SCBWI Bologna 2010 Author Interview: Ellen Hopkins

Interviewed by Laura Watkinson for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Your latest novel, Tricks (McElderry, 2009), focuses on the lives of five very different teens, whose stories interweave to form a larger narrative.

What was it like to work with five different characters and five story lines? Did you feel more attached to one particular character? I know that the character of Eden was particularly popular with a lot of your readers.

I enjoy writing multiple viewpoints and interweaving their stories. In Tricks, they actually don’t weave as tightly as the multiple storylines in Impulse (McElderry, 2007) and the book I’m writing now, Perfect.

But I like the way these five characters’ paths cross, some closely and others from a distance. And I also like the very different paths they each had to the same place.

As for a favorite character, not really, although Whitney was inspired by a young friend who I’m close to, so she may be closest to my heart.

You write novels in verse. Could you tell us how you came to write in this style?

I started my first novel, Crank (McElderry, 2004), in prose. The book is loosely based on my daughter’s story of meth addiction, and I wanted to write from her point of view to gain some understanding of what had just happened to the last six years of our lives.

But in prose, the voice was too angry…mine, not hers, so I put the book away.

Then I saw Sonya Sones speak at SCBWI LA and, having written poetry most of my life, I decided to give verse a try. It totally clicked.

I also wanted my verse novels to stand out from Sonya’s and other verse novelists’, so I spent a lot of time developing some interesting formatting, rather than always writing in standard stanzas.

Do you write with the aim of changing people’s attitudes and opening their eyes? Would you describe yourself as a campaigner?

I don’t think that’s the main reason I write difficult subject matter, but it does play a role. I feel it’s hugely important to shed light on the darker issues that touch lives every day. Only then can we gain understanding and empathy for those who experience things like addiction, abuse or depression. And also, to give hope to these people and let them know they’re not alone.

I have become a strong anti-censorship campaigner, with some book challenges and canceled school visits last fall.

One reviewer on Amazon writes in capital letters about Tricks that “This book is not for teens! This book should only be read if you are 18.” I’m sure it’s a point of view that you’ve heard before. Care to react?

Tricks isn’t for every teen. But it is an important book for many. That reviewer wants to believe all young people are living nice, innocent lives. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

I hear from hundreds of readers daily. Many share their stories. I have heard from young women who were raped in preadolescence. I have heard from young men who were forced to prostitute themselves while still teens.

In researching the book, I talked to young prostitutes who were coerced by pimps or who came to sell their bodies to afford drugs or maybe a pair of designer jeans. These young people can certainly handle reading Tricks.

Others should read the book, if only to understand the repercussions of making this very bad choice.

Your stories are emotionally involving for readers; you really make us care about your characters. I imagine that writing must be an incredibly intense experience for you. How do you switch off and carry on with your everyday life after a day of heavy writing? Or do your characters go everywhere with you when you’re in a writing phase?

My characters rarely go too far until I’m finished writing a book, and often they wake me up, talking to me. Very annoying!

But my husband and son provide a lot of light in my life, as do a cadre of caring friends. Almost all my friends are writers (go figure!), so we help each other through writer’s block, plot problems, character issues, and of course personal problems. And I get a lot of love from readers every day.

The Kristina books are based on your own family’s experiences with your daughter’s meth addiction. Has the attention been difficult for your family to deal with?

I think, with the initial success of Crank, we all had to come to terms not only with being thrust into the spotlight, but also with the ghosts we carried. Overall, by finally letting go of those shadows, I think we are stronger as individuals, and as a family.

You’ve been doing a lot of school visits lately. Could you tell us about your contact with readers? I can imagine that your books touch many readers on a very personal level.

I’m actually traveling around 100 days a year right now doing school and library visits, book signings, conferences, festivals, etc.

While part of me would like to slow down a little, the outreach and personal contact with my readers is hugely important to them, and to me. I like them knowing I’m a real person.

And they appreciate knowing I care enough about them to make an appearance where they might be able to see me. Always, after I speak, at least one and often several come up and share their stories with me. They like that I listen.

You’ve been praised for your ability to write as teens really speak. Any tips for other YA writers out there?

Spend time with your potential audience, in person if you can. Visit schools. Hang out at the mall or stores teens frequent. Listen, but also talk to them and show a real interest in their lives. Alternately, connect with them online through MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They will talk to you if you talk to them. If you’re not sure how to start, visit my pages and lurk a while.

Could you tell us a little about your research methods? For example, when you were writing Tricks, did you interview teens who were involved in prostitution?

I research heavily with every book. In-person interviews are always the best. With Tricks, I worked with Las Vegas vice, and yes, I talked to kids on the street working as prostitutes.

You have to be courageous in your research and not just rely on the stories you read, although those can be valuable, too.

Now, I’m fortunate enough to be able to throw out a question to my readers through my online avenues, and have them answer me. With Perfect, for instance, I wanted to know how steroids make you feel. I asked. Dozens answered.

If you weren’t a writer, can you imagine what other job you might be doing now? Do you think you might still be working as a journalist and tackling similar issues as in your books?

I’ve always been an entrepreneur, and can’t really imagine working for anyone else. I might have enjoyed teaching, but wouldn’t like the parameters thrust on teachers today (teaching to the test, for instance). I’m much too creative. I loved the freelancing, although it wasn’t especially lucrative.

And until I took the plunge into YA, I didn’t really realize how important it was to make a difference in teen lives. I did teach as an artist-in-residence, though, and liked that very much.

You’ve been working on Fallout, a sequel to Crank and Glass. And Perfect is due out in 2011. Could you tell us a little about these books?

Fallout is the third and final book in the Crank trilogy. My readers wanted “the rest of Kristina’s story.” And I wanted the last book to be the best of the three. So I chose to move into the point of views of three of her children, teens in the book, and dealing with their own lives, which were to a large degree built by the choices she made at their age.

I wanted the hope of the stories to lie with this generation, who can choose to break the cycle, and to give voice to readers who are dealing with their parents’ addictions.

Perfect is about the drive for perfection, whatever the costs. Four characters, and a study of beauty/body ideals among four populations: athletes, pageant/models, lesbians and blacks.

Are you considering a sequel to Tricks? Would you like to revisit any of the characters?

Not considering it at the moment, but there have been lots of requests, including one by my publisher. So you never know.

What are you planning to do next? Will you be taking a break, or are you already working on a new idea?

My focus right now is Perfect, and I don’t know yet what I’ll do after that. I have been invited to do some adult projects, in verse. And I have resurrected the first (prose) adult novel I ever wrote and may revise that. Both my agent and editor feel it’s a viable project.

But I also have a contract for two more YA verse novels, and those will have to take precedence over anything I might write on spec.

Any news on the film front? I’ve read that a script for Crank is making the rounds. If it is made into a film, how closely would you like to be involved with the filming? And do you have any casting suggestions?

Still nothing firm on the film side of things, but there are some “almosts.” I have asked to be involved in whatever projects get off the ground, at least as far as some kind of script approval.

Casting? Could we find a role for Johnny Depp, do you think?

I’m a translator, so I’m always fascinated to hear about writers’ experiences of the translation process. Have many of your books been translated into other languages? Have you had much contact with the translators?

Funny you should ask. I’ve heard from both German and Italian translators, and I always get a good chuckle out of the exchange. American sayings can be difficult to translate.

The one I best remember was a line about Kristina not eating anything: “eating zip.” The translator was very confused about what “zip: might be. Some strange American dish?

Do you read many books by other YA authors? Are there any books you’ve recently read that you’d particularly recommend?

I do read lots of YA, often sent for blurbs in fact. So I often see books before they release. There’s a Neal Shusterman book to be on the lookout for, called Bruiser (HarperCollins, 2010), about an empathy. Already out in the fantasy area is a book by Michelle Zink called Prophesy of the Sisters (Little, Brown, 2009)[see book trailer immediately below]. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls (Viking, 2009) is a good contemporary read, as is Laura Weiss’s Such a Pretty Girl (MTV Books).

Finally, any suggestions for writers who would like to follow in your footsteps? What’s the Ellen Hopkins Route to Success?

I think you need to experiment–to read and write cross genre. I don’t think going in you always know where you belong as a writer. And I’d also say to remember always who your audience is–not reviewers or awards committees, but readers.

Write bravely. Create three-dimensional characters, with solid motivations for what they do or don’t do. That goes for your antagonists as well as your protagonists.

In YA, character is everything, even in genre fiction. If your readers can’t relate to your characters, they will stop reading.

Cynsational Notes

Ellen Hopkins is a poet and the award-winning author of twenty nonfiction books for children, and six New York Times bestselling young adult novels-in-verse. Her latest novel, Tricks (McElderry, 2009), debuted at the number one spot on the coveted NY Times list. Ellen lives near Carson City Nevada with her husband and youngest son, plus two dogs, one cat and four ponds (not pounds!) of fish.

See the book trailer below for Tricks.

Laura Watkinson is a translator, from Dutch and Italian into (British) English, and an occasional writer. She translates children’s books for all ages, from picture books to YA/cross-over novels, and has recently completed projects for Piccadilly in the UK and Arthur A. Levine in the States. She’s a champion of books in translation and loves making different cultures accessible to younger readers.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.