Karen Valby
September 10, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Susie Hinton’s first draft of The Outsiders was about 40 single-spaced, typed pages long. She was just a 17-year-old kid living in Tulsa. Her father was dying of cancer, so she retreated into a world of damned teenage boys from the wrong side of town. A friend’s mother sent Hinton’s manuscript to a New York publisher and just like that, S.E. Hinton was born. The young author got a $1,000 advance and bought herself a dark teal Camaro. When her first royalty check arrived in the mail, she spent the 12 bucks on three tanks of gas.

Since it was published in 1967, The Outsiders has sold more than 10 million copies. Her other young-adult novels, That Was Then, This is Now (1971), Rumble Fish (1975), and Tex (1979), are all teen classics. Hinton says she’s been the answer to questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, The Weakest Link, and, most recently, Jeopardy!, putting another $8,000 in champ Ken Jennings’ kitty.

Long heralded as the voice of alienated youth, Hinton is now trying to sit at the grown-up table for the first time in her career. She spent five years researching and writing her first adult novel, Hawkes Harbor. And as she gears up for a 12-city tour, she worries that folks will still ask her to inscribe books with ”Stay gold, Ponyboy,” a trademark from her hard time on the grade-school circuit. ”After 30 years of ‘Why does Johnny die? Why did you make Johnny die?’ over and over and over and over,” she says, ”all of a sudden, I could not stand one more junior high…. I could get a jillion dollars writing a sequel to The Outsiders, but I’m not in that place.”

Today, Hinton, who’ll allow only that she’s somewhere in her mid-50s, lives a quiet life in Tulsa with her software-engineer husband, David. Their 21-year-old son, Nick, is off at college, so the couple spends evenings out to dinner with friends or on the sofa, the cat and an Australian shepherd at their feet, watching Reno 911! or Arrested Development on TV. A history buff, Hinton says she is more excited for the fall release of Oliver Stone’s Alexander than for her own book. Most days, she’s in front of her computer or riding one of her three horses.

On a recent trail ride through a Tulsa meadow, Hinton says that Harbor, a blithe mix of gunrunners and the supernatural, was inspired by rereadings of Treasure Island and David Copperfield. ”I wanted to write adventures,” she says. ”I don’t want to write middle-aged stories!” Several publishers passed, unsure that a Hinton adult novel would find an audience. Finally, St. Martin’s sister company Tor signed her to a two-book deal, with the understanding that she’d get out there and sell herself.

Hinton hopes all the hoopla will generate some Hollywood interest. She has fond memories of standing alongside Francis Ford Coppola on the Tulsa sets of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. For dinner, the director would occasionally take over the catering cart and whip up pots of spaghetti and meatballs for the cast and crew, most of whom referred to Hinton as Mom. During the 1982 Outsiders shoot, future stars like Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon came over to Hinton’s house for pizza and to shoot pool with her husband. Friends used to ask her if she ever fell for any of the young actors. ”I said, ‘God! I’ve got my vices, but child molesting isn’t one of them!”’

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