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Nora Ephron in Manhattan on Nov. 3, 2010 (Jimmy Jeong)
Nora Ephron in Manhattan on Nov. 3, 2010 (Jimmy Jeong)

Interview

Nora Ephron remembers everything (and writes it all down) Add to ...

It's autumn in Manhattan. Central Park is kindled in colour, and bantering couples stroll the Upper East Side, where Nora Ephron lives. Her apartment building, an old-world red-brick pile, is perched on the kind of lovely city block where geraniums dribble out of window boxes, and bel-étages belong to expensive psychoanalysts - yes, just the kind of place where Harry might once have wooed Sally.

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And standing in the tenderly lit lobby is a doorman, eminently civilized, who looks like he's been plucked from central casting: "Are you here to see Ms. Ephron?" he greets me. "She's expecting you." I feel as if, instead of just meeting Ephron, I'm actually in a Nora Ephron film.

Not that all of her films have been memorable. Much as she did in her last book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck, in her new collection, I Remember Nothing, cinematic flops star in a long list of things Ephron feels bad about: aging, egg-white omelettes, divorce, Teflon, her parents' alcoholism, large dessert spoons. (She favours the petite teaspoon, better styled for savouring.)

It's Ephron's sixth book of non-fiction, but she remains most famous for her films (no, not the flops): When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail - romantic comedies, both witty and consoling, that follow the bourgeois and besotted.

"Rob Reiner said that romantic comedies are like that Olympic dive. That is, that plain and simple dive with a high degree of difficulty," she says. "There are no car chases and there is no sex; the sex is the talking."

Ephron's essays have that same seeming effortlessness (generally your first clue that the process was anything but easy). "Writing just gets harder. It should get easier, but I don't think it does," she says, "I have a room with a desk and a chair in it and I'm in that chair most of the day, but I'm avoiding writing for so much of it."

If her writing is welcoming and confiding, Ephron herself is more withholding, authoritative and assessing.

Wearing black leather pants, a white shirt and a voluminous charcoal-grey sweater jacket, she's New York skinny at age 69. Perched on an art-deco, tufted white sofa, she looks as delicate, almost breakably slender in stature, as she is commanding in carriage and immaculate in toilette.

Her apartment, meanwhile, where she lives with her screenwriter husband of 23 years, Nicholas Pileggi ( Goodfellas and Casino count among his credits), is as soigné as she is. We sit in the office, an expansive, luminous room washed in shades of cream and, well, egg white.

Although Ephron is the quintessential New Yorker, she was raised in Beverly Hills by screenwriter parents ("Crazy. But powerful," she says in summary).

Still, Ephron determined from a very young age that she didn't want to live in Los Angeles. "Before the word sexist had been invented, you certainly knew that it was not a place for women or for smart women. … I just thought, I'm getting out of here."

So she did - and resolved to become a journalist. "I had a very romanticized version of it from watching Superman and it was that you had a notebook in your purse and you were ready to cover absolutely anything that happened." (She describes her journalistic aspirations differently in her new book: "I can't remember which came first - wanting to be a journalist or date a journalist.")

It was clear, though, that Ephron didn't want to be a screenwriter, because that's what her parents were. "You always think when you're a kid that you can avoid the magnetic field, but it always gets you in some way," she says. In her late 30s, Ephron turned to screenwriting, co-writing Silkwood, which got her nominated for an Oscar.

"Of course, in my pathological way, I then decided everyone should be sure to change careers when they're on the verge of turning 40, then again at 50. I celebrated my 50th birthday on the first movie I directed. I always make things into rules."

A penchant for rule-making might also be something she learned from her parents. Her mother's most famous rules - Everything is copy, Everything is material - have served Ephron well, most famously in her 1983, roman à clef, Heartburn, about discovering that her husband, Carl Berstein, was having an affair while she was seven months pregnant. (She proceeded to describe him as a man "capable of having sex with a venetian blind.") Although, Ephron was "insane with grief," she also knew, by grace of her mother's mantra, to file that episode away: "It all still clocked in as 'Save this - it's going to be something some day.' "

Despite the claim she makes in her new book's title essay ("I have not yet reached the nadir of old age, The Land of Anecdote") she shares one: "When [my sister]Delia got her head stuck in between the banister rails in our house, and the fire department had to come and get her out, it was in a movie my parents wrote that came out, with Natalie Wood and Jimmy Stewart, less than a year later. That's how fast things were recycled in our house," she says. "We knew we were the raw material."

About the downside to viewing your own life - and those of others - as potential material, she says pragmatically, "It makes you a cold, heartless person that's always a bit outside of things, but that's not all you are.

"Nobody ever said, 'Delia, is it okay if we use your head-stuck-between-the-banister episode?' Nothing belonged to anybody. But that's how it is with writers."

Then she divulges another Ephron rule: "Don't say anything funny that you plan to save for your book, because they may put it in their newspaper article."

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