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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Monday, June 25, 2012 10:20 am
Hostile Questions: Ellen Hopkins
Posted by: Daniel Kraus

Looking for a raw, stark, relentless take on a grueling topic? You’re in luck! Ellen Hopkins has you covered. Crank takes on crystal meth addiction; Burned looks at abuse; Impulse examines suicide; Tricks explores prostitution; and–well, how much time do you have? Her verse-novel style and one-word titles are trademark at this point. I wonder what she’ll title the inevitable novelization of this interview. Interrogated? Discomfited? Booklisted?

Just who do you think you are?

I suppose I’m the definition of a woman trying to have it all. Please don’t let it slip to a certain current crop of politicians, but being everything to everybody isn’t easy. At least not if you want to do it all well, and I’m OCD like that, which explains why I’m up at dawn, brain already kicked well into gear and organizing my day. Sometimes I even wake up with plot problems solved, meaning I write in my dreams, too. But, I digress. Who am I?

I’m a wife. Ask my husband of 28 years; he’d doubtless tell you that book promo takes me away too much, and when I’m home I’m often distracted. But we’re still best friends and forever partners. I’m a parent. Ask my three grown children, they’d say I did okay, considering the circumstances (little money, an abusive ex, losing my mom to cancer, the desire to find Mr. Right). Ask my still-at-home teenage son, he’d say having an author mom is pretty damn cool, especially when it comes to hooking up with girls who like my books. Seriously. He’s a player like that.

I am a Believer and outspoken liberal, and do not find that in the least oxymoronic. I am generous with my time and resources. I’m an excellent friend, a devoted mentor. A great cook and green-thumb gardener. I love dogs, cats, horses and respect most other animals. Not so much cockroaches or leeches. Ew. Especially not leeches, but that’s kind of a long story involving an Australia rainforest walk in the rain, wearing shorts and mesh tennis shoes, and if that’s beginning to paint an ugly picture, it should. (Did you know salt actually DOES shrivel up leeches?)

I am an adventurer who loves travel, especially overseas. Because when you explore the world you begin to understand that people, near and far, are more alike than not.

Above all, I am a writer—writer before author. I am a poet, journalist, essayist, novelist. I am a storyteller.

Where do you get off?

Getting off is kind of personal, but as for arriving, I’m pretty sure I’ve reincarnated, at least a few times. I am unusually comfortable in strange situations, and often when I make mistakes there is a déjà vu sense of having made them before. I do think in this incarnation I’ve learned how to avoid most of them if I happen to find myself here again. Considering the current state of our planet, that’s kind of a scary thought. Do you think books will exist a century hence? I mean, real print-on-paper ideas, mostly immune to content manipulation? God, I hope so. Who gets to decide? Maybe I can come back as that person. Random thought: what if I used to be George Orwell?

This time around, I’m a California native, and the Golden State’s oak-studded hills and Pacific coast beaches always plunge me into nostalgia. But, having moved to northern Nevada 22 years ago, the eastern Sierra foothills of the Silver State will always be my home.

What’s the big idea?

I don’t write pretty little romances, Westerns, mysteries, or thrillers, although you’ll find slices of all those in my books. I don’t write vampires, werewolves, or witches, though I once thought I would be the next Stephen King, whose writing I adore. Over the years, however, the horror—and majesty—I see inside regular, everyday people has come to interest me more.

I write unsettling glimpses of the human landscape—things people are uncomfortable talking about, even if they have experienced them up close and quite personally. Abuse. Addiction. Gender identity. The unhealthy quest for perfection. Mid-life direction shifts. The personal cost of war. Thoughts of suicide. Prostitution. Lust. Sex. Jealousy. Pregnancy, sought or unintended. The insatiable hunger for love. These things build and destroy lives, and so I’m drawn to write about them. Human complexity fascinates me, and it is this obsession that inspires the characters in my novels. Readers will scream at them; they will laugh with them; they will cry for them. But they won’t dismiss them, or forget them. Character is everything, in real life, and in fiction.

What is your problem, man?

Because I write for both older teens and adults, my books sometimes straddle the line between those worlds. And, because I don’t sugarcoat or prettify the subject matter, that blur upsets some people—usually adults who can’t quite believe young people lead complicated lives. But the truth is, those worlds often collide, for better or worse. Some chronologically qualified adults have, in fact, never quite grown up. Conversely, adulthood too often encroaches on childhood.

I also write in an unusual format, a sort of fiction-poetry hybrid called verse novel. Chill, okay? Don’t let the p-word scare you. I’m not talking sonnets here. Largely, my books read like any novels do, while relying on specific word choice and placement. Personally, I love the challenge of extricating unnecessary verbiage. Every word counts and is on the page for a definite reason. Rather than interfering with the storytelling, this enhances it because it places readers solidly inside the story, allowing them to live it rather than observe it.

Haven’t you done enough?

I have two books coming out in 2012. Tilt (September) is the young adult companion to my very first adult novel, Triangles, about midlife meltdowns. The three women protagonists in Triangles are the mothers of the three teens who take center stage in Tilt, providing really interesting POV shifts between the two books. Collateral (November) is about a couple trying to build a relationship through four deployments, two to Iraq and two to Afghanistan, and is a reminder that war swallows the lives of loved ones waiting at home.

My September 2013 young adult novel, Smoke, is the sequel to my second book, Burned, which ended with a young woman considering a shooting rampage. I don’t want to give too much away, so maybe I’ll leave it there, with this tease: when Smoke opens, someone is dead, and the girl is on the run. I’m writing that one now, and negotiating a new contract. My readers can plan on at least one novel a year, and maybe more, for the foreseeable future.


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