“I know what you’re all thinking: I look amazing,” joked Maria Semple when moderator and L.A. Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg introduced her and co-panelist Molly Ringwald on Sunday at the Festival of Books.
Semple, author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”, and Ringwald, author of “When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories” both worked in Hollywood before launching literary careers. Of course Semple, as a TV writer (“Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Suddenly Susan,” “Arrested Development”), was not quite as visible as Ringwald, John Hughes’ red-haired teen muse throughout the 1980s.
“I mean, you were in ‘The Breakfast Club,’ the quintessential teenage movie!” said a high-school sophomore during the Q&A; session.
“I’m glad you brought that up,” said Kellogg. “Because I think that’s on everybody’s mind.”
The bulk of the discussion, however, was strictly literary. The two strikingly pretty authors, both wearing black T-shirts (“I didn’t get the memo,” said Kellogg, also strikingly pretty, but in red), talked frankly about their inspirations and processes.
Both had written previous books, Ringwald a memoir and Semple a first novel, “This One Is Mine,” which, Semple said, “didn’t set the world on fire.” In fact, she lost her agent and the interest of her publisher -- a set of circumstances that she found painful at the time but that she believes freed her to write “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
“It was autobiographical, in that I had just moved from L.A. to Seattle, and I didn’t like Seattle and I didn’t like the people there, and they didn’t like me -- but I didn’t like them first. I was toxic and self-pitying. People really thought I was going crazy. But my daughter was 6, and we would have these beautiful conversations. I felt such ease around her. And I thought, how can I feel so much love and feel so loved despite my flaws?”
Ringwald said she also “uses writing to understand subjects that interest me.” At the time she was writing the stories in her collection, the topic of betrayal was on her mind. “You get to a certain point in your life and you realize that you have either been betrayed, betrayed someone, or betrayed yourself.”
“Or all three,” Kellogg said.
Although Ringwald did not name names, she did do a very funny impersonation of her “ex-boyfriend -- or I guess I should say my ex-husband.”
“He used to say that nothing excited me -- except, because he was French, he would say,” Ringwald said, assuming a thick French accent: “ ‘You are so blasée. Eet ees eempossible to excite you.”
“But it’s not impossible to excite me, because when the galleys of my books were put into my hands, I thought my heart would burst,” Ringwald said. And she mentioned a new husband, Panio Gianopoulos, also a writer as well as a former editor at Bloomsbury, who supports her fiction.
Ringwald and Semple concurred that they found the notion of writing a novel intimidating. “It’s like deciding to get married and have kids on the first date. I wrote a novel kind of in spite of myself,” said Ringwald.
Semple said she was an English major in college and a big reader. “I was always an unpopular member of the writing staff [on TV shows] because I was always trying to start book clubs. But novel-writing always seemed like something that another person did. It was so exalted to me.”
It was a friend, the writer Bruce Wagner, who suggested that Semple write a novel. “I went out and bought John Gardner on the art of fiction, read that book and learned how to write a novel. And I’m so glad I did it. For me, sitting down to write is pure joy,” she enthused.
“So you’re an outlier. You’re crazy happy. Almost crazy,” said Kellogg.
Semple agreed that her experience is atypical. “When I was first writing, my friends would ask me how the writing was going, and I would say, ‘It’s going great!’ And they told me later that they all thought I was off doing potato prints, going crazy. Nobody had ever heard of a writer having so much fun.”
“I am tortured,” Ringwald confessed. “Getting myself to sit down -- I have such anxiety about it. I have to do all kinds of mind games to trick myself into doing it. But I love having written.”
“I feel that if I am having a good time, the reader will have a good time,” Semple added.
“Um. Well, I guess we all have a different process,” Ringwald said.
Points of agreement: They are both mothers. They both love Jonathan Franzen. They both love books and storytelling.
In fact, Ringwald said that “books were responsible for making me into a Hollywood survivor. I decided that books were going to save me. They were going to keep me grounded. I try not to give advice, but if I were to give advice,” she told the high-schooler who asked the question, “it would be that. And to wear sunscreen.”
Before the panel ended, Semple launched one parting shot at Seattle. An audience member said she had tried to check “Where’d You Go Bernadette?" out of a Seattle library but was deterred by the long wait list.
Semple rolled her eyes. “Oh, I know, in Seattle there’s literally 1,700 people on the wait list. They’re so cheap up there.”