Interview with Ellen Hopkins

Posted by Goodreads on October 3, 2011
Wordsmith Ellen Hopkins has introduced narrative poetry—poetry with a plot—to countless teenage readers. Her best-selling novels for young adults are written in verse, tackling gritty, often controversial topics such as crystal meth addiction in Crank (inspired by her daughter's struggle with the drug), suicide in Impulse, child abuse in Burned, and teenage prostitution in Tricks. Hopkins now retunes her technique and expands her audience with Triangles, her first novel in verse for adults. Holly, Andrea, and Marissa are three unhappy middle-aged women who melt down at the same time as they become entangled in extramarital affairs and decaying friendships. The Nevada-based writer talked with Goodreads about her switch to a more mature subject matter.

Goodreads: You've described Triangles as a book about midlife "freakouts." Is a midlife crisis a universal experience? What inspired you to mine this emotional terrain?

Ellen Hopkins: I think most people reach a place in their lives when they wonder where they'd be had they taken different turns. Seems like the fourth decade is where many rethink their paths. I can tell you whenever I talk about Triangles, almost everyone that age or older starts nodding their head. The inspiration for the book came because in the same year, two of my best friends had big wake-up calls at ages 41 and 44. They reacted quite differently, and my first thought was, "Point-counterpoint, this is a novel!"

GR: After so many successful young adult books, what made you decide to write a novel for adults? Did you have to alter your approach to the story or character development?

EH: My readership now stretches from ages 12 to 80—he's my father-in-law, but, you know. So why not write something that will appeal to older readers? Teen characters will always speak to me, so I'm not giving up YA. But it was fun to write more mature subject matter. The difference in approach is simply looking through adult eyes rather than at the adults in the story. Character development becomes more multigenerational, since adult characters have parents and children. The language, and the verse, is a bit elevated.

GR: You share some biographical details with the character of Holly, a woman who left school to have children and now seeks her birth parents. Is this book a personal exploration?

EH: Holly was mostly inspired by the friend I mentioned. But there are pieces of me in her, too. The reaction of her birth parents (denial by her father, acceptance by her mother) was completely autobiographical, right down to the father's insistence that he had never had sex with anyone but his wife. They were Californians, however, not from rural Nevada. The magic of fiction!

GR: Your young adult literature is known for tackling taboo topics—addiction, teenage prostitution, sexual abuse. The taboo subject in Triangles is cheating spouses. Just as your YA books spark needed discussion among teens about thorny subjects, do you hope Triangles can open a dialogue among adults about infidelity?

EH: Dialogue is always important, and if Triangles can spark such conversation, I would be thrilled. But even if it's more about self-examination, I'll be happy. I also hope my older young adult readers and their parents will read the book (and the YA companion, Tilt—see below) and gain some understanding about how parents view their teens and vice versa.

GR: Goodreads member Carol Brakebill writes, "As a former middle school creative writing teacher, I am mesmerized by her verse style of writing. My question would be: What triggers you to write certain chapters in your books in shapes (circles, triangles, falling words, etc.) rather than just free verse?"

EH: I like the visual interest of concrete poetry, and reluctant readers are drawn to it. As for knowing which poems I want to have a certain look, it has become sort of instinctive. With Crank, there was more intent, specifically because I wanted my books to be different than other verse novels. Now it's mostly for fun.

GR: Goodreads member Emily asks, "Apart from the Crank series, which we know you have a huge personal investment in, what novel was the most emotionally jarring to write and why?"

EH: Probably Identical. Childhood sexual abuse is hard to look at and even harder to dissect. But I felt it was a subject that really needed to be drawn out into the spotlight. It happens so much more than people want to believe. Statistically, it's 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys who will be molested or raped before the age of 18. Plus, it happened to four very good friends, including two whose father/stepfather were judges. I should add that Identical was probably my favorite YA book to write.

GR: Goodreads member Lindsey asks, "What has been the most rewarding experience fanwise you have gotten from writing these beautiful books?"

EH: It's hard to pick one. I hear from readers every single day who tell me my books have turned them off a bad path, or offered insight into something a parent or friend is experiencing, or made them rethink suicide. Others have been inspired to become psychologists or counselors or writers. I have also played a pivotal role in three engagements (and I'll attend a wedding next year as a guest of honor). That's kind of amazing!

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

EH: My brain kicks into gear early, so I'm usually up with first light. E-mail and social networking are a huge part of every day, so I spend the first 45 minutes there. When my husband and son get up, I settle them into their day (this now includes alfresco coffee with my husband and dogs, who wait anxiously for the coffee to brew). After that, I sit down and write. Six to eight hours is my goal, with breaks for food or exercise. I prefer to write in my beautiful office, without music or other distractions. If I get stuck on a scene, I usually go outside and work in the garden or walk my dogs or take a hot tub. That almost always brings the needed focus.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

EH: I was a voracious and eclectic reader, but, always, character-driven novels spoke to me. Poe, John Irving, Ken Kesey, and Stephen King were favorites and, I'm sure, influenced my writing.

GR: What are you reading now?

EH: On the YA side, just finished The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer and Where Things Come Back. Excellent writing in both books! On the adult side, I'm reading Elephant Girl on my iPad. I vastly prefer print books, so the experience is not nearly as enjoyable.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

EH: Just turned in the 2012 YA, Tilt, which is a companion to Triangles, and from the POVs of three of the Triangles teen characters. It was fun to explore how their parents' midlife difficulties affected them, mostly because the adults were so immersed in their own problems that they were overlooking major issues in their teens' lives. Next I jump into the 2012 adult novel, Collateral, about deployment and what that means to those left behind.

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Jocelyn (new)

Jocelyn I think Triangles and Tilt sound like a great idea for a book club. I can just imagine the issues that could be discussed!

message 2: by Brooke R. (new)

Brooke R. Busse I am so happy to hear about all your project ideas. It lets me know that you're still going strong and that I can expect so much more from you in the future!

message 3: by Crystal (new)

Crystal As a military spouse, I am mostly excited about the deployment book. But it sounds like I need to start with Triangles so I will put it on my to-read list! Thanks for the insight!

♥♣Mary♦♠ If She So Pleases I can't wait to read this!

message 5: by Colby (new)

Colby Ellen and I talked about Perfect, Triangles, and future books on my blog. Check it out!

I have yet to read Triangles because I'm broke. Can't wait though!

message 6: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie I cant wait to read this book! I love Ellen!

message 7: by Shelly (new)

Shelly Sanders Both my daughter and I are fans, and I can't wait to start this new book!

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