Ellen Hopkins built her list of nonfiction book credits by combining her journalism experience with her passion to convince her pre-teen daughters that they could become pilots or astronauts rather than the models and movie stars foisted on them by media and marketing conglomerates. When her oldest daughter became addicted to crystal methamphetamine, Hopkins turned to writing fiction to try to understand her daughter’s addiction and to figure out what she could have done differently. Originally called Flirtin’ With the Monster, Crank was published in October 2004. With Crank’s instant success, Hopkins says her life has been “a bit of a rocket ride.”
“I started Crank as a prose novel,” she says, “but the voice was too angry. It was my voice and not the character’s.” Although Hopkins always dabbled with poetry, she never thought of writing a verse novel until she attended a writer’s conference that planted the seed. Hopkins created her concrete poetic style to give her poems structure on the page. “My readers like the concrete verse,” she says. “The poetry brings the reader inside the characters’ heads. My readers feel like they are the characters on the page.” Current research indicates video games, text messaging and computers are contributing to a change in the way the teenage brain functions. “My poems stimulate the visual part of the brain,” says Hopkins.
Initially Hopkins’ books met with some resistance from librarians because of the hard-hitting subjects like drug addiction, teen suicide, violence, incest, and teen prostitution. According to Hopkins, “Teen readers want harder issues and not always a happy ending. Now librarians love my books because I’m getting non-readers to read. Kids tell me, ‘I never finished a book before and I read yours in a day.’”
The subject matter of Hopkins’ books requires added commitment and responsibility from her. “Today’s teens are exceptional,” she says. “They are open about showing who they are.” One of her friends jokes that she should keep a psychologist on staff because her readers want to tell her their stories. Sometimes readers ask for help with their parents’ or their grandparents’ addictions. Sometimes they say, “It’s my life. I’m old enough to make my own decisions.” Hopkins hopes her books are a positive influence. When she speaks to school groups, she uses Crank and its sequel, Glass, as examples of how their choices today affect not only them, but everyone in their lives. She tells her readers, “Your life belongs to everyone who loves you.”
Creating characters is the toughest part of writing for Hopkins. All of her books are character-driven with the plot unfolding from the choices her characters make rather than external forces. Hopkins delves into the motivations for each of her characters figuring out the whys behind their choices. Generally, Hopkins begins with a central theme or question she wants to explore. For instance, when she finished Glass, Columbine High School and the teenaged gunmen were breaking news. “I wondered what would bring a girl to the brink of a shooting rampage,” says Hopkins. In Impulse Hopkins explores some of the factors that drive teens to suicide because her small valley community between Reno and Carson City, Nevada lost two teens to suicide. Once the theme and characters are determined, Hopkins says, “I know about where I want the book to end. I let the characters start talking to me.”
Bits and pieces borrowed from real people can be found in Hopkins’ characters. Her youngest daughter works with kids contemplating suicide and Hopkins has also counseled a friend bent on self-destruction. “One reader might say to me, ‘I don’t understand why I have to be the mother. I’m fifteen years old,’ and I know that’s a character, but I don’t want to tell that story particularly,” says Hopkins. Instead, she tweaked the story to fit one of the five teen prostitutes whose voices are heard in Tricks. Kristina, from Crank, Glass, and the upcoming Shattered, is loosely based on Hopkins’ eldest daughter’s addiction to meth and her daily struggle to stay drug-free. Hopkins fictionalized the details because she wasn’t there to see everything that happened.
The irony of her rocket-like success being predicated on her daughter’s tragedy is not lost on Hopkins. On her website, Hopkins says, “By writing the story from ‘my daughter’s’ perspective, I learned a lot, both about her, and about myself. But I also learned a lot about the nature of addiction, and the physiology of this particular substance.” BecauseCrank, Glass and Shattered hit close to home, Hopkins remains grounded in the real world despite her success. “[My eldest daughter] is my anchor [to the world], my reality check.” One bit of that reality she lives with everyday is her adopted son—the baby she wrote about at the end of Crank. “He’s the light of our lives,” she says.
“I didn’t know I belonged writing teen fiction until I started writing teen fiction,” says Hopkins. “Words really do have power. It’s not about writing some nice little story. It’s about creating something that will mean something to kids. I’m amazed. I’m so happy. I’m content I found this place that I can do what I do.”