The conversation segued from book to book, ranging from Elizabeth Strout's “Olive Kitteridge” to the works of Philip Roth, over coffee in the Palmer House café. Molly Ringwald had come to Chicago late this spring to support 826CHI, a non-profit tutoring center, as part of its “People Eating & Giving” dinner. There she read part of her forthcoming book, “When It Happens to You,” a set of interlinked stories about modern life and relationships. Ringwald is known for her roles in John Hughes' movies such as “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” But the former teen star is now a mother of three, including 3-year-old twins and 8-year-old Mathilda, and she is married to Panio Gianopoulos, a former editor at a New York publishing house who now writes fiction himself.
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Our conversation wound down, and after an exchange of book recommendations and email addresses, Ringwald said she planned to visit the Art Institute before flying back to Los Angeles. But before the Lichtenstein exhibit, we needed to make a few moments for the Tribune photographer. With no break for hair or makeup, we headed to the street — where oglers and onlookers immediately recognized the distinctive redhead and paused to catch a glimpse before we parted ways at Michigan Avenue.
Q: How did you come to write fiction?
A: I've kind of always written privately from the time that I was in grade school — from the time that I was Mathilda's age, but really never thought I would necessarily publish it. Once I chose my career, or my career chose me because it happened when I was pretty young, I just sort of stopped thinking that I could do anything else but that. And then I grew up and realized that you could do more than one thing. I did write a book before ("Getting the Pretty Back") — it was memoir-ish. It wasn't autobiography or anything. It was very kind of style-based and sort of fun — very connected to my acting persona. And then I got interested by the subject of betrayal. It just — I felt like it was just happening all around me – and not just the obvious martial betrayal.
Q: How did you learn to elevate your writing into a work of fiction?
A: Reading, reading, reading, and more reading. I mean, I really… I would love to take classes if I could. But you know, I'm the mother of three, and have a career. I think I learned how to write from reading. Also I'm married to a writer. One of the major things we connected on when we got together was writers and writing. What makes good writing, bad writing? Why this word instead of that word? And I call him my MFA program.
Q: What kind of writer are you?
A: I write fast and I write in bursts. Panio and I are very different as writers. He's very slow. It takes him forever to write a paragraph. His writing is absolutely beautiful. I just write fast. So he said "Since you write fast, I think that two hours a day or 500 words — whichever comes first — is reasonable for you." And I thought, OK, I can do that. And I did it. I would sit down and write for two hours a day or 500 words. I know that I'd have to go back and rewrite it all the next day, but as long as I stuck to that — almost every day…. I would never say, "I'm just not going to do it because I don't feel like it." In my acting career I would never say "I don't feel like going to work today, I think I'll just stay home." Never! I would always show up on time, ready, prepared, know my lines. I had to get that in my head that the writing needed the same focus.
Q: Can you write every day when you're also acting?
A: I was on set doing this television show in Canada, and I was stuck on one side of the scene. (On a set they shoot one side and then they shoot the other side.) And I only had one line in the scene and they decided to shoot this very complicated scene on the other side.
So I was stuck on one side of this big swimming pool and all I had was my iPhone, so I started writing. And at first I thought I was just going to write notes, to use the time. But I actually started writing and I ended up writing, more or less, I think, the best story in the book which is "When It Happens to You."
Q: You wrote an entire story on your iPhone?
A: Yes! I really did think I was just going to start writing notes, and then sentences started to come to me and I would write. There's something very freeing about saying to yourself you're just writing notes, because then you're thinking to yourself that it doesn't have to … And there's also something very freeing about writing when no one expects you to be writing. So I basically wrote almost the whole (story), then on the plane on the way back I wrote it into my computer. Everyone has their own process, but I say just write when you can.
Q: What books taught you to be a writer?
A: I think (ones by) Raymond Carver. I think he was really the person that I think I responded to the most as a young adult. I read "Catcher in the Rye" and loved it, and I loved F .Scott Fitzgerald. But it wasn't until I encountered Raymond Carver — and I know exactly where I was, staying at a friend's house in New York City. No one told me about it, but "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" was just lying there on the coffee table and I picked it up. The way he wrote, his economy of language, what he chose had a huge effect he had on me. I don't know if anyone could recognize his influence on my writing, but I would say that he was a pretty big inspiration for me as a writer and also as a lover of short fiction as well.
Q: You seem like an honorable person. What drew you to the subject of betrayal?
A: I think it's the fact that I'm 44 years old. It seemed like (it was) everywhere. — I happen to be very happily married — all around me, I kept seeing it. They were falling like soldiers. The mothers in the schools where my daughter went to school, I just saw it all around me. And it was one of these things (that) just seemed so universal. And when I talked to them, and we would talk about betrayal, there was not one that hadn't betrayed someone at some other point in their lives.
Q: How has being an actor influenced you as a writer?
A: Well, I think I use a lot of the same skill-sets for sure. But there's this other layer that's hard to explain. I think describing the process of acting for me is even more difficult than describing writing. Because basically what you have to do is do the work, and then when you're actually acting you have to stop and just be. I feel like when I'm in the story and creating these characters that I'm feeling everything that they're feeling. I'm probably pretty funny to watch writing because I really get into, I really feel, it.
Q: Do you think actors might have an easier time writing dialogue?
A: Maybe. I don't write a ton of dialogue I don't think, but, I definitely hear it when I write. And I also hear it when I read all of my stories out loud to my husband as I'm writing. He's the only person that I read to, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I've had an audience for years and writing is one of the most solitary things you can do, and very lonely and very scary. And one of the ways that I sort of combated that was to come home and read to him. It was just a great touchstone. And also, when you hear things out loud — when I hear things out loud — you hear the pause, and where you need to change certain things.
Q: You create characters, mothers who are not necessarily heroines of their own stories.
A: That's another thing that comes from being an actor. It's not interesting to play a character that's not flawed. It's always the first thing I look for in characters.
Elizabeth Taylor is the Literary Editor of Chicago Tribune.
"When It Happens To You: A Novel In Stories"
By Molly Ringwald
It Books, 256 pages, $24.99Copyright © 2015, RedEye