book can do that if you don’t have that support system. That’s the thing about books. Kids have these questions, and books like mine answer those questions without them having to go out and try and experiment and ask them of the wrong people. I absolutely think books save lives.