The New York Times best-selling author stands calmly near the edge of the overlit performance stage in Kemper Recital Hall, leaning against a podium with an expressionless face. Ellen Hopkins unapologetically reviews the 61 years of experiences that she’s compressed into a 20-slide presentation, a collection of poorly composed family photos. One slide parades images of the two young children she now parents, their unconsciously broken smiles masking the travesty of youth that their birthmother’s meth addiction has engineered.
Their mother— in nothing more than a biological sense— is the multiple-times estranged daughter of Hopkins, whose life-long brawl with low-level meth pushed Hopkins to craft her first and most famous novel “Crank.”
“The truth is, I started ‘Crank’ as a kind of personal journey, to try and understand what had just happened to six years of my life… and what had happened to my beautiful daughter, no longer so beautiful,” Hopkins explains. “Addiction, of one kind or another, touches almost everyone. As I wrote, I understood the importance of the story.
“When she’s clean, my daughter understands its importance, too.”
Hopkins intermixes her poetry and excerpts from her novels as she continues the presentation. Although she’s displaying this Microsoft PowerPoint for the near-hundredth time, her demeanor is no less authentic than if she was recalling her memories for the first time.
“I lived the story; that person was me; that person was my friend and I wanted to stop them, I wanted to turn them around and that’s the experience I want,” Hopkins details. “I want my characters to walk off the page and to be in the room with them and not just on the page.”
Readers often feel sorrow for their beloved author’s life, sympathizing with the devastation that they believe she must feel. But Hopkins doesn’t desire the sympathy, nor does she need it. She’s the type of motherly person that, once you meet her, you’d expect her to say, “It is what it is,” and pick up the shattered pieces.
Each of the memories that Hopkins chronicles forces the audience to feel just a bit more than the previous one.
“I tracked down my birth mother and found out that she has always written poetry… so our first exchange as mother and daughter was she wrote a poem to me about what it was like to leave a baby behind and I wrote a poem back to her about what it was like to be that baby.”
With that line, the crowd drops from a chattering chorus of generally interested listeners to silence. And that silence remains. For a few intensely quiet moments, Hopkins forces her audience to suffer the authenticity of the moment, just as she compels readers to do in each of her stories.
Although, not all of the memories are of tragedy.
Part way through her presentation, Hopkins reads an earlier poem of hers. “Cowboy Charisma” details the single characteristic that she believes makes cowboys perfect: the way they look in blue jeans.
As images of cowboys wearing Wranglers flash onto the screen— specifically, the lower backside of the men— Hopkins reaches the climax of her poem:
“The key to a cowboy’s charisma is watching him walk away.”
And, after a moment of socially encoded awkwardness, the crowd erupts into hysterical laughter.
But, the event is not just an exposition for the audience; it’s also an opportunity for Hopkins to revisit her characters.
“There are things about all of my characters that I’ve either experienced or someone close to me has, so they feel like my kids,” Hopkins laughs, as she tries to describe the intense interplay between her characters on paper and the characters in her mind. “And when I read… it’s like reviving them; they come back to life.”
Though much of Hopkins’ audience is young adults, her final plea is one to the parents of her potential readers.
“There are so many experiences that we as adults don’t want our children to have that sometimes we try to hide the reality that those things exist for them. That’s not gonna help our kids deal,” Hopkins presents, both laughing at her 19-year-old son and cringing at the thought of children who don’t have understanding parents.
“Books are the key to greater understanding and knowledge, so don’t close covers of books, because they make you a little uncomfortable; read the gritty, dirty details,” she says, “because those are what will make you feel the most alive.”