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Molly Ringwald taps into 'When It Happens to You'

Molly Ringwald wrote the title story of 'When It Happens to You' on her phone. The process could continue to a film adaptation.

August 11, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Molly Ringwald has written a new book, "When It Happens to You."
Molly Ringwald has written a new book, "When It Happens to You." (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Picture a film shoot somewhere in Canada. On one side of a swimming pool, the gear, the crew and most of the cast; on the other side, Molly Ringwald. They're shooting the rest of the scene before her part, so she sits on a box to wait. She begins tapping on her phone, and as the hours pass, that's all she does: Sit on the box, tapping. By the time the camera turns her way, she has finished the first draft of "When It Happens to You," the impassioned, clever title story of her first book of fiction, which hits shelves Tuesday.

"I've always written really well in places like that, where there's no pressure," she says. "This isn't your official writing time. You're in a place, and think, well, I'm stuck here anyway, so why not write."

Why not? Well, certainly, she has plenty of other things to do. She's married and has three children. She's a regular on the ABC Family drama "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." She has a jazz record coming out soon. She's one of the most recognizable movie stars of the 1980s, who gamely shows up for anniversary celebrations of "16 Candles," "The Breakfast Club" and "Pretty in Pink." Why make time to write at all?

Molly Ringwald: In the Aug. 11 Calendar section, the caption for a photo accompanying an article about Molly Ringwald said it showed the actress in a scene from the film "Sweet Sixteen." The film's title is "Sixteen Candles." —

"When I was younger, I wanted to be a singer-actress-writer. Those three things. Obviously, the acting took off," she says dryly. We're sitting in a Brentwood cafe, the kind of place where the presence of the recognizable redhead is taken in stride. Ringwald, taller than you might expect, is slender and bubbly, excited to talk about books and writing. "I kept writing; I didn't know necessarily what I would do with it, but I just kept doing it."

Like many fictioneers, Ringwald's early work made it no farther than the nearest drawer. But after the success of 2010's "Getting the Pretty Back," a self-help memoir about turning 40 that made the L.A. Times bestseller list, she was emboldened. That book, she acknowledges, was written with her film fans in mind. "When It Happens to You" is heavier fare, an unexpected detour into literary fiction. It's a multivoiced look — connecting stories that take the form of a novel — into the private lives of women, framed around one year in a teetering marriage.

"I was really interested in writing about betrayal. Not just one betrayal, I wanted to write about all different kinds," she says. The characters, rendered in graceful sentences, breathe with life. They suffer a cheating spouse, mothers both frigid and over-protective, and the unwitting cruelty of a small child. Then there's the insouciantly selfish French boyfriend — fans of Ringwald may remember her first marriage was to a Frenchman.

"No matter what I write, people are always going to wonder, is this her life? Is this her? I can't control the way that people read my writing. I can only control what I write," says the 44-year-old actress. "I take from myself — I feel like I'm all of the characters and none of the characters. I'm like a magpie: I take from everywhere."

That doesn't just mean conversations with other mothers at the playground. Ringwald cites Joan Didion,F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ann Patchett and Carol Shields as major literary influences. And the master of American short fiction, Raymond Carver.

At 19, Ringwald was staying in the New York apartment of costume designer Colleen Atwood. "She always had great taste in books," Ringwald remembers. "One night she was out and I couldn't sleep, and there was [Carver's] 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.' I picked it up and I was just — just blown away. By him, by his style and by his writing. My family is from Northern California, and I recognized the voices. It sounded familiar to me, somehow."

The daughter of a jazz pianist, Molly began performing as a child, recording the record "I Wanna Be Loved by You — Molly Sings" with her father's band at age 6. She became a cast member on the television show "The Facts of Life" as a pre-teen, but became a star in the trilogy of John Hughes films for which she is so well remembered. She then took on more grown-up roles — in "Fresh Horses," "For Keeps?" and "The Pick-Up Artist."

Through it all, she read like an English major. Instead of attending college, she moved to France in the mid-'80s, where she was directed byJean-Luc Godard in his version of "King Lear." France was something of a refuge, an escape from the American cultural label she didn't want to get stuck with. It appeared on advance copies of her book: "Brat Pack icon."

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