Ellen Hopkins sold her first verse book, Crank, just on the first 75 pages—and without an agent. Since then she has written three additional books—all in verse—dealing with heavy subjects such as teen drug addiction and suicide. Here she speaks with Bookshelf about the power of her format, why her readers trust her so much, and her latest book, Glass (McElderry).
In Glass, you return to the protagonist you created for Crank, a character based on your own daughter. Can you talk about what drove that decision?
Both books helped me explore what happened with my daughter—and what part my family and I played in her decisions [Hopkins's oldest daughter was addicted to crystal methamphetamine, and spent two years in prison; she has been clean for five years]. All of that was very important for me to set straight in my own mind. Crank is maybe 60 percent true and Glass probably pushes closer to 70 percent.
I really want both books to be an honest look at the depth and the nature of this addiction. It's not that easy to shake, and I really wanted that to be made very clear. Even condensing the story to two books left so much story to tell. There may be a third book where she finally decides to get clean.
You've written about serious matters—from drug addiction to suicide. Why do you tackle such intense subjects?
I couldn't have known Crank was going to be published, let alone become a big hit. That book was very personal for me: I had to tell the story for myself. Now—and I know this sounds corny—I really believe I was put on sort of a path to write about subjects a lot of authors don't want to look at.
I feel it's important to shed light on these issues because that's the only way we're going to develop empathy for people who are going through them. We need to make it real and to be brutally honest about it. That honesty is what my readers appreciate, because those characters don't feel crafted. They feel like they're real people, and to a large part they are.
What do you hope your readers gain from your books?
My core readership is this wonderful generation of teens that is honest and hopeful, and that attach themselves to causes that mean so much to them, whether it's peace or vegetarianism. I'm really appreciative that they care so much. But they also have had all these difficult experiences in their lives. I hope I can show them a way past the black moments, show them that there are people around them that care. Often they get this feeling that "It's just me against the world, nobody cares about me." If I can help them see the connections in their own lives to friends or family, or a way past their addiction, or a way past cutting, or a way past these thoughts of ending it all, that's more important than anything.
Do you find it difficult to tell these stories through verse?
There are people who think it's easier to write books in verse, and it's definitely not. Crank took me about a year to write, and most of that was in developing the style and the formatting. But I like having every word count. I like not having to do pages of description if a sentence will do. That spareness increases the power of the language. I write poetry anyway and have for years and years. For me, putting fiction and poetry together is like the best of both worlds.
What's next for you?
My new verse novel, Identical, will be out next year, probably next summer. It's about identical twins whose father is sexually abusing one of them. Some of the material for the book came from friends, friends who are now strong successful women and you would never guess that abuse is in their past. I wanted to let readers know that you can make it past something that bad and still come out the other side OK.
So you plan on continuing to both write problem novels and to keep writing them in verse?
For the foreseeable future. I've had this sci-fi thing in the back of my mind forever—and whether that would come out in verse or not, I don't know. And at some point I would like to talk my publisher into doing an anthology of my poetry alongside some teen readers' poetry. It would be fun, and really wonderful to get their stuff out there.
But for now, I don't see a reason to go in a different direction. I've got so many topics I'd like to write about, and my readership is drawn to the format. I like what I'm doing and my readers are waiting for the next book.