When it Happens to You : A Novel in Storiesby: Molly Ringwald
A FEW YEARS BACK, Keith Bellows, the editor of National Geographic Traveler, agreed to meet with a friend of a friend — a man interested in the possibility of doing some travel writing. But the man Bellows met with in an East Village bar wasn't a recent journalism school grad, or a laid-off newspaper travel section reporter, or even a blogger hoping to make some glossy-magazine scratch. The man sitting across the table from Bellows was none other than Andrew McCarthy.
Yes, that Andrew McCarthy.
Blane in Pretty in Pink.
“Can you write?” Bellows asked McCarthy.
“I can tell a story,” McCarthy replied. “That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years as an actor.”
A slew of major travel-writing awards later, McCarthy has indeed told quite a story: The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest For The Courage to Settle Down, in which he recounts the anecdote about meeting Bellows. The book is part travel memoir, part journey of self-awareness, part Eat, Pray, Love with a Y-chromosome. But McCarthy’s not the only Brat Pack-era idol making the leap from John Hughes thespian to literary darling: Molly Ringwald — McCarthy’s Pretty in Pink co-star and the biggest young actor of the Reagan era — recently released a novel, When It Happens To You.
To be sure, writing and acting are twin arts — creating the inner world of a character, as actors do, is akin to writing, and, on a more literal note, actors are often given the creative leeway to improvise dialogue. And so it's no surprise that the list of actors who have doubled as scribes (to varying degrees of success) is long: there’s Steve Martin, Ethan Hawke, Carrie Fischer, Hugh Laurie, James Franco and even Marlon Brando, to name just a few.
And yet, for actors like McCarthy and Ringwald, who will for better or worse forever be associated with 1980s “Brat Pack” youth films (most of which were written and/or directed by John Hughes) — movies like The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles and St. Elmo’s Fire, there might be a particularly powerful appeal in turning, at least for a moment, from the screen to the page. Because even now, almost 30 years after their well-loved movies about the trials of teenhood first mesmerized young audiences, Ringwald and McCarthy are still largely frozen in the public eye as they were back then — sensitive young adults in totally awesome duds staring down moodily from the posters on countless teenagers’s bedroom walls. Although there is much to be said for starring in the films that forever changed the outlook of a generation of young people, for portraying characters so beloved that fans dress up as them on Halloween and name their children after them, for Ringwald and McCarthy, a fresh creative start seems in order. While interviewing film critic Leonard Maltin for my book You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation, I asked him about the challenges facing the group of actors often assigned the “Brat Pack” label, and he replied: "John Hughes gave these actors the opportunity of a lifetime, and seemingly defined them for all of us, to such a degree that we didn’t want to see them in any other mode, or any other guise.” Or, as the late studio executive Ned Tanen told me, “You want them to be where that memory is. It’s good for you. But it’s not good for them.”
More than any of her costars, Molly Ringwald was for Generation X teens everywhere the canary in the coalmine of the adolescent experience. From having her panties ogled by nerds in Sixteen Candles to being used as a pawn in her parents’s strained marriage in The Breakfast Club, Ringwald’s characters showed that contrary to the rosy view of teendom that grownups so often choose to remember (all make-out sessions, no mortgages), adolescence can be a thorny time. These films are powerful because their creator, Hughes, understood the pain of teenhood while always presenting his young audience with a real sense of optimism, especially by story’s end. As The Breakfast Club producer Michelle Manning once explained to me, it was as if Hughes were telling his young audience, “Let me try to show you that it doesn’t have to be that tough.”
Molly Ringwald’s novel focuses not on teendom but on marriage and parenthood, and nowhere does she try to show you that it doesn’t have to be that tough. Through her elegant, spare prose, Ringwald paints a haunting portrait of characters living, as Thoreau would say, lives of quiet desperation. One of the book’s major themes, Ringwald told Reuters, “is that we are all betrayers and we are all betrayed.” Indeed, this is a world away from Getting The Pretty Back — the chatty advice-memoir Ringwald wrote a few years back. When It Happens To You is filled with characters whose problems can’t be assuaged by even the best Thompson Twins song swelling in the background.
There’s Greta, reeling from the devastation of her unraveling marriage, set in motion by her husband’s affair with their daughter’s 19-year old violin teacher. There’s Greta’s next-door neighbor, Betty, who, frozen in grief years after her husband’s death, still cooks meals for him regularly. And then there’s Oliver, a little boy who is convinced he’s a little girl — Olivia — and suffers a brutal attack because of it.
Each chapter in When It Happens To You is told from the point of view of a different character — characters who are compellingly written, to be sure, and whose lives are interconnected in strange, surprising ways, calling to mind works like Six Degrees of Separation, Crash, and Nashville. Ringwald’s greatest gift as a writer is her ability to provide meticulous, stirring descriptions of the minutiae of life, and she uses seemingly little things to call to mind very big things indeed, as in a scene in which Greta is preparing dinner while injecting herself with fertility treatments: “Once it was in the oven and two places had been set, Greta laid out the myriad hormone drugs on the kitchen table, the Follistim, Lupron, and Clomid, the two different syringes, and the red plastic container with the alarming illustration of a skull and crossbones and black lettering on the side, warning HAZARDOUS WASTE. HANDLE WITH CARE.”
This attention to detail may have first been born in Ringwald when, as a teenager, she would whisper in her blind father’s ear during movies, describing the action happening onscreen (she did this at the premiere of Pretty in Pink). “That's something that I've done for so long, that it’s made me, perhaps, observe things in a different way,” Ringwald told NPR.
Growing up, Ringwald loved reading (Raymond Carver was a favorite), and felt that books helped her navigate the waters of a Tinseltown adolescence. Although many of the inhabitants of When It Happens to You live in and around Los Angeles (Ringwald herself grew up in California, then did stints in France and New York before moving back to the West Coast a few years ago), there is little here having to do with the entertainment industry of which Ringwald has now been a fixture for three decades (she currently stars on the ABC Family show The Secret Life Of The American Teenager), with the very notable exception of Ursa Minor, one of the strongest stories in the novel.
Here we meet Peter, a Yale-trained actor who’d done a celebrated turn in The Seagull but then lands the starring role in a children’s TV show (think Blues Clues) — and stays frozen there for 15 years. It’s hard not to draw a parallel here to Ringwald, herself perhaps pigeonholed into a certain kind of youthful role for far longer than she would have liked to be. In one scene, Peter finds himself on a plane ride from New York to Los Angeles, being offered a free upgrade to first class by a group of flight attendants:
He posed for a picture with each flight attendant individually, then for a group picture snapped on self-timer with a point-and-shoot camera precariously perched on top of the galley cart. At their urging, he acted out the show’s stock phrase — ‘Pep up, Pooka! Peter’s here!’ — and then was shown by Marcie to first class, collapsing into his seat, hot and flushed, his hair sticking in ribbons to the perspiration on his forehead. He felt as though he had never before paid so much for a ticket in his life.
The story of Peter on the plane ride reminded me a bit of something Ringwald told me about her life in France when I interviewed her for my book: “I felt like I could just sort of walk around [there], and be myself,” she said. “If I was recognized it was usually by American tourists, and I knew where to go in France to sort of avoid that. And then once in a while there would be somebody that was French that happened to be a fan, but they always sort of seemed different, not as rabid as American fans can be.” To be sure, Ringwald seems deeply grateful for the role she has been able to play in her fans’s lives (“Being a part of something that mattered to so many different people — I feel like I was a part of something that was really special,” she told me when speaking of her iconic 1980s teen films). But it’s not hard to imagine Ringwald having also experienced plenty of moments like Peter’s impromptu photo shoot on the plane, and feeling wearied at times by them.
Peter’s incident with the flight attendants is one of many scenes in the book that seem to be about betrayal (Greta is betrayed by her cheating husband and her infertile body; Peter by his own fame), but there is another theme that can be found growing like kudzu through the storylines in When It Happens To You: an interest in horticulture (one character is a landscape designer, another works through her grief by gardening). It’s no accident that the cover features the subtle imagery of falling leaves. Ringwald’s characters, broken by the betrayals of life (including the ultimate betrayal — death) turn to plants for all they represent — growth, newness, life. Sometimes the theme of vegetation is literal (a key scene is set at a plant nursery), other times it is used in softer ways, as when Ringwald describes Peter’s feelings as he looks at Greta across a busy airport and realizes he’s falling in love with her: “Her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches […] her face lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left.”
In the last years of John Hughes’s life (he died in 2009), after he had withdrawn from filmmaking and most of his Hollywood friends, he became a passionate gardener. When I interviewed longtime Hughes collaborator Howard Deutch for my book, he recounted a conversation he’d had with Hughes years ago: “I said, ‘Why aren’t you working?’ [...] He says, ‘I made my best movie here, on the farm I live on.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’” Hughes, said Deutch, then told him, “I planted this tree today. And it’s the best movie I’ve ever made.” Ringwald, for one, wasn’t surprised at all: “When I heard that he was really into gardening,” Ringwald told me, “I thought, of course he’d be into gardening, because so am I.” She and Hughes already shared a worldview, a sense of humor, a birthday. Gardening was just one more thing to add to the list. “Our lives are so inextricably connected,” she recently told NPR. “I think it’s impossible for people to think of John Hughes and not think of Molly Ringwald, and vice versa […] And he was also somebody that told me, from a very young age, that I needed to write and direct. Before I had even thought about that [...] and it’s something I've carried with me my whole life, and I think, you know, I’m going to have to do it, just because he told me to.”
Because Hughes valued Ringwald’s opinion so much, he listened to her when she told him to cast Andrew McCarthy as her co-star in Pretty in Pink. “I liked how he wasn’t typical,” Ringwald had told me of McCarthy. What set McCarthy apart from the lantern-jawed hunks of the era, perhaps, was his vulnerability, a sensitivity that came shining across on screen. It was a quality that added to his star power, to be sure, but as he shares with us in his startlingly honest and luminous memoir The Longest Way Home, this vulnerability went along with a lingering sense of self-doubt and an inability to connect with people as deeply as he’d like. In his memoir, McCarthy, also known for having acted in the films St. Elmo’s Fire, Less Than Zero, and The Joy Luck Club, journeys to Patagonia, the Amazon, Costa Rica, Vienna, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Ireland, all the while going on a much more meaningful journey of the heart: after a lifetime of commitment issues, McCarthy is preparing to marry his longtime girlfriend, the mother of his daughter (he also has a son from a previous marriage), while struggling to become his best self. He writes: “[An] insistent nagging is telling me I lack the internal strength required to make marriage work […] maybe the sensitivity I traded on in Hollywood somehow stunted me, or not knowing how to change the oil in a car engine — whatever the reason, it’s here, and it lingers, and I need to get over it."
McCarthy’s first real experiences with travel were through work, which led him to locales both domestic (L.A. of course, but also places like Philadelphia and Kentucky) and farther-flung (England, Italy, Brazil). He eventually developed the feeling of being most at home in the farthest corners of the earth, using solo travel as a way to reconnect with his truest self: “Often I arrived with no plan, no place to stay, knowing no one. I wanted to see how I would manage, if I could take care of myself, and inevitably found myself walking through fear and coming home the better for it […] Through travel, I began to grow up.”
Now an editor-at-large with National Geographic Traveler, McCarthy has also written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and was named Travel Journalist of the Year in 2010 by the Society of American Travel Writers. He feels that his years onscreen have prepared him well: “If I have anything to offer as a writer,” he recently told Gotham, “it’s that as an actor I was trained to observe people — it’s how I see the world, through character and dialogue and story. To me, [acting and writing] are the same thing, just a different format of the storytelling. You just have to pay attention.” Like the best travel writers, his prose brings us right there with him, such as this moment in Patagonia: “The road dips and curves through moss-covered trees and as I come out of a tight bend, something catches my eye — glowing, a translucent blue and white […] Ahead, but still a good way off, is the Perito Moreno Glacier […] not reflecting light but emitting it, radiating it. It looks like a pulsing, living thing.”
McCarthy weaves his physical journey and his emotional journey together in an organic way, as when he is readying to climb Kilimanjaro and compares the feat to his efforts to overcome his trepidation about marriage and commitment. (The Longest Way Home seems to be screaming for a screen adaptation — right down to the climactic scene at the top of the mountain where the exhausted hero finally realizes that he really is ready to truly love and be loved. If only they could find someone to play Andrew McCarthy…) But Hollywood-esque narrative structures aside, McCarthy’s story is so honest, so poignant, and ultimately so human that you find yourself rooting for him to find happiness. And even those who aren’t particularly interested in travel writing, or even in travel itself, will find The Longest Way Home a voyage worth taking — especially since, by voyage’s end, McCarthy finally gets out of his own way and finds himself in the loving embrace of his wife, whom he exultantly marries in her native Ireland.
In one of the book’s final scenes, McCarthy describes how he felt at his nuptials, a new man surrounded by his new family: “In this instant, I am all of myself — that shy kid playing in the woods near my home, the guy who snuck into college and then made those movies, and then found his way around the world. I’m a father and a son. And a husband. In this instant, I am all of it, and I’m happier, and freer, than I ever recall being.”
Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald are now in their forties. They’ve both been divorced and happily re-married; they are both parents. Crinkles have formed around his dreamy green eyes and around her trademark pout. Nearly three decades have passed since their 1980s youth movies flickered in theaters.
A well-loved line in The Breakfast Club is this: “When you grow up, your heart dies.” But through their brave and ultimately beautiful books, McCarthy and Ringwald have shown that when you grow up, your heart doesn’t die — not as long as it’s telling new stories.