I’ve been thinking so much about the conversation between an author and a reader lately. I’ve been on book tour, talking to people. I’ve been replying to tweets. I get e-mails. It is thrilling. Even people reading my book is thrilling, but then they have something to say to me? Forget about it. People in the audience at readings are usually shy about asking questions but they shouldn’t be. Books are inherent conversation-starters.
Also, I go to see other authors read, to support them, and to watch them interact with their audience. I want to know what they know. I never want to stop learning. Last summer, in New York City, I went to see Molly Ringwald give a reading for her first book of fiction, When It Happens to You, a funny, emotionally true story about the failure of a marriage and its repercussions, a book which I very much enjoyed and promptly bought for my mother. I thought: Well, let’s see what she knows.
Of course Molly was a great reader—she’s been performing since she was a child. (I was fortunate enough to have her narrate the audiobook version of my latest novel.) She was poised. She held the room. But sometimes, because of her past, she gets asked questions that don’t have anything to do with her writing. I only wanted to know about her writing. So I decided to ask her some more questions. We exchanged e-mails. Here we go.
The Rumpus: One of the things I appreciated about your book was how structurally sound it was. I think structure is one of the biggest challenges writers face. For fiction writers, it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in a character’s voice and lose track of the bigger picture of the book. Can you talk about how conscious you were of the structure when you were writing it, if you found any challenges in that area, and if you used any other books in any sort of instructional way?
Molly Ringwald: The structure of the book actually came fairly organically. The only idea that I really had in mind when I set out to write the book was the thought of writing on betrayal—the ways in which we betray each other and ourselves. I intended for the stories to be shorter and the connections to be more random.
But as soon as I wrote the first story—which came in longer that I had expected—I realized that I wanted the connections to be less random and more profound. I wrote the stories more or less in the order that they appear, with the exception of the second story that I wrote, which was even longer than the first. I labored over it like crazy and then scrapped it, which was heartbreaking but know now that it really helped me to further focus the book that I ended up writing. It takes place in the span of a year, so there was some shuffling that I had to do a little bit after the fact to make sure that all of the events line up in the right months, but it was actually surprising to me how little of that was actually necessary.
What I did find challenging—and I don’t know if all writers face this, or of it is just me—but I do find myself switching verb tenses while I’m writing. I mean, this is pretty much first draft stuff, but it’s interesting to notice the places where it happens and why.
The Rumpus: I love a good nitpick. The thing that I obsess over in my own work—and I find myself doing it in the work of others as well—is when I repeat certain phrases or words. Even though it feels really cushy and lovely to use them sometimes, because they are your favorite words, it’s just a sign of lazy writing. What other kinds of things do you zone in on in your writing or the writing of others? And on the flipside, what do you delight in? Like, I love a long sentence—I’m talking a page-long, even longer. I love one that takes you on a real journey.
Ringwald: Repetition is absolutely something that I nitpick over in my own work and in the work of others. It is also something that can be really noticeable if you happen to read work out loud. I really tried to be aware of it in my own work, but even with that in mind, I found a repetition in the finished book that drove me out of my mind!
I tend to zone in when writers pamper their main characters—when the self-deprecation seems a little disingenuous. Also, when the writer has the characters speak in the same way with the same character ticks.
Long sentences I love, if you can pull it off, and, of course, Franzen is genius at that. I think it’s incredibly important to know how to use them and how to vary it so that it has an inner structure to it. Another device that I admire, that you use, and Egan as well, is the ability to flash forward into the future and then back again. I find it thrilling—especially when the writer manages to not undercut the suspense in any way. It seems magical to me.
Something else that drives me crazy: writing clichéd similes. I think certain writers just have a natural facility to find similes that are utterly original, and other writers don’t use them at all. It is something that I think about all the time when I write. If it ever sounds like something that I have heard or read before, I’ll cut it.
The Rumpus: So I am very lucky because I got to have you read my audiobook, but I have only listened to a little bit of it because I’m afraid I’ll start to read it like you. I have a problem with mimicry, especially with accents, but also with timing. I also end up wanting to write like other people who are highly stylized. I remember the first time I read On The Road, when I was traveling in Europe by myself, and when I look back at the journals I kept at the time they just sound like Kerouac and nothing else. Do you have any issues with mimicry at all?
Ringwald: I am a natural mimic, and it is something that I kept in mind while writing my book. I basically just stopped reading all fiction—the only exception that I made was for writers that I had already been influenced by in my life, like Carver and Didion. But I swore off new fiction entirely and now I feel like I’ve been making up for lost time and reading as much as I can. (Of course now I have that feeling of: “Flash forwards! Why didn’t I try that?”) I found reading biographies of other writers incredibly helpful, and also poetry. I don’t really write poetry, so I didn’t feel like it would sway me.
Rumpus: Carver’s actually one of my go-tos when I have trouble writing. Carver and Paley and Flannery O’Connor. Whenever I feel like I’ve forgotten how to write I can pick up one of their books and open it to any story, and I’ll suddenly feel renewed.
Ringwald: Carver, he’s a good one. I have always responded to the immediacy of his writing. Whenever I get caught up in this idea that I’m not “innovating,” or the pressure of thinking I have to express something that no one has ever expressed in the same way ever, I go back to Carver and am always struck by the way he just…said it. It puts me back in the frame of mind of just tell the story—as honestly and as authentically as I possibly can.
Rumpus: I was thinking about how I know more about you from the Internet than anywhere else. Can you talk at all about what impact the Internet has had on your writing? Has it helped you to develop an audience? Do you feel like it has opened up the conversation about your work? Does it impact your writing at all?
Ringwald: I don’t really think that the Internet has impacted the actual writing at all. I use it while I write as a sort of virtual library. All of these random questions that would have taken days to figure out are now ridiculously easy to answer, and I really do use it for that. I also write very often to Pandora, which I weirdly prefer to my own music collection, because it is music that I don’t know and therefore do not have any former association with it.
As far as the promotional side of the Internet…I have mixed feelings about it. I am ambivalent about self-promotion, but at the same time I can’t deny that it had a positive effect on my book sales. Particularly e-book sales. At the beginning, my e-book sales were literally quadruple my print sales, which I’m sure had a lot to do with my online presence. But at the end of the day, I think I am ill-equipped to stay in the social media atmosphere on a regular basis. It feels a bit like staying at a party for too long, and I need to get home, back to my real life to recharge. Not to mention that when I spend too much time on social media, it keeps me from actually writing.
Rumpus: And finally, you and I were chatting the other day about the best books of the year and I mentioned a few you hadn’t read yet, and I was thinking about how all I do is sit around and read and write all day and maybe I’ll, like, go for a bike ride or something, but that’s pretty much it. And you have three kids and a day job and a husband, and I am just curious how you fit it all together—the life of the mind, and the emotional life, and also, if being a parent has impacted your writing at all beyond subject matter.
Ringwald: Children do force you to prioritize your time in a way that I don’t think I ever did as a young single person kicking around Paris and New York. Time is a beast that my husband Panio and I struggle with every single day. We negotiate every night who gets to write, and who has to pick up the kids, go grocery shopping, etc. He likes to say that it’s just a matter of desperation—whoever is the most desperate and looks like they will sink into a pit of despair if they don’t get some writing time in is usually the one who gets the hours in the next day.