BY S.E. HINTON
TOR BOOKS, 256 PAGES, $21.95
SUSAN ELOISE HINTON speaks softly, with an accent that betrays her Midwestern birth. She has been married to the same man for more than three decades. They have a 20-year-old son. Little about the life of the middle-aged Oklahoma resident hints at the person who, almost 40 years ago, at the tender age of 15, penned one of the all-time classic tales of teen angst.
It was with that book, her first, that Hinton made her name, both figuratively and literally. Upon the release of 1967's The Outsiders, at the recommendation of her publisher, Viking Press, Susan Eloise became "S.E."
"With the subject matter of The Outsiders," Hinton explains from her Tulsa home, "the publishers thought that the first reviewers would see [my name] and say, 'Well, a girl wouldn't know anything about this,' and would read it with that kind of bias, so they're the ones that suggested using my initials."
When the book made S.E. Hinton a household name, the author stuck with the moniker. "I made the name famous. I'm not gonna lose it. Those are my real initials. That is my real name. I like having a private name and a public name. It helps keep things straight."
The publication of Hawkes Harbor, hitting bookstores this month, has made Hinton a public character once again.
"I'm going to be touring for two months. I haven't done that kind of tour, ever. I sure picked a fine time in my life to start it, but I think I'll get through it." The novel is Hinton's first in 15 years, though she insists that she's kept busy over the last decade and a half. "After I wrote Taming the Star Runner, I wrote two children's books [Big David, Little David and The Puppy Sister], and I began Hawkes Harbor about five years ago. So it wasn't that long of a gap between writing, but I was involved with raising my son, basically. For my writing to be any good, I really have to be emotionally involved in it, and my child was taking up all of my emotions."
Her children's books, Hinton's first forays into the genre, were both released in 1995, 10 years after the publication of Taming, which, like all of her previous books, was written with young adults in mind. With Big David, Little David and The Puppy Sister, Hinton claims that she got all of the whimsy out of her system, allowing her to begin work on her first book targeting grownups, even if her inspiration didn't come from the most grownup of places.
"I wanted to write again, and I just thought I'd write something for fun... I wanted to write an adventure story, because I'd recently reread Treasure Island, and I thought, 'Well this was fun.' When I read Robert Louis Stevenson's remark that he wrote it because he wanted to read it, basically I thought, I'll just do something different."
The main thing that separates her new novel from the junior high school cannon fodder of her early works, aside from a few scattered curse words, is the inclusion of multiple sex scenes involving Hawkes Harbor's protagonist, Jamie Sommers. "With the adult one, I felt really free. I always wanted to see if I could write a racy scene, so I did one, and thought, 'Hey, not bad,' so I did a couple more."
The scenes, two of which involve a threesome, though not particularly graphic in nature, are not likely to gain the same PTA support that has been awarded to The Outsiders, which has become second only to Charlotte's Web in Publishers Weekly's "All-Time Bestselling Children's Books." In fact, her first five novels were all named by the American Library Association as Best Books for Young Adults between 1967 and 1979.
No one can accuse Hinton of pandering. She didn't write the book to regain commercial success. She knows what people want, even if she's not ready to give it to them, now or ever.
"What fans always ask me for is a sequel to The Outsiders. I get that constantly. I'm not in that time of my life. Even at the time I wrote The Outsiders, I thought that was the end. I couldn't have written a sequel to The Outsiders. I'm just not there anymore, and I don't intend to [be]." Hinton is happy where she left the greasers of her first novel, though she hasn't given up on the genre that made her famous. "I'm not ruling out young adult books. It's not preventing me from doing young adult books. It's preventing me from doing that book, because for me the story ends where it should. It's right the way it is, and I'm not going to mess with it."
Fans of Hinton's early work should no doubt find something familiar in Hawkes Harbor's protagonist, Jamie Sommers, a street- tough orphan who, Hinton concedes, does bear some resemblance to past characters. "He is somewhat similar. I'd like to think that all of my narrators are different. He's not intelligent or observant like [The Outsiders'] Pony Boy, and not really dumb like [Rumble Fish's] Rusty James. He's just aimless, basically."
Sommers' adventures however, mark the author's first voyage into the fantastic, featuring pirates, jewel smugglers and one extended encounter with a vampire, though Hinton suggests that the bloodsucker's presence can be chalked up to symbolism. "I don't think it's exactly a horror genre. I'm real interested in the paranormal, but not vampires. I don't believe in vampires, but it was a good metaphor for the kind of character I wanted. To me it's not a paranormal novel; I really would like to write one someday. It's really more about a search for redemption."
Though she has hope for Hawkes Harbor, Hinton harbors no illusions about how the book will fare in relation to her first novel, which has sold more than 10 million copies to date, inspired a Francis Ford Coppola movie, a Fox television pilot and of course is mentioned on the cover of her latest, directly below her name. "I realize that [The Outsiders is] probably going to be my most popular book, but that's not the worst thing that can ever happen to a writer. The worst was right after, because I felt like people were watching me, because they were expecting another masterpiece, but once I went ahead and did another book, I got over that."
What was it about The Outsiders that helped it sustain its popularity after four decades?
"[Children] all feel like an outsider even in their own group, and they're all raging against injustices. I think the emotional intensity captures them right away. I'm getting people that are 45 years old saying that it made a huge difference in their life, and now their kids are reading it and the kids are saying, 'My parents gave me this, it was their favorite book, and now it's my favorite book.'"
Hinton will continue to write, even though Hawkes Harbor's dedication ("David, one more time") seems to contain a note of finality. The author insists that she already has more in the works, including an idea for a new novel, a collection of short stories and a few screenplays, noting that the movie bug never really went away after co-writing the script for The Outsiders with Coppola. Hinton doesn't expect to stop being "S.E." anytime soon. o