A Novel Endeavor From Molly Ringwald
Most people know Molly Ringwald from her star turns in John Hughes' signature teen comic dramas from the 1980s, including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.
And Ringwald is still acting — she currently plays the mother in the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. But she's also turned her hand to writing. Her new book — and first novel — is called When It Happens to You.
It's a novel written in interlocking short stories: Philip cheats on his wife, Greta, with their daughter Charlotte's music tutor. Charlotte then becomes a sticking point when her now-single mother gets a young boyfriend. She also befriends a cross-dressing little boy across the street, and an elderly neighbor who is estranged from her own daughter until an accident brings them into each other's orbit. Throughout the book, the characters spin around the plot, sometimes touching, often not, but always exerting a tug on each other.
Ringwald tells NPR's Scott Simon that acting has been an influence on her work; even at the heart of her teen stardom, she was writing. "I have a lot of interest in character and what makes us tick," she says. She also draws on her real-life family to develop that peculiarly unique language that families often share. "It's just a language you hear all the time, it's almost like music that I'm able to recall when I write."
But, she laughs, her experience living in France with a French husband (now an ex), did not influence her portrayal of Didier, the insufferable French boyfriend who appears in one of the stories.
While the characters in When It Happens to You experience intense emotions, Ringwald avoids depicting confrontation; she leaves that part to the reader's imagination. "I became obsessed with Raymond Carver as a teenager," she says, "and it's something that I felt like he did extremely well, where he would allow the reader to fill in the blanks, and what a reader's imagination can invent can be very powerful."
Ringwald's love of Carver, and books in general, helped her get through growing up in the Hollywood spotlight. She says that while her own childhood was rich in experiences, she doesn't want her kids to go the same route. "Hollywood, it's a dangerous place, you know? There's a lot of rejection, there's a lot of people expecting things of you, and building you up and tearing you down, and it was very important for me to keep a perspective, and I credit my family and also my love of books for that."
Her father, a talented jazz pianist, is blind, and Ringwald says she often sits with him during movies and plays to describe the action. "I actually think that that informed my writing," she says. "That's something that I've done for so long, that it's made me, perhaps, observe things in a different way."
Ringwald's mentor John Hughes died unexpectedly in 2009, but she says despite their occasional estrangement, she still thinks about him frequently. "I think it's impossible not to; our lives are so inextricably connected. I think it's impossible for people to think of John Hughes and not think of Molly Ringwald, and vice versa," she says.
"And he was also somebody that told me, from a very young age, that I needed to write and direct. Before I had even thought about that ... and it's something I've carried with me my whole life, and I think, you know, I'm going to have to do it, just because he told me to."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Molly Ringwald's new book might remind you how lives connect, even as we never notice it. It's a novel - written in short story - set in Southern California, where a husband cheats on his wife with the music tutor of their daughter; the daughter becomes a sticking point when her mother gets a young boyfriend, and is also the best friend of a little boy who plays cross-gender dress-up. She also befriends an elderly neighbor who's estranged from her daughter, until an accident brings them into orbit around each other. The characters spin around the plots, sometimes touching - often, not - but always exerting a tug on each other.
First, Molly Ringwald's name is most familiar from starring in several of John Hughes' signature teen comic dramas from the 1980s, including "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club" and "Pretty in Pink." She now plays the mother on the ABC Family series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Molly Ringwald's novel - and stories - is "When It Happens to You." And Molly Ringwald joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
MOLLY RINGWALD: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Did you learn something from acting that now translates into writing?
RINGWALD: I think so. Obviously, I've been acting for a really long time - since I was, actually, 3 years old. But I really became well-known with the movies that you mentioned. But even then, I was writing. And I think it was because I have a lot of interest in character, and what makes us tick.
SIMON: Let me get you to read a section of that first story, "The Harvest Moon," if I could. It's a very lovely - if I might say - mother and daughter conversation.
SIMON: Mother and daughter are saying goodnight.
RINGWALD: Yes. (Reading) Charlotte reached up under Greta's arm, and scratched the back of her neck. And what if I grew extra arms and legs - and they were furry, like a spider. Would you still love me then? Charlotte asked. Yes, I would, Greta answered, though there was really no need to. This wasn't a game about answers but about questions; how outrageous, unpleasant and fearsome could we become, and still be loved. Charlotte snuggled into Greta deeper. OK, Greta said, two more, then I'm going to my bed. Where is Daddy? I want a Daddy snuggle, too. Not tonight, honey. He'll come and give you a kiss when he gets home. Charlotte's body went rigid for a moment, preparing for a fight, but then she yawned as exhaustion overpowered the desire to protest. And what if I had a nose like this? Charlotte took her little finger and smushed her nose down, and a bit to the side. Like this all the time - or no, just on Tuesdays. She lifted her head up for Greta's inspection, and frowned when she saw that her eyes were closed. Mama, you have to look. Greta opened her eyes halfway and glanced at her daughter. Well, since it's only on Tuesdays.
SIMON: That's a nice section, that reminds us families develop their own language with each other, don't they?
RINGWALD: Absolutely they do, yes. You know, I have an almost-9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old twins, and it's just a language you hear all the time. It's almost like music that I'm able to recall, when I write.
SIMON: One of your stories there is a stinging portrait of a French boyfriend.
RINGWALD: (LAUGHTER) You think it's stinging, really? (LAUGHTER)
SIMON: Well, he's insufferable.
SIMON: And by the way, I'm married to a French woman, and this reminds me of no one in my family. In any event, it is irresistible to ask - well, I'm sorry. I know you used to live in Paris and were married to a French gentleman.
RINGWALD: Yes, I was.
SIMON: I just - I don't know, I have to wonder what prompted that portrait.
SIMON: I mean, the stories are set in Southern California, and you drag some French guy in to be insufferable.
RINGWALD: You know, I did live in France for a while. And I have an enormous amount of affection and respect for the French. They are absolutely irresistible, to me. So, you know, I think that Didier is a flawed character. But I find him irresistible, I really do.
SIMON: OK. But nobody you met in a cafe, much less were married to?
RINGWALD: No, absolutely not. Uh-uh.
SIMON: There's all these stories of betrayal and loss. You tend not to have angry confrontations in these stories. I mean, for example, it's the couple that opens the story - Philip and Greta - they're in the shower when he begins to shudder and cry. And you don't hear the "you did what?!" with the music tutor. You invite readers to fill in the blanks.
RINGWALD: Well, it's something that I've always really admired in writing. I became obsessed with Raymond Carver, as a teenager. And it's something that I felt like he did extremely well, where he would allow the reader to fill in the blanks. And, you know, what a reader's imagination can invent is - it can be very powerful. So, I sort of enjoy creating the tension. And then a lot of those moments that you're talking about, you know, of course, they have the confrontations. But they sort of happen, I think, in between the stories.
SIMON: Did being on stage from the age of 3, shorten your childhood?
SIMON: With the advantage of hindsight, and giving a childhood to your kids now.
RINGWALD: You know, I don't know if it shortened my childhood, but I certainly had a different childhood than most kids. And it was very rich, full of art and music; and I really feel like I flourished. And it's different. You know, I'm a writer and an actress and a singer. And so, you know, my kids don't have the same childhood that I had. But I don't want them to act professionally, as children. I think it's a slippery slope, and I do consider myself a survivor.
SIMON: A slippery slope? I...
RINGWALD: Mm. Because Hollywood is a - it's a dangerous place. You know, there's a lot of rejection; there's a lot of people expecting things of you - and building you up, and tearing you down. And you know, it was very important for me to keep a perspective. And I credit my family, and also my love of books, for that.
SIMON: May I ask - your father being a talented jazz pianist who also happened to be blind, did that bring you - the two of you closer together, in the sense that you sometimes would act as his eyes?
RINGWALD: Well, he does say that he likes to watch movies with me - more than everybody - because I've always been able to describe things better. You know, my mom gets very caught up in the movie and my dad will say, what's going on? What do they - you know. And she's like shh, shh, I'm trying to watch, you know.
RINGWALD: But when I watch a movie or a play with my dad, I'm very good at describing everything. And I actually think that that informed my writing. I think that's something that I've done for so long, that it's made me perhaps observe things in a different way.
SIMON: Speaking as one reader, it's impossible not to read this book, and not think about John Hughes.
SIMON: Because his gifts began with his writing, you know...
SIMON: ...began as a writer in the Chicago ad agency and then, of course, at National Lampoon; then became a - then began to direct and produce films. But I remember seeing the mountains of these little moleskin notebooks that he was always filling...
RINGWALD: Oh, yeah.
SIMON: ...with his writing, even years after he hadn't really been directing.
SIMON: I know there were years the two of you didn't talk, and then did. You think of him now?
RINGWALD: Oh, I think of him all the time. I think it's impossible not to. Our lives are so inextricably connected, you know. It's - I think it's impossible for people to think of John Hughes, and not think of Molly Ringwald; and vice versa. So yeah, he comes up a lot. And he was also somebody that told me - from a very young age - that I needed to write and direct. Before I had even thought about that - I simply thought of myself as an actress. Even though I did write, I never thought that it would be something that I would be able to do professionally. And he said no, absolutely not. You have to write and direct. You have to write and direct. And it's something that I've carried with me my whole life. And I think, you know, I'm going to have to do it just because he told me to. (LAUGHTER) Yeah, I miss him. I do. We lost him far, far too early.
SIMON: Molly Ringwald. She's made her debut in fiction, with a book of stories that are interconnected like a novel. It's called "When It Happens to You." Thanks very much.
RINGWALD: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU LEAVE")
OMD: (Singing) If you leave, don't leave now, please don't take my heart away. Promise me just one more night, then we'll go on our separate ways. We always had time on our side, but now it's fading fast...
SIMON: This is OMD. And it's also WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.