An Interview With Ellen Hopkins

Best-Selling Author of the Crank Trilogy For Teens

Ellen Hopkins is the best-selling author of the enormously popular Crank trilogy of young adult (YA) books. Although she was an established poet, journalist and freelance writer before the success of Crank, Hopkins is now an award-winning YA author with five bestselling novels in verse for teens. Her novels in verse attract many teen readers because of their realistic topics, authentic teen voice, and the appealing poetic format that is easy to read.

Ms. Hopkins, a highly sought after speaker and writing mentor, took time out of her busy schedule to grant me an email interview. Read on to learn more about this talented writer including information about the writers and poets who influenced her, the inspiration behind her Crank trilogy, and her stand on censorship. 
 
Q.  What types of books did you like to read as a teen?  
A.  There was a total dearth of YA literature when I was a teen. I gravitated toward horror-- Stephen King, Dean Koontz. But I also loved popular fiction--Mario Puzo, Ken Kesey, James Dickey, John Irving. For sure if I found an author I liked, I read everything by that author I could find.  
 
Q. You write poetry and prose.  Which poets/poems have influenced your writing?  
A.  Billy Collins. Sharon Olds. Langston Hughes. T.S. Eliot  
   
Q.  Most of your books are written in free verse. Why do you choose to write in this style?

  
A.  My books are completely character driven, and verse as a storytelling format feels like a character's thoughts. It puts readers right on the page, inside my characters' heads. That makes my stories "real," and as a contemporary storyteller, that's my goal. Plus, I truly love the challenge of making every word count.

I have, in fact, become an impatient reader. Too much extraneous language makes me want to close a book.  
   
Q.  Besides your books in verse, what other books have you written?  
A.  I started writing as a freelance journalist, and some of the stories I wrote sparked my interest in nonfiction books for children. I published twenty before I moved into fiction. My first adult novel, Triangles, publishes October 2011, but that is also in verse.  
   
Q.  How would you describe yourself as a writer?  
A.  Dedicated, focused and passionate about my writing. I am blessed to have a creative career that is relatively lucrative, too. I worked really hard to get here, and will never forget those days, trying to decide where I belonged as a writer and scraping by until I figured it out. Quite simply, I love what I do.  
   
Q.  Why do you like writing for teens?  
A.  I very much respect this generation and hope my books speak to the place inside them that makes them want to be the best they can be. Teens are our future. I want to help them create a brilliant one.  
   
Q.  Many teens read your books. How do you find your “teen voice” and why do you think you are able to connect with them?  
A.  I have a fourteen-year-old son at home, so I'm around teens through him and his friends.

But I also spend a lot of time talking with them at events, signings, online, etc. In fact, I hear "teen" every day. And I remember being a teen. What it was like to still be a kid, with my inner adult screaming for freedom. Those were challenging years, and that hasn't changed for today's teens.  
   
Q.  You’ve written about some serious topics in regards to teens. If you were to give teens any advice about life, what would it be? What would you say to their parents?  
A.  To teens: life will present you with choices. Think carefully before you make them. Most mistakes can be forgiven, but some choices have outcomes that can't be taken back. To parents: Don't underestimate your teens. They are wiser and more sophisticated than you know, even though their emotions are still developing. They see/hear/experience things you may not want them to.

Talk to them. Arm them with knowledge and help them make the best choices they can.  
   
Q.  The book Crank is a fictionalized story based on your own daughter’s experience with drugs. How did she influence you to write Crank?  
A.  This was my perfect A+ kid. No problems at all right up until the time she met the wrong guy, who turned her on to drugs. First, I needed to write the book to gain some understanding. It was a personal need that made me start the book. Through the writing process, I gained much insight and it became clear this was a story many people shared. I wanted readers to understand that addiction happens in "good" homes, too. If it could happen to my daughter, it could happen to anyone's daughter. Or son or mother or brother or whatever.  
   
Q.  Glass and Fallout continue the story you started in Crank.  What influenced you to continue writing Kristina’s story? 
A.  I never planned sequels. But Crank resonated with so many, especially because I made it clear it was inspired by my family's story. They wanted to know what happened to Kristina. What most hoped for was that she quit and became the perfect young mom, but that wasn't what happened. I really wanted readers to understand the power of crystal meth, and hopefully influence them to stay far, far away from it. 

For more information on Ellen Hopkins and the book challenges to Crank,  see the next page.

Q. When did you find out Crank was being challenged?
A. Which time? It's been challenged many times and was, in fact, the 4th most challenged book in 2010.

Q. What was the reason given for the challenge?
A. Reasons include: drugs, language, sexual content

Q. Were you surprised at the challenges? How did you feel about them?
A. Actually, I find them ridiculous. Drugs? Uh, yeah. It's about how drugs take you down.

Language? Really? The f-word is in there exactly twice, for specific reasons. Teens cuss. They do. They also have sex, especially when they're using drugs. Crank is a cautionary tale, and the truth is the book changes lives for the better all the time.

Q. How did you respond?
A. When I hear about a challenge, it's usually from a librarian who is fighting it. I send a file of reader letters thanking me for: 1. Letting them see the destructive path they were on, and encouraging them to change it. 2. Giving them insight into a loved-one's addiction. 3. Making them want to help troubled kids. etc.

Q. In the nonfiction essay collection called Flirtin' with the Monster, you stated in your introduction that you wanted to write Crank from Kristina's point of view. How difficult of a task was this and what do you feel you learned from it?
A. The story was close behind us when I started Crank. It had been a six-year nightmare, fighting for her and with her.

She was inside my head already, so writing from her POV [point of view] wasn't difficult. What I learned, and needed to learn, was that once the addiction kicked into high gear, it was the drug we were dealing with, not my daughter. The "monster" analogy is accurate. We were dealing with a monster in my daughter's skin.

Q. How do you determine which topics to write about in your books?
A. I receive literally hundreds of messages a day from readers, and many are telling me personal stories. If a topic comes up many times, it means to me it's worth exploration. I want to write where my readers live. I know, because I hear it from my readers.

Q. Why do you think it's important to read about the topics you cover in your books?
A. These things--addiction, abuse, thoughts of suicide--touch lives every day, including young lives. Understanding the "why" of them can help change the horrific statistics that some people refuse to believe. Hiding your eyes won't make them go away. Helping people make better choices will. And it's hugely important to gain empathy for those whose lives are touched by them. It's hugely important to give them a voice. To let them know they are not alone.

Q. How has your life changed since publishing Crank?
A. A lot. First of all, I discovered where I belong as a writer. I've found a widening audience that loves what I do, and through that I've gained some small amount of "fame and fortune." I never expected that, and it didn't happen overnight. It's a lot of hard work, both on the writing end and on the promotion end.

I travel. Meet lots of great people. And while I love that, I've come to appreciate home even more.

Q. What are your plans for future writing projects?
A. I've recently moved onto the adult side of publishing, so I'm currently writing two novels a year--one young adult and one adult, also in verse. So I plan to be very, very busy.

Ellen Hopkins new novel in verse for teens, Perfect, will be released September 13, 2011.