S.E. Hinton Looks Back on ‘The Outsiders’ for 50th Anniversary

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Gold doesn’t rust. It stays bright.

Fifty years after S. E. (a.k.a. Susan Eloise) Hinton wrote “Stay gold, Ponyboy” in her debut novel, The Outsiders, the words continue to shine.

Following the greasers — Ponyboy, his brothers, Darry and Sodapop, and pals Dallas, Two-Bit, Johnny and Steve — and the well-off Socs, Hinton deftly depicts class warfare and emotionally driven teen angst in the 1967 coming-of-age tale. Today the book has sold more than 15 million copies, has been translated into 30 languages and has become a classroom staple. The 1983 film adaption directed by Francis Ford Coppola helped launch the careers of then newcomers Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise. (Familiar, right?)

“Everyone everywhere can identify with the in group and the out group and even feel like an outsider in their own group,” Hinton, 68, tells Us Weekly. “In Ponyboy’s group, no one liked to read books or see movies by themselves like he did. The character Cherry felt the same way, but she couldn’t tell her friends how she felt because it wouldn’t be cool. Teens still identify with those emotions. That and raging against injustice. That’s just the way you feel at the age.”

To celebrate the novel’s 50th anniversary this month, Hinton, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sat down and reminisced with Us.

Us Weekly: How does this monumental anniversary make you feel?

S.E. Hinton: Pretty old! [Laughs.] How many writers get to experience this, though? I’m trying to enjoy it. I never expected it to get published.

Us: What inspired you to write The Outsiders?

SEH: I began it when I was 15. The first draft was about 40 pages long, single-spaced type. The year I was 16, my junior year of high school, was the year I really put the work in. I went back and put in more details, flashbacks, new little asides. I always say 16 was the year I wrote it. I liked writing since I learned how to read, and I had been writing for about eight years when I wrote The Outsiders, so it wasn’t just all of sudden I could sit and write a book. It was something I wanted to read. There wasn’t anything realistic being written about teen life at that time.

Us: Was it based on the experiences you were going through at the time?

SEH: Yes, a lot of it. The whole class warfare thing was absolutely going on in my high school. I grew up in a greaser neighborhood, and I got put into what you’d call AP classes these days. So, I was put in with quite a few Socs. You get to this huge high school. I mean, we were packed. You had to limit your friendships to those that were in your group. I was watching this and everybody following these rules without questioning where they came from or why we should be following them or anything. I wanted to write about that.

Us: Is there a real life Ponyboy you based his character on?

SEH: It’s a combination of a lot of people. Ponyboy is probably the closest character I’ve ever written to me personally. He’s a lot like I was at that age. Any character you write — I don’t care if you think you’re basing it off your best friend — has some aspect of yourself, because you’re the filter they have to go through to get on the page. That’s all I can say. Some part of me was a lot like Dallas, too, or I wouldn’t be able to write him.

Us: What were you like in high school?

SEH: I grew up in a greaser neighborhood. I was always a tomboy. All my closest friends were guys. To this day, most of my closest friends are guys. I couldn’t identify with anything the female culture was doing at that time. I was playing football and going to rodeos. I thought, well, if I wrote this and said a girl was doing this, nobody would believe it.

Us: That’s why you used a pen name?

SEH: Right. It was my publisher’s idea because they wanted to fool the first reviewers. It wasn’t a hoax. It’s because they thought first reviewers were going to see this book, see the subject matter and decide a girl wouldn’t know anything about it. And that worked. The first reviewers were like, “This young man has written this book …” Then I went to New York and did a bunch of interviews. It wasn’t a dark secret. But I still get letters addressed to Mr. Hinton.

Us: Have you ever considered writing a sequel?

SEH: Oh, no! Even by the time I wrote this I knew it was the end. I could not write a sequel. I could remember what it was like to be 16, but I’m not 16. I could not re–come up with those emotions. Besides that, the story ends where it’s supposed to end. Where, for about two weeks in Ponyboy’s life, he learned to look at life completely differently. To me, that’s where the story ends. I didn’t want to go on to Ponyboy Visits Hawaii or something.

Us: Where would Ponyboy be now? He’s in his ‘60s. What’s his life been like?

SEH: I just hope he isn’t bald! I left those characters 50 years ago. I like to tell my readers, “Please make up any future for them that you want to.”

Us: Where did you get the idea for the unconventional names?

SEH: You know, I can’t remember. All I can tell you is that I was not drinking at the time! I’m glad I did that because The Outsiders has been referenced in a lot of movies and TV shows. Everybody gets those references. If I had named them Bill or John or something, it wouldn’t pop up as such a reference.

Us: People say “Stay golden” instead of “Stay gold.” How does the mix-up make you feel?

SEH: They email me a lot and it to me. I have to admit, “Stay golden” just makes me cringe! I don’t know what hipster added an “en” to that. It comes from the Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and he didn’t write “nothing golden can stay.” So it’s not just insulting to me, it’s insulting to Mr. Frost.

Us: What’s been your favorite encounter with a reader?

SEH: I love it when they tell me, “I’ve never read a book in my life, but I’ve read your book.” That’s pretty fun. My husband and I opened a shoe store here in Tulsa many, many years ago. I worked in it and I was fitting two young, construction workers with work boots. Measuring their feet and stuff. My husband walked by and said, “Did you guys ever read The Outsiders?” and the guy says, “Yeah.” My husband goes, “Well this is the person who wrote it.” And he looks at me and goes, “You made me cry on the school bus.”

Us: Do you ever reread it?

SEH: No. You know, I wrote it over three times before the publishers ever saw it and then I wrote it again with their suggestions. I cowrote the screenplay with Francis. I worked on the TV pilot. I worked on the play version. I’m Outsiders‘d out. I don’t need to read it again.

Us: Is there anything you would change?

SEH: No! Sometimes kids write me, “Why did you kill Johnny?!” and I usually say, “Because I’m a stone-cold bitch.” But to me, that was the story that came to me. I never sit down and write a book and decide this person won’t live. I have a story that comes to me and I write it. If part of the story is that somebody dies then they die. But there’s still a hopeful ending.

Us: How much input did you have in the film? You mentioned cowriting the script.

SEH: The only casting that I was involved with is that I did recommend Matt [Dillon] to Francis. I knew Matt because I had worked with him on Tex, and I knew he would make a great Dallas. Francis decided he was perfect. I worked on every other aspect. I wrote the screenplay with Francis. I helped scout locations. I helped with wardrobe. I was on the set every day. I ran lines with the boys. They seemed like my kids, except Patrick who was closer to my age. Rob Lowe even called me Mom half the time. They were just these little boys that were turned loose in Tulsa with no adult supervision. I had their back. They were sweet kids. They were a lot of fun.

Us: Do you have a favorite memory from being on set?

SEH: All of them! Rob Lowe was just in town and we hung out for the day and went through all our recollections. I loved working with Francis. I loved all my boys. I’m still close to all of them except Cruise. I see Matt whenever we’re in the same city. Tommy [C. Thomas Howell] and Ralph [Macchio] and Darren [Dalton] are going to be here in May for The Outsiders house museum fundraiser.

Us: Lastly, what are your favorite books?

SEH: I read a lot of nonfiction, memoirs and biographies. One of my favorite books from the last few years is Lost City of Z [by David Grann]. I’m so excited about seeing the movie! It looks fantastic. 

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