Staying Gold: S. E. Hinton on The Outsiders at 50

Before her author appearance at Powell’s, she talks Tulsa, Trump, and Rob Lowe.

By Margaret Seiler May 11, 2017

Outsider bookcover vt7sdo

Fifty years after its publication, most anyone who read The Outsiders as a kid can pick it up and immediately remember what it’s like to be a teenager and have “too much energy, too much feeling, with no way to blow it off.” That’s how 14-year-old narrator Ponyboy Curtis describes his brother Sodapop, but the words come from Susie Hinton, who wrote the book when she was in high school and saw it published during her freshman year at the University of Tulsa.

Now required reading at many American middle and high schools, the book is flush with moments that seem to reference older classics (Catcher in the Rye, Anne Frank’s Diary of Young Girl, Romeo and Juliet, and, overtly, the poetry of Robert Frost) but remains immediately real and relatable for Ponyboy’s peers, past and present. Part of that, Hinton said in a phone interview before her May 18 visit to Powell’s in Beaverton, may stem from its setting.

“Tulsa’s a pretty universal city,” she says. “It doesn’t have the definition that either New York or LA has, so more people can envision [a story set there] happening to them.” Tulsans turned out earlier this month for a fundraiser for the Outsiders House, a project spearheaded by a member of House of Pain and two self-proclaimed Tulsa Greasers to save the Curtis house, turning the popular photo-op spot into a museum. One of them reportedly has Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (a poem with a prominent role in the book) tattooed on his side—a level of fandom Hinton knows well.

“They sometimes cry, they shake, some say they’re overwhelmed,” Hinton says of reader encounters. “One little girl, I just held her hand for a long time. It’s usually the young kids that burst into tears. I’ve had some older ones, too, teachers that have used it for a long time in school, kids that want to be writers and say I’m an inspiration to them.” (Or is it really her they meet? Hinton jokes on Twitter that she hires “that cute chubby old lady to do all my public appearances.” A megafan herself of the show Supernatural—“I’m very interested in the paranormal”—she visits the set a few times a year but finds the crowds at fan conventions too overwhelming.)

It’s no surprise that people take the book to heart and make it their own. But its timeless dichotomy of Socs and Greasers, haves and have-nots, has made it an all-too-convenient political metaphor. When Trump supporters likened their candidate to the Greasers last year, Hinton was not amused: “Yeah, we all had gold toilets and private jets and all that stuff,” she says sarcastically. “Yeah, you’re so much like the Greasers.”

Hinton author photo kr9lek

Author and horse lover S. E. Hinton. The publisher used her initials (for Susan Eloise) to discourage gender discrimination. 

Hinton has been credited with almost singlehandedly creating the YA genre, and it could be argued she also helped shape the modern film industry, too. The young actors who won the coveted roles in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film adaptation would become some of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. Coppola jumbled Rebel Without a Cause and Gone with the Wind into a gritty teen epic, but the movie is most notable for its fortune-telling casting of rising stars: a pre-Red Dawn C. Thomas Howell, a clearly-dedicated-to-his-craft Emilio Estevez, a before-he-was-the-Karate Kid Ralph Macchio, a rippling Patrick Swayze, an aw-shucks Rob Lowe, and an intense-as-ever Matt Dillon (as someone who hit puberty in the 1980s, I would like to extend a personal thanks to everyone involved for the occasional shirtlessness of those last three), as well as future nerd-cinema goddess Michelle Meyrink and Diane Lane as Cherry Valence, so breathtakingly beautiful you just want to reach through the screen, grab her hand, and run away to watch the sunset (again, thank you! also, Cherry Valence for president—now that’s a Soc we could support).

“I was perfectly happy working with Francis,” Hinton says. “He really wanted to stay true to the book. When he went back and made the second DVD (2005’s The Outsiders: The Complete Novel), he put in a bunch of scenes because the readers asked him where those scenes were. I’ve never heard of a director going back and recutting a movie because fans of the book asked him to.”

The 50th anniversary edition of the book includes copies of letters between a teenage Hinton and her editor leading up to publication, as well as memories from Coppola and much of the cast, whom Hinton refers to as “my boys.”

“Tommy was just 15. Ralph was the old guy—he was 20. Matt had just turned 18,” she says. “Rob just came through town. He had his 18th birthday on the set, and he had his 53rd birthday on the locations.”

Will there ever be a remake? “Not if I can help it,” Hinton says. “But more importantly, Francis owns the rights, and he doesn’t want a remake either. Where are we going to get a cast like that? What makes the movie so good is those boys were so close to the age of the characters. They couldn’t find kids that could be that talented, including Diane Lane.

“A remake, they’d probably cast a bunch of 25-year-olds.”

S. E. Hinton at Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing

7 p.m. Thu, May 18, Powell's at Cedar Hills Crossing, FREE (signing line limited to 250 people)

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