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Inside the outsider

Geraldine Brennan talks to S E Hinton on her first visit to London. The connection between Jane Austen's novels and S E Hinton's dispatches from the front line of American high-school gang warfare is not immediately obvious.

But it's all in the revelation of character, the chronicler of rebels without a cause from Tulsa, Oklahoma said last week. Believing that "you need to read writers who are better than you at what you do", Susie Hinton read Austen at 15 while writing her first published novel, The Outsiders.

"I had very good English teachers who emphasised literature rather than structure," she said. "If you read everything you can get your hands on, the technical knowledge moves into your subconscious."

The Outsiders, first published in 1967, has now appeared in a UK collection with That Was Then, This Is Now and Rumble Fish. All three speak from the hearts and minds of working-class boys, focusing on the power struggles between the "greasers" (toughies) and the "socs" (preppies).

They continue to reflect teenagers' concerns about violence, betrayal and belonging. The Outsiders, in particular, is a set text in schools throughout the United States and a favourite lure for non-readers.

Hinton, who now has an 11-year-old son, a passion for horses and a Roseanne-style sense of humour, says: "I couldn't write that book today - it's so over-the-top emotionally.

"But I get letters telling me kids still feel that way. They still identify with gangs and cliques, and there's a lot of fear of the other group or the other culture, whatever it is."

As a bright high-school student with soc classmates and greaser friends, the young Hinton documented the rumbles and pool-hall scams from an observer's perch. "I didn't feel comfortable in groups - I couldn't even conform with the non-conformists. Nobody has ever picked my friends for me."

Her own quasi-gang consisted of a male cousin and his friends (she has one younger sister, no brothers) and boys have tended to have more fun in her books, although her new book for pre-teens, The Puppy Sister, requires shifts in species, genre and gender. "My alter ego is still a 15-year-old boy, " she admits. "It's easy for me to write as a boy. And at the time, I thought if I wrote The Outsiders about a set of girls nobody would believe it.

"I was a tomboy. I liked horses, fighting and football, the things boys liked. But I didn't get into trouble. I had a flick-knife just to show off but I never used it. My mother found it and I told her it was a letter- opener."

She had already written two other novels when a friend's mother read The Outsiders and encouraged her to send it to a New York agent. "It was presented as an overnight success story, but it didn't come out of nowhere. I had been writing for years and putting the stuff in a drawer. It was my most unselfconscious book, because I wrote it unaware that there would be an audience.

"Once I had sent it off, it was easy. I didn't have to suffer rejection or starve in a garret. But nobody warned me about the second-book block."

The Outsiders, Rumblefish and Tex (a 1979 novel about brotherly bonds) have been made into films and Hinton's adventures in screenwriting have given her a creative boost as well as a gang to die for (Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Patrick Swayze . . .). "I do have a sense of belonging on movie sets. And rewriting at speed is very good discipline."

The Puppy Sister, a departure from teenage angst, is based on her son Nick and his dog. "I brought a puppy home as a sister for him, and they fought like siblings. Being a parent means I can never be as objective about kids as I once was. I used to be able to say: 'I'm not a teacher, I'm not a parent, I'm not a cop - I must be on your side.'"

The Collection (three S E Hinton novels in one). Collins Pounds 7.99. 0 00 675115 6. The Puppy Sister will be published by Gollancz in September.

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