Ellen Hopkins is a life-long writer who exploded onto the New York Times’ bestseller list in 2004 with Crank, a novel written in free verse that was loosely based on her daughter’s real struggles with “the monster”—crystal meth. Verse novels and “difficult” subjects have become her trademark over the past fifteen years; since Crank, she has published twelve more YA novels in verse, tackling topics from suicide to sex trafficking to eating disorders, and three adult novels, two of which are also in verse.
Ellen lives on 1.25 acres of Nevada hills overlooking Washoe Lake, on her website, and—for about a hundred days each year—on the road. She is also currently raising three grandchildren under twelve, but was kind enough to make time for this interview over email.
Though your big splash was Crank, you actually published over 20 nonfiction books for children before your first novel in verse (and YA bestseller) came out, and before that you were a freelance journalist. How did you make the move from writing articles to writing books? And what was it like when your very first book came out?
Some of the articles I wrote as a freelancer required heavy research, and through that, the subject matter drew me to write about it deeper. I’ve always loved flight, so writing about air racing made me think about the history of flight through man’s love of competition. Who was first into the sky? Who was the first woman into the sky? How did they fly? (Kites and balloons, in case you’re interested.)
First book to now, every time I see a cover with my name on it, there’s an immense sense of satisfaction.
That Crank was based on your family’s real experiences with crystal meth is something you’ve talked about fairly extensively. You’ve said that it’s about 60% “truth,” and that you chose to write from Kristina’s point of view so that you could work through the choices your own daughter made. But how (and why) did you come to the decision that it needed to be written as narrative poetry?
I tried it in prose first, and the voice was mine, not “Kristina’s.” So I put the book away and did a workshop with Sonya Sones, whose verse novel, Stop Pretending, had just been published. It’s about her sister’s descent into schizophrenia, and it struck me that that sort of deep interior monologue might work for the book. Since I’d been writing poetry for decades, I decided to give it a try. It worked!
A final question about Crank: Publishers Weekly has reported that you sold your debut verse novel on just the first 75 pages of the manuscript—and without an agent. Which is a pretty unique story in itself! How did that happen? Was it really as easy as they make it sound?
Define “easy.” I’d been publishing for a while, so had a decent publishing bio built up, but I’d worked on it for years. I was also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), an organization that I highly recommend. I learned a lot about the publishing industry there, so when the opportunity presented itself to sit down with an editor from Simon & Schuster at a writers’ conference, I jumped on it.
I showed her a picture book I’d written, in verse, and she loved it, but she didn’t edit picture books and asked if I had anything else. I had ten pages of Crank written and showed those to her. She said send it when it was finished. Three months later, I had seventy-five pages done and emailed to asked if she’d like an exclusive look. She said yes.
S&S sent me a contract to finish it.
You are a strong proponent of research as a part of fiction writing. The Kristina/Crank series is also not the only time you’ve written a story that draws from your own history. You share biographical details with the character of Holly in Triangles, a woman who left school to have children and now seeks her birth parents, and your new novel, The You I’ve Never Known, is about parental kidnapping, which you’ve also experienced: your ex-husband kidnapped your three-year-old daughter shortly after the divorce, keeping her hidden from you for almost three years. How do you prepare to write a book that uses your own or your family’s history for inspiration? What does your “researching” look like in that situation?
You need to pare down personal experience to details that add landscape, character motivation, triggering incidents and, most importantly, emotional depth. Your characters’ situations might mirror your own, but that doesn’t mean they must or even should react in the same way. That’s what often makes fiction more interesting than factual narrative.
Speaking of Triangles, your first adult novel: it was followed immediately by Tilt, a return to YA verse novels which focused on the children of the women in Triangles. What prompted you to write that semi-sequel? How was it to go from writing Marissa as herself to writing her from Shane’s point of view, as “Mom”?
It was a grand experiment, and largely, it worked, but it wasn’t planned early on. I love writing teen characters, and felt like I shortchanged them in Triangles, though the book didn’t belong to them. As I grew to care about them, too, I wanted to know them more.
Truthfully, when I write YA, I look at my teen characters through their parents’ eyes, in order to develop those relationships in my own mind, so it’s something I often do, even if it never actually appears in a book.
In early interviews, you talk about writing without an outline and page-to-page, with a focus on the poetry that means each page is “almost perfect” by the time you move on to the next one. Is this still your process? Have you had to do major revisions on any of your novels, and what was that experience like, for you and your editor?
I’d love for it to become my process again!
Three years ago, I took guardianship of three young grandchildren, which threw my life into a chaotic state and disrupted not only my regular writing schedule, but also my ability to concentrate on my craft in the same ordered way. I also lost and gained a couple of editors mid-project for the last two books, and the change in editorial style—not to mention the relationships—confused things even more. So the next adult book (title to come) is now in its third round of revision, and The You I’ve Never Known, my latest YA, took a couple of rounds. It was enormously frustrating, to be honest.
Where did your double-poem form (by which I mean the poems where some words are set apart to form a second, smaller poem—by means of visual distance—which resonates with the key images or themes of the larger, encompassing poem) originate? They have become a signature style for you, and appear in all of your novels in verse, as far as I know. Did you come up with the form while writing Crank, or did it start in your stand-alone, non-narrative poetry?
It was something I was playing with writing stand-alone poetry, but I hadn’t really developed the style to the point where it pleased me. I figured I might as well use the excuse of writing a novel-in-verse to accomplish it.
If my math is correct, you have published more than twenty children’s nonfiction books, in the early 2000s; thirteen YA novels in verse since 2004, many of which have been New York Times bestsellers; three adult books, two of which are in verse; and may, in fact, be a time traveller. How are you so prolific—especially when you spend as much as a third of the year travelling and speaking?
Devotion. I love what I do. I write on the road, in hotel rooms or coffee shops or bookstores. Whatever it takes to stay in touch with my current crop of characters and storylines.
On your author website, you write about your childhood and teen years as being full of poetry and creative writing, but your early attempts at finding a career in writing seem to have been focused on non-fiction writing (journalism school, newspaper and magazine article freelancing). Would you recommend that path for other young writers?
It really depends on what the writer’s goals are. Not everyone is looking to become a bestselling novelist. If making a living with your writing is your main goal, I’d suggest writing anything and everything you can write well and get paid for. Seriously: nonfiction would be my suggestion because every day brings us new knowledge, so there will always be a market for nonfiction. You can always write creatively as well, building craft and connections within the industry, so if you want to make the jump—or continue to do both—you can.
Meagan Black started her MFA in Creative Writing this fall and is freaking out. Outside of school, her interests include working for Arc Poetry Magazine and never finishing the edits on her first novel in verse. Her website is www.actuallyreadbooks.com.