This iconic ’80s movie was based on a book written by a 16-year-old girl

The first time I heard about The Outsiders, my older, cooler cousin Lea was spending the week at our home in rural Oklahoma. (She lived in a small Oklahoma town, too.) “You have to hear about this book,” she said, and proceeded to tell me the entire plot without missing a single detail.

The next time I went to B. Dalton, the bastion of 1980s bookselling (in Tulsa, where The Outsiders was filmed), I picked up a copy and joined what turned out to be a worldwide group of people whose lives were touched by the story of Ponyboy Curtis and the Greasers navigating adolescence in a Soc-controlled world. Soon after that, I watched the movie, which by then was on video.

I read The Outsiders so many times the front cover fell off my paperback, and then I read the rest of the author’s books: Tex, Rumblefish, and That Was Then, This is Now. Suddenly, it didn’t feel like New York and California were the only important places in the country.

Almost as enthralling as the book itself — not to mention the movie that launched a thousand careers — was the legend of its writer, S.E. Hinton, who was from our own state and who had written The Outsiders when she was 16 years old.

People are so invested in this book and movie that one of them, rapper Danny Boy (House of Pain), recently bought the house used in the movie as the home of the Curtis brothers and is turning it into a museum. Last week, Rob Lowe, who played Sodapop Curtis, came to town on his birthday to be interviewed. Later this year, many of the cast members will be on hand for a 50th anniversary event that will raise money for the museum. (And if I’m really lucky, I’ll be there, too!)

For many years, S.E. Hinton lived a private life in Oklahoma, raising horses and seldom allowing interviews or appearances. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Outsiders, and she has graciously agreed to take part in the many celebrations of the book and movie, including a Q&A session presented by the Tulsa Literary Coalition that was broadcast live (but not archived) on the Facebook page of Booksmart Tulsa.

Here is what she had to say:

On why she wrote The Outsiders:

"I wrote it for three reasons: One is I just like to write ... I wasn't writing it to get it published. I was writing it because I wanted to read it, and that's the second reason why I was writing it ... And the third reason I wrote it is I was mad about the social situation at my high school. I went to Rogers here in Tulsa. It was a packed school ... You had to fight your way through crowds of people to get to your next classroom. But you couldn't have that many friends because you got to school, you took your label, and you didn't say hi to anybody outside your group. And I'm sitting there thinking, 'Is this stupid? Why is nobody questioning these rules? They don't even know the meaning of rules. They're following these rules without question, and that's ridiculous.'"

On how she came up with the idea for The Outsiders:

"I grew up in a Greaser neighborhood. I ran around with a group of boys like the boys in The Outsiders ... I got put in what would nowadays be called AP classes ... I was in there with a lot of Socs, so I knew them too, but I refused to get a label. There are people who do things and people who watch, and I'm a watcher. I'm an observer and I watched all this happening, and I was getting very angry about it. When a friend of mine gotten beaten up on his way home from school, I began a short story about a kid who got beaten up on his way home from the movies, and that turned out to be the beginning of The Outsiders."

On what it was like to get published:

"I got my contract on my high school graduation day. Absolutely ruined graduation. Cause I was sitting there going, 'Eh. This is nothing. I sold my book.' But what's really funny is four years later, I got my contract for That Was Then [This is Now] on my wedding day. I was looking at the contracts going, 'Eh...'"

On her continuing relationships with the stars of the movie:

"Well, I felt most motherly toward Tommy Howell, who played Ponyboy because, well, I was everybody's mother. ... All of them were very young ... They were all just dropped off here with no adult supervision at all, no one to look out for them, nobody to take their side and say, 'Please stop dunking Tommy in the fountain. He's sick.' So they knew I had their backs, and of course, we all loved them too, and after they all went off and did their young man stuff, that's what they remembered, and that's why we still have this really good relationship today."

On why she uses her initials:

"I used my initials because my publishers wanted to fool the first reviewers. You know, it was kind of a publicity thing that a teenager had written the book, but they figured the first reviewers to pick up the book ... might decide a girl wouldn't know anything about this and read it with that bias. And it worked. The first reviewers were always young men who read this book. You know, to this day some people still think I'm a male, which I guess is a compliment. I've always thought that the first man who was not upset to find out it was a girl was my husband."

On what gave her the confidence to send her book to a publisher:

"I'd known from a very early time that I was going to be a writer. I was going to be a writer, or I was going to be a cowboy. By the time I was 16, I realized being a cowboy was too much work. But I was writing The Outsiders my junior year. My creative writing teacher gave me a D. Somebody the other day said, 'Did that just shatter your confidence?' I said, 'No. I thought, 'Man, she's going to feel like an idiot.''"

On her advice for young writers:

"My advice for any writers is read and practice. That's what I did for eight years before I wrote The Outsider s... Read and practice. Do not worry about publishing ... If you don't want to write it bad enough just to read it yourself, you're not a writer. Forget the publishing. Work on the writing."

On people who say The Outsiders saved their lives:

"The ones that write and say, 'You saved my life. You've changed my life. I'm the person I am today because of you.' That scares me. Because who am I to change anybody's life? You know, the way I have to deal with it, 'cause it's overwhelming ... is The Outsiders was meant to be written, and I got picked to write it. It was supposed to be out there, and I got to be the messenger. So it's the message, not the messenger, that saved your life."

Stay gold, Susan Eloise Hinton.

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