"Mr. Syme, this is Ponyboy. That theme--how long can it be?"
"Why, uh, not less than five pages." He sounded a little surprised. I'd forgotten it was late at night.
"Can it be longer?"
"Certainly, Ponyboy, as long as you want it."
"Thanks," I said and hung up.
I sat down and picked up my pen and thought for a minute. Remembering. Remembering a handsome, dark boy with a reckless grin and a hot temper. A tough, towheaded boy with a cigarette in his mouth and a bitter grin on his hard face. Remembering--and this time it didn't hurt--a quiet, defeated-looking sixteen-year-old whose hair needed cutting badly and who had black eyes with a frightened expression to them. One week had taken all three of them. And I decided I could tell people, beginning with my English teacher. I wondered for a long time how to start that theme, how to start writing about something that was important to me. And I finally began like this: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home . . .
speaking with S. E. Hinton . . .
You were a sixteen-year-old high school student in Oklahoma when you wrote The Outsiders. Where did you get the idea for the story?
I was actually fifteen when I first began it. It was the year I was sixteen and a junior in high school that I did the majority of the work (that was the year I made a D in creative writing). One day a friend of mine was walking home from school and these "nice" kids jumped out of a car and beat him up because they didn't like his being a greaser. This made me mad and I just went home and started pounding out a story about this boy who was beaten up while he was walking home from the movies--the beginning of The Outsiders. It was just something to let off steam. I didn't have any grand design. I just sat down and started writing it. I look back and I think it was totally written in my subconscious or something.
So was there a real-life Ponyboy? A real Johnny?
Ponyboy's gang was inspired by a true-life gang, the members of which were very dear to me. Later, all the gang members I hung out with were sure they were in the book--but they aren't. I guess it's because these characters are really kind of universal without losing their individuality.
How did you turn that inspiration for a story into such memorable characters?
When I write, an interesting transformation takes place. I go from thinking about my narrator to being him. A lot of Ponyboy's thoughts are my thoughts. He's probably the closest I've come to putting myself into a character. He has a lot of freedom, true-blue friends, people he loves and who love him; the things that are important to him are the things that are important to me. I think Ponyboy and Soda and Darry come out better than the rest of them because they have their love for one other.
What were you like as a teenager? Were you a Greaser; a Soc?
I was a tomboy--I played football, my close friends were guys. Fortunately, I was born without the need-to-belong gene, the gene that says you have to be in a little group to feel secure.
I never wanted to be classified as anything, nor did I ever join anything for fear of losing my individuality. I didn't even realize that these guys, who were my good friends, were greasers until one day we were walking down the street and some guys came and yelled, "Greaser!" It's funny to look at people you've known all your life, to suddenly see them as everyone else sees them, with their slicked-back hair and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and their black leather jackets, and respond, "My God, they're hoods." You know them and know they're not hoods, but they just look like hoods. I had friends on the rich side of town, too, and saw that they had their share of problems, also.
How did you pursue getting The Outsiders published?
When I wrote it I hadn't thought of getting it published. But at school one day I mentioned to a friend that I wrote, and her mother happened to write children's books. I gave her a copy of The Outsiders, and this woman showed it to a friend who had a New York agent. The agent liked it and sold it to the second publisher who read it. She has been my agent ever since. I received the contract from the publisher on graduation day!
What made you want to become a writer?
The major influence on my writing has been my reading. When I was young, I read everything, including cereal boxes and coffee labels. Reading taught me sentence structure, paragraphing, how to build a chapter. Strangely enough, it never taught me spelling.
I have always loved to write, almost as much as I love to read. I began goofing around with a typewriter when I was about twelve. I've always written about things that interest me, so my first years of writing (grades three through ten), I wrote about cowboys and horses. I wanted to be a cowboy and have a horse.
Writing is easy for me because I never begin to write unless I have something to say. I'm a character writer. Some writers are plot writers. . . . I have to begin with people. I always know my characters, exactly what they look like, their birthdays, what they like for breakfast. It doesn't matter if these things appear in the book. I still have to know. I get ideas for characters from real people, but overall they are fictional; my characters exist only in my head.
What books and authors inspire and influence you?
Well, as an adult, I can pick out a lot of authors who have influenced me. My favorite authors are Jane Austen, Mary Renault, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Shirley Jackson. My favorite books are The Haunting of Hill House, Fire from Heaven, Emma, and Tender Is the Night. I like Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s novels, but not his short stories, and the other way around for J. D. Salinger.
But people want to know your childhood influences, and I'll have to say just books in general. I loved to read, and as soon as I learned how I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I was a horse nut, and Peanuts the Pony was the first book I ever checked out of the library. I still remember that book. The act of reading was so pleasurable for me. For an introverted kid, it's a means of communication, because you interact with the author even if you aren't sitting there conversing with her.
Why do you use your initials instead of your full name?
My publisher was afraid that the reviewers would assume a girl couldn't write a book like The Outsiders. Later, when my books became popular, I found I liked the privacy of having a "public" name and a private one, so it has worked out fine.
When it was first published, the realism of The Outsiders shocked a lot of reviewers, but readers embraced the book. Did that surprise you?
No, I was pleased that people were shocked when The Outsiders came out. One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers. At that time realistic teenage fiction didn't exist. If you didn't want to read Mary Jane Goes to the Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read. I just wanted to write something that dealt with what I saw kids really doing.
Why do you think the book has remained so popular through the years?
Every teenager feels that adults have no idea what's going on. That's exactly the way I felt when I wrote The Outsiders. Even today, the concept of the in-group and the out-group remains the same. The kids say, "Okay, this is like the Preppies and the Punks," or whatever they call themselves. The uniforms change, and the names of the groups change, but kids really grasp how similar their situations are to Ponyboy's.
Some portions were quoted from "The Outsiders Conference & Readers Meet Author" from University of Utah's Top of the News, November 1968; "S. E. Hinton: On Writing and Tex" in Notes from Delacorte Press, Winter 1979/Spring 1980; "S. E. Hinton on Becoming a Writer" from teachers@random; "The Insider Outsider" in Interview, July 1999; and "Autobiographical Sketch" from the Educational Paperback Association.
* * *
Turn the page for a discussion guide
to S. E. Hinton's
* * *
1. One of the primary themes in The Outsiders is
the struggle between the Greasers and the Socs (pronounced SOSH-es). Describe each group. What is the main source of tension between the two groups? Are the two groups really so different?
2. What other works have you read that adopt a similar thematic structure?
3. Have you ever felt like an outsider? Why did you feel that way, and how did it make you feel?
4. Do you think that different groups of people are treated differently? If so, how? If not, why not?
5. Imagine that you were a character in the book. Would you be associated with the Greasers or the Socs? Why?
6. Discuss the various attitudes toward fighting found in The Outsiders. Which attitudes do you agree with? Which attitudes do you disagree with? Do you feel that violence can ever be justified?
7. Who is the narrator of The Outsiders? What point of view is it told in? What effect do you think this has on the story?
8. How do Ponyboy's relationships with Darry and Sodapop differ? Explain. Do you think Darry loves Ponyboy? Why does he treat Ponyboy the way he does?
9. Johnny is portrayed as being particularly quiet and sensitive. Why do you think he is this way? How do the other Greasers treat him?
10. Why is the "gang" so important to Johnny? How is his family situation different from that of Ponyboy and his brothers?
11. Dallas is portrayed as a particularly tough character. What makes Ponyboy admire him? Is Dally redeemed by his love and concern for Johnny?
12. Ponyboy says, "I lie to myself all the time." What do you think he means by this? And why do you think he does it? Do you ever lie to yourself? Why?
13. What does Cherry tell Ponyboy is the difference between the Socs and the Greasers? How does this differ from Ponyboy's perspective on the situation?
14. Ponyboy says, "Johnny and I understood each other without saying anything." What does he mean by this statement? Have you ever had a relationship with someone who you understood, or who understood you, without having to say anything?
15. When and how did Pony's parents die? How were his and his brothers' lives changed by this?
16. How do Johnny's prior experiences with the Socs affect his behavior in the park? Does the fact that he was defending his friend's life justify his actions? Why or why not?
17. What is your definition of a hero? Do you think that Johnny, Ponyboy, and Dallas are heroes? Explain.
18. Ponyboy says that he would rather have someone's hate than their pity. Why do you think he says this?
19. Ponyboy says, "Johnny didn't have anything to do with Bob's getting killed." What do you think he means by this? Does he believe that this is true?
20. Johnny leaves the copy of Gone with the Wind to Ponyboy. Why is this significant? How does it illustrate their friendship?
21. Examine Robert Frost's poem, "Nothing Gold can Stay." What do you think the poem is saying? How does this apply to the characters in the novel? What does Johnny mean when he tells Pony to "stay gold"?
22. Do you think it is obvious that the novel was written when the author was only sixteen years old? Support your answer with details from the book.
* * *
Turn the page to read an excerpt from
THAT WAS THEN,
THIS IS NOW
* * *
Mark and me went down to the bar/pool hall about two or three blocks from where we lived with the sole intention of making some money. We'd done that before. I was a really good pool player, especially for being just sixteen years old, and, what's more, I look like a baby-faced kid who wouldn't know one ball from another. This, and the way Mark set me up, helped me hustle a lot of pool games. The bad deal is, it's against the law to be in this pool hall if you're under age, because of the adjoining bar. The good deal is, the bartender and owner was a good friend of mine, being the older brother of this chick I used to like. When this chick and me broke up, I still stayed friends with her brother, which is unusual in cases like that. Charlie, the bartender, was just twenty-two, but he had a tough reputation and kept order real good. We lived in kind of a rough part of town and some pretty wild things went on in Charlie's Bar.
I looked around for a plainclothes cop when we went in--I can always tell a cop--but didn't find one, so I went up to the bar and hopped on a barstool
"Give me a beer," I said, and Charlie, who was cleaning glasses just like every bartender you ever see, gave me a dirty look instead. "O.K.," I said brightly, "a Coke."
"Your credit ain't so hot, Bryon," Charlie said. "You got cash?"
"A dime--for cryin' out loud! Can't you let me charge a dime Coke?"
"Cokes are fifteen cents, and you already got three dollars worth of Cokes charged here, and if you don't pay up this month I'll have to beat it out of you." He said this real friendly-like, but he meant it. We were friends, but Charlie was a businessman too.
"I'll pay up," I assured him. "Don't worry."
Charlie gave me a lopsided grin. "I ain't worried, kid. You're the one who should be worried."
I was, to tell the truth. Charlie was a big, tough guy so a three-dollar beating up was something to worry about.
"Hey, Mark," Charlie called, "there ain't nobody here to hustle."
Mark, who had been scouting out the two guys playing pool, came up and sat down next to me. "Yeah, that's the truth."
"It's just as well," Charlie said. "You guys are going to get in real bad trouble one of these days. Some guy's going to get hacked off when he finds out what you're doin', and you're gonna get a pool stick rammed down your throats."
"No we ain't," Mark said. "Give me a Coke, Charlie."
"We don't have any credit," I said glumly. Mark stared at Charlie disbelievingly. "You got to be kiddin'. Man, when did we ever not pay our bill?" "Last month."
"You said you'd add it on to this month's. That's what you said. So I don't see why you can't add twenty cents to that."
"Thirty cents," corrected Charlie. "And, like I just told Bryon, if I don't get that money pretty soon, I'm going to take it out of a couple of hides."
"I'll get you the money tomorrow if you give us the Cokes right now."
"O.K." Charlie gave in to Mark. Almost everybody does. It was a gift he had, a gift for getting away with things. He could talk anyone into anything. "But if I don't get the money by tomorrow, I'll come looking for you."
I got chilled. I had heard Charlie say that to another guy once. I also saw the guy after Charlie found him. But if Mark said he'd have three dollars by tomorrow, he'd have it.
"Speaking of looking for you," Charlie continued, "the true flower child was in here asking for you."
"M&M?" Mark asked. "What did he want?"
"How would I know? Man, that is a weird kid. Nice guy, but weird."
"Yeah," Mark said. "I guess it would be hard to be a hippie in a hood's part of town."
"Speak for yourself, man," Charlie said. "This part of town don't make nobody a hood."
"You're right," Mark said. "But I really sounded profound there for a minute, huh?"
Charlie just gave him a funny look and got us the Cokes. It was later in the evening now, and some more customers came in, so Charlie quit talking to us. It got pretty busy.
"Where are you gonna get three dollars?" I asked Mark.
He finished off his Coke. "I don't know."
That bugged the heck out of me. Mark was always pulling stunts like that. I ought to know; Mark had lived at my house ever since I was ten and he was nine and his parents shot each other in a drunken argument and my old lady felt sorry for him and took him home to live with us. My mother wanted a hundred kids and could have only one, so until she got hold of Mark she had to be content feeding every stray cat that came along. There was no telling how many kids she might have picked up along the line if she could have afforded more than two--me and Mark.
I had been friends with Mark long before he came to live with us. He had lived down the street and it seemed to me that we had always been together. We had
never had a fight. We had never even had an argument. In looks, we were complete opposites: I'm a big guy, dark hair and eyes--the kind who looks like a Saint Bernard puppy, which I don't mind as most chicks cannot resist a Saint Bernard puppy. Mark was small and compact, with strange golden eyes and hair to match and a grin like a friendly lion. He was much stronger than he looked--he could tie me in arm wrestling. He was my best friend and we were like brothers.
"Let's go look for M&M," Mark said abruptly and we left. It was dark outside and seemed a little chilly. This was probably because school had just started, and it always seems like fall when school starts, even if it's hot. Charlie's Bar was on a real crummy street with a lot of other bars whose bartenders kicked us out when we strolled in, a movie house, a drugstore, and a second-hand clothes store that always had a sign in the window saying "We Buy Almost Anything"--and from the looks of their clothes, they did. When my old lady went into the hospital, we got so low on money that I bought some clothes there. It's pretty lousy, buying used clothes.
We found M&M in the drugstore reading Newsweek, which shows what a weird kid he was since there were plenty of skin mags and things to read. A little kid like him shouldn't be reading that junk, I know, but he should at least want to.
"Hey, Charlie said you was lookin' for us," Mark greeted him.
M&M looked up at him. "Yeah. How you guys doin'?"
M&M was the most serious guy I knew. He always had this wide-eyed, intent, trusting look on his face, but sometimes he smiled, and when he did it was really great. He was an awful nice kid even if he was a little strange. He had big gray eyes--the kind you see on war-orphan posters--and charcoal-colored hair down past his ears and down to his eyebrows. He probably would have grown a beard except thirteen was too young for it. He always wore an old Army jacket that was too big for him and went barefoot even after it started getting cold. Then his father got fed up with it and M&M got a pair of moccasins. He had a metal peace symbol hanging around his neck on a piece of rawhide string, and he got his nickname from his addiction to M&M's, the kind of chocolate candy that melts in your mouth and not in your hand. For years I'd never seen M&M without a bag of that candy. I don't know how he ate those things all day long, day after day. If I did that, my face would break out like nothing you've ever seen.