An Interview with Ellen Hopkins: New York Times Bestselling Author

Heavy material for the lighthearted is never a good idea. As a lighthearted individual, reading Ellen Hopkins books is a recipe for disaster. Hopkins is best known for her dark and gritty material, including the critically acclaimed novels: Crank, Smoke, Tricks, and now Traffick. If you’re looking for something light and witty, and a happily ever after, these are not the type of novels to pick up on the train ride home.

These are the types of novels you make time for. After picking up Traffick, I was ready to dive in on a day off and spend the whole day in agony. I was ready to cry UNCLE by the end of it, and through the 500+ page book, it was only a matter of time before the last sentence crept up on me and I succumbed to my fate.

image credit: strandbooks.tumblr.com

I was not going to get anything done after that.

Traffick tells the continuing stories of Eden, Seth, Whitney, Ginger, and Cody. These five teenagers have seen the other side of hell and you’ll believe it. Eden is the preacher’s daughter who becomes a prostitute and eventually receives help that sees her into a child prostitution rescue. Then there’s Seth, who’s not only the country/farm boy, but the gay country/farm boy. He’s disowned by his father and ends up in Vegas turning tricks, too. Whitney becomes a heroin addict after a pimp lures her out of her privileged life and into the world of all the awful things you could think of. Ginger is a runaway with a girlfriend in tow, and ends up with handcuffs on her wrists after soliciting an undercover cop. Finally, Cody, the gambling addicted teen forced into a world darker than readers can imagine, then shot and left for dead.

As you can tell, Ellen Hopkins does not tread lightly on the “taboo” subjects of life.

Numbing myself would have probably been the easiest route coming into Traffick, but as the story picks up so quickly and violently, I realized the only way to get into Traffick is to open yourself up entirely to it.

Tricks was the story of how it all happened. It was just as gritty, dark, and emotionally draining as the sequel. Traffick is the aftermath.

I got a chance to speak to Ellen Hopkins while she was venturing on her book tour this month in Naperville. We spoke about the tour, the new book, the future, and surprisingly, Costa Rica.

Stepping down into the basement of Anderson’s Book Shop in Naperville, I sat across from Ellen in an office right next to the overflow of books. The basement was exactly that: A Basement. Crowded, cramped, but full of mystery and echoing laughter.

Here’s how it happened:

I begin by asking her how the book tour was coming along, and Ellen seemed happy to talk about the journey she had been embarking on.

She pauses. “I’ll tell you, it’s been really good. I’ve been going to the regular cities like New York and Chicago, the places I usually do, but I’ve gotten the chance to go the smaller cities like Ashville, Hartford, Connecticut. That [one] was an alternative school. I love those kids. And then I just came in from Billings.”

Do you have a favorite place you’ve been to so far?

Ellen laughs, before responding: “Well, I always love coming here! I’m going to say Chicago.”

Ellen has had a busy few weeks with the release of Traffick. The book hit a high of #3 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and Ellen still seemed humbled by the top spot.

Despite already being a New York Times bestselling author with her previous releases, she jokes: “It makes my publisher happy, so I’m happy.”

With an impending induction to the Nevada Hall of Fame, and another book slowly making its way to come together, I ask her whether she always had the idea of Traffick while writing the prequel, Tricks.

“I have never written a book expecting to write a sequel. It’s almost always reader demand, or I’ll leave a thread that bothers me. So [that’s] even with Impulse and Perfect, which are companion novels not sequels. Cara, his sister she always interested me and we never even saw her in the first book. So then she became –I wanted to write her. Even in Traffick, readers have been talking about Pippa—who is transgendered [in the book]. She interests me, so we’ll see if that’ll be a whole book or maybe a short story or something, but I’m thinking about doing something with her, just because. I love her.”

Speaking of LGBT+ characters: Ellen is known for including them in her novels. Not only does Traffick accompany the rural life of a gay farm boy, and the homophobia that it involves, but like Pippa, Ellen isn’t shy to represent the community truthfully in her novels.

I mentioned her LGBT+ characters and the budding representation in YA novels compared to the past.

She pauses. “I think they just become people. And I don’t just throw one in there to have one in there. With [writing about] teen prostitution—I needed to have a gay character in there. And he came out of personal experience, not mine, but the place where he lives, that rural county in Indiana. That’s where Kelly and my younger daughter are from, and it’s not a place where you’d want to be gay, still today. Going back there is like going back 50 years. In attitudes and the way people look at life. It’s very different than if you live in a big city or you live in the west.”

On a scene in Traffick she remembers writing vividly:

“Sending Seth home was –and not having him reconcile with his father. And again it’s not—you cant always reconcile. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. When he goes to the barn with his old dog and he’s sitting there and all the memories come and he’s remembering why loved being that person. His sexuality had nothing to do with that, that’s just who he was in Indiana—he was a farm boy. He gave that all up. And then to come home and to remember the smell of the barn, and what all that evoked in him. To me, that was a pretty spectacular scene.”

On whether or not she feels responsible putting ‘hope’ into her books:

Absolutely. What I really, really love is when people read my books and say: “I want to help someone like that. I want to be a psychologist, I want to be a social worker. Your books have really shown me that I want to help people like that.” Because at heart, humans are like that. We want love, we want to give love.”

On her young readers:

“I tell them: “You guys are the future.” The younger generation are the ones who have enacted change already; these big changes in equality. You know, that’s important to me. I was like, a seventies hippie. I was trying to enact change, coming away from the Vietnam War and the equal rights movement. Which.” She lowers her voice into a dramatic whisper. “What the hell women? I’m like, ‘I’m getting old here! I can’t lead the charge forever. Let’s step it up here. But, the civil rights movement—it was happening, but look, we’re still not there yet. Those prejudices hang on, but the young generation are the ones that are changing it. So there’s a lot of hope for the future there. And so that’s one thing that I do hope my books, and books like them, inspire them to help change what needs to be changed.”

She continues. “I feel like I play a small role in that and that makes me feel really, really good.”

On her future writing plans:

“I have a couple of short stories and collections out now, and there’ll be a new one out next year. That’s a Jonathan Maberry anthology. My kind of horror is more Twilight Zone horror—not slasher type horror. I’m not into slashing.” She said it laughing. It’s obviously an exciting prospect on the horizon, and one that she seemed passionate about exploring further. She continues, “That’s what I was writing about when I was doing short stories—horror stories. I wasn’t publishing it, but I was writing it.”

You may wonder if she still has these horror shorts.

“They’re on floppy disks,” she told me. Although she could always “just rewrite them.”

“I’m a better writer now than I was back then.”

We laugh.

__

With a Starbucks in hand, and settling into a computer chair, Ellen Hopkins opened up to whatever questions I threw her way. It was the most comfortable and least stressful interview I had ever encountered, and as the questions had continued, there always was an open mind. Whether we talked about LGBT character representation, her future writing plans– it was lighthearted.

Despite the dark and heavy material that encompasses Ellen Hopkins young adult books, it’s obvious the author appreciates the truth it reveals for her readers.

__

Traffick is available for purchase now.

Brooke Pawling Stennett is a college student pursuing a degree in Multimedia Journalism and Creative Non-Fiction in the old Windy City. She tends to lean toward the obsessive side of the tracks when it comes to books and music. She's an avid concert attendee (or at least she tries to!) and rambler. She'd like to travel the world and write about it, but in the only ways she knows how: sarcastically and full of internet jargon. Her opinions are her best ones, especially if they involve boy-bands and Netflix. . .even though she doesn't even have her own account. You can tweet her at @br_stennett and tell her how ridiculous (and totally great!) her opinions are.