Delia Ephron has a pedigree. One of four daughters of the screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron, she grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., and—with some twists and turns along the way—became a novelist (The Lion Is In, Hanging Up), screenwriter (You’ve Got Mail, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), playwright (Love, Loss and What I Wore), journalist, and essayist. Her memoir, Sister Husband Mother Dog, comes out next month from Blue Rider Press.
Ephron is seriously accomplished, and she’s even more seriously down to earth, open, and humorous in a completely effortless way. Her positive attitude and honesty is inspiring, and also impressive, given some of the struggles she faced as a child (in spite of her privileged upbringing). “I had a very sunny life until I was 11,” she says. Ephron’s parents were alcoholics, and at that time, she recalls, “my home became a very scary place to live in—I went into comedy to deal with what was happening.” She used humor as a defense mechanism, noting, “ I always saw the humor in the darkness.” And, of course, she recently lost her older sister, Nora Ephron, whom she worked closely with on many projects.
Sister Mother Husband Dog is funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring all at once. “I knew immediately what the book would be called—those were the things in my life that I loved, and the things that were causing me pain; they are the major food groups of life, and friendship.” Nora died, Ephron says, and she couldn’t make sense of it. “Why am I writing about her/us at all?” she asks in the beginning of the book. “Because writing is how I understand everything that happens. Writing is the only way I know to move on.”
While attending Barnard, Ephron fell in love with New York City. Her first husband was a professor at Brown University and she moved to Rhode Island after marrying him, where, she says, she was living a life that was essentially false. Ephron got a job as a “girl Friday” with a mean boss and quit. She loves to tell the story of his response when she said she was leaving: “You’re flat-chested.”
Ephron then went into the crochet business and got her first book contract for The Adventurous Crocheter. Her second book, another instructional, was Glad Rags, about remaking clothes. She decided she wanted to try to become a writer. She hadn’t written as a child (“Of course not!” she says) but, by accident, realized it was what she was meant to do. Prior to that, she says, “I didn’t know what in the world I was going to be”. Ephron couldn’t face up to writing; her parents were writers, her sister was a writer—it was too fraught. “I backed into it,” she says. But, she adds, “It was clear that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to leave my marriage.” Her first husband did not want her to be a writer: “I don’t want you to be famous—suppose you become famous?” he asked. As Ephron says, “You should at least try to have a marriage to someone who supports your dreams and your spirit.”
Ephron left her husband and Rhode Island for New York. She planned to give herself two years. “At the end of those two years, I would be a writer or I would have to be something else,” she told herself. She also decided she had to be published in the New York Times if she was going to be taken seriously—and she did just that. Her piece, “How to Eat Like a Child,” was published in the Sunday magazine, and its publication was “like a miracle.” The following Monday, she was offered a deal for a book of the same title, published by Viking in 1978. Ephron’s success story sounds like something straight out of the movies, but her hard work and dedication are very real, as is her unwavering ability to face the unknown. “I always say, figure out where you want to be and how you’re gonna get there.”
Since that first New York Times piece appeared, when she was 32, Ephron has written all kinds of books—adult novels; humor, children’s, and YA books. “Writing books is what I love,” she says. Her writing taught her that she understands children: “I think when you have alcoholic parents, you develop empathy for children in a way that’s very powerful.” She believes that good things come out of suffering. “I think, ‘Wow, wasn’t I lucky to have come from such a disastrous time, because, in a way, it made my writing life richer.’ ” And she acknowledges that she was lucky: “I was given other things by my family—a good sense of destiny and identity.”
Ephron also enjoys writing films. “Screenwriting is so much fun, and I knew it would keep my career going. Doing a screenplay seduces you; every time... you fall in love with it all over again.” She also fell in love with and married the screenwriter Jerome Kass who, when she was given an opportunity to adapt a book into a screenplay, said to her, “I’ll teach you how to do it.”
On losing her sister: “truly, I don’t think I ever expected to spend a day on this Earth without Nora, from the beginning she was a great older siste,” Ephron says. Traveling on a Jewish book tour for her novel The Lion Is In at the time of Nora’s death, every day she would write a piece about her sister. She says that the writing helped her get through the ordeal. “That’s the greatest thing about being a writer: you’re writing what you’re trying to figure out, what you’re feeling, and you have to get at the truth. Writing about Nora came easily, out of grief.”
Ephron believes the connection between a writer’s emotional life and her writing is extremely important. “Looking inside for what’s personal and true is always important, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction—it’s something to live by as a writer,” she says. The Lion Is In came from a dream she had when both her husband and sister were ill.
Ephron worked with Nora on the films You’ve Got Mail and Hanging Up, and the play Love, Loss and What I Wore, and she says that the process of collaboration was wonderful. “We shared so many things, plus history, that it worked well. But it was tough too—siblings are, after all, basically uncivilized! But you know your sister won’t get rid of you.” She says that “losing Nora made me feel that life is short. I don’t have any time to waste. Grief stops you in your tracks, it makes you feel you should move on, but you can’t. You don’t want to leave it, but at the same time, you have to move ahead because life keeps changing.”