Issue 38 - Being Real, Being True: YA Authors Writing for Teens - Ellen Hopkins, Carla McClafferty, Pam Munoz Ryan

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oice—the personality on the page. It’s what pulls readers in and keeps them along for the journey. Finding the perfect voice for a story is never easy, but writing for the young adult audience can be downright daunting. Teenagers want to see themselves reflected between the pages of a book. It isn’t enough to mimic the voice of a teenager; to hook the young adult crowd, you have to climb inside their skin and channel their unique energy. Ellen Hopkins has not only succeeded at this, she has perfected it.

In novels that have been described as “staggeringly honest,” Ellen channels the voice of young adults and invites readers to walk shoulder to shoulder with them as they face life’s darker issues: drug addiction, child abuse, sexual promiscuity, and mental illness—issues all too common in the real lives of her intended audience. Ellen writes her novels in verse, a form she believes allows her to get deeper inside the hearts and minds of her characters while making her work accessible to a wider audience.

Her newest book, Fallout, is the third and final installment in the Kristina series. There is little doubt Fallout will join Ellen’s previous novels on the New York Times Bestseller List when it hits bookstores September 2010. A preview is available on her website.


WOW:  Hi, Ellen. Thank you for taking time away from your writing to talk with us about channeling the voice of youth. Before breaking into the YA market, you were quite successful as a nonfiction author. When you began your first novel, Crank, did you see it as a YA book?

Ellen:  When I first started writing the book, I didn’t even know it was a book. It was a way for me to process the preceding six years of our life. Through the writing, as the story itself became clear, so did it become clear what kind of book it was supposed to be. The funny thing is, I’d never even attempted a YA before; so through writing Crank, I also discovered where I belonged as a writer.

WOW:  Your newest novel debuts this September—the conclusion to the story began in Crank and continued in Glass. While this particular series is based on your daughter’s experiences, you did not choose to write it as memoir. Can you share some of the factors that went into that decision?

Ellen:  As I wrote, I came to feel that this was a case of the story being bigger than the storyteller. It wasn’t just my [our] story; it was a story shared by many. By fictionalizing, I opened the book to a wider audience. “Kristina” wasn’t just my daughter. She was the reader’s daughter or mother or sister or friend. And also by fictionalizing, I allowed the “real players” at least a small sense of anonymity. Of course, I had no clue that the book would go on to become the phenomenon it has or that my family would come so solidly into the spotlight.

WOW:  How has your family responded to their stories being made so very public?

Ellen:  With a lot of grace, really. We’ve all sort of come to this place of knowing that going public has served a greater good. And in fact, in the book Flirting With the Monster, a collection of essays about Crank and Glass, four of them wrote their personal views of that time period. Very interesting to hear the stories from different points of view.

WOW:  Speaking of point of view, how did you come to write Crank from the daughter’s perspective?

Ellen:  I wanted to write from her POV to try to get inside her head. To look at her world through her eyes and hopefully gain some understanding of why she made the choices she did. The value of the book, I think, is in walking that walk with her. Seeing how one wrong choice can change lives forever. Teens often have this idea that: “It’s my life. I can do what I want with it.” That, and they have a certain sense of immortality. It never occurred to me to write from the mom’s POV or do a memoir. I have had lots of requests for one now, though. So maybe in the future.

“Sometimes, the larger truth of fiction is more valuable than the focused truth of memoir.”

WOW:  What should writers consider when facing the memoir vs. fiction dilemma?

Ellen:  I believe if you want to write a memoir, you have to tell the entire truth (yes, I understand it will be colored by your personal lenses), and that means truly opening yourself and those around you to public inspection. By fictionalizing, you can pull away as necessary to protect some truths from public view, change things that you wish you could change, and gain some necessary distance to tell a larger story. Sometimes, the larger truth of fiction is more valuable than the focused truth of memoir.

WOW:  A central theme of your oeuvre is voiced by Kristina (the protagonist in Crank) when she describes introspection as a dual-edged sword:

If you
acquaint your
self with your
self, you don’t
always like
the person you find

How has your own introspection informed your work?

Ellen:  Well, we all bring something of ourselves to our writing, don’t we? The emotions of my characters largely belong to me. How would I feel/react in that situation? Why or why wouldn’t this character feel/react the same way? I mean, the great thing about writing fiction is you can make “yourself” do something you wouldn’t normally do, through your characters. And in writing YA, you can return to that time in your life when those choices influenced who you are now. You can decide whether to relive or alter those experiences. It’s really rather amazing.

WOW:  You’ve blogged about the time you spend getting to know your characters before you start to write a new book. Can you share a few pointers on your process of building characters?

Ellen:  Theme influences the character building right from the start. So in Perfect, which I’m writing now, I wanted to explore the idea of perfection (beauty/body/brains) in different populations—pageant girls, lesbians, blacks, and athletes. I needed four different characters. Who are they? How do they live? How have these generally falsely-imposed ideals built these four young people? Who are their parents? Siblings? Friends? Boyfriends/girlfriends? What are their goals? Challenges? Do they have bad habits; and if so, how do these habits affect their daily lives? I don’t always describe my characters in detail; but because of the theme of this book, I really needed to. So how do they look? Do they like how they look? How are they trying to make themselves look better/different? You really have to get inside your characters’ heads and view their world through their eyes.

“You really have to get inside your characters’ heads and view their world through their eyes.”

WOW:  Drug addiction, mental illness, incest—your work takes the darker side of human nature straight on. You’ve alluded elsewhere that fiction gives you an opportunity to provide an adult perspective on subjects that are oh-so-real for many of today’s teenagers. Could you describe how you manage to add perspective without coming across as didactic or “preachy”?

Ellen:  First of all, you really have to respect your readers. You can’t say, “They’re just teens” and dismiss their feelings. They are all about feelings. What you can do, within the context of the entire book, is show how those feelings can make them choose a bad direction. You can show possible outcomes to their choices or even how to get beyond someone taking their choices from them. What you can’t do is sugarcoat or whitewash because that shows real disrespect for them and the things they experience every day. You can’t lie or try the old “just say no” thing. Drugs and alcohol will tempt most of them. They can choose not to go there; but honest information is what will help them make the better choices. And sex? Um…even if they’re not having sex, they’re thinking about it. That’s normal. So show what unprotected sex can lead to. But don’t dismiss the emotions behind it.

WOW:  How has your work been received by young adults?

Ellen:  The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m sure my books aren’t for everyone (and thank goodness I rarely hear from those who don’t like them—every negative comment still saddens me). But right now, I’m fielding over two hundred messages  every day; and almost all of them tell me how much I’ve inspired them or helped them make better choices or given them much needed insight…or just how much they love my books. They recommend them to their friends and parents and sometimes, teachers or librarians. Sometimes, they share their own stories, often opening up to me when they won’t to another adult. I’ve become someone they can trust…again because they know I’ll listen with a respectful ear and won’t offer judgment.

“And if you’ve never left Long Island 'prep,' don’t try to write Chicago urban hip.”

WOW:  My first exposure to your work was listening to the audio version of Identical. From word one, I was immediately immersed in Kaeleigh and Raeanne’s separate but overlapping worlds. While some credit is due Laura Flannagan for her spectacular reading, it was the voice of your characters—so in-your-face honest—that drew me in and would not let me go. What insight can you offer other YA novelists on finding an authentic voice for their characters?

Ellen:  Listen to teens! Spend some time in high school classrooms (volunteer to help out or maybe teach a creative writing workshop). Malls. Libraries. Game Stops. Come visit my social networking sites, and see how they talk to me. Be a voyeur. Understand that each teen’s set of circumstances dictates how he/she talks. You have to get out among real kids, though. Don’t use TV as a benchmark. TV teens are artificial. And if you’ve never left Long Island “prep,” don’t try to write Chicago urban hip. Write what you know. That is not to say that you have to be gay to write about being gay. Not even close. But if you’ve never been in the ‘hood, don’t try to imitate the vernacular.

WOW:  Raeanne asserts in Identical that she does not believe in “happy ever after.” How much control do you relinquish to the characters?

Ellen:  Some writers would probably say too much. I’d say almost all, and that’s how it should be. It’s their story. They have to tell me how and where to end it. In my honest opinion, plot should flow completely from character. I always get into trouble if I try to force characters into an artificial plot line.

WOW:  How much conscious effort goes into crafting momentum toward a certain ending?

Ellen:  As I get closer to the ending—a lot. I was two weeks past deadline with Fallout because while I kind of knew what I wanted the ending to be, I hadn’t found the exact right one. Once I figured that out, the last thirty pages all had to build, one upon each other, to accomplish the final page. Each page turn, building toward that ending, is crucial. You don’t want readers to be able to stop for that last thirty pages.

“Readers generally process the poetic part of my books subconsciously. But poetic device is on every page.”

WOW:  And there is a definite feeling in your work of each page building upon another, like expert tapestry—intricate, handcrafted blocks stitched together—elegant separate; most elegant whole.

Can you talk a bit about your process of writing not just novel, not just verse, but novel through verse?

Ellen:  I think you need to understand the craft of both poetry and novel to be able to write verse novel well. Poetry is about using the minimum number of words possible to paint the picture you want. It is about imagery and sounds. Readers generally process the poetic part of my books subconsciously. But poetic device is on every page. I write page to page, and each page is almost perfect before I move on. (Generally they feel perfect, but something might come up later that makes me have to change an earlier page.) Because each page flows into the next, this is a must. I write carefully; and so compared to some writers, my process seems slow. However, I don’t write “drafts.” By the time I finish a book, it’s pretty much ready to go to my editor. I actually love the challenge of making every word count. I love giving readers strong imagery through the voices of my characters. Some people think using fewer words to tell a story is easier. I say no way.

WOW:  Within your two-in-one poems, there is a separate subtext—offset lines that stand apart and accentuate or contradict the meaning of the overall poem. How did you come by that technique, and what affect does it have on your work?

Ellen:  This was something I wanted to play with in my regular stand-alone poetry. The idea of a poem broken into two poems, with the smaller serving as the heart of the larger, simply intrigued me. As they’ve become a signature style, I like to use them in every book; but I use them in different ways, depending on the number of POV characters. They are time consuming, although I’m getting more proficient at writing them. I generally use them as reflections, choosing carefully where to place them.

WOW:  Identical takes those two-in-one poems a step further, braiding them as perspectives switch within the story. How did you come to that technique?

Ellen:  In Identical, the mirrored poems at the gutters are meant to show how the girls are alike while the larger poems, which are very different, illustrate their differences. This was a conscious decision on my part; one I felt could be used with great effectiveness.

WOW:  How did those two-in-one poems affect your ability to tell each girl’s story?

Ellen:  I think the technique really worked well as far as defining the very different voices of the twins. It also was used as a way to hint at the plot twist to come at the end of the book. The great thing is, it wasn’t too big of a hint; and my readers enjoyed going back to reread these sections to find the forewarnings.

“Write the story you need to write, honestly and without sugarcoating or dumbing down—with no thought to librarians, parents, would-be censors, or award committees.”

WOW:  In Crank, you paint such a vivid picture of Bree’s first time inhaling crystal meth that readers can feel the teeth of the monster. You delve unswervingly into the conflictedness of sexually abused children in Identical. What advice would you give writers who want to write that vividly about something but fear repercussions by “the powers that be”—namely those who decide which books make it into school libraries?

Ellen:  I can’t say this enough. Write the story you need to write, honestly and without sugarcoating or dumbing down—with no thought to librarians, parents, would-be censors, or award committees. When you write to please them, you forget about your readers, and that is who you should be writing to please. The rest will follow. When Crank first published, I got some push-back from librarians, who didn’t like the fact that I didn’t tie up the ending into a nice, neat happily-ever-after. However, after enough young people started asking for the book, they started stocking their shelves with it. I know some school libraries have a dozen copies, and they’re always checked out. Librarians, for the most part, really care a lot about the kids they serve. They want them to read.

WOW:  Many of your characters find themselves in the presence of seemingly inescapable evil. What message do you hope to send teens who feel they are unable to escape their own personal evil?

Ellen:  Everyone has a “personal evil” of one kind or another. So first of all, you are not alone. Some evils can be conquered without outside help. But many can’t. There is no shame in asking for help. And, though it may not seem like it, there are people who DO care. If you can’t vanquish your personal evil alone, ask for help. Because no matter what has already happened (and the past is already written), the future is yet to be created. Being proactive means you can shape your own future. Be proactive.

WOW:  So what about writers who want to write about issues they have not personally experienced? Any suggestions?

Ellen:  My best advice is if you’ve never experienced drugs, personally or through someone you know, not to write about them. If you do an online search for “LSD,” for example, you will find clinical descriptions; but these don’t allow you to accurately write the experience, which is personal to every user. Readers will know that and call you on it. Don’t go looking for a substance to write about. If it’s necessary to the story, then include it.

As for other issues, most of us know someone who has experienced abuse, depression, thoughts of suicide. Try to put yourself inside their heads. How would you react? Would you take abuse? Fight it? Have you ever thought about killing yourself? Why or why not? I’ve never been raped or sexually abused. But I can channel characters who have been. For me, it’s more about channeling than relating through firsthand experience. Empathy is what it’s about, I guess.

WOW:  What sort of research do you do to help you channel those characters?

Ellen:  The best research is talking to people whose lives have been touched by these issues. My latest novel, Tricks, is about teen prostitution. I talked to kids on the street. Talked to vice cops. Talked to people who try to help kids out of that situation. The Internet can give you statistics and some personal stories. But to really understand and create characters who are “real,” you have to go into the trenches. And after you’ve succeeded at writing books that resonate, the stories will come to you.

“The best research is talking to people whose lives have been touched by these issues.”

WOW:  Well, you’ve definitely succeeded at creating “real” characters. Anyone wishing to break into the YA market could learn a great deal from your work. What other authors do you consider must-reads for writers just joining the YA scene?

Ellen:  Laurie Halse Anderson. John Green. Laura Weiss. Sarah Dessen. Meg Cabot. Patricia McCormick. Pete Hauptman. Neal Shusterman.

WOW:  Thanks, Ellen, for all of the great advice. Readers, wishing to hear more of Ellen’s thoughts on various topics, should check out her blog. And don’t miss Fallout, available in September.

Before we go, I just have one more question: What book is currently on your bedside table?

Ellen:  Stephen King’s Under the Dome. But first I have to get it back from my husband.


Kathy Higgs-Coulthard is founder and director of Michiana Writers’ Center in Indiana, a fun job that provides just enough income to support her addictions: caramel macchioatos and frenzied bursts of caffeinated fiction writing. Kathy’s own YA novel is in its umpteenth revision and soon will be making its way to NYC and into the hands of eager editors (who may or may not be figments of Kathy’s imagination).


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