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Posted at 11:10 PM ET, 08/ 7/2009

A Q&A With John Hughes's Pen Pal

By Jen Chaney

At the age of 15, when most Gen Xers desperately coveted an exclusive membership in "The Breakfast Club," Alison Byrne Fields became friends with the man who founded it.

Fields, 39, was pen pals with writer-director John Hughes for two years, exchanging roughly 20 to 25 personal letters with him from 1985 to 1987. When the filmmaker died suddenly on Thursday at the age of 59, she wrote a touching personal essay -- entitled "Sincerely, John Hughes" -- that described all the details about their exchange of letters and the relationship they developed. She then posted it to her personal blog, "We'll Know When We Get There."

The movie that launched a beautiful letter-writing friendship. (Universal Studios)

By Friday morning, the blog post was being Tweeted, Facebooked and passed along via e-mail in electronic droves by Hughes fans moved by her story. By mid-afternoon that same day, she was receiving phone calls from national media outlets (People magazine, NPR, "Good Morning, America") and even literary agents, all of them seeking a piece of the woman who once received handwritten correspondences from the godfather of '80s teen movies.

Fields, who leads the issues and advocacy practice in the Washington, D.C. office of advertising agency DDB -- an agency that, purely by coincidence, also employed Hughes during his early days in Chicago -- took some time out of a day she described as totally crazy to talk about her relationship with Hughes, her feelings about his death and the lessons she learned from the man who taught a generation that life moves pretty fast.

-- Interview by Jen Chaney

According to your blog post, your relationship with Hughes started because of a fan letter you wrote to him after seeing "The Breakfast Club." What did that letter say?

Alison: I was sort of thanking him for making it, [telling him] that it had an emotional impact on me, that as a teen I was convinced that nobody understood me. There were some other teen films out at the time, like "Porky's" and things like that, so I made a comment that "The Breakfast Club" was just night and day from what had been sold to me before, in terms of being about young people. It was just a thank you letter, for the most part, for what he had done.

And that letter resulted in a form letter response. So you decided to take some action.

Alison: I wrote back -- and I still sort of laugh a little about it because who the hell did I think I was? I sent a snippy, little note: "I poured my heart out and you sent me a form letter." I think about it now, about being kids vs. being an adult. As an adult, you make decisions about what you're going to do based on social hierarchy and who has power. Somehow back then, that didn’t run through my head.

And that's when, as you explain in your blog post, Hughes wrote you a more personal letter in return. And you just decided to write back again?

Alison: I wanted it to keep going. I didn’t want it to end. So I asked if he would be my pen pal and he said yes.

Do you still have all the letters you exchanged?

Alison: I have a bunch but I don't have all of them, unfortunately. He was writing me once a month or once every other month, that type of thing. I probably wrote slightly more frequently.

What did you say in those letters?

I talked to him about being in school, about being a writer, a little more of the kind of “I’m not understood” type of stuff. Which sounds kind of silly.

I went to see "Pretty in Pink" with my dad because I was going to write a review for my school paper. The movie has a strong core relationship between the father and daughter ... it was emotional for my dad and I shared that with John, sort of repeatedly letting him know that he was having an impact.

But it was also stuff like "My English teacher is so lame,” or "I like this boy and he doesn’t like me back.”

And then eventually, the letters just stopped?

Alison: I stopped writing. And he stopped back. I don't know if I thought I was too cool for school or what ... I don’t think I recognized the significance of it until later. Not so much the significance of talking to a famous person, but how [the whole thing] impacted me.

I also went to film school when I first went to college. So maybe I didn’t really want to ask him for anything. You know? Like, "I'm going to film school, famous director."

Ten years go by without communicating and -- again, to go back to the timeline you laid out in that blog post -- you track him down and send him a video you worked on related to your job at the time. Then out of the blue, you get a phone call from John Hughes and spend an hour talking to him. What did the two of you discuss? Were you just catching up?

It wasn’t like, "What have you done over the past 10 years?" It was more about him. It literally was about him telling me how excited he was to hear what I was doing, and how proud he was of what I was doing ... The most personal stuff was that he was talking about leaving Hollywood and changing his life. A lot of it carried over from what he said to me when I was a kid. His consistent thing in his letters, what he always said was to be kind to my family and to love my life.

There has been a lot of speculation over the years about why Hughes left Hollywood. So your impression is that it really was because he wanted to spend more time with his family?

Alison: He told me a couple of stories about his kids growing up in L.A. and in that world, and that he didn’t like it much, in terms of the values and priorities, that it kind of turned his stomach a little ... He chose the story he wanted to tell me. Of course, I don’t know what the whole story is. We all tell ourselves stories about things in retrospect -- "This is why I made that decision." But that’s what he told me.

That was the first and last time you spoke?

Alison: Yeah, we sort of planned to be in touch. He told me he was going to send me a book. And then we didn’t talk after that.

The way you describe him, Alison, he sounds like a mentor, but also almost like a second father to you.

Alison: There's this thing to me, which is the power of adults who aren't your parents being supportive of you, and how that's really affirming. It kind of has to not be your dad because it means more, because they don’t have to say nice things to you.

So it was like John was a dad, or a really cool uncle.

Where were you on Thursday when you heard the news that John had died?

Alison: I was working from home, and I was on a phone call with a client. And I had my laptop open in front of me and saw it on Twitter. And I started to cry, but I just had to sort of finish the phone call ... I've had people express condolences to me and I feel weird abut that. I feel like that should only be reserved for his family.

You mentioned earlier that you didn't understand the significance of the relationship until much later. What is the significance as you see it now?

Alison: It was not about him being a famous guy. If he was just a famous guy, his letters wouldn't have been as meaningful. It kind of goes back to having an adult who is supporting you and encouraging you and telling you that you are a good writer, that it's going to be okay. But because he was someone who did not have to do that for me and he wasn’t necessarily an accessible person, it gave me a confidence or a willingness to take chances and ask for what I want.

It means I'm more aware when a young person approaches me for counsel or help with their career. I recognize the value of it.

When did you realize your blog post about John had gone viral?

Alison: I think I went to bed [Thursday night] and I thought, "1,000 people have come to my blog. How did that happen?" Then I woke up this morning and 12,000 people had come to my blog. There are just streams and streams of people coming and thanking me. During the course of the day, it's just been ongoing and insane

Why do you think this story -- about you and John Hughes and your letters -- has struck such a chord with people?

What I get from it is that people have this vision of him as someone who understood them when they were younger. And somehow, my story suggests there is something valid to that. That it was true, he really was paying attention to what young people felt and he wasn’t just full of crap.

This guy who e-mailed me [after reading my post] was like, "I'm 39-years-old and I run a billion-dollar company, and I just had to shut my door because I’m crying." And I’m like, really? ... To me, the primary thing is that there is an affirmation that what they always wanted to believe about him is true.

You Tweeted earlier today about the fact that one of John Hughes's sons read your post and got in touch. What did he say to you?

Alison: He affirmed that what I said earlier was true, that somehow I captured who his dad was. His dad died yesterday, you know what I mean? He is obviously really devastated, and the idea that I could potentially connect and maybe it made him feel better in some way? That’s great. It's like connecting with John again.

My response to him was that his dad was generous in what he gave to me, and the generosity of him reaching out to me today -- John Hughes III, I guess -- that that was generous as well. He didn’t have to do that.

So you're getting tons of attention on the Web and from the media and, apparently, literary agents. What do you do now?

Alison: I wait for it to go away. There will be something new and interesting for somebody [to talk about] tomorrow.

What do you want to gain from this whole experience?

Alison: I want to remember how much I like writing. And to try to remember to do it. Because I work too hard, and when you work too hard, you forget to remember to do things that are really pleasurable. It is the moral of a John Hughes movie, in a way. It’s the moral of what he was calling to tell me back in 1997.

By Jen Chaney  | August 7, 2009; 11:10 PM ET
Categories:  Obits, Pop Culture  | Tags:  Alison Byrne Fields, John Hughes, The Breakfast Club  
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Really wonderful Q & A, Jen. What's fascinating to me is the speed with which this is moving...This all has an authentic air, but I wonder how various media types are confirming the accuracy/credibility of Alison? That, to me, is a story unto itself--the process of confirming her pen-pal relationship actually occurred. If your mother tells you she loves you...check it out!

Posted by: MattBaron | August 8, 2009 12:50 AM | Report abuse

I saw this linked from Gawker and read it. It was one of the sweetest most heart tugging things I've seen.

Posted by: yellojkt | August 8, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Hey, Matt. Just read your comment, and saw your post on the Examiner. You make very good points about the importance of confirming the accuracy of stories.

I can't say I did any handwriting analysis here. But I got in touch with Alison through a mutual contact who knows her and who I most definitely trust. Plus, after talking with Alison for 45 minutes or so, she certainly didn't strike me as someone who was making up a story just to get attention.

But on a broader level, it's good that you raise this. Media outlets rush to jump on stories at a more fevered pitch than ever, so it's always important to stop, take a breath and think about the truth (and the motivation) behind what we're doing before we do it.

Posted by: Jen_Chaney | August 9, 2009 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Jen Chaney, may I email you? This interview was very good, and while Matt raised a good question, u answered it well. That problem is not with Alison. She means well and is a good egg. The problem lies in what Michael Wolff at HuffPo and Newser is now questioning "Who Killed John Hughes" and he is echoing my own blog post from three days ago that asked same question "What killed John Hughes" google both terms and see. All the fotos of JH were from 1984, but what did he look like when he died? Was he overweight, obese, diabetic, family heart history, why did not one media story ask the medical questions about why a nice 59 year old man keels over during a morning walk. He was not jogging or running. Walking. There is a story here, as Mr Wolff says. Interview him next.

Posted by: polarcityboy | August 11, 2009 2:17 AM | Report abuse

"This intersection of death and pop culture figures is an obviously strange one. Nostalgia turns out to be a more powerful media force than gossip.
Where the premature death of a significant pop culture figure used to be an opportunity to examine the nature of fame and accomplishment, now it’s become a semi-mystical event. We pile on the meaning—and the memories.
It has to do, surely, with being young—when Ferris Bueller's Day Off actually meant something. It’s our lost youth that we’re treating with such sensitivity.
It’s Michael Jackson’s world—where only the culturally tone deaf speak ill of him.
It’s a sort of moral attention. Somebody who’s had purchase on our emotion, and who dies before his time, enters into some media safe ground. We respect our pop culture dead.
The media really does protect its own."
- Michael Wolff

Posted by: polarcityboy | August 11, 2009 2:18 AM | Report abuse

Wolff again, closer: "Somewhere in here there is obviously a very good story—a more compelling one than the one about the brilliance of 'Sixteen Candles'.
Possibly herein lies a great moral tale. Did John Hughes spurn the movie business for all the reasons we wish someone would spurn it? [...according to Alison, yes!] That would be more meaningful than the 'Breakfast Club'. Or did Hollywood spit him out? Was he too innocent for the place—that would fit his own genre.
Or was it drugs? Or other personal demons? And dead at 59 on a street corner? I can’t find anyone, in the reports of his demise, who raises much of an eyebrow about this. So…was he overweight? Inquiring minds really do want to know."

Posted by: polarcityboy | August 11, 2009 2:21 AM | Report abuse

Jen, call me crazy, many have, but is it at all possible that JH was doing some flirty fishing with Alison. I mean he was 35, she was precocious 15 bestotted fan. Remember Bob Greene in Chicago got in trouble with a 17 year old intern her "interviewed"? Alison gushes: "We talked for an hour. It was the most wonderful phone call. It was the saddest phone call. It was a phone call I will never forget. John told me about why he left Hollywood just a few years earlier. He was terrified of the impact it was having on his sons; he was scared it was going to cause them to lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant. And he told me a sad story about how, a big reason behind his decision to give it all up was that "they" (Hollywood) had "killed" his friend, John Candy, by greedily working him too hard. He also told me he was glad I had gotten in touch and that he was proud of me for what I was doing with my life. He told me, again, how important my letters had been to him all those years ago, how he often used the argument "I'm doing this for Alison" to justify decisions in meetings."
[I am doing all this for Alison? Is that not maybe a kind of flirty fishing, if you know what I mean. I want to be wrong. I am just questioning this, because I am a newsman and I smell something "fishy" here. Not on Alison's part, and not on Mr Hughes' part. On something else. Guess.]

Posted by: polarcityboy | August 11, 2009 2:38 AM | Report abuse

None of this is meant to take away from the power and magic and sweetness of ABF's blog. Just asking.

Posted by: polarcityboy | August 11, 2009 2:40 AM | Report abuse

One last final question, Jen, and your email seems impossible to locate at either gmail or washpost dot come, so maybe you do not exist, SMILE, but this: why didn't ABF write about her pen pal story before now? I mean why not blog about it 5 years ago, or two years ago, or write an oped for the Post ten years ago. Why now? Oh, yes, because he just died, popped off from pokkuri sudden death, so the memories flashed back and the blog was ready made to go. Just asking. I read her blog and all 1500 comments. It is a remarkbale testament to something, I am not sure what? But she IS a good writer and good luck to her.

Posted by: polarcityboy | August 11, 2009 2:43 AM | Report abuse

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