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Conversation with Delia Ephron

delia ephron BWBy Judie Jacobson

Delia Ephron grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., the daughter of two Hollywood screenwriters. Ephron headed east to attend Barnard College and, in the process, fell in love with New York City, where she lives today.  She made several detours in life until, at the age of 29, she wrote How to Eat Like a Child, a 500-word essay about children and food, which was published in the New York Times Magazine. “That was when I realized I was a writer,” she says.  That article became a book…and the book became a bestseller. Ephron subsequently became a contributing editor at New York Magazine, met and married screenwriter and playwright Jerome Kass, then moved back to Los Angeles and lived there for many years until moving back to what she calls “my beloved Manhattan.”

­­­­­Ephron has written adult novels, humor, children and young adult books, as well as movies, plays, and occasional magazine pieces. She has collaborated on several screenplays with her sister, the late author/playwright/film director Nora Ephron.  The two also collaborated on a play, Love, Loss and What I Wore, which ran for two-and-a-half years off Broadway.  Her screenplays include You’ve Got Mail, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and Michael.

The Ledger spoke with Ephron from her home in New York City about her latest novel The Lion Is In and more.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your recently published novel The Lion Is In.

A:  The book is about three women on the run and a lion that changes their lives, as well as about the sisterhood of friendship and how powerful that can be in women’s lives. Each of these three women is at a crossroads. There are two women in their 20s and one woman, Rita, who is in her 50s. Rita looks in the mirror and says: “Who I am is not a life sentence.” That’s the most important line for me in the book and actually it is the entire premise of the story. It came to me in a dream that was really the longest, most elaborate dream ever. I woke up one morning and I had dreamed these women, I dreamed the lion, I dreamed the bar, I dreamed where they all meet the lion. When I awoke from this dream, I knew a lot about them, who they were and why they were running. To me it’s all about whether we can change our lives. I think of it almost as an adventure novel.  My editor calls it Thelma and Louise crossed with Born Free.

Q: Is the lion something that emerged from your own life?

A: No.  I did not expect to dream a lion. I have a dog, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten into animals.  But I certainly transferred a lot of my love for my dog – animals are very transforming.  The relationship the lion makes particularly with Rita is extremely powerful. He does change in his way everyone’s life and they change his. I had it vetted by a lion expert at the San Diego wild animal park, so I know he’s 100 percent lion. I sent her the book – because the connections are very powerful, the sense of presence of the lion and everything about how they connect to him and what happens and I wanted to make sure it was all within the possibility of what was true about a lion. She said it is absolutely.

Q: You’ve written books, screenplays and plays. Is one form easier or more fulfilling to write than the others?

A: I think novels are the hardest and most fulfilling because they are so completely my own story, my own voice, how I see the world.  My feelings are captured most in my novels.  And just the process of writing is the most difficult with novels. But I feel so blessed that I’ve been able to move between forms because some things are meant to be one kind of story and told a particular way and others are meant to be told other ways.

Q: Much of your work is collaboration with other people – most of the time with your sister [the late Nora Ephron]. Is the process of writing with someone else difficult?

A: I’ve had a couple of collaborations with other people, but my main collaboration has been with Nora.  Because we’re sisters and we’re so close it was very natural and easy to do. We were used to hanging out together. I think collaboration works best when you share a sensibility  — when you think the same things are funny; when you appreciate the other’s brain and how it works and all that. I don’t think you can just collaborate with a friend because you’re friends, you have to have a shared sensibility.  Nora and I had so much fun doing it and it wasn’t difficult. Although occasionally we’d get into disagreements, it was just always a lot of pleasure. Certainly the good thing was that we sort of knew that we were in it together; there was just no way we weren’t going to love each other and not be siblings anymore.  That’s a really good thing. We started collaborating when Nora was directing and she wanted to have someone she trusted who would look after the script.

Q:  Was Nora older?

A:  Yes.  I’m the second in the family – we’re four sisters. My parents were writers.

Q:  Was it difficult growing up in such an accomplished and creative household?

A:  Well, there were many things that were difficult about growing up in my household, but that wasn’t among them. My mother was a writer and she insisted that we have careers. There was a lot of control going on with her for sure. She expected us to be writers and we couldn’t pick anything else. It was the family business and God help you if you had another talent. But that was not the difficult part because actually at that time mothers did not expect their daughters to have careers.  We didn’t have any other friends whose mothers worked, and the fact that she thought it was so important for women to have careers certainly helped us enormously.

Q:  Did you ever think of becoming anything other than a writer?

A:  You know, I didn’t. I thought I wasn’t going to be a writer at all, then when I got to be about 29 I started to think “Uh oh, my life’s going away and I haven’t figured it out yet.” At that point I knew I needed to be a writer and I’d better try it.  I’d avoided it for quite awhile because my parents and my sister were already successful writers. Of course, my sister Amy was about 39 when she started and my sister Hallie was about 49 when she started. So each sibling avoided it as long as possible and then succumbed.

Q:  How would you describe the home you grew up in terms of being Jewish?

A:  That’s so funny because I wrote a piece recently about that for a collection of memoirs coming out in September called Am I Jewish Enough.  I wrote it because I spoke at a lot of JCCs this year and I was asked a lot of questions about my religious background.  My mother was against organized religion. She thought it was the cause of all wars – which it wasn’t then but it is now. So she was sort of ahead of her time. At the same time culturally we were Jewish – that was never an issue. We knew we were Jewish; we just weren’t religious Jews.

Q: Did you celebrate any of the Jewish holidays?

A:  No, not at all. And I was sent to school on all of them and I never ever have celebrated them.  My mother raised me with a feeling that organized religion was a divisive thing. So she sort of raised me in a very secular way.  But there was an obsession with books, and culture and theater – culturally we were Jewish.  So it was always felt that we were Jewish — it was never an issue. My mother just didn’t believe in any of the rituals, etc.

Q:  So what is the answer to the question you ask in the title of your essay:  Are you Jewish enough?

A: Oh, you have to read the book for that.

Q:  Do you talk about being Jewish at these JCC engagements?

A:  Only if someone asks me.  I certainly talk about my mother’s attitudes and opinions and what they meant.  I had this hysterical encounter in a midwestern JCC.  I said that my mother had a lot of rules and one of the things she always said was “never buy on sale.” And a woman in the front row – a farbisiner — said very loudly, “Antisemitic.” I was, of course, utterly stunned by that and I had to address it. She thought that my mother was being antisemitic, but I said that my mother had grown up very poor and she had left the sort of ‘ghetto’ of the South Bronx and move to the West Coast where she reinvented herself as a successful screenwriter. Part of that was for sure about assimilation. Absolutely. Her parents were immigrants and my grandmother never really assimilated into American culture in any way. I’m sure this was one of the ways she separated herself from her childhood. It was all a part of leaving behind a feeling of smallness — how exciting that her family could live in the land of ‘why pay less.’ One way that you proved that you were successful was not to buy on sale, something you associated with poverty. So I thought that was interesting – it was very provocative.I really don’t know if my mother had any antisemitic feelings, but I know [her comment] was about being proud of what she’d accomplished.  I think the fact that she earned her own money and did not have to buy on sale was just an enormous point of pride.  Another thing she also said was that you don’t have to clean your plate.  At that time that was just a shocking thing. Everyone was cleaning their plates like mad then. But she was also very smart about stuff. She knew that cleaning your plate was not a good idea. Better to just eat until your full and stop eating – she was way ahead of her time on that score. She raised very thin children – we never finished our food.

Q: Did your father come from a similar background?

A:  My mother was the Bronx, my father was Brooklyn.  They had a hit Broadway play when they were very young – Three’s a Family – and they were invited to come to California. And so they did. But they also told us that this was no place to spend your life; you must go east to college and stay in New York.


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