TULSA — In the days of Ponyboy Curtis, when the social conflicts at the heart of “The Outsiders” meant avoiding certain areas of her native Tulsa, author S.E. Hinton stayed in her part of town.
She grew up in a working-class neighborhood near the corner of Admiral and Sheridan, on the east side of Tulsa.
The “greasers,” the lower-income teenagers Hinton identified with as a teenager in the mid-1960s, did not mix with the “socs,” the rich kids who lived on the west side.
“I don’t think I ever set foot in Utica Square when I was a kid,” said Hinton, eating a spinach and strawberry salad at the Polo Grill in that tree-shaded, upscale shopping center at NW 21st and Utica. “It wasn’t like I was analyzing Tulsa society, but there were just some places you went. My husband was very comfortable here: there was a bowling alley and a TG&Y, so it didn’t intimidate him at all. I’m not saying it intimidated me, but it was just a place where we never went.”
“The Outsiders” was published 45 years ago, when Hinton was 18 years old.
She began writing it three years earlier, when a classmate from her neighborhood was beaten by rich kids while he was walking home from Will Rogers High School.
Hinton said she was a writer as soon as she learned to read, which made her an outsider in her own family: her father, Grady Hinton, was a door-to-door salesman, and her mother, Lillian, was an assembly-line worker, and neither of them related to their literary-minded daughter.
While her parents watched television in their living room, Susie Hinton wrote stories about horses — the primary subject of the two unpublished novels she wrote before the book that made her famous.
Truth into fiction
Hinton based the initial attack that opens “The Outsiders” on what happened to her classmate, but the character of Ponyboy Curtis, the young reader raised by his older brothers Darry and Sodapop, a proud “greaser” who nevertheless felt like an outsider even among outsiders, came from someplace more personal.
“It escalated from there. Of course, that kid thinks he’s Ponyboy — to this day, he goes around telling people he’s Ponyboy. But if he’d just read the character description ... I don’t think that guy read a book in his life until he read ‘The Outsiders,’” Hinton said, laughing.
“When I first started writing it, it was about 40 pages long, single-spaced type when I got through with it, and I just wrote it over and over and over again, adding more details, filling it out, basically,” she said. “So the draft the publisher saw was about my third time through it.”
Hinton wrote and rewrote “The Outsiders” throughout high school and eventually showed an early version of the novel to a friend’s mother, a writer who knew Marilyn Marlow of the New York literary agency Curtis Brown LTD.
“Marilyn wrote me back and she said, ‘I think you’ve captured a certain spirit. I’ll see what I can do,’” Hinton said. “She sold it to the second publisher that saw it.”
At that point, Hinton had barely traveled outside Oklahoma, occasionally visiting a grandmother in Texas, so flying to New York was a huge adventure for the Tulsa teenager.
She said her mother was so worried about the trip, she sent Hinton’s 15-year-old sister, Beverly, to protect her.
Hinton said that the publishers, agents and journalists she met in New York all thought that every Oklahoman “had buffalo in our backyard,” but it was not her home state that conferred true outsider status on the University of Tulsa freshman.
“More people thought I was strange because I was a teenage novelist, not because I was from Oklahoma,” she said. “That’s where I got the looks like I was from the zoo.”
Published by Viking Press in April 1967, “The Outsiders” sold respectably but was not an instant best-seller: Hinton said her first royalty check was for $12, or enough to buy two tanks of gas at the time. She went on to write 1971’s “That Was Then, This is Now” and 1975’s “Rumble Fish,” and lived a quiet life in Tulsa with her husband, David Inhofe.
Meanwhile, high school teachers began using “The Outsiders” in class, and by the time Hinton published her next best-selling novel, 1979’s “Tex,” “The Outsiders” had achieved iconic status, eventually selling over 10 million copies.
An icon on screen
This popularity surge set off a Hollywood gold rush. At first, Hinton shied away from film adaptations and turned down some offers, fearing that “The Outsiders” would be turned into “‘Ponyboy Beach Bingo’ or something like that,” she said.
But then the Walt Disney Company’s head of production, Tom Wilhite, approached Hinton about adapting “Tex” as one of the studio’s first PG-rated films, and after a VIP tour of Disneyland, Hinton agreed to sell the rights to the novel.