50 years later, "The Outsiders" has managed to stay gold.
Fifty years old this year, but with themes as relevant as yesterday’s headlines, “The Outsiders” has long been hailed as a Tulsa treasure. The book, written by Tulsan S.E. Hinton, deals with timeless themes such as economic divides, coming of age, gang violence and the search for belonging.
Hinton’s depiction of her high school-aged characters has been called controversial. But as enduring as the book’s conflict is the hopeful challenge given to its protagonist, Ponyboy Curtis: “stay gold.”
By the numbers:
• Hinton was 15 when she started writing “The Outsiders.” The book was published by Viking Press in 1967, when she was 18.
• Hinton’s first royalty check was $10.
• “The Outsiders” was ranked No. 38 on the American Library Association’s Top Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 1990s.
• The book has sold over 15 million copies.
• “The Outsiders” was released as a film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, in 1983. The movie was filmed in Tulsa and is famed for featuring up-and-coming stars such as Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane and Rob Lowe, to name a few. Hinton herself cameoed as a nurse.
• Hinton was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame in 1998.
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the October 2004 issue of TulsaPeople.
The modest but acclaimed Tulsa author discusses her first book for adult readers.
By Jeff Van Hanken
She can’t sleep. Her mind reels. She wonders, “Did the other books take this long?” She had a bad case of writer’s block right after “The Outsiders” was published, and she fought through that.
But somehow, this is different. This is S.E. Hinton’s first novel for adults.
All of those kids — kids no older than she was when she wrote that first novel — whose imaginations she delighted with not only “The Outsiders,” but also with “Rumble Fish” and “Tex,” all those people are now older, with children of their own.
After months of happy writing she has run into a dead end.
She reminds herself, this book has been as much fun to write as any project she has undertaken — that’s the reward right there.
So she forces herself to sleep on it. It’s tough, but eventually something’s gotta give and she closes her eyes. Then, slowly, something does indeed happen.
One of her characters comes to life. Instead of just being described as a storyteller, he tells a story. A wonderful, wicked, weird, hilarious story — the kind of story that might not change your life, but is a wonderful incentive to write on.
Tom Cruise and the movies
But before getting to where Hinton is going, it’s impossible to not discuss where she’s been. To do otherwise would be like asking dinner guests to ignore the large white elephant standing in the living room. Besides, talking about Hinton’s past is a blast.
“I made Tom Cruise throw up,” she says. Come again? It’s true, she says cheerfully. Apparently, Cruise was very excited about some acrobatics scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaption of Hinton’s first book, “The Outsiders.”
Hinton says her husband even today remembers the earnest and hardworking Cruise for his exceptionally nice manners. All the young actors, she firmly attests, were remarkably decent. “I was really close to every single one of them.”
But Cruise, being the well-mannered young actor that he was, found himself over-indulging at a large Italian dinner prepared by Coppola.
Later, when it came time to shoot his pivotal, athletic scenes, Cruise suddenly found himself feeling 20 pounds heavier and 10 steps slower — unable to comfortably move, much less howl, leap, wrestle and fight. So Hinton, calmly, gently, suggested to Cruise that he could step out of sight and unburden himself. He did. And the results, as they say, are up there on the screen.
“The Outsiders,” of course, was a sensation before Coppola got hold of the project. It was a Hinton’s first book, finished at 16 while she was still a student at Will Rogers High School. The book sold the next year, when she was 17, and was published the following year. She was 18. To date, at least 10 million copies have sold.
And the story, Hinton’s story, just keeps getting better.
After conquering that very early case of writer’s block, she published, “That Was Then, This is Now” in 1971, “Rumble Fish” in 1975, “Tex” and “Taming the Star Runner” in 1979.
As exciting as all that was, it paled in comparison what was about to happen: The director called. Hinton still remembers her first conversation with Coppola in 1981, who at that point has already won five Academy Awards for producing, writing and directing movies as diverse and groundbreaking as “The Godfather, “Patton,” “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now.”
“He came to Tulsa for auditions,” Hinton recalls. “His people called. They were at one of the theaters downtown, the PAC. I was nervous. And he was nervous about meeting me. He stood, we introduced ourselves, and I told him, ‘The Godfather’ was better than the book; ‘The Black Stallion’ was better than the book. Are you going to do that to me?”
Coppola laughed, and from that point forward, the young novelist from Tulsa and the world-famous filmmaker notorious for his mercurial mood hit it off famously. So famously that in the middle of shooting “The Outsiders,” the director turned to Hinton and said, “Hey, I like working with you. You got anything else?” Hinton told him she had a weird book about a kid named the Motorcycle Boy. Coppola’s eyes lit up, and almost instantly they set to work writing the script for “Rumble Fish,” even while continuing to shoot “The Outsiders.” It would be the second of four movies from Hinton’s books. Hinton was involved in three of the four, and three of the four were shot in Tulsa.
The quiet years
After the flush of movies, Hinton seemed to drop out of the limelight, although in 1995 she published two children’s books, “Big David, Little David” and “The Puppy Sister,” and worked on screenplays and short stories.
She and husband David Inhofe raised a son, Nick, now 21, older than most of the characters in her early teen novels.
She doesn’t give out her phone number, prefers to call the magazine to set up the photo shoot, which she is also reluctant to do. But consents to sit and still shies away from certain photo angles.
“I’m naturally just a private person. And my life is not for public consumption,” she explains. “It’s nobody’s business. On the other hand, I’m not reclusive. If anybody wants to see me, just go to Albertson’s at 41st and Peoria. I’m there almost every day of my life.”
But showing your face to the checkout guy and going on a book tour are two different things, yet that’s what happens when you publish your first book of any type in nine years — and one expressly for adults.
Her first grown-up book
Which brings us, more or less a couple thousand stories later, up to date. “Hawke’s Harbor” is, first and foremost, an amazingly fun read.
Young, wild Jamie Sommers takes to the high seas in search of adventure and riches. Along the way, he’s befriended by a veteran sailor with a lovely Irish brogue (a legendary storyteller, as you come to find out), and all is going swimmingly until the bottom drops out. Jamie washed up in a cold New England sea town where a terrifying evil awaits.
However, that description, as accurate as it is, doesn’t paint the whole picture. As Hinton herself admits, “Hawke’s Harbor” is really three stories in one. The first is high seas adventure, the second plays with the monster genre and the third is something surprisingly different altogether — it would not be entirely inaccurate to call it an examination of father-son dynamics.
And yet, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear there might be even more going on under the surface.
She admits that while writing, she chooses not to delve too deeply into what a story means, preferring to let it bubble up cleanly from the unconscious.
Now, however, she thinks that there might be much more going on than she realized, “I think it’s an allegory for a Vietnam veteran who returns home, and is held in contempt by the same government that sent him away in the first place.”
The protagonist, Jamie, represents that veteran, and the character Grenville represents that contempt. Through the course of the third section of the novel, Hinton observes, “They grow to accept one another.”
Of course, having created these characters, having written this book, means going on the road again, leaving private life for the public stage. Her publisher has booked her on a cross-country tour starting in New York in September, and touching down everywhere from Atlanta to Chicago to Los Angeles.
Fortunately, however, she does have several Tulsa dates confirmed. She’ll speak at the Celebration of Books in Tulsa, where she’ll receive the Homecoming Award Oct. 1, and she’s also schedules to appear at Steve’s Sundries.
There are articles either in the planning stages or already on the newsstands in Jane Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Post, New York Time Out and many other publications.
Clearly, it’s a heady time for S.E. Hinton. What makes it particularly exciting for anyone who knows her, however, is that Hinton herself is genuinely, gleefully excited about it all — about writing, reading, movies, story-telling, all of it.
It’s an exceptionally admirable approach to a very tough business.