Because she’s a famous actress, and because you still associate her with the classic teen-film trilogy of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, you start reading Molly Ringwald’s fiction debut When It Happens to You looking for movie references. You expect a more facile, disposable book, because countless actors have written autobiographies and dishy tell-alls and fact-based tales of Hollywood shenanigans. But when you start to think of famous actors who made the leap to novelist, you come up empty.
Ringwald, who appears Sunday at Miami International Book Fair, tried nonfiction with last year’s Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family and Finding the Perfect Lipstick, a title that probably scared away more people than it attracted. It was exactly the kind of frivolous, throwaway book you’d expect a celebrity to write.
But Ringwald, 44, was biding her time. While she was raising a family with her second husband (they have three children) and taking on occasional acting jobs (including a recurring role on the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager), the iconic redhead was learning the discipline required to write fiction, inspired by Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, whom she cites as her two biggest influences.
The result is a remarkably mature and moving novel, told in interlocking short stories in which characters drop in and out of each other’s lives, set around a marriage disintegrated by adultery. Each story is told through the eyes of a different character — a grandmother, a cheating spouse, the mother of a small boy who believes he’s a girl — and each is written in a distinct style.
Ringwald says her acting experience was helpful in creating that singularity of voices.
“I think it definitely made it easier,” Ringwald says via telephone from her home in Los Angeles. “It was the same thing that interested me the most about acting — the opportunity to get inside different people’s heads. I’m surprised there aren’t more actors who write fiction, because our job helps us train us for it. But there’s this whole other part you have to learn which is incredibly hard and achingly solitary, and most actors — myself included — have always been used to collaborating with other people and the immediate response of an audience. When you’re writing, you’re sitting there by yourself and putting things together brick by brick, and it’s hard. But to hear different voices in your head and knowing when they sound authentic is helpful.”
The prevailing themes of When It Happens to You are betrayal and forgiveness, and the book carries the wisdom and life experience of someone like Ringwald, who has traveled the world since she was a teen, lived in Paris for three years and divorced her first husband (she swears the character of Didier, a smooth-talking Frenchman who mooches on his wife, is not based on her ex). She’s lived enough outside of movie sets and stages to have something to say.
But that doesn’t prepare you for the book’s eloquent power and the sometimes plaintive style of Ringwald’s prose, like this letter written by a mother to the younger woman who has run off with her husband: “If you are lucky enough to have children by then, you will struggle to explain to them why their parents no longer love each other the same way. Your children will assume that it is their fault, and though you will do your very best to explain to them why it isn’t, a part of you will secretly fear that it is. You will have already looked at your children at times with a critical eye and seen all of the youth and freshness that you and he once had, all that vitality and hope, and you will know that they took it away. You can’t ever say that they stole it, because you gave it willingly. Still, once it was gone you missed it and envied it while hoping that you both would be strong enough to bear its absence. He will not.”
Ringwald says she came to the idea of using connected short stories almost by accident.
“I had always loved short stories, particularly Carver’s, how immediate and visceral they were, and how you had to get to the character immediately. What I didn’t like about the short story is that you’re often left wanting to know more about what happened the characters. That’s how this book became a novel in stories. The characters kept reappearing. My next book is probably going to be a novel. But it felt very comfortable to work in this style.”
Ringwald says she is also trying her hand at screenwriting. If she succeeds, the project may bring her back into the movie arena, something that was once an enormous part of her life but that she now considers to be part of her past.
“I look back at my adolescence the same way people look at their teen years,” she says. “I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of big crushes. I met a lot of interesting people and I loved making those movies. I had a great time working with Andrew McCarthy [who, coincidentally, is also attending this year’s book fair]. We made two movies and a play together, and I always thought he was one of the smartest ones, so I’m not surprised he’s writing now as well. I have nothing but fond memories of that era. But I’m much more interested in what I’m doing now and what I’m going to do next.”