Jane Smiley (l.) and S.E. Hinton,
at their panel.
“My name is Susie, but you can also call me Your Majesty,” quipped S.E. Hinton at the beginning of the discussion about her work with friend and fellow novelist Jane Smiley at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on April 26. Telling the packed lecture hall at UCLA that she is “proud” that her bestselling novels Rumble Fish and The Outsiders are on several banned books lists, S.E. Hinton set a lively and engaging tone for the hour-long panel.
Smiley began by asking about Hinton’s book Some of Tim’s Stories (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2007), a collection unique in that all 14 pieces are only 1000 long. They are incisive portraits of characters shaped by circumstances and one another and, Hinton added, “The word count created the rhythm of each story. They’re enigmatic and short, and reflect Tim’s observant nature. He’s one of my best-developed characters.” Hinton became so involved with the character of Tim, in fact, that one night her husband told her she was starting to sound like him.
Known for her predominantly male characters, Hinton explained that while growing up she was a tomboy. “I had no identity in the female culture,” she said candidly. “I didn’t think like a girl, so it’s always been easier to write from a male point of view.” Underlying everything Hinton writes, though, is her belief that “self-realization can help you get your act together,” regardless of gender.
HawkesHarbor (Tor Books, 2005) was Hinton’s first adult novel and of considerable interest to Smiley, who noted that the character of Grenville Hawkes seems to be Hinton’s most troubled creation. Hinton countered, “Even though I tackle some serious subjects in it, this is the book that I wrote for fun. It’s a book that people either absolutely love, or they can’t stand it.” There are several sex scenes in the book, which Hinton said her husband always encouraged her to write. “He’d tell me, ‘I think you can write soft porn. Why don’t you try doing that?’ So when he read it he said, ‘My God, do you realize this is soft porn?’ ‘Why yes, honey,’ I said to him, ‘it was a joy for me!’ ”
Hinton, who speaks in a dry Oklahoma drawl, told the audience that an astrologer had once helped her understand the connection between her writing and her love for horseback riding. “She told me they're under the same pleasure discipline planets. I realized I've always shown the same discipline to my writing that I have to riding hunters performing dressage in the ring. Just at the time I was getting sick of staying in the ring I bought a trail horse and started writing Hawkes Harbor. I wanted ‘out of the ring’ of my previous [young adult] subjects. I gave myself a whole lot of freedom I never had before.”
Relationships and personal awareness are both key to Hinton’s work. She wrote The Outsiders because at the time there was nothing in literature that captured the essence of teenagers and their angst and motivations. “I write from my subconscious. Then people write to tell me what my books are about, which I never realize at the time,” she joked.
The books that influenced Hinton most were about animals and cowboys. Will James was a favorite, but so was Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. “I wasn’t a particularly advanced reader as a kid, although I did read David Copperfield. That was only because I was stuck in a cabin on a lake and it was the only book there.” Jane Austen is another pivotal author for Hinton, who took a course in her work from a professor of Victorian literature at Tulsa University. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” Hinton exults. “And believe me, I’ve been hugged by Matt Dillon and that wasn’t as good!”
Hinton, who is currently working on a comedic paranormal suspense novel, garners warmth and affection from her fans, several of whom lined up to ask her questions before the end of the event. One young man said earnestly, “Thank you for your books. I work with troubled kids now, but before I read The Outsiders I was on quite a different path in my life. You helped me figure out how to make my life work.” Visibly moved, Hinton thanked the fan in turn. “All of you who work with kids and are educators deserve my gratitude. I got my degree in education and found out real fast that I didn’t have the balls to do what you do!” She paused before speaking again. “As a writer, you’re the best kind of advertising anyone could ask for.”