The Outsiders has stayed gold for 50 years. It's always been the story of being doomed and unwanted and full of heart, which feels like most of life when you're a teenager. S.E. Hinton was only 15 years old when she wrote the story of Oklahoma greasers rumbling on the streets with violent preppie Socs. But from its unlikely beginnings, the story kickstarted the entire young adult genre of books, as well as the careers of Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon after it was made into a 1983 movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Hinton, 68, and still an Oklahoman, will appear at the Beaverton Powell's this Thursday for the book's 50th anniversary. We talked with her about momming Rob Lowe and how it feels to read what you wrote when you were a teenager.
WW: You wrote the first version of The Outsiders when you were 15. How did you even find a publisher?
S.E. Hinton: I'd been writing for years. The Outsiders was the third I'd written, just the first I ever got published. It came about in a strange way. I was talking to a friend at school; she said her mother wrote children's books. She told her mother I wrote, and her mother read it and liked it, gave it to another friend who was a published writer who sent me to an agent. I was a high school kid in Oklahoma. I didn't know the difference between an agent, publisher or editor or anything, but I had a name and an address. Marilyn Marlow, at Curtis Brown Limited, said, "You've captured a certain spirit here." It went real quickly for me, and it's entirely due to Marilyn, at the end of my junior year and senior year. I had my contract in high school. I stayed with Marilyn Marlow as agent until her death 14 years ago.
This is a racy book. Was there a scandal about your age?
Hinton: Not too much. I got some fairly decent reviews. It built slowly over the years. It wasn't like I got overwhelmed with a bunch of money or a bunch of fame. That grew really slowly. In the beginning sometimes it was banned—just from parents seeing the book's cover and not reading the book. Teachers said to students, "Take the book home and read it." Nowadays grandparents share it with their grandchildren.
You get credited as inventing the entire young adult genre of books.
Hinton: When it came out in paperback, that's how the young adult genre started. It came out as a drugstore paperback, like Mickey Spillane. It didn't sell. It came back from those places in droves. Publishers were gonna let it go out of print. But they realized in certain places it was selling real well. It turned out teachers were using it in classrooms for reluctant readers by word of mouth. They realized there was this market—there are novels you look at as YA, like Catcher in the Rye or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird. They were all published as adult books.
What's the strangest thing a fan of the book has sent you?
Hinton: For a while the only thing people sent me were things to autograph and send back. I tried doing that. It turned my home into a post office and my husband into a mailman. Somebody today told me she was contemplating suicide when she first read it, and it made her have hope. I like the fact it has helped reluctant readers learn to like to read. It's been a big part of my life, but the ones who say I changed their life frankly scare me. I say it's the message, not the messenger. Don't confuse me with the book.
Do people keep showing you "stay gold" tattoos?
Hinton: Oh yeah. People keep sending me pics of their tattoos. Some are elaborate, one was the whole opening paragraph on their arm. Some were very simple. There's a place in the book where Pony recites the poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," by Robert Frost. At the end, Johnny says "Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold." If I had only copyrighted that phrase. It's all over. It's on greeting cards, it's everywhere.
Why does everybody have goofy names? Were these gangs people you knew?
Hinton: They weren't gangs, it was social class warfare. I grew up in the greaser neighborhood, I was a tomboy, I had guy friends. But I got put in AP classes—college track in those days—and I knew Socs. I didn't base any one individual on anyone, but whatever character you write about becomes part of yourself.
How did the movie happen? Were you very involved?
Hinton: I was very involved. Francis [Ford Coppola] came to town to scout locations. I scouted locations with him. He wouldn't shoot it here, but he asked whether I would help with the screenplay. I rehearsed with the boys, there were two weeks of rehearsal time. For the whole time, Francis paid me to be on set with him every day. Oh, my boys! I loved working with Francis. We went on to do Rumble Fish [with Matt Dillon]. I really bonded with my greaser boys—Tommy [C. Thomas Howell], the one who played Ponyboy. Rob [Lowe] came into town recently, and we visited the locations. Matt [Dillon] and I still get together when he's in town.
Were you kind of a mom on set?
Hinton: I mommed them a lot—they were just boys. Tommy was 15. Rob had his 18th during the movie. Matt had just turned 18. I immediately made myself their mom. Rob called me Mom half the time. I had their backs, I was looking out for them.
You were really young when you wrote the book. Do you regret any parts?
Hinton: Oh no. I look back and there are parts that make me cringe as an adult writer. I could never be that un-self-conscious again. It was involving to teenagers, how emotionally over the top it is. At the time I didn't know anybody else felt this way.
I can think of parts I'm very proud of. Man, I used to be smart. The opening paragraph where Ponyboy declares himself a person who's half imagination, half in the practical world? How he wanted to look like Paul Newman but wishes he had a ride home? I'm also very proud of the ending because it makes people go back and read it again. You know, the book sold better last year than any other year it's been published.
S.E. Hinton appears Thursday, May 18, at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd, Beaverton. 7 pm. Free.