Joy Interviews Ellen Hopkins, author of CLOSER TO NOWHERE

Article by Joy

I first met Ellen Hopkins in person about a decade ago, introduced by a mutual friend at a writer’s conference. I was very new to this industry then, my first YA novel about to come out, basically in awe of getting to talk to someone whose work I so very much admired. Here’s the thing about Ellen that her fans know: She is the real deal: passionate and intense and kind and always willing to pay it forward if she can. Many #kidlit authors are, actually, but Ellen is particularly generous with her time and friendship, and I’ve always appreciated this more than I can say. Her books pack a visceral, emotional punch and are as much the real deal as she is. It’s always a pleasure for me to chat with her, but a particular pleasure today to share our conversation about her forthcoming middle grade novel, CLOSER TO NOWHERE.
 

Joy Preble: You’re always so open and transparent about the often very personal inspirations for your work. I know CLOSER TO NOWHERE is no exception. Can you speak to us about the background for CLOSER TO NOWHERE and why you were willing to mine your own family’s lives to help create the fictional Hannah and Cal and their story?

Ellen Hopkins: Cal is very much inspired by one of the grandchildren we’ve raised. He came to us with severe PTSD, the result of early childhood trauma, and he arrived with difficult behavioral issues, including daily meltdowns. When he started fourth grade, these behaviors afforded him the title “class freak.” Therapy, counseling, and simply knowing he was safe, mitigated the issues almost completely, but by the time he reached high school, he still found it difficult to lose the label and make friends. I want young readers to understand how that kid, their own “class freak,” needs understanding and compassion, and beneath the problems, has a very big heart hungry for friends.

 

JP: Definitely something we all need to open minds and hearts to. Particularly today, I know we’re all thinking that empathy is a characteristic everyone needs as much as possible. And that’s something that’s common in all your stories. But unlike the rest of your novels, which are categorized as Young Adult or Adult, CLOSER TO NOWHERE is your debut middle grade, with a younger target audience. What made you decide to tell this story with younger characters? Was the writing experience different? The character development? The ways you handled issues such as death, divorce, and abuse?

EH: I think it’s vital to develop empathy in children at a younger age. The difference in storytelling is simply relating to the way middle grade readers view themselves, their friends, their families, and the world. Family is more important to children at this age than it is to teens, who are searching for a sense of self and adulthood. Maybe even escape. Younger kids are hungry for belonging, a sense of safety, and a stable home. Still, they experience the darker side of life and need to believe there is always hope, always light.


JP: I like that you write from that spirit of optimism. I’ve seen discussions lately about how that shouldn’t be a goal in YA or MG, but on a personal level, I always want hope. And I’m drawn to this book in part because of that.  I’m also always so drawn to your novels in verse. The spare, poetic style always elevates your stories to me in this powerful, visceral way. What draws you to write your novels in verse rather than prose?

EH: Verse is personal and allows readers deeply into the hearts and minds of the characters. Prose tends to be more intrusive. It feels more like you’re being told a story than actually living it. Verse also distills language, brings it down to its most basic elements. There’s a definite challenge to writing a novel this way, one that I enjoy.

 

JP:  Well, your readers enjoy it, too! Speaking of which, your books mean so much to your fans. I know that when I was teaching high school, I told you more than once that various students had told me to tell you that your stories have saved their lives. And I’ve wondered about that ever since I’ve known you - if that kind of fan devotion takes a toll on you as a person, and how you balance your privacy against the needs of your readers.

EH: There are times when some of the stories my readers share with me touch me deeply; other times, they shred my heart. But I feel like I have a covenant with the Creator, that I’m here to make a positive difference in those lives. The flip side is random love from readers I receive almost every day. You can never get too much love.

 

JP: Absolutely agreed! Anytime, but once again, especially now when everything feels dangerous and fraught and uncertain. And since we’re now basically discussing the pandemic, the past months have been crazy and rough on all of us, so I know everyone is always interested: What have you been cooking, watching, reading, planting in your garden?

EH: Oh, I went through the whole sourdough phase… months of sourdough bread, rolls, muffins, pancakes, pizza crusts. Then one day my starter was begging to be fed—again—and I tossed it. I do cook pretty regularly, though, and we haven’t eaten out, so I’m cooking something all the time. We’ve watched a number of older movies (circa 1970-1990) with the kids. They love them. My garden took a major hit, with a hard freeze and snow in June. But I’ve managed to successfully grow (early) chard, spinach, lettuce, peas and radishes; and (late) corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, eggplant and green beans. Just planted broccoli, cauliflower, radishes and turnips for fall.
 

JP:  I admire your gardening skills, and always look forward to when you post about your harvests!! And something else I look forward to, of course, is each new book! What’s coming next for Ellen Hopkins?

EH: This week I’ll finish WHAT ABOUT WILL (working title, could change), my second middle grade, also in verse. Then I’ve got to finish revising (third revision, moving prose into verse) a YA I finished writing a couple of years ago. It’s near future, and I wish I’d already gotten out there because it has so much in it that’s currently happening now—a pandemic fever, neighborhood lockdowns, protests in the streets, etc. This last revision will move it even darker, as the last couple of years have brought certain elements into very clear focus. And then, who knows?

 

JP: Wow! Definitely have that one on my TBR list! Thank you, Ellen, for such a grand conversation. We are looking forward to putting CLOSER TO NOWHERE into everyone’s hands when it hits our shelves next month!

And for more information on the fabulous Ellen Hopkins, find her website here.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Closer to Nowhere Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780593108611
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers - October 6th, 2020

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