A Conversation with Ellen Hopkins
by Ellen Jellison
Recently, I was pleased to have the opportunity to spend an evening with Ellen Hopkins. I had just finished reading her latest book, COLLATERAL. Written in free verse, poetry with a plot, the book is not only about the loved ones left behind by their soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, but about the soldiers themselves and the dangers they face. In COLLATERAL, the protagonist, Ashley, falls in love with a Marine. We, as readers, journey with Ashley down a path of joy and heartache. A path at times so lonely, that we want to climb inside the book and reassure Ashley that everything will be okay. As readers, we experience through Ellen Hopkin’s gift with words, love, pain, and that the collateral damage caused by war is far reaching. Ellen Hopkin’s COLLATERAL is a must read. Her voice is amazing and the reader easily becomes one with the protagonist, Ashley. We are not just reading a book; we are living Ashley’s story.
My daughter, Hanna, has read all of your books. COLLATERAL is my first. I was blown away. I couldn’t put the book down. How did you decide upon the idea of writing about the heartache of military deployment? What was your inspiration behind the book?
(Ellen) As with pretty much all my books, I have a lot of young military girlfriends, wives and actually soldiers, that read them. They come to me with stories like all my readers do. The idea fascinated me, it’s so hard to find young love and maintain young love, just in the course of being young. The thought of deployment and the thought of that person being sent away for 7 to 12 months at a time and trying to build a relationship, became something I really wanted to study and find answers, to find some kind of understanding, I guess.
In COLLATERAL, the protagonist is Ashley. We experience everything through her eyes. How difficult, or easy, was it for you to get inside her head and let the reader experience her story? How would you describe Ashley? Did you have someone you knew in mind while creating her character?
(Ellen) One of my long time readers is Kylie and the book is dedicated to her. Her boyfriend, Conner, also reads my books. We talked a lot online and when I decided to write the book, I thought of her. I talked six or seven hours with Kylie, about her relationship with Conner. Ashley is largely Kylie, and Conner is largely Cole. There are maybe some differences with the way the story unfolds, but similarities in how they met, where he was stationed, and how she would visit him. All those other small plot points came from her. I felt like I became Kylie when I was talking to her, and so Kylie became Ashley through me.
My daughter is married to a soldier currently serving in Afghanistan. How did you learn about the hardships the loved ones left behind faces?
(Ellen) I found an actual Marine battalion that was deployed four times. Matter of fact, that battalion is coming home now, this fall. I found battalion newsletters, Face book pages, and I listened to military families talk to each other, to their loved ones here, to over there. I also researched Afghan news sources. So the war stuff was what was happening over there. A lot of it came from the eyes of the people living in Iraq and Afghanistan, what they were seeing.
In COLLATERAL, my biggest disappointment was in Cole. Anger seems to be a problem for many soldiers. When writing the novel, did you ever think of ending it differently?
(Ellen) I didn’t know how the ending would be until I wrote the book. So through the writing and getting to know Cole, you get to know your characters . . . it felt like that was how the book needed to go. There are different things in both Cole and Ashley’s personal lives that influenced their relationship. He’s a complex person, but not over the top harsh or mean. Also, what happens in the course of the book, through the Rewind sections, I hope readers will see Cole’s change with each deployment, which happens a lot in real life. I want the focus on our returning soldiers. So if you’re noticing small changes, those could be big changes at some point. Cole did have TBI (traumatic brain injury), different things happening within his brain that made him who he became, and that’s not an unusual story. My books rarely tie up pretty, so depending on the reader, happily ever after might be something they strive for, but I always try to strive for the most honest ending. I never plot plan or outline.
I liked the poetry written by Cole because we stepped outside of Ashley. That was the only time we became him. We saw him through his eyes, through his writing.
(Ellen) Right. I heard from a military wife who is a blogger, that she loved Cole’s poetry. You can see
through the course of the book that the poems change because his thought process is changing. You also understand that war is the big driving factor of that change.
What did you, as an author, like best about COLLATERAL?
(Ellen) I loved Ashley and Cole’s love. I really did. It was such a pure love, especially for her, who had never experienced anything like that in her life. She had other boyfriends, but this was the person who became key to who she was. She changed too, through that relationship. She became a better person because of it, even though it may not have ended exactly as she wanted it to. She learned a lot in that love. A lot of us experience loves that for whatever reason end up dissolving. For Ashley and Cole, I can’t imagine that war wouldn’t have been a factor.
Was there a part of the book that was heart wrenching for you to write?
(Ellen) I think there were a couple parts. There’s a peripheral character, Darian, and her husband, Spencer. Theirs was a different kind of love in a way, with different driving factors behind it, but it ended up becoming a pure kind of love. You know, all the things that happen in the book to him, like the helicopter crash, those are inspired by true events. A helicopter crash happened on Pendleton similar to that. It was hard to write about, but that was a reaffirming part of the book, that sometimes you can make it through the really ugly stuff and still come out on the other side.
Characters drive a story. As readers, we become attached to them. Darian and Spencer have a rocky relationship, throughout the book, but in the end, even though he is badly wounded and she cheated, she stays with him. Was it from guilt? How would you describe Darian’s character?
(Ellen) Guilt was always there. It’s easier to step away when there’s no need for you to be there and he was gone for so long, right? And, so she had this other person in her life that probably would have taken care of her. He had money, a house . . . there was this idyllic place she could have gone. Instead, she chose to stay with Spence, and that was because Darian, for all her outwardly shallow characteristics . . . there was another depth to her we didn’t see. Sometimes we don’t know until we are put to the test.
As a writer and you come upon a story line that interests you, how do you prepare yourself?
(Ellen) I get the idea and then I character build. That and the pre-write are a big amount of time. For this book, specifically, I talked with many, many military girlfriends, some in depth. I really wanted to know. So like with Kylie, we sat and talked for a long time. You let them talk. You ask a question and let them talk. In the talking, they will eventually warm to you and share the little things that make the characters. Like the vampires in the story, girls who hang out in the bars. Ashley’s thinking . . . I love him and how can they just want to take him for these real shallow reasons? That emotion came from Kylie. At book signings, when I was starting to talk about the book, I had a young lady come up to me and say, my mom’s been an Air Force pilot since I’ve been born. She could die for all I care because she’s never there for me. My dad’s been there for me, and takes care of me. There’s a little tiny reference to that in the book. All those things come from real people, real places. I’ve not experienced this myself, but if you can allow people to put all that stuff inside you, it comes out though your characters.
What has been the most rewarding experience so far in writing COLLATERAL?
(Ellen) I developed an understanding, myself, of a life that I don’t know. We look at it peripherally, on the news or online or whatever, but I’m always looking for ways to understand people, people that aren’t like me. I want to understand what it’s like to have someone you love gone all the time. I want to understand what it’s like to be away, and what you come home to. I want to say that about 8% of our population is military? It’s not a lot. But it’s being a part of this big giant family that the rest of us are not a part of, or privy to that mind set. I wanted that understanding, and I developed a lot of empathy for our military families
You have to hand it to the guys being deployed.
(Ellen) But you know, there’s a certain scorn for that. I hate coming to politics, it’s such a weird place. There are people who do not value what happens, or what the military is. It’s an all volunteer force, so you must want to be there is what some people think. But it’s more than that. The military is a way for young people get out of the house. It’s the way they go to college, or it becomes a career for them. For some, there aren’t a lot of choices, so the military is the best choice for some. That scorn for that is really frustrating. These young people, both men and women, are over there putting their lives on the line every single day and when they come home, they’re hurt. They’ve lost friends, they’ve lost relationships, and so to just think, well they bought into that. No! What they bought into was a career. And there’s patriotism there. They want to be the person to take care of their country.
Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written so far, or is there something about each one that you have a soft spot for?
(Ellen) There’s some that I don’t like as much as others. And I would say the Crank books, that are very close to me personally, are my least favorite. COLLATERAL is right up there at the top. I liked writing in that age group. I think there is really beautiful poetry in that book . . . I think COLLATERAL is my favorite.
Thank you, Ellen. I enjoyed our conversation. And thank you for all you do for the military community.