A Chat with Ellen Hopkins
Welcome back to SCARY OUT THERE, the Horror Writers Association’s new blog on scary fiction for teens. This week I sit down for a chat with Ellen Hopkins, the award winning author of nine NY Times bestselling young adult novels-in-verse, plus two adult verse novels. Before delving into fiction, Ellen was a poet, freelance journalist and nonfiction author, with twenty published nonfiction books for children. Ellen mentors other writers as the regional advisor for the Nevada chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives near Carson City, where she has recently founded Ventana Sierra, a 501(c)(3), to help youth-in-need into safe housing and working toward career goals through higher education, mentorship and the arts.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Your books tackle some fierce topics and you don’t flinch away from looking into the darker closets of the mind. Does anything scare you?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Not much.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Nothing?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Probably my biggest fear would be losing one of my children or grandchildren. That should not be the way of things. I will say, though I fly a lot and don’t really fear it, a missed landing or unusual motion will make me grip the armrest pretty tightly.
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a big manly-man and I’ve gripped an airplane armrest or two myself. There’s a fine line between fear and common sense.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Is fear a fixed thing in the mind, or does it evolve as we move from childhood into adulthood?
ELLEN HOPKINS: As children or teens, I think we fear the unknown. As adults, we tend to fear that which we have some knowledge of. But I also think perspective allows us to fear less as we age.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Can you give me an example?
ELLEN HOPKINS: For instance, where I walk, there is wildlife, including coyotes. A young person could very well fear coyotes, because they don’t understand their behaviors. Over the years, through observation and, indeed, occasional confrontations, I know what to expect, so I’m not really afraid of them. I keep my cat inside, however.
JONATHAN MABERRY: A lot of teen fiction explores peer pressure and its effects. Does that topic then fall under the umbrella of horror?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Not sure about peer pressure, but peer harassment/bullying is definitely horrifying to a young person. Abuse, physical or sexual, is real world horror, too, as is addiction.
JONATHAN MABERRY: To teens, that’s scarier than monsters like vampires and werewolves.
ELLEN HOPKINS: Certain drugs are monsters and in fact, I refer to crystal meth as “the monster” in my CRANK trilogy.
JONATHAN MABERRY: So, what then is ‘horror’?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Horror is when you have zero control over what’s happening to you. When you are helpless to either run or stand your ground and fight with any chance at all of surviving. It’s slow suffocation.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Some adults have tried to impose limits on the content of teen horror fiction. What’s your take on that?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Pretty much what my take is on any kind of content control. It’s censorship.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Should we eliminate all censorship?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Teens self-censor well enough. If there’s too much sex or cursing or horror, they are more than capable of closing the book and finding one they’re more comfortable with. As a teen I was reading all adult books, including horror. I can’t actually remember one I put down, but I liked being scared by books.
JONATHAN MABERRY: What element of storytelling craft is at the heart of all good horror tales?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Pacing.
JONATHAN MABERRY: How so?
ELLEN HOPKINS: They must slow down as we anticipate what’s coming, speed up when we try to escape. And there must be at least one character we become in the reading, hopefully the one who survives.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Do you have a theory as to why people like having the bejeezus scared out of them?
ELLEN HOPKINS: They like being scared by books or movies, or amusement park rides because those are things they can walk away from unscathed, but that give them great adrenaline rushes. We all need stimulation. Fear is a stimulant.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Did you ever think you’d be even vaguely considered a ‘horror’ writer?
ELLEN HOPKINS: I once thought I’d be the next Stephen King, and wrote a lot of short horror. I’m currently playing around with that again, and have a great, dark retelling of the Snow Queen coming out in an anthology.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Really?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Sort of Hans Christian Anderson meets Milton. But my novels examine real life horrors, like those I mentioned above. I write about the things that make teens powerless–addiction, abuse, dark obsessions.
JONATHAN MABERRY: What’s next for you?
ELLEN HOPKINS: My next YA is SMOKE (September 2013), about a girl on the run after killing her father. He may have deserved it, but coming to terms with what she’s done is most definitely horrifying.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Nice. And after that?
ELLEN HOPKINS: I’m currently writing RUMBLE (2014), about a young man who dismissed his brother’s suicide threat, only to find the brother he adored had followed through.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Ouch.
ELLEN HOPKINS: Another example of real word horror.
JONATHAN MABERRY: You have any favorite horror novels that play well to teen audiences?
ELLEN HOPKINS: FIRE & ASH, of course!
JONATHAN MABERRY: Ain’t you a sweetie?
ELLEN HOPKINS: Also THE MARBURY LENS by Andrew Smith.
JONATHAN MABERRY: I know, I loved and that the sequel, THE PASSENGER. Anything else?
ELLEN HOPKINS: And Neal Shusterman’s UNWIND.
JONATHAN MABERRY: Good call.
ELLEN HOPKINS: And I’ll toss in an adult novel by Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman. THINNER terrified me as a voracious teen reader!
JONATHAN MABERRY: I know, I always thought that one was underappreciated. It holds up well to re-reading, too. So…thanks for stopping by, Ellen. Can’t wait to grab SMOKE as soon as it debuts. Best of luck with it!
NEXT TIME on SCARY OUT THERE I’ll be chatting with Rachel Caine, international bestselling author of the Morganville Vampire Series!
Until then…don’t be afraid of the dark. No…wait, that’s bad advice. Definitely be afraid of the dark. There’s all sorts of things hiding in the shadows
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, writing teacher and comic book writer. His latest novel is FIRE & ASH, the final book in the multiple-Bram Stoker Award winning ROT & RUIN series. www.jonathanmaberry.com Find him on Twitters at @JonathanMaberry and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jonathanmaberry