MENTIONING Molly Ringwald makes most forty-somethings succumb to a nostalgic swoon. If they’re men, their teenaged self wanted to date her. If they’re women, they wanted to be her.
In their collective psyche she’s eternally 16, under a cloud of red hair, with a smattering of freckles, plump lips frequently bitten to signal uncertainty, and an endearingly toothy grin. Three films – Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, written and directed by the late John Hughes – made Ringwald the top teen star of the 1980s, and landed her the cover of Time magazine. Yet even though her fans have moved on with their lives, they seem to find it incomprehensible that she did, too.
Will the publication of her first work of fiction, When It Happens to You, change that? This assured novel takes the form of eight short stories strung like vertebrae along a connective cord of betrayal. Ringwald writes about a marriage in crisis, fertility dilemmas, gender uncertainty, questionable parenting, love, death and sex. It’s a book for grown-ups, by a grown-up.
Pale and interesting, this 44-year-old is poised and glamorous, with not a red hair out of place. She’s self-contained but not secretive, setting a relaxed tone by ordering a glass of wine and munching on the accompanying nuts and nibbles with gusto. What I especially admire, seeing her again the following evening interacting with fans in a London bookshop, is her resolve not to autograph memorabilia, nor inscribe her novel with lines from old films. “I will sign it personally to you,” she suggests, holding her ground without alienating. But she’s had plenty of practice dealing with the public. Her earliest gigs were with her father, pianist Bob Ringwald, and his jazz band – when she was three and a half.
So what was that little girl like? “Believe it or not I was actually pretty shy. I felt like I could express myself only in front of an audience. It is something that I grew out of. I’m reserved, and wouldn’t consider myself an exhibitionist by any means, but I don’t think that I’m cripplingly shy any longer. But my acting ability, and certainly my singing, was very informed by that, and to a certain extent my writing.
“Also my father, who is blind, I used to read a lot to him. I was always the person that he wanted to watch movies with, because he thought I was more observant. I would try to describe things that no one else would notice, like the way the light was hitting the side of the building, the reactions of passers-by, if a character was flinching. I would try to describe as much as I could, and still give him a chance to hear the dialogue. It was something I was trying to give to him, but it’s something that I use a lot in my writing, as well.”
She’s the youngest of three, but defies received wisdom about birth order characteristics telling me, with a laugh, that her nine-year-old, Mathilda, definitely didn’t get the memo about eldest children being rule-abiding. “And my older sister, also. I was the real people pleaser, from a very young age. Anything that I did, I wanted to do well and I was very ashamed if I couldn’t do it as well as I thought that I should be able to do it. But I do think a lot about middle children, because I have three kids, and even though the middle one, Adele, is only three minutes older [than her twin brother Roman], she already acts like the older sister. She’s very protective.”
The children’s father is Panios Gianopoulos, an editor and writer. On her website Ringwald writes about their first date. She was freshly separated from her first husband and had moved back to New York City from Paris, keen to “disengage, have fun, wear heels often, and flirt. Then I met a wholly inappropriate man seven years my junior.” Yes, reader, she married him, and their family of five lives in California where, when she’s not parenting, writing or singing – there’s a jazz album due out – she’s part of the cast of the American telly hit, The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
How does that age difference feel now that 12 years have passed? “[It] is and isn’t a thing. It was much more so when we first got together, just in terms of topical references. And this whole thing about men being with younger women because it makes them feel young – it had the opposite effect on me. It made me incredibly self-conscious about my body. Of course now none of that matters. We’ve had three children together. We’re a really solid couple. But I feel like we had to go through growth together. I fell in love with my husband in spite of the fact that he was younger, not because of the fact that he was younger.”
When her contemporaries were teenagers, they sought solace in Ringwald’s movies, transferring their angst and heartache to her on-screen personae. Who did she turn to? “The answer is I didn’t have anything like that. I didn’t have the same relationship to those movies that other people had, because I was in them. Even though I like them, I couldn’t lose myself in them; they didn’t instruct me the way they did other people. I had to look elsewhere and where I looked was in books. I was reading JD Salinger, F Scott Fitzgerald, and later, Toni Morrison. I found what I needed in books and it shaped me in terms of who I am and what I wanted to do later on in life.”
In the 1990s Ringwald moved to Paris, was she fleeing the relentless scrutiny that comes with fame? Being so bookish, was she also seduced by the vision of a Paris populated by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and their ilk?
“In retrospect yes I was escaping, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was just feeling very uninspired. I was in an uninspired relationship. I had enrolled at the University of Southern California, and was to attend in the fall. I was doing everything late: I was 24. My parents always wanted me to go to college, so I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do. Then I went to Paris and fell in love with the city, and fell in love with a man. I decided that this was going to be the only opportunity in my life – because I always knew I wanted to have a family. It sort of became my college, and I stayed there for years and years. I don’t regret it at all.
“And yes, I was very seduced by all of those writers. I was a Francophile from the time – you know my mother is a compulsive cookbook collector. We’re all big readers in my family. She knows more about history than anyone you’d ever meet, and it’s all through reading cookbooks, very obscure old ones, like novels. Julia Child was her hero, and every Christmas she’d give me a book by Julia Child, and sign it ‘Bon Appetit’. I developed this fascination with France. I went to a French school, so I learned to speak a serviceable amount of French. When I moved to France I wanted to be able to do movies in French, which I did. But at a certain point I didn’t want to just be the American in Paris. No matter how good your accent is, you’re always ‘the American in Paris’ and I wasn’t seduced by that idea, so I came [home] and started to do theatre. I’ve had a really interesting life.”
She always wanted children, and different experiences of parenting are portrayed in When it Happens to You, including that of one stay-at-home mother, Greta, whose discovery of her husband Philip’s infidelity sets off a series of events that tumble like a row of dominoes through the novel. Earlier, Greta betrays herself by turning down an offer at Harvard Graduate School to stay on the west coast with Philip. With her marriage in ruins, she loses her sense of self.
“Clearly it’s not a choice I’ve made in my own life,” says Ringwald, telling me about a novel she read whose protagonist goes mad when she cannot create. “Someone says about her: ‘If she’s not allowed to create, she becomes a menace to society.’ That’s me! So my kids maybe don’t get to see me as much as other stay-at-home moms, but I think I bring a lot to it. I love them to death and I’m a good parent. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and I clearly flourished under her, but it’s just not me and people need to know who they are and the expectations they have of themselves, before they set out.
“From the time that I was a little girl having children was something I wanted. It’s in my DNA. But it’s interesting because when I look at my two girls, it’s so clearly in my three-year-old’s DNA, and not in my nine-year-old’s, who has never wanted to play with dolls. She says, ‘There’s no way that I’m going to have a kid, Mom.’ But it was a biological clock thing for me. It was a very primal urge.”
Having married and divorced, and then found a lasting love the second time around, can she impart any secrets for success? “Work at it! I don’t think we have a fairy-tale marriage. We’ve had ups and downs, but we are deeply committed to each other. I feel that once you let go of the fairytale and are able to see your beloved as somebody that’s deeply flawed, and see yourself as deeply flawed, then you have a chance of spending a life together. Until you let go of that idea, you will always and forever be disappointed, because we are real people. I wanted to write about real people, with their flaws, and everybody f***ing up their life in one way or other.”
Looking at her apparently untouched face, I wonder how she copes with Hollywood’s terror of ageing? “I do see the difference, the lines, even though I have good genes. Time has been really good to me and I’ve taken really good care of myself. I don’t obsess about it too much. If you’re going to see yourself as a tree, when you’re younger it’s all about the blossoms on the branches. The older you get, and you have kids and a family, the emphasis becomes very much on the trunk, and the roots, which become the most beautiful part – how strong they are and how far they extend. It sounds cheesy, but I focus on the structure of me and of my family, and I try to talk about that with my kids. My [youngest] don’t understand, but Mathilda does. But she’s very taken in by the idea of celebrity. ‘Why won’t you let me be an actress?’ It’s one of the big refrains we have right now. I always say if you want to be an actress when you’re older, we’ll talk about it and I’ll do what I can to help you, but to her, being an actress is like having a movie on YouTube, and that wasn’t even around when I was younger.”
How did she become an actress? “I was really into music – Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie, Anita O’Day – and then really into acting. I used to read plays and read about actresses, and about the Actor’s Theatre, and everything I could get hold of. It was a passion with me.”
Telling a story, selling a song, embodying someone you’re not – all require a skill for getting to the heart of a character. But despite writing all her life, only in her twenties did Ringwald get serious about it. “It took me a long time to call myself a writer. Even now - I flew in to the UK and on my landing card where it said ‘Occupation’, I wrote ‘Actress.’ But it just bugged me, so I had to add, ‘/writer’ – and I almost said jazz singer, but there wasn’t enough room. Unfortunately, it took getting published and getting paid for me to allow myself to say that, and I don’t think that should have to be the case. I know plenty of writers who are not there yet, who feel embarrassed to call themselves writers. I always encourage them to keep writing and to keep defining themselves that way, because it already exists even though it’s not published, and hopefully one day somebody will champion your voice.”
Is there a lot of rivalry in this two-writer family? Shaking her head she says, “We’re very different as writers. I do 500 words or two hours, whatever comes first, and Panios is lucky if he gets to 200 words a day. But his sentences are a lot more beautiful than mine. We’re each other’s first editors and I’m incredibly grateful for his edits. He’ll always go right to the heart of something.
“It’s really scary to do something that’s such a departure from what I’m known for. I asked him to please be brutally honest. I said, ‘This is not a time to tell me that I look good in the jeans that I don’t look good in.’ And he was very lovingly critical. I found it very valuable and very encouraging. Having gone through my whole life with this call and response, of knowing you were doing a good job because people were smiling or crying – it was all right in front of me. You don’t have that when you write, so I depended a lot on him.”
With so many accomplishments to her credit, what is left on her bucket list? “I’d like to direct, write screenplays, learn Italian, perfect my French, and continue to be a really good mother – motherhood first, everything after that.”
Later, as we’re leaving, I notice the gifts – someone’s given Ringwald a soft toy, someone else drew a picture of the actress at 16. And then, finally, someone’s found a gift for the woman she’s become: a pocket-sized Italian dictionary.
When It Happens to You is out now from Simon & Schuster, £10, hardcover.