Ellen Hopkins is not afraid. She’s an awesomely brave and staggeringly honest writer, who explores some of the depths of human experience in her books. Suicide, Cutting, Sexual Abuse, Addiction, Sex, Friendship, Love – the palate of her stories seem to go darker than most. Written as novels where each page and moment is its own concrete poem, the shapes of the words on the page and the spare emotions of the characters sear under our skin. Reading her books, like the New York Times Bestsellers “Crank” and “Impulse,” is an addictive, bitter-sweet, and wrenching experience. She’s a huge talent, and I’m a huge fan.
I had the great fortune to land an exclusive SCBWI Team Blog interview with Ellen Hopkins as part of the countdown to SCBWI’s 38th Annual Summer Conference on Writing and Illustrating for Children, coming up August 7-10, 2009 in Los Angeles. (You can still register!)
Here, for your enjoyment, is our virtual conversation.
Lee: Hi, Ellen. Thanks so much doing this interview with me. I’m super excited about it. Okay, First question: There’s all this noise out in the news media about how fictional character’s mid-deeds lead to real-world teens mis-behaving. Like, in some movie, kids lie down in the middle of the street so cars will drive over them, and then some idiots do that in real life. And all these people blame the movie. And yet, catharsis has- at its core - the exchange of watching someone else make bad decisions so in a sense we’re freed from making those same mistakes ourselves.
You have characters making terrible decisions with serious consequences in your novels – what’s your take on fictional bad decisions – are they bad role modeling? Or are they cathartic?
Ellen: I've had many, many readers write to thank me for allowing them to live vicariously through my characters, and that they will now NEVER do drugs or cut or any of the issues that touch my characters' lives. By seeing how these actions affect not only the person doing them, but also those around them, it gives a real insight into the end result of bad behaviors. I doubt many readers finish CRANK then want to go try it!
Lee: Yeah, absolutely! That's what I believe, too.
Continuing with the idea that fictional characters are stand-ins for real people making choices, I wonder what’s your take on the way authors represent minority characters – there’s a pressure out there that since there are so few representations, the characters can’t be BAD – because then it’s like you’re stereotyping the whole group. How do you deal with this?
Ellen: I think you have to be true to the character whatever their race or sexual orientation. If you listen to your characters, they will speak for themselves. Obviously, there are Latino and black gangs. If you're writing urban fiction, I don't see how you can NOT write those things into your story. Be true to your story, be true to your characters and who cares what the naysayers think!
Lee: In “Impulse,” connecting Tony’s “gay” identity with the abuse he’d experienced made me pretty nervous as a reader. Yet, because other characters were abused and didn’t end up “gay,” and because Tony was so multi-dimensional, it worked for me. Did that connection (abuse to gay orientation) concern you when you worked on the story?
Ellen: Tony is actually my favorite character out of all of them. His sexuality interested me a lot because as I see him, he wasn't "gay" per se. All his early sexual experiences were with men, and because his mother dared to tell him as a little boy that he must be gay, or why would her boyfriend want him, he wasn't sure who he was. I had a gay bookseller once say something about Tony, but he came to think by the end of the book, that "love is love." I see it that way, too.
Lee: Yeah, Love is Love. And sexuality is complex. I think you were really brave in how you handled the fluidity of that character's self-awareness and sexuality.
You tackle some dark spaces in your novels - “Crank” pulled no punches and left me raw. Nowdays the line between YA and Adult books seems to be blurring (Often the way to tell is how much explicit sexual content is there and what’s the age of the protagonist.) And yet, I wonder if there’s something about the themes, or some sense of hope, that makes a YA book different. Do you think YA books are intrinsically different?
Ellen: I think YA authors generally approach issues with a different sensibility than adult authors do. Let's face it. Teens are either having sex or thinking about having sex, so isn't it better to provide adult perspective to something that is such a deep part of every human? Can we not show how important it is to have love be part of sex? I think YA approaches it that way, rather than as titillation.
Lee: That makes a ton of sense to me. Sorry it doesn't fly for so many in West Bend, Wisconsin (with their whole book burning controversy)!
Ellen: Book banning is a real hot button issue for me. And burning? AAAAGH! No one has the right to choose for everyone what is or isn't "fit" to read.
Lee: Yeah. It makes me want to scream, but that's not so effective. People who want to shut off information to other people aren't keeping their minds open to discourse... So I think the best response is to use the controversy to promote the heck out of the books - and hope that MORE people read them after a challenge than before - that may be the only way to ultimately stop the conservative impulse to remove books from other people's reach.
Ellen: As the article said, put "You May Not Read This" on the cover, who wouldn't want to read it to find out why not? Especially teens!
Lee: LOL - I'm remembering being a teenager and scanning the TV Guide for movies rated "R" - I didn't really care what they were about, I was just soooo curious. It was such a quintessential teenager moment for me.
Ellen: Well see, as a teen myself, there wasn't a lot of great YA available... Judy Blume was about it. So I went straight to very adult fare, including Erica Jong and Jacqueline Susann.
Lee: That's reading UP! And, speaking of that, we hear all the time that kids read UP. But, sometimes (like when I hear about a third grader reading “Twilight”) I get nervous that they’re reading too far up. What’s your feeling about the age of YOUR readers?
Ellen: Every teen's experience is so different, it's hard to really say what is "too young." I've had readers as young as 11 write (seems very young, but they seemed very mature) and as old as 72. There is some fairly heavy content in my books--some more than others. TRICKS, which releases next month, is about teen prostitution. No way to write that book "real" without including some fairly graphic scenes. That, I guess, is where parents come in to look at what their kids are reading and say okay or not.
Lee: Yeah, as a parent, I care what my kid reads! I do want to ask, since we're talking about keeping books "real"... You are a MASTER at voice - your characters do feel "real!" Is there a tip you can share with us, for ‘how to find the voice of your character?’
Ellen: Well, I will go more in depth with this at the teen voice workshop I'm presenting in LA, but basically I know my characters well before I write anything. Then I let them talk not only to me, but through me. I don't dumb down language. Don't try for vernacular. I just listen.
Lee: That sounds like an amazing workshop - I can't wait! Since you're both a NYTimes Bestselling Author AND a SCBWI Regional Advisor (for Nevada), what single piece of advice would you offer to someone planning to attend this summer's conference?
Ellen: LA is an amazing conference, but with so much there, it can feel overwhelming. Don't try to do everything. Look at the schedule and decide what you HAVE to see. Then let it be okay to take an hour to nap or write or just unwind somewhere.
Lee: That's great advice. Some of the best conference moments for me in years past were when I skipped a session in favor of sitting down to talk with someone more...
Ellen: Oh yeah. The networking is one of the best parts. I've made great, lifetime friends in LA.
Lee: And speaking of more, we're almost done! 2 questions left:
You are also a MASTER at social networking and marketing your books. (Of course, your work is brilliant, so once people check it out, they’re hooked – but you get them to check it out!) You mentioned at the SCBWI Asilomar Conference this past February that you have a ton of fans on myspace (16,556 as of today!), I’ve seen you on Twitter, and this interview is being done through your facebook and my facebook IM/Chat feature. For most of the rest of us mortals, it’s hard to do it all. Can you help prioritize and explain the differences as you see it between Myspace, Facebook and Twitter?
Ellen: A YA author needs MySpace, where you really connect with a wide range of readers. Facebook tends to be older readers, or at least a bit more mature. Many of my old MySpace readers are now on Facebook. Twitter for me is a real connection to industry professionals. Yes, readers are following my "tweets," but most of the "talking" I do there is with other authors, editors, agents, etc. This also lets our "followers" feel like they're almost voyeurs, I think.
Lee: I just started on Twitter this week - it's a fascinating beast. (140 characters at a time!)
Last question: Can you let me scoop the name of your keynote at the conference? (also, if you give me the day and time, I'll include that!)
Ellen: Saturday, 1:45 (after lunch). Not For the Faint of Heart: The Climb to the Top
Lee: Wonderful! I'll be there, in the front row! Thank you so much, Ellen. We covered some great stuff, and I can't wait to see you at the Summer Conference!
Ellen: Thanks, Lee.
Lee: You ROCK!
Isn't Ellen AMAZING?
Thanks for reading this in-depth interview - and keep clicking back for more great SCBWI Summer Conference scoops and interviews as we continue the countdown to the summer conference! (Now only 11 days away!!!)