At a Soho bookstore, Molly Ringwald in her latest role: novelist
At quarter to seven on Thursday night seats on the lower level of McNally Jackson bookstore were filling quickly. Two chairs, a stool, a table, and three microphones stood at the front of the room. One of the authors had arrived already, as had her parents. Her father joked that the second author would “arrive in a puff of smoke or something,” a hint that something was a little different.
When the second author did arrive, a few minutes after seven, she did emerge suddenly, from a side door. Not exactly a puff of smoke, but still. Instantly the room, which had been abuzz, hushed. A few people started to clap loudly, enthusiastically, then stopped, embarrassed.
The woman they were applauding was Molly Ringwald, of Brat Pack and John Hughes fame, once upon a time perhaps the “best known teenager on the planet,” as she would later jokingly refer to herself, and now the author of a new novel-in-stories, When It Happens to You, that is getting quite good reviews. (The Boston Globe called it “a beautiful collection of character studies”; The Guardian praised it as “cleverly executed”; even Dan Kois, in a deeply mixed review in the New York Times Book Review, allowed the the title story is, “a touching portrait of grief.”)
Of course, famous people aren't so rare in New York, but Ringwald is something more. This is the girl who kissed Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club and broke Jon Cryer’s heart in Pretty in Pink. This is a girl implicated in formative experiences.
Well, this used to be that girl. At McNally Jackson, Ringwald was a self-possessed woman in a gray skirt, a crisp white button-front blouse, and strappy platform sandals. The only hint of her status as superhuman: she didn’t appear to sweat on that white shirt at all.
David Daley, executive editor of Salon and creator of the fiction website Five Chapters, moderated the conversation between Ringwald and Emma Straub, Book Court bookseller and author of the recently released novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. The three are friends—Ringwald and Straub were brought together by Daley, who published Straub’s debut story collection, Other People We Married. He sent it to Ringwald, whom he’d known for years, thinking she’d like it; she did and, as Straub put it, “Then my heart exploded with love”—and during the conversation, it showed.
Straub and Ringwald joked about leaving each other notes in the cities where their book tours intersected; Daley and Ringwald bantered about her age. The conversation hit the usual weeknight-reading highlights—themes, process, inspiration, backstory—both women radiating an easy camaraderie and enthusiasm.
Ringwald spoke about betrayal, which runs through her linked collection of stories, and its universality.
“I thought about what links us all as, as human beings, you know: we love, we hate, we eat, you know, we betray each other and we betray ourselves constantly, on a daily basis, and we try to find our way out of it.”
Straub, cheerfully self-deprecating, answering a question about the four novels previous to Laura Lamont she had tried, and failed, to publish, explained the situation.
“Well, you see, Molly is much smarter than I am.” (Ringwald wasn't beyond her own deprecation; she and Daley had earlier discussed a short story Ringwald had written that Daley wanted her to publish; she refused because “It wasn’t good enough. It was almost good enough. It wasn’t quite good enough.”) Straub described writing a book at 22, fresh out of college, a messy 350-pager that she’d completed in three months, and showing it to her father, the novelist Peter Straub. After reading it, Straub left his daughter a voicemail telling her: “Emma, this is, this is so good, you are going to sell this novel for $300,000”. Straub paused as laughter erupted throughout the audience.
“That did not happen.” Then, slightly more reflective, she said “I mean, it’s good to know I have really supportive parents.”
Daley briefly touched on the recent Slate article by Jacob Silverman that argued against the “epidemic of niceness in online book culture,” using Straub as an example of someone whose bubbly social media presence might present a conflict should, say, a Twitter follower be assigned to review her novel. His question gave Straub the opportunity to re-mount the eloquent defense of her own enthusiasm she first posted in response to Silverman’s critique.
“I think my job,” Straub explained, “is to say, Hey guess what, Molly Ringwald’s book is really, really, fucking good and you should read it.” Here, she paused for applause. “And, you know, am I lucky enough to actually know Molly Ringwald? Yeah. But if I didn’t like her book, I wouldn’t say it. I wouldn’t say it....I wouldn’t compromise myself that way, you know?”
But for all the moments when it seemed Ringwald was an author just like any other, with a (husband-imposed) work schedule (two hours or five hundred words each day, whichever comes first), there were others when it was impossible to forget her past.
When she put on her glasses and bent her head down to read from When It Happens to You, the slant of the angle made her look sixteen again.
There was the moment when Straub described the themes she was interested in exploring through her protagonist, Laura Lamont, a bumpkin from Wisconsin who travels to Los Angeles and is transformed by the studio system. “Like, what happens to a person when they’re in the public eye,” she explained, “and they’re molded by people and when they don’t have control over their own career choices.” Here, Ringwald grinned and raised her hand.
And then there were what one of Ringwald’s team described, after the conversation and hectic signing had ended, as “hangers-on”—stray audience members still loitering. Two men, especially, who had come early and stayed late, one in voluminous jeans and open-toed sandals, one in cargo shorts, sporting a lower-chin goatee. Just enthusiastic fans, most likely; nevertheless, Ringwald’s publicist didn’t seem to want her to hang out much longer.
Which is how I found myself in an employees-only room off to the side, waiting to speak to Ringwald away from prying eyes.
Our conversation was brief. She agreed that writing, versus acting, gave her more control.
“One of the things that I was always drawn to [in writing],” she said, “was that you get to plan all of the characters. You. You don’t have [anyone] telling you, you know, what to do, how to play it. It’s just all you.” She swore she’d continue to act “until I die.”
Talking to Ringwald face-to-face the easygoing nature of the reading was wiped away by her starpower. She wraps you in charisma; graceful answers which give nothing away come easily to her and revealing queries less easily to you. As I was fumbling to say goodbye, she asked me a simple question about a necklace I was wearing, ensuring that the conversation ended on a friendly note.
What I'd really wanted to ask her was if her past is always going to haunt her present. The impossibility of getting the words out of my mouth suggests the answer is yes.