|TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Beyond its cluster of office
towers, Tulsa is a city built close to the ground, a broad clash of neighborhoods
you can tell apart by how the grass grows, bright and trim as a putting
green in the richer sections, pale and shaggy in the poorer spots.
Tulsa native S.E. Hinton, a cult figure for 40 years since the publication of The Outsiders, knows the difference between the wild and the well-kept lawn. Her million-selling book not only helped establish the young adult novel but remains a classic story of gangs at knife's edge.
Once a teen sensation who wrote her most famous book while still in high school, Hinton is now 59, a dry-witted, sad-eyed woman wearing jeans and sneakers for a recent interview. As a child, she dreamed of writing a book she wanted to read, a novel that told the truth about how kids think. Forty years later, a lot of young people still think she succeeded.
"I get letters from all over the world, saying, `It changed my life.' Who am I to change somebody's life? It's not me. It's in the book," she says. "If people want to find me, they can. They'll see a middle-aged woman wandering around the grocery store, looking to see what to buy for dinner."
Hinton drove around Tulsa with a reporter on a recent afternoon, pointing out the estates of former oil barons, an overpass where young people were routinely beaten up and the movie theater mentioned at the beginning of The Outsiders. She is devoted to Tulsa, with it's "bumps, booms and busts," the luck of an oil economy. The restaurants are great — eating out is a favorite pastime — there's room to ride her horses and people not only "like her, but also leave her alone."
A 40th anniversary edition of The Outsiders has just been published and Hinton, who would rather write than talk about writing, also sat and chatted in the library of Will Rogers High School, the very room where she worked on parts of her novel.
"I was exhilarated," she recalls about that time. "I remember the buzz, the feeling like you're burning up."
As a student, Hinton once received a "D" in creative writing, but she is now an honored alumna of Will Rogers, her picture displayed behind a glass case to the right of the library, along with such other notables as musician David Gates and singer Anita Bryant. Hinton rarely goes to the high school, but students apparently still like her books enough to steal them, according to librarian Carrie Fleharty.
"I can't keep them on the shelves," she says with a laugh. "The kids keep taking them out and `forgetting' to bring them back."
The Outsiders is the raw, but hopeful story of rival gangs that features narrator Ponyboy Curtis, the bookish greaser who can quote Robert Frost; macho Dallas Winston, blue eyes "blazing ice, cold with a hatred of the whole world"; and little Johnny Cade, a "dark puppy that has been kicked too many times."
"I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows," Hinton wrote in the novel. "Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better."
Tulsa has changed in many ways since Hinton's childhood, with oil giving way to aircraft parts and health care as major industries. But gangs are still a problem, school and police officials agree, and the weapons a lot deadlier than the switchblades carried by the teens in Hinton's book.
"We have a significant gang presence and a set of issues we have to deal with, but that's part of what resonates with the kids about her book," says Will Rogers principal Kevin Burr. "We try to get the kids to understand that they're not that different from each other or from kids who grew up in a different era."
Forty years ago, the battles were fought between the upper class "Socs" (pronounced "soashes") and the lower class — and lowercase — "greasers," gangs so bitter that they entered the school through separate doors. Susan Eloise Hinton, daughter of a salesman and a factory worker, was neither a "greaser" nor a "Soc," but more at home with the greasers, who lived in her neighborhood.
"I just felt being part of my peer group so strongly," she says. "I was immersed in teen culture, but not taken in by it."
She had been writing stories for much of her life, including a couple of "pretty bad" novels before getting started on The Outsiders, inspired after a friend of hers was beaten up on his way home from the movies.
Her novel is known to millions, but Hinton's original audience was herself. She had long felt that popular culture offered nothing to remind of her own life, not such novels as The Catcher in the Rye (Holden Caufield needs a "good spanking," she says with a laugh), not the movies or even rock 'n' rollers like Elvis Presley, a favorite of the greasers.
She started at age 15 and spent a year and a half working on the book, saying that the hardest part was knowing when to stop. Having taught herself to type because she couldn't read her own handwriting, she typed out the first draft, 40 pages, single-spaced.
Hinton didn't even think of publishing the book until the mother of one of her friends read the manuscript and liked it enough to contact an agent based in New York. Viking signed her up, for "a small advance," and with a suggestion that she call herself S.E. in print, so male critics wouldn't be turned off by a woman writer.
The Outsiders was published in 1967, but greeted more as a curiosity than a breakthrough. "Can sincerity overcome cliches?" began a brief New York Times review by Thomas Fleming. "In this book by a now 17-year-old author, it almost does the trick."
"It was overemotional, over the top, melodramatic," Hinton acknowledges. "But its vices were its virtues, because kids feel that way."
Hinton's first royalty check was $10, she says, and at one point The Outsiders was in danger of going out of print. But librarians and teachers made it a best seller, and a landmark, a turning point in how literature was presented to students.
"Before The Outsiders, textbooks were used for
English classes. I remember going to American Library Association conferences
and they were clamoring for something different. We realized there was
a real market for books such as The Outsiders," says Ron Beuhl,
a longtime friend of Hinton's who worked with her in the 1970s when he
For Hinton, fame at any speed was too sudden. She suffered from writer's block, needing three years to complete her next novel, That Was Then, This Is Now, another story of street life in Tulsa that included Ponyboy as a minor character. Other novels, also in and around Tulsa, include Tex, Rumble Fish and Taming the Star Runner.
Hinton has been married since 1970 to her college sweetheart, mathematician and computer scientist David Inhofe ("He doesn't read and I can't add," she jokes), and they have a son, Nick, now in his 20s. Hinton may be a sage to many adolescents, but even the author of The Outsiders was not spared the disapproval of her own teenager.
"It was so strange because the three of us were so compatible, going to restaurants and falling out of our chairs, laughing," she recalls. "When he became a teenager, I was dumbfounded by the hostility. It was like someone shut off the light switch. I was really hurt. You had to walk on tippy-toes."
Her career has been equally influential and inconsistent. There was a seven-year gap in the 1980s and 1990s as she raised her young son. Before that, in her 20s, she tried teaching, but quickly gave up. She became too attached to the students and reasoned, "I could write and help a lot of kids, or teach and help a few, and go nuts."
According to Viking, a division of Penguin Group USA, The Outsiders has sold more than 13 million copies and still sells more than 500,000 a year. Even Hinton says her book is dated in some ways (no hard drugs or AK-47s), but it's standard reading at Will Rogers, including in the classroom of Kim Piper, a 9th grade English teacher.
"There's a lot of poverty at Will Rogers, a lot of broken families," Piper says. "So kids here can especially identify with Ponyboy and his group. It's what kids that age are thinking about, when they feel kind of isolated from everybody else."
"(`The Outsiders' is) an extremely outrageous and amazing book," says one ninth-grader at Will Rogers, Esteban Rivero. "It talks about how youngsters live and how they can get all caught up in their friends and cliques. This book has taught me so many things about life."
Inevitably, Piper also shows her students the movie version of The Outsiders. Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation, released in 1983 and reissued in 2005, features an uncanny ensemble of young performers who soon became stars: Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio and in a minor role, Tom Cruise.
"I was a mother to all of them, and I wouldn't take any guff from any of them. If one of them acted up, I'd crack the whip and say, `I'm going to cut your lines,'" recalls Hinton, who worked with Coppola on the script and was on the set daily while filming took place in Tulsa. "They were these goofy teenage boys, no adult guidance, no nothing. They wore me out."
Macchio, who played Johnny Cade in the film, is typical of many Hinton fans. He was 12 when he read the book and had never before made it through a novel. But The Outsiders got to him, in part because it was narrated by a teenager, not an adult, and in part because he saw so much of himself in Johnny.
"The characters were so well described you had really definite pictures of these guys," Macchio says. "Johnny was always a character I felt looked like me. I was always the skinniest kid in school. I knew what it felt like to be the runt of the group. I was never the fastest or the strongest or the smartest or the coolest."
Hinton still dreams about her old characters, and says it would be a "piece of cake" to bring back Ponyboy, but "I couldn't capture the intensity. It would be a letdown." Instead, she's working on a "paranormal suspense" story and prefers history books to children's stories. One fictional genre she knows enough about to despise: "chick lit."
"It's just another version of `Mary Jane goes to the prom,'" she says. "It's all about the boys."