A Q&A With John Hughes's Pen Pal
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."
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?
Alison: 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?
Alison: 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?
Alison: 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.
| August 7, 2009; 11:10 PM ET
Categories: Obits, Pop Culture | Tags: Alison Byrne Fields, John Hughes, The Breakfast Club
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