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Houston author Jennifer Mathieu flips genders in retelling ‘The Outsiders’ – Houston Chronicle

Author Jennifer Mathieu at her Meyerland home Wednesday July 02, 2014. (Dave Rossman photo)
The Houston Chronicle that appears in Jennifer Mathieu’s “Bad Girls Never Say Die” was an evening paper. Such is a concession required with a novel set more than a half century ago, as Mathieu’s is.
The author of “Moxie” — a hit young adult novel that was turned into an Amy Poehler film earlier this year — shifted eras with her latest book, but much of the thematic content remains intact suggesting difficulties for the “Moxie” girls of today aren’t that far removed from their predecessors more than a half century ago.
For “Bad Girls” Mathieu didn’t set out to recast a classic. But she used S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” as an inspiration and a point of reference for a story about youth, class and connection. Her story includes class conflict and a deadly stabbing with repercussions that extend throughout the narrative. But “Bad Girls” is its own story, which Mathieu says was perfectly described by some outsider as “a gender-flip, feminist reimagining” of Hinton’s classic.
Cover image for Bad Girls Never Say Die by Houston author Jennifer Mathieu
The Houston-based author talked about her affinity for Hinton’s novel and the process of creating her own story from familiar elements.
Q: This book is crucial in my wife’s experience with culture in America; it connected with her as a kid and she still treats it as holy. Was this a childhood touchstone for you?
A: I loved the book as a young person. My best friend, Lisa, in sixth grade was assigned it in class. And she told me I had to read it. I read it in one night. I was so captivated by it. I fell in love instantly. I think what I loved most was how intense everything felt. The emotions in the book.
Q: Could you talk more about that? Because the stakes in the book — and the film, which more people may know — feel high from the first scene to the last.
A: Everything felt so intense! But that’s what it’s like at 16 years old. There is that intensity of emotions. And here was this world without any visible grownups and kids living with their own rules. So of course, everything was so intense. I adored the book, I loved the movie. Then I had this opportunity in 2005 when I became the English teacher at what is now Meyerland Middle School. I hadn’t thought about the book in years. But we found out we were teaching “The Outsiders.” And I fell in love with it all over again. I saw the kids eyes light up talking about it. And I wanted to recreate that feeling. There’s this adult sensibility where we roll our eyes at that now. As a teenager, though, I wasn’t rolling my eyes. I wanted to capture that vibe.
Q: The use of the Tidelands Motor Inn was interesting. You appear to have reveled in the opportunity to imagine a Houston past with the research that entails.
By Jennifer Mathieu
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304 pages, $18.99
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A: It was so much fun to do the research for this book. I spent so much time interviewing different seniors from all walks of life. I spent hours in the downtown library in the Texas Room looking through old clippings and old yearbooks. Dr. Tyina Steptoe wrote a terrific book, “Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City” that was a fascinating exploration of Houston from the 1920s through the 1960s. I came up with a better understanding of who was in school together. I foolishly thought this book would be easy because of how much I love “The Outsiders.” But that wasn’t the case. Still, retelling it was so much fun. It’s been my hardest book, just because of the research. I’m not from here. I moved here in 2000. But I’ve been here a long time for a non-native. And I feel in love with the city. And I fell in love with it again through the research.
Q: Things change by setting it in Houston rather than Tulsa. But you leaned into the setting.
A: Yes, yes, yes. All my books are set in Texas. And sometimes it’s a sort of alternate reality. My last book was in a thinly-veiled Galveston. This one, I just set it firmly in Houston. I still changed some names, some high school names. But I think people could figure out River Oaks High School is Lamar in a lot of ways. The East Side high school, same thing.
Q: The book and film have Cherry as almost a standalone female character. Which offers a lot of male perspectives, considering the web of quote-unquote family of these outsiders. Something very different comes across in the book by flipping that gender balance.
A: Yes, yes. And I hope the intensity I talked about is still there. The connection, I hope, is that it touches on that feeling of being misunderstood. Where no one in the adult world gets you. Where you have no one to turn to. The only ones who understand you are your peers. Exploring that as a girl, you’re worrying about different things, sexuality is one of them. Also choices. The guys who were outsiders had their own concerns, and they were valid. But I didn’t want to give the impression we had to be married to their specific concerns for the concerns to feel worthy. The girls needed attention, too.
Q: The book feels like a giant field full of “Outsiders” and Houston Easter eggs. I feel like I got maybe 1 in 100.
A: Oh there were so many I wanted to include. But I didn’t want to make it too winky winky. But there was the domed stadium being built. I couldn’t use the name. But I wanted something in there for Houstonians to enjoy. I worked in some things like that. And I got a few in there. I learned the Jive Hive was a real store. Going through the history, this historical magazine put out by the University of Houston, the editor, her parents ran the Jive Hive. There were two separate locations, one on Alabama and one downtown. I don’t think the downtown location was open in 1964. But it was a real place. And they had a bee on the front.
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Andrew Dansby covers culture and entertainment, both local and national, for the Houston Chronicle. He came to the Chronicle in 2004 from Rolling Stone, where he spent five years writing about music. He’d previously spent five years in book publishing, working with George R.R. Martin’s editor on the first two books in the series that would become TV’s “Game of Thrones. He misspent a year in the film industry, involved in three “major” motion pictures you’ve never seen. He’s written for Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Playboy and other publications.
Andrew dislikes monkeys, dolphins and the outdoors.
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