Molly Ringwald, the teen darling of ’80s films such as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, and who can be seen these days on ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, returns with a collection of eight interconnected short stories in her fiction debut, When It Happens to You.
The muse to late director John Hughes, whose films continue to delight and inspire new generations of teens, plumbs the depths of the human condition and turns out an intelligent, nuanced portrait of betrayal. In literary prose, Ringwald skillfully captures the voices of a varied group of Los Angelenos, all of whom are searching for love and happiness with mixed results. The richness of the detail as well as Ringwald's keen eye for observation will remind readers why America's been under her spell now for close to three decades.
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Tell us a bit about your fiction debut, When It Happens to You.
It's a novel in stories. It was originally conceived as a collection of stories along the theme of betrayal, but as soon as I started writing, I realized I wanted it to be more connected. One of the major themes is that we're all connected through betrayal, and how we get through coping with that. And it's not just about obvious betrayal. It starts out with a marital betrayal, but the story is really bigger than that. We, as humans, are betraying ourselves and each other all the time. We're all doing it....That's what makes us human.
This is your first book of fiction. You've previously authored a memoir, Getting the Pretty Back. How did the two experiences compare?
My first book was anecdotal, intended to be light and beautiful, almost like an object. In a lot of ways, it connected to my persona as an actress. This book is connected to something deeper. I don't want to say that my first book was superficial, because it wasn't. But this is just a different side of me.
What's your writing process like? Have you always written?
I've always been writing, ever since I was a little kid, during my teen years and early 20s. I've been writing fiction, mostly short stories, all along. But I never felt that I'd written anything I wanted to publish. I felt like I was still working on it, that I hadn't quite gotten there yet. It's been a lifelong process.
Writing this book, I'd write 500 words or two hours a day, whichever came first. It was really sitting down and making a serious habit of it. I was writing when I could find time, because I'm a mother and a working actress. I'd find myself compromised for time, so I'd write in between takes [on set], at the park, wherever.
How'd you settle on short stories?
I've always been drawn to them, especially after discovering Raymond Carver as a teenager, one of the masters of short fiction. There was just something I liked about [the format], the immediacy of it. [When writing short fiction, authors have to] create these vivid characters quicker and say more with less. It really appealed to me. But I love novels, too, and my next book will probably be a novel. I also loved reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories as a teenager, and then later on Lorrie Moore.
Do you think your career as an actress informs your writing? In what ways?
I think that they're connected, in that I tend to approach writing through character. I don't know if that's just because I'm an actress, maybe there are other writers who do that as well. But that's definitely my focus, and my challenge, too. Because I'm so focused on character, I have to keep an eye on my environment; I can't be too myopic. That's where my interest lies, why people do the things they do. [As an actress,] my interest is in flawed characters. They've always been the most interesting to play.
You write from many different perspectives in this collection—men and women both, old and young alike, parents and children. Were there any characters that gave you particular difficulty?
I think certain characters were more challenging to write. The husband, Phillip, he was challenging because I had written so many stories up until then, and his crimes were well documented. It was really important to me that I express his humanity. He's a human being, flawed, who's lost his way. I wanted to create a kind of sympathy for him but still be true to him and not change the story. That was a challenge for me, a story that I took particular care with. I'm very happy with the way it turned it. And Betty was challenging, too. When you're writing something that you haven't experienced yourself, you draw on imagination and observation.
That's where my acting skills come into play, where I get into that mindset and try to figure the person out...I'm not a method actor. Imagination can take you a long way. And observation. I've always been the type of actress to draw on my own experience and graft it onto other experiences. That's the kind of writer I am as well.
Author photo by Fergus Greer.