On the day that she makes her official debut as a novelist, Molly Ringwald and I meet in St. Mark’s Bookshop, which doesn’t seem to have her book in stock. Possibly it’s still in a box somewhere, but neither of us really wants to ask. Instead, Ringwald—dressed in a crisp white shirt and red shorts, with a pair of matching red Ray-Bans—purchases a few postcards and tells the clerk that she’d like to make a donation to the crowd-funded campaign to save the beleaguered shop. “I hope you guys stick around,” she says, like she’s already planning on coming back.
Ringwald spent three years on When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories, a serious collection she describes as being “about betrayal.” (It centers on a couple whose settled lives are upended when the wife learns of the husband’s affair with their daughter’s violin teacher; “Your heart doesn’t think,” she writes at one point, “your heart is stupid.”) It’s an unlikely move for the woman who’s been a patron saint of adolescence to much of Gen X—even her publisher, she admits, “probably expected me to write something more sort of memoir-based.” Her previous book was an anecdotes-and-advice best seller, Getting the Pretty Back.
“I started acting when I was so young,” Ringwald, now 44, explains, “and even though I loved it, I do feel a bit like it sort of chose me. If I’d had to wait, I’m not sure I would have done it.” Acting, she tells me, “involves so much rejection, and is so much about image. I feel like I’m sort of a survivor, in a way. If you look at a lot of young actors, they don’t turn out very well. “Whereas writing,” she says, “was something that I had to seek out.”
But she’s always been attracted to books—and writers. “A therapist once told me I should stop dating writers and just be one. That was good advice.” She didn’t exactly take it: Her husband, Panio Gianopoulos, has a novella coming out in November.
It’s no knock on his stuff to say it’s unlikely that book will be received in quite the way this one was, with a nostalgia-soaked review in the Times, a Salon Q&A with A. M. Homes, and a Barnes & Noble talk with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker—and, one guesses, a devotee of John Hughes films. (At the beginning of the talk, a clerk warned that Ringwald would only be signing books, not movie memorabilia. “It’s not that Molly won’t sign,” insisted one semi-disgruntled fan, with a small pile of rolled-up posters under his seat, to another. “It’s that her publicist won’t let her!”)
Together with their kids, Ringwald and Gianopoulos live in L.A., where Ringwald films the TV drama The Secret Life of the American Teenager. (Her day job, so to speak.) But the couple met in New York, where she has lived on and off since she was 18. “When I first moved here, I lived in the American Felt building, on 13th, and everybody told me, ‘Don’t go east of Third Avenue. I remember running to the deli on the corner and sort of looking around to see if there was anybody with a knife.” The neighborhood has changed—literary Brat Packer Bret Easton Ellis is trying to rent out his own Felt-building one-bedroom, via Twitter, for $5,000 a month—but she’s stuck it out, even moving East. When the owner of a vintage store we’ve ducked into asks if she lives nearby, Ringwald says, “I still have an apartment in the neighborhood,” not mentioning that it’s currently rented out.
And then they have the kind of interaction that Ringwald’s been having, in one form or another, for most of her life: “Are you …?”
“I am,” Ringwald confirms.
“That is so cool,” she says. “I’m 38, and I know every single thing you’ve ever done.” As we’re leaving, she adds, “You totally made my day!”
“Buy my book,” Ringwald answers cheerfully, and then, to me, adds, “Don’t you feel all warm and fuzzy now?” But just a few minutes later, after we’ve sat down at a no-frills Avenue B café, Ringwald admits that she can’t really relate to her devoted fans. “I can never have the same experience of those movies that other people have, because I was in them. So I don’t have the same touchstones. Sometimes I wish I did, because I think they’re the reason that people are so nice to me. They’re predisposed to like me, because, to them, I was the good part of growing up. There’s so much that’s awful about being that age, but those movies were like beacons. They were lighthouses,” she says. “It’s different than it is for other actors. Can you imagine being a soap-opera villain? They have people spitting in their faces!”