You can always find Sixteen Candles playing in its perpetual cable rotation –- except when you need to.And because I need to as I write up my interview with Ernessa T. Carter, I have to resort to a YouTube clip of the ending.In it, the view tilts with the bootleg videographer’s head as Jake jogs across the street to Sam descending the church steps with the netting of her bridesmaid’s dress in her hand.You can see tchotchkes on a shelf beside the television, hear the offscreen squeak of the leather camera strap nestled around fingers and a sigh when the onscreen couple finally kisses.It’s like some kind of out-of-body experience, watching through this person’s lens watching the end of Sixteen Candles.It’s like I’m not me at all right now.Instead, I’m everybody who has ever seen this film.

It’s Carter’s all-time favorite movie scene, the one she’ll cue up, she tells me, whenever she’s feeling down.It’s also integral to the plot of her first novel, Essence Magazine‘s July book club selection 32 Candles, which grafts a Hughes-like tale of an outcast teen named Davie Jones striving for a glorious ending onto an Alice Walker-like landscape of poverty and abuse. Whenever Davie obsessively plays back Sixteen Candles, Davie herself might be abstractly united with everyone who’d ever dreamily slunk down at the promise of that kiss over the candles.Davie might be everybody. Or nobody.But in Glass, Mississippi she most certainly isn’t Molly Ringwald.And that realization comes about the time she’s running away alone in a muddied dress with the laughter of what seems like her entire school behind her.

Carter does more than twist a familiar story into the parameters of the real world in 32 Candles.She gives it a sequel, in a sense, so we can see how Davie’s early experiences motivate her like an “invitation to crazy” some fifteen years later.In doing so, Carter takes Hughes’ pinhole focus on white suburbia and widens it to finally fill a void for all the Davies of the world. On the verge of 32 Candles’ release I spoke with Carter about the novel, the Ringwald effect, Fierce and Nerdy, Derby Dolls, impromptu clothing design, and all things movie geek.

Before we get to 32 Candles, I have to ask you about your background because your bio is the stuff of movies in itself … I read that you are a retired L. A. Derby Doll.I’m curious to know what your derby name was?

I was Kid Vicious.I was actually an original Derby Doll.The cofounder of the league put out a call on Craig’s List. She had to explain to us exactly what this roller derby was.I’d never heard of the Austin team, but apparently they were doing really well.And she’d seen it and thought she wanted to do the same thing in L.A.She’d said, “Oh, we’re trying to find a coach, but in the meanwhile lets just skate around this rink.”So it was really interesting to see where it went.It’s funny because I still have dreams where it’s right before the big game, and I’m only a spectator because I’ve retired.But we lose a player so I have to skate.

I met a couple of the women from the Austin league when they were promoting Hell on Wheels, and they seemed like such cool characters.

The one thing about being a Derby Doll – I don’t want to say I didn’t fit in, because I’m friends for life with the Derby Dolls – but I always felt like I was the nerdiest girl there.And also it was kind of like that play The Rhinoceros.People start turning into rhinoceroses and it’s terrible, but when there’s only a few humans left they really want to be rhinoceroses as well.That’s what it was like being in the Derby Dolls.Like, I don’t even have any tattoos.But by the end of it I really wanted a tattoo.It was interesting, being a nerd in the Derby Dolls.It felt like I was invading, but at the same time they’re very accepting.Everyone fits in.

So, I did my homework enough to know to ask you if you were a blocker or a jammer.

I was a blocker.I do not have the speed to jam, but it was awesome.I would really recommend it to any woman under the age of thirty.Actually, any woman over the age of thirty too.

I’ve also been reading your “Fierce and Nerdy” blog.Which I love.For me, I came to grips with the fact that I’m nerdy at some point during setting up a tent in the line for Phantom Menace tickets.

I would say you don’t want to call yourself a nerd, but I represent pretty hardcore for nerd-dom.I was pregnant when the new Star Trek came out, and I became obsessed with it.I didn’t get to see it the first weekend it was out.So on my husband’s birthday, when we arranged a trip to San Diego we had to stop in the middle of the trip just to see Star Trek.So, yeah.It’s interesting being a nerd, isn’t it?But you pitched a tent for the Phantom Menace?

And at that moment, I thought, “Oh, I’m a nerd!”

You didn’t know that beforehand or were you just in denial?

I think I was in denial.You know, you want to play it off like, “I’m not a nerd.I’m cool, you know.”But at that moment, you can’t hide it anymore.You’re on the sidewalk in front of a theater.Out in the open.

Well, it’s funny, because there are different levels of nerd-dom.Like when anyone talks about video games … my mom never got them for me when I was a kid.I never had a Nintendo or anything like that.So, I feel like I’m not as cool as a nerd with a video game because I know nothing about video games.There’s always someone you’re nerdier than.But, there’s always someone nerdier than you.

So, did you ever have that moment of realization or acceptance in your life as far as nerdiness is concerned, where you just decided to embrace it and go with it?

Yeah.It’s funny that you should ask that.I actually made the elementary school cheerleading team, and it was just kind of like I was on the cusp of popularity.That next year I would be in seventh grade, and I’d be a cheerleader.I’d finally be cool and people would stop making fun of me for being this ugly, dark-skinned girl in their opinion.But then I told my mom I wanted to switch to public school.I thought, you know what?I’d rather not be popular.I think I’m going to go with my one true personality.But I remember it was really bizarre because for the entire sixth grade I’d put a lot of effort into getting people to like me.It was this big campaign to finally become cool. And then it was like, I got it but now I don’t want it.I think that’s when I really embraced being a nerd.But even more so when I started dating.Other people would say, “I don’t want to date anyone who is overweight or is shorter than me or who doesn’t have the right kind of background.”And I was more like, “Well, you don’t watch ‘Battlestar Galactica.’Why would I want to go out with you?”It makes you have different priorities.

Wow.You had a great level of maturity at a young age, I have to say. And I imagine also it’s easier to put yourself out there as your nerdy self when you’re also someone capable of tackling a line of athletic women barreling at you on roller skates.

Derby Dolls definitely gives you a lot more confidence.There are so many grown women who have never been injured.If you can break something or sprain something or hurt yourself or take a really bad hit and get back up again, well, that’s pretty much life.

This is just the sort of fierceness that I wished for Davie early on in 32 Candles.How do you like that segue? I’m right into the novel now!And I realized in revisiting Sixteen Candles that all of Molly Ringwald’s John Hughes characters were actually really passive, reacting to things that are happening instead of making things happen.What new insights about the Hughes films did you gain when looking back on them for 32 Candles?

I kind of had the same situation where I broke it down more by the film structure.They’re passive, they’re passive, they’re passive … but then there’s something they do that gets them the guy.Then there’s one active impassivity – for example (because I’m such a nerd about movies I could do this all day) in Pretty in Pink, she makes the dress.Beforehand, she’s really passive, but then she makes that dress and she goes to the dance and she gets the guy.And that’s kind of the same structure of 32 Candles.

And you know, when I made my own clothes in high school they never looked half as good as Andy’s.

I know, right?She had sewing skills.It’s funny – we had these 32 Candles t-shirts.I went online, and I figured out how to cut my t-shirt.But it didn’t look as great as the online t-shirts.Respect to Molly Ringwald’s character.Hopefully she got a scholarship to a theater program in costume design or something like that.

That’s where I imagine Andy would go.So, that idea makes me happy.Did you set out hoping to explore the influence of Sixteen Candles or is that just something that came about as you were developing Davie and her story?

What happened was, I had the exact same reaction that Davie had when I saw Sixteen Candles for the first time.I really believed high school would be like that.And then I remember getting to high school and realizing, “oh wait, I’m this huge nerd, and there’s no way my high school experience is going to be like Molly Ringwald’s high school experience.”Davie doesn’t have that realization until she goes to the Farrell’s manor.That really stuck with me, that high school is nothing like that.I’m black, and I went to a school that was not a very good school.There was just no way high school was going to be like that, but people who watched that movie when they were seven thought “that’s what high school’s like, that’s what we want high school to be like.”Well, no, not exactly.

When I was teaching in Japan, they had these “learn to read English” books, and they had the script of Sixteen Candles on one side and had it translated into Japanese on the other side.So, basically, they’d go back and forth and learn to read English this way.I read the script with them, and it hit me all over again.Then the [32 Candles] story just started laying itself out.

Since Hughes’ death, there’s been a lot of reconsidering of those films, a lot of people saying, “oh, but they had this universal appeal and a kind of realism you didn’t get in other films of that genre at that time,” yet you realize they still don’t come close to the gravity of someone like Davie’s youth and the actors in them are far from diverse.I’m pretty sure the casts are entirely white.

I found that really interesting that people said they were universal after John Hughes died just because it is so outside of so many people’s experience, but at the same time I think what they really mean when they say [those films] are universal is that the fantasy of it is universal.Everybody wants to have the guy fall head-over-heels for them.They want to get the richest guy in school.That fantasy may be universal, but I don’t necessarily think the experience is universal.

You mention on the 32 Candles blog that Alice Walker’s The Color Purple changed your perception of yourself and in turn changed your life, and Davie mentions its influence on her as well.Why did you decide that the impact of Sixteen Candles would be more central to Davie’s story than the impact of The Color Purple?

That’s a great question.I don’t really know.I guess because The Color Purple is one of those things that every dark skinned, black woman has read, so I felt like oh, you know, there’s no way she wouldn’t have read it.But then Sixteen Candles is something every American girl her age had seen.And also I think The Color Purple, as far as our experience, is actually pretty reflective for a black woman.So I think the fact that she’s chasing after this fantasy for the majority of the novel makes it more like Sixteen Candles than, you know, The Color “Davie.”

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

9 responses to “It’s All in the Perspective: An Interview with Ernessa T. Carter”

  1. Jessica Blau says:

    Great interview Cynthia! It’s really interesting what she says about The Color Purple V. Sixteen Candles as the story that impacts the central character in the novel.

    And Derby Doll?! That’s way cool–so not nerdy at all–I’m jealous!

  2. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Thanks Jessica! I know — I was really fascinated with the derby thing. After reading Joe Daly’s ankle story, though, I’m even more afraid of breaking something than ever now. So, it’s safe to say roller derby is probably not in my future. She did recommend a book about it, though: GOING IN CIRCLES by Pamela Ribon.

  3. Matt says:

    I agree with Jessica, this is a great interview!

    And I think the analysis of Hughes’s films as universal fantasies instead of universal realities is spot-on. Ferris Buehler’s Day Off is a complete escapist/teenage empowerment fantasy. While The Breakfast Club comes the closest, those kids are still more insightful and eloquent than most American teenagers are. It is, after all, a movie.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      I thought so too. Not long ago, I saw something that discussed Ferris Buehler’s Day Off as John Hughes’ fantasy in particular — the nerd who has the run of the school and is the most popular kid without having to change who he is …

  4. Erika Rae says:

    Fantastic interview! Also, I just so happen to know another former LA Derby Doll. Can I be cool by association?

  5. Jeff Rogers says:

    I have never seen Sixteen Candles, I admit. I’m dying to read 32 Candles, but I feel I’m going to have to rent 16 Candles first. Ernessa, I’m wondering if there’s a way for your publisher to track increases in 16 Candles rentals related to the release of your book. I bet there’s a spike.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jeff! I rewatched some of the Sixteen Candles scenes *after* reading (it has been forever since I’ve seen the whole thing!), and it definitely made me further appreciate the clever ways Carter incorporated the film. There were so many little details that I’d forgotten about that she alludes to in the book. That said, I think you could still be along for the ride of the book w/out having seen the film if you wanted.

  6. Nurture passes nature.

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