Ellen Hopkins’ new book, The You I’ve Never Known, shares the story of two teenage girls, Ariel and Maya. Their lives collide when Ariel’s mom shows up with some shocking news that turns Ariel’s whole past into a devastating lie. As fans of Ellen’s writing, we were thrilled to catch up with the author and talk about what may be her most personal book yet.
We couldn’t put The You I’ve Never Known down. Your books always have an intensely personal feeling about them, like you’ve walked in your characters’ shoes.
Hey, I’ve done a lot of walking myself! I’ve lived several lifetimes within six decades. Met many, many people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, and I’ve experienced all sorts of landscapes, stark to stunning. Each place, each encounter, each experience, is now a thread of who I’ve become. Sometimes a thread or two demand I pluck them from memory and insert them into a book.
Speaking of those threads, the dedication in this book is heartfelt—it feels like it has special meaning. Who exactly did you write THE YOU I’VE NEVER KNOWN for?
The dedication reads: This book is dedicated to every child who has ever lost a parent, and every parent who has ever lost a child. The backstory on that is that when my youngest daughter was three, my ex kidnapped her out of daycare and I lost her for three years. It was a dark chapter of our shared history.
We can’t even imagine how painful that must have been. That explains why this book feels so personal! In THE YOU I’VE NEVER KNOWN, you call out Ariel’s father for gaslighting. Can you share what that is and do you have any advice for girls who are currently being or have been manipulated?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that makes the victim question her/his feelings, instincts and sanity, giving the abusive partner power and control. The term comes from a play (and movie) called GASLIGHT, where the husband tries to drive his wife crazy by dimming the (gas-powered) lights in their home, then swearing the lights haven’t changed, making his wife question her sanity. If a person feels like they’re constantly saying they’re sorry, or like they’re always second-guessing themselves because of what someone else (usually a romantic partner, but not always) is telling them, they need to look harder at what’s going on. The first step is recognizing the pattern, and almost always the only way out is to dissolve the relationship. And sooner is always better.
Given that you pushed through that experience, what’s the best life advice you ever received?
To stop looking for myself within someone else. Self-worth has nothing to do with being partnered or accepted by others. It has to do with knowing you’re being the best person you can possibly be, and that’s usually about helping others, with no need for reward other than knowing you’ve made a positive difference.
Love that so much! We love how you write in verse; you manage to say more in a few words than others do in so many. Why did you decide to write in verse and how does that influence your writing?
I was a poet before I was a novelist, so the form has always called to me. It’s all about language, distilled to its essence, and that is where the beauty of language lies. It’s sound, words and rhythm, and manipulating that beat, much like you do with song lyrics. So it’s adding music to your storytelling.
So, let’s talk storytelling. What was your favorite book as a teenager?
Tough call. I was an avid, eclectic reader, especially drawn to Stephen King and John Irving. But I loved Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey. Difficult read, but brilliant character work.
How about your favorite line from a book?
“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.” Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The character in fiction you most loath? And most admire?
Loathe: Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Admire: Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings.
Frodo. So perfect. He’s a survivor, just like you.
Thank you, Ellen! And everyone be sure to check out The You I’ve Never Known because it’s