Photograph by Pamela Littky
When we last spoke with Molly Ringwald, she had completed her first book of fiction, When It Happens to You, but not yet seen it published. Now she tells us how the collection’s most-talked about story was inspired by her trans friends—including Justin Vivian Bond—and what kind of reception she’s gotten as her book tour wound its way into the deep South.
Out: We talked a little about the story “My Olivia,” but tell me in your own words what it's about and what inspired you to write it?
Molly Ringwald: “My Olivia” is the third story in my novel-of-stories, When It Happens to You. The collection centers around the theme of betrayal, beginning with a marital betrayal, and each subsequent story explores another kind of betrayal (while following different but connected characters). “My Olivia” depicts the betrayal of a mother to her child. Marina is a single mother raising a six year old boy who identifies as a girl. She is very tolerant and liberal in terms of allowing her son to be who he/she wants until something occurs that frightens her. Out of an overwhelming fear for his safety, Marina makes the choice that leads to her betrayal.
I was inspired to write the story for myriad reasons—in large part because I happen to be friends with many transgendered adults who, by the time I met them, were confident and thriving. I was interested to know what life had been like for them as children, when they were first figuring things out, and intrigued by their relationship with their parents—specifically how much their parents’ denial and rejection or love and acceptance affected their development. Years ago, my friend Justin Vivian Bond told me a story about his father fixing one of his broken heels at his tool bench in the garage and it struck me as a seminal moment in their relationship, and I was curious to know everything that led up to that point.
Later, as a parent myself, I encountered a couple of different kids at my daughter’s schools who were almost certainly transgendered and I observed the parents’ radically different approaches firsthand. These experiences also informed “My Olivia.”
How often on your book tour/appearances did you read from this story, and what was the reaction when you did?
It is a story that I tend to read from a lot and the reaction that I have gotten from people has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been very heartening. It was something I never thought twice about reading in San Francisco, but was slightly more hesitant to read in Nashville. I needn’t have been.
I read from “My Olivia” in the Nashville Public Library; the audience could not have been more receptive. At the end of my U.S. book tour, in Denver, I met a young man who introduced himself to me as “being like Olivia.” He thanked me for writing and then quickly ran off before I could say anything. The next day he wrote a beautiful essay about what the story meant to him. It was so incredibly moving for me to know that the story (and the fact that I wrote it) had touched someone so deeply.
What in those reactions has most surprised you? Has any reaction challenged the way you think about gender or parenting? Or inspired you to write more stories about transgender lives?
Again, I think what most surprised me is how receptive people have been. Of course, this could be attributed to my fan-base and people who know me tend to also know me as a staunch supporter of the LGBT community. Occasionally people laugh at moments that to me are clearly not funny. For instance, when Olivia tells his mother that when he is older his penis is going to fall off and everyone will know that he’s not lying about being a girl. It never bothers me because I feel like it has more to do with people being nervous and not knowing how to respond. By the time I get to the end of the story, no one is laughing. I can feel the energy shift in the room.
This is also very much a story of a single mother. Why did you decide to focus the parental approval/acceptance story through only the eyes of a mother?
I chose to make the character of Marina (Olivia’s mother) single for two reasons. The first is how she connects to the main characters in the first story. There is a hint of a potential romance between Marina and Phillip that would have been less likely had Marina been married or in a serious relationship. But secondly, and more importantly, I felt that the bond that Marina and Olivia have is perhaps stronger because they have only had each other. She had always been his advocate and supporter, which makes the subsequent betrayal that much more meaningful and brutal.
How do you think Olivia would remember the incident when Marina sweeps the bedroom for any girly clothing or toys?
I like to imagine that she will remember everything that her mother will do for her over the course of a lifetime, and that she will forgive Marina for the brief moment when she loses her way in a misguided attempt to protect her child. If the grand motif of my collection of stories is betrayal, the leitmotif is forgiveness, which is present throughout all of the stories as a way back from suffering.
Molly Ringwald will be a judge at the Literary Death Match in Los Angeles on November 7. And The Moth's Annual Member's Show in New York City November 14.