Author S E Hinton: Wrote for want of reading
By Judy J. Newmark of the Post-Dispatch Staff
How does an author become an author? For S E Hinton, the choice was easy — she wrote her first book when she couldn’t find anything that she wanted to read.
She reached that point when she was only 17 years old, and the result was “The Outsiders.” Now, 10 years later, Ms Hinton has just published her third novel, “Rumble Fish.” Like her other books, it’s a story about and for teenagers — not the well-behaved, clean-cut kids who get into “jams,” but delinquents, kids in trouble, the hoods and greasers who are usually thought to be outside the world of books, either as readers or subjects.
“When I finished all the horse books and didn’t want to read about the prom, I wrote ‘The Outsiders’,” said Ms Hinton, who was in St. Louis recently. “I would have read boys’ books, if there had been any.
“But what did they have? ‘Tommy Goes to the Drag Races.’ It was all nice and legal. Tommy either won the race and the girl, or lost the race and enriched his character.”
S E Hinton’s Rumble Fish – a different kind of book
“Rumble Fish” is nothing like that. It’s the story of two brothers, Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy. Rusty-James isn’t very bright, but he longs for the day when he will be just like his elder brother — intelligent and cool, a respected hood. It doesn’t work out that way, but the story is exciting, easy to follow, and very sad.
Like Ms Hinton’s other books, it’s told from a boy’s point of view — Rusty-James is the narrator.
“That’s the view I feel most comfortable with,” said the author, whose soft voice is accented with a Southwestern twang. “When I was in high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there was no Women’s Lib. The girls stayed in the bathroom, ratting their hair and outlining their eyes in black. That’s interesting for about one minute.”
She couldn’t get interested in makeup, but she was interested in the high school social structure — she thought it was “just the stupidest thing in the world.”
“The socies wore wheat jeans and got drunk and beat each other up and everybody thought they were cool,” she explained. “The greasers wore blue jeans and black jackets, and got drunk and beat each other up, and everybody thought they were scum.”
Ms Hinton had friends in both groups, but never felt that she fit into either one. That didn’t bother her.
“Some kids are terrified that they won’t fit in. but I wasn’t,” she recalled. “I’ve always been kind of a loner. I wasn’t popular or unpopular.
“Of course, some people would look at me strangely. I wasn’t an advanced kid in any way, but I was always in A-track classes, and that classifies you. One time I pulled into a popular drive-in in a car lull of greasers, and some people looked at me. I know I was thought of as eccentric.”
“Just weird Susie”
Her family thought she was a little unusual, too. Her parents encouraged her enjoyment of reading, but didn’t take her interest in writing quite so seriously. She taught herself to type when she was 12 years old, planning even then to be a writer.
While she was working on “The Outsiders,” her family didn’t pay much attention. “I was just weird Susie, up there typing,” she said with a laugh.
After she finished the novel, she showed it to a children’s writer, who was the mother of one of her friends. The woman took the book to another children’s author, who put Ms Hinton in touch with a literary agent.
One day after school, a call came to tell her that her book had been accepted for publication.
“I just went nuts!” she said. “I was alone at home and didn’t have anybody to tell. I ran around in circles and picked up the cat.” The cat, incidentally, was named Rusty-James.
Ms Hinton was sent to New York on a publicity trip for the book. Her mother said that she was too young to go to New York alone, so her younger sister went with her. It was exciting, Ms Hinton said, but added that she was so inexperienced that she couldn’t tell “if it were a big deal or not.”
S E Hinton vs Susie Hinton
At her editor’s suggestion, Ms Hinton used her initials. S E, for her professional name, instead of her first name, Susie. Because the story is told from a boy’s point of view, the editor wondered if readers might think a male had written it. Many did — several reviewers referred to the author as “he,” and she still gets letters addressed to Mr Hinton. She has continued to use her initials on her more recent books.
Ms Hinton’s father died when she was in high school, so the sale of “The Outsiders” was a financial boost, enabling her to attend college at the University of Tulsa. She studied English and education.
However, her early success also had drawbacks. “I got a terrific case of first novel block,” she said. “I couldn’t stand to write anymore. I felt that people were watching me all the time. ‘Is it a fluke?’
“I got to the point where I couldn’t use a typewriter even to write a letter. I didn’t know if I could do it again. The only thing I wrote for four years was a short story version of ‘Rumble Fish.’
She overcame the problem with the help of her boyfriend, David Inhofe, to whom she is now married. Inhofe encouraged her to write two pages every day.
“He would come over and say, ‘Have you written two pages yet?’ I would say no. Then he would sit down and say, ‘We’re not going anywhere until you do.'”
The two pages kept adding up, until she had completed her second novel, “That Was Then, This is Now.”
That experience convinced her of the importance of discipline in writing. She said that it’s not good enough to plan to write “someday” — aspiring authors have to make it a point to set time aside for writing, and work at it regularly.
Ms Hinton finds time to write when she is not working in her husband’s shoe store in Tulsa. They live outside of the city, in a house on a tract large enough for her to keep a horse, fulfilling an old ambition.
Ms Hinton considers books for teenagers her forte, and has evidence to back up her claim — her first two books have sold about 3,500,000 copies, often in paperback editions that schools use.
Reading has been an important influence in her own life — her favorite authors are Jane Austen, Mary Renault, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shirley Jackson and Emily Bronte. Ms S E Hinton hopes that through her books, teenagers who don’t usually enjoy reading will develop a taste for it.
“Some boys think reading is sissy,” Ms Hinton said. “That’s one reason I have all my heroes read.”
Because of that hope, the letters that mean the most to Ms Hinton are the ones from teenagers who say, “I never read a book before, but I read yours. When will you write another one?”
Those readers should be happy to learn that, with her third book just published, Ms Hinton is already working on number four.