Susie Hinton was a 16-year-old high-schooler, barely passing English class, when she sold her first novel, The Outsiders, which explores the class struggle of a pack of poor teenage boys. The book, based loosely on her group of friends in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and published in 1967, went on to sell over 14 million copies and is required reading at most middle schools. Her other works include young-adult reads Tex, Rumble Fish and That Was Then, This Is Now.
In 1983, under the helm of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, Susie's first book was turned into a movie, starring a cast of up-and-comers like Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon. Decades later, the popular film has been rereleased with 22 minutes of original footage added to make it more true to the book. On the eve of the DVD release, we sat down with the press-shy Hinton, now a married mother of a college-age son, to talk about the story behind the book, the crazy fan mail she still gets and how she literally made Tom Cruise vomit.
Is it true your publisher made you abbreviate your name because they thought a female author would make the book a hard sell? Initially, it was to fool the first reviewers. They thought: They'll pick it up, see what it's about and think a girl couldn't have written it. After it came out, obviously I did publicity and it wasn't a big dark secret or anything. But it worked because all the early reviews said: "This young man has written this book..."
Talk about what inspired the story. Your friend got jumped... Writing was always something I enjoyed. But when I was in high school, there was really nothing to read '- no young-adult market. The books were like Mary Jane Goes to the Prom. They were so unrealistic. So when my friend got beaten up, I wrote a short story that was originally about 40 typed pages. And I kept writing it over and over. The version the publisher saw was my third time through it.
Unbelievably, the year you wrote the book, you got a D in creative writing. That takes away from the great English teachers I had, but it's true. The year I was writing Outsiders, I wasn't paying attention to my class work. Then I found out that publishers don't count off for spelling [laughs]. I owe that class something, though '- one day I was in class, bored, and I was thumbing through a book and came across the Robert Frost poem ["Nothing Gold Can Stay"]. I thought: This says what I'm trying to say in the book. So I put it in the book.
For years you turned down requests to have The Outsiders turned into a movie, but then you were approached by Francis Coppola. What was it like meeting him for the first time? I remember walking into this big theater. I was a nervous wreck, then I realized he was nervous too. So I went up to him, shook his hand and said, "Mr. Coppola, I do have a problem with you doing this." He said, "What's that?" I said, "Well, The Black Stallion was better than the book and The Godfather was better than the book. Are you going to do that to me?" He laughed and we got along just great.
What a cast! I read that you were a den mom to the boys.
I am not a bit surprised [at their success]. You could see it. What I loved about them was off-camera they were just goofy teenagers. Rob Lowe will tell you in the DVD commentary: "Susie was always taking care of us boys." They were set loose with no adult figure at all. It was then that I realized I could make a good mother because I could nag, scold and worry needlessly with the best of them. But when I got my own kid I realized "I'm going to cut your lines" didn't mean a thing [laughs].
And you were responsible for making Tom Cruise vomit? Tom and I were the only Cancers on the set, and Cancers tend to overeat when they're nervous. He had been training so hard for his flips and acrobatic work, but he overate. I think Francis made spaghetti. The next morning, Tom came to me and just wept, "Susie, I've worked so hard on this, but I ate too much. I'm sick. I can't do it." I asked if he thought he'd feel better if he threw up. He thought he would, so I took him behind the catering wagon and made him drink raw eggs. As he threw up, I stood there handing him paper towels. Then he was fine.
Do you keep up with him? Did you catch him on Oprah or read about his relationship with Katie Holmes? How can anyone not read about him [laughs]? About 10 years ago I was in London with my family. Tom heard I was in town. He was shooting Mission: Impossible, so he sent a note to my hotel to ask if we wanted to visit the set. Now, I hadn't seen him in 13 years. That's the kind of guy he is. He adopted Connor not too long before and he was with him, so we talked potty training '- you know, glamorous movie star stuff [laughs]. And he took a picture with us and remembered to autograph one for each of us and mail it to us later.
Did you always think something was missing from the original movie?
It was cut too drastically. They cut out the heart of the story. To me, to cut it to 90 minutes '- like your audience couldn't sit still for any longer '- was kind of an insult. The new version makes more sense. You're introduced to each character, so when Johnny, Dallas and Ponyboy visit the gas station, you know who they're visiting. You see why Ponyboy has that huge [scab] on his neck. When kids have written me letters over the years, their favorite scenes are not the action, not the rumble. It's around the house when they're eating cake for breakfast or arm wrestling. This version will give them new favorite scenes.
I can imagine you still get a lot of fan mail from young readers. More than I can handle. But I made a choice a long time ago that I could write letters or I could write books. I get funny letters on my Website, though. They are like: "Dear Miss Hinton, What are the themes of The Outsiders, and why? I need this tomorrow." One time I wrote back, "Kid, I did my homework in school. Why don't you do yours [laughs]."
What are you up to now? Hawkes Harbor comes out in paperback this October. It's done well and there's been some movie interest. I'm working on another adult book '- a comedy/suspense/paranormal book. Awhile back I wrote an original screenplay that I'm really proud of that I want somebody to make a movie. So I'm still working. I'm still out here. I have a lot of things going on.