Conversations at KCTS 9: Delia Ephron Episode 5/13/12
  • Conversations at KCTS 9

Delia Ephron

Author and screenwriter Delia Ephron talks about her new novel "The Lion Is In."

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About the Episode

Delia Ephron is a best-selling author and screenwriter. She joins us to talk about her successful writing career and her new novel "The Lion Is In."

About Delia Ephron

Delia Ephron is a bestselling author, screenwriter, and playwright. Her movies include "You’ve Got Mail," and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." She has written novels for adults and teenagers, and her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, O the Oprah Magazine, Vogue, and The Huffington Post.

Enrique Cerna:
Delia Ephron, welcome to Conversations. So good to have you here in Seattle.

Delia Ephron:
I'm excited to be here. I haven't been here since Sleepless. I've been here a couple of times since Sleepless.

Enrique:
It's been a while.

Delia:
I know, I know. I love Seattle.

Enrique:
Yeah. You know, I feel very honored. Because I have been able to talk now with the number two Ephron sister, two of what?

Delia:
Four. Yeah, you have two more to go.

Enrique:
Well, if they write a book...

Delia:
They have. They've all written books. Yes, it does run in the family.

Enrique:
Nora was a lot of fun and very humorous. Are you guys all just cutups?

Delia:
No, we're not all cutups.

Enrique:
Really?

Delia:
Well, you know how in families, everybody gets labeled. Nora was labeled the smart one and I was labeled the funny one. But you know, in families, that's just your parents' mixed up point of view, because Nora's really funny, and I'm not as good in math as she is. She may be smarter too.

Enrique:
You guys make a great team together.

Delia:
But not in English.

Enrique:
Really, you get her in English?

Delia:
No, but she doesn't beat me in it.

Enrique:
Writing in your family, I mean this is what you were destined to do?

Delia:
Yes. My parents were screen writers. And we were really raised to be writers. I don't think they were interested in anything else. And if we wanted attention, we had to say something funny, or my father would say at the dinner table, that's a great line, write it down, or that's a great title. And we would just, we were just totally, I think there wasn't even another issue. There were no other possibilities. Fortunately, there was the genes, you know, thank goodness for them.

Enrique:
You got the writing gene.

Delia:
Yeah, thank goodness.

Enrique:
The other sisters, okay, so there's you, Nora, tell me about the others.

Delia:
Well, Halle writes histories, Halle Ephron, and Amy Ephron writes period novels and she just wrote a collection called loose diamonds.

Enrique:
And do all of you talk about writing?

Delia:
Ah, yes. I especially talk about writing with Nora. Because we collaborate. So it's a real subject. And writers just have friends who are writers. You just basically bore each other with conversations about structure and drama and I'm married to a writer. And, ah, he has to listen to all my plot problems and my character problems. And yeah, that's what it is.

Enrique:
Was your parents, would they have been disappointed if you had not been a writer?

Delia:
Yes. Well, I didn't become a writer. First, I married the wrong man.
[LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
I've heard that line before.

Delia:
No. I really did. And because, of course, I was supposed to be a writer. You know your 20s, they're just a wash, your 20s. So I just went and got married and moved to Rhode Island, where I was just an assistant in an office with a really mean boss.

Enrique:
Wow.

Delia:
And eventually, the boss was mean to mean, because mean people are always mean to everyone, right? So one day, I quit. And actually, when I walked out the door, he yelled, you're flat chested. I swear.

Enrique:
Hello!

Delia:
He was really mean. I was in my 20s, so I thought, what do I do now? So I started crocheting. And I crocheted purses for department stores. And then one day, I was at a cocktail party in New York, and I said to someone, would you like a book about crocheting. He was an editor at Simon and Shuster. I said I know you wouldn't be interested, but he said yes. I have no idea to this day why he said yes, but I became a writer. And my husband at the time didn't want me to be a writer. And he said, I don't want you to write. And I said, but I want to, I want to try. You know when you just want something, you don't know if you can do it, it's so scary. And he said, well, suppose you become famous. And I said, I promise you, I won't be famous.
[LAUGHTER]
But instead, I left.

Enrique:
That husband was never meant to be.

Delia:
No, not for me.

Enrique:
Just like that job. And I think you need to stay out of Rhode Island for the rest of your life.

Delia:
I guess so.

Enrique:
Whatever happened to that guy? Do you just want to go back and punch him?

Delia:
I don't want to name him on television. Who cares, you know. Who cares. It's a great story. If you're a writer, all the worst things that happen to you become your stories.

Enrique:
That's kind of like being a comedian. You got to figure all these things in some sort of matter.

Delia:
You really have your life.

Enrique:
So you got to document that.

Delia:
Yeah. So in some way, it's thrilling, almost as in hours. I mean then it wasn't because I wasn't a writer, I had to wait a few years on that one.

Enrique:
Tell me about this and how an anxiety attack and a dream contributed to the making of this story.

Delia:
Yes. I had a horrible anxiety attack about something that had happened that I knew was going to drag on for several months. And I kept thinking, how am I going to cope with this? I don't like to nibble pills or anything. So I just thought, what am I going to do? And that night, I had this really powerful dream. It was about a bar. And it was this big bar in North Carolina, a state I'd never been in, there were two women, Lonna and Tracy, they were 26, I knew their ages, I knew their names, I knew they were on the run. There was a lion and there was a third woman who was older, and I knew that she was very timid and she was on the run too. And that the lion would change their lives. And I woke up, almost, I have never had a dream like this, where you're just, did it happen?

Enrique:
I can never remember my dreams. I can remember parts of them.

Delia:
Well, this one was just, ah, it was just an imperative. I literally got up and started writing. And the story was so much fun for me to write. I had the best time writing it. That I lived in that place all the time through that whole anxiety time, and of course, it took me, I thought it would be done in a week, probably because I was writing so fast. But two years later, long after that particular anxiety was done, but I think I gave myself a gift. I just said, I need a place to be. And the lion in my story...

Enrique:
Marcell.

Delia:
Marcell. Yes, let's have this wonderful name.

Enrique:
That's a great name for a lion.

Delia:
Yes. It has comedy and tragedy in it. I love that name so much. Anyway, Marcell functions in the story for these three women, he's not just a lion, but he's friend and shrink and confessor, and even higher power for Lonna, who has an addiction problem. And I think I needed something to calm me down. I think I even created Marcell in a way to sort of make my life calmer. Because he's kind of, you know, powerful. He's very powerful.

Enrique:
He's Yoda in a way.

Delia:
I guess so. Once I wrote this book, I was terrified to send it to a lion expert.
[LAUGHTER]
Because there's especially, there's a moment in it in the beginning when Rita, who has the love story with the lion, wants to make, you know, bond with him, and she buys some shampoo at the pick N save, that smells like dandelion, and she washes her hair with it, and she sits in front of the cage. And the lion sniffs her. And he just loves to sniff her. And I thought, oh, I'm going to get nailed on this, by this lion expert. So I sent it off to this wonderful woman at the San Diego wildlife park, Katie bus, who worked for lions for years. And she said that was spot on. Because lions in captivity are scent deprived. And they spray air fresheners around them to make them happier. And she would do this, and it was so whimsical and odd, and she said, absolutely, that the lion would love it, was the right thing. It was very much, because also, I went down to North Carolina at some point during the, during the writing of this. And I had already written two drafts. And there's a moment in the book where Rita wants the lion to have a tree, and she passes the field, and there's this tree that looks like it's been struck by lightning. It has no leaves anymore, it's just a mighty trunk and limbs. And she convinces she's men to dig it up and take it back to the place where Marcell is. So I would get up in the morning, I was in Northampton county, and I would just put random destinations into the GPS and I would put in take back road, and I was driving along, and there was the field, and there was the tree. And I screamed, I absolutely screamed. And I stopped the car. And someone came along. To see if I was all right, because it's very friendly in North Carolina. And I said, yeah, I'm fine, and I said, what about this tree? And he said, oh, that's my friend's tree. And in the book, I had written that Marcell had never had a tree before, he didn't know quite what to do with it, so he just rubbed himself against it. And he said the barks rubbed off because the goats come over and rub themselves against the tree.

Enrique:
You know...

Delia:
What is that?

Enrique:
This book and also the traveling, and there's Marcell, kind of again the Yoda, but it's sort of the instance, one character or item that all of the other characters seem to gather around, you know, in the other story, it was the pants, because they would mail it on to each other.

Delia:
That's true.

Enrique:
Are you always, is that the way you write?

Delia:
That's based on a book by Ann Dreshears. But Michael, as nora and I wrote it, has an angel. I think there's magic in the world, I just do. And I think what happened to me in north Carolina is evidence of that. And I have a dog, and if you have an animal, you understand how they open your hearts and minds.

Enrique:
You have about six names?

Delia:
Yes, honey, pansie, cornflower, Bernice, that's her name, fluffy white dog. You know, when I grew up. I used to always go out to dinner with my parents, and you'd get to pick what you want to drink and it would have to last the whole meal. And I grew up, and I realized I could have more Coca Cola as long as I could afford to pay for it. So just because my dog has one name doesn't mean my dog can't have six. And my first dog had 13, so this is an improvement.

Enrique:
When you talk about magic, is that something you're always kind of looking for when you're either writing a book or working on a screen play or some type of...

Delia:
I think for me writing particularly a novel, Stephen King says that he likes to put characters in a very difficult situation and make them work their way out of it. And that for me is what I do in a novel. That's the most important thing. So I know where they're coming from, and I have an idea where they're going. And in this case, I certainly knew Marcell was going to be a major influence in all their lives. And I knew they had all committed crimes of some sort or another. So once I figured the trouble they were in, I sort of, that's the approach I take. And things happen that, you know, when I write, in a way, it is kind of magical. There's a moment when Lonna in the book flips a condiment in her pocket or something that she finds. And I knew in the book, it would play out, and I didn't know how, but it does in a very unexpected way in the book. But things that you write could be considered magic, in that your imagination is taking you somewhere, and you just have to trust that you're almost blind on the journey, and that you will end in a safe place.

Enrique:
Tell me about writing. Is it hard for you or is it something that just flows easily?

Delia:
Love it. I really love it. It makes me happy. It puts me in a place where other things go away, which is a great thing to have in your life. And almost all your stories, and in this particular book, the lion, there are scenes of my life all through it, but they're done in different ways. My parents had drinking problems. And Lonna has one too. So I grew up with that. And love is something Tracy wants, and I never thought I was really going to find love, and I did. And I think it's, I think it's such an important thing in life.

Enrique:
Especially after that guy in Rhode Island.

Delia:
Well, Rita leaves the soul crushing marriage, you know. And that influenced tremendously my understanding of that character and how defeating it can be when someone is just pounding you like a nail into the floor, not actually, but just emotionally or psychologically or has no imagination, and you feel you can't fly in any way. So all the themes of your life end up in your stories and they tell you who you are as a person, but one of the things about this story is that I really, I think we all have the imagination to change our lives. And there has been a point in my life, and I think there are in all women and men's lives, where you need to, you need to dig down and make those changes. And that's really what this book is.

Enrique:
It's always hard getting to that place.

Delia:
It's really hard. And in some cases, you feel like you have to burn the bridge you're standing on. And that's very scary. So all these women and sister hood is important to me, because my sisters have all, and my girlfriends, have always gotten me through. So I think the themes of your life end up in the books.

Enrique:
You talked about your parents. And I talked about your parents with Nora. And you mentioned the alcoholism and all of that. How did that affect you?

Delia:
Well, I'm the second born. And see, I don't think anybody has the same parents. Because you're born into the family at a different time. And how your parents relate to you is different than they relate to the other kids. You know, sometimes you really get along with your mother and your sister or brother doesn't get along with your mother, or you think the person who's a problem with your parent is one parent and the sibling, you know what I mean. So I don't think we have the same parents. But my parents didn't really start drinking until I was 11. And Nora was almost out of the house. So I know, when I say this book happened because of an anxiety attack, I combat my anxieties, honestly, because I lived in an anxious place. You're always anxious as a child if you have parents who aren't in control. And you find ways to cope. And a great way is that you give yourself a book to write. But I know that I have much higher anxiety, for instance, than she does. I think that's definitely true.

Enrique:
What about the other sisters?

Delia:
Well, I don't like to speak for them. They have their own particular ways of coping. I was close to my father, and I took his side, and my sister Halle just left the house. We make different choices and all that affects who you are.

Enrique:
It's sort of the time and place, how you're affected by those things.

Delia:
Huge.

Enrique:
And you have different relationships and how they change. And it's interesting how that all kind of plays out. Let's talk about, there's writing the books, or actually writing the books for an adult audience or theater, versus young adults.

Delia:
I also write kids' books sometimes.

Enrique:
Which one do you like best?

Delia:
Well, I think now, I'm liking writing adult books. But that's because that's what I'm doing right now. I like that I have the ability to work in different areas. Just a movie, which can be so painful, because you don't own your material as a writer, the studios and the producers, they can just fire you. So I write books because no one can touch them, they are my voice where I am at the time. But a movie has a kind of excitement that is undeniable. And when it comes to life, when it really does happen, it's tremendous.

Enrique:
And you have Nora too.

Delia:
Yes, I have. And I've been so blessed with Nora, I can't get fired because she's on the movie, I'm protected. And that's a rare situation to be in. And we have so much fun. So that's really...

Enrique:
When you work with her, now, she directs as well, doesn't she?

Delia:
She directs the movies, yeah, which is perfect for the older sister.
[LAUGHTER]

Enrique:
And dealing with the younger sister.

Delia:
Absolutely. Because if she, excuse me, if she bosses you around, you know, she has the right to, and it's not just because she's your older sister.

Enrique:
She can get away with it.

Delia:
Absolutely.

Enrique:
But how about in the screen writing? Do you guys really work together on that?

Delia:
Yeah, we do. We write together. And really, in fact, the director has to have, I mean if I say I want to put this in a bowling alley, and she says, I don't want to shoot a scene in a bowling alley, then there's no bowling alley, no doubt about it. I think collaboration is always in the movie business, you're always trying to adjust for one person or another person. And that's not the way it is in a book. So that's a big difference.

Enrique:
Okay. So we have the books, you have the movies. And then there are the plays.

Delia:
Yeah. That was a surprise. I got to say, and what you're talking about is love lost, and what I wore, which is based on the book by Eileen Beckerman. And the idea that is really that, it turns out if you ask women about their clothes, they tell you about their lives. And so it's women telling stories about their lives.

Enrique:
And this is kind of a rotating cast that has been presenting this.

Delia:
Yes. We were two years in New York off Broadway. And in the meantime, we have sold the rights to, my goodness, it's been in manila, it's been in Mexico city, it's been in Paris and Tel Aviv and Johannesburg and Sydney and the opera house. I mean it's had an amazing life. But I say this is really important. This thing was dead at a door nail for at least five years in a drawer. And we never, ever expected it to happen. We have done work shops, they never worked. And then the director, Karen carpenter, someone gave it to her, and she wanted to do a work shop. And fine, whatever. We never thought it was going to work. And we got some really good casting. And suddenly, casting the right actor in the right part can make such a difference in something. And suddenly, it was working. And the next thing we knew it was on, and the next thing we knew it was a success. And I say this to all writers out there or anyone who thinks that they ought to give up. You know, you never know. You have to be so persistent.

Enrique:
And the timing as well.

Delia:
Yeah. The timing was good. But you know, it probably wasn't bad five years ago either. It's just that, it's just, you have to believe in the work because lots of times no one else does.

Enrique:
And then it's the right people that come together to make it all work.

Delia:
That's true.

Enrique:
I saw something that you and Nora were in, and they also had clips from this, and the actresses that you got to be a part of this, the way they would make it come alive, just really fascinating.

Delia:
Yeah. We just closed last month. We had 120 in the end. And so many came to the closing party. And because it's all women's stories, there was a real sister hood, and every cast, which we rotated of month, every cast just bonded and had so much fun. And it was an amazing experience. And theater, you know, in the movies, there's so much equipment and there's so many people to please. In the theater, you're just, it's just the actors, the director, and us. And our wonderful producer.

Enrique:
And this is very basic. Because they're basically sitting on stools, and they have an easel or whatever in front of them. And they're reading, the script is in front of them.

Delia:
It's story telling, that's what it is. And one of the reasons it works is that everyone in the audience has their own stories about their own clothes. And when they're hearing these stories, the women on stage are telling stories, if you're in the audience, you're thinking about what you wore when you went to your prom or got married or, you know, fell in love, or any number of things, someone broke up with you, whatever.

Enrique:
Or you get fired from a job and it's something nasty.

Delia:
Exactly. Actually, that's in there.

Enrique:
Really, the guy that told you you have a flat chest?

Delia:
Yeah, I have a story in there called thin, because I was really thin then. And it was this incident from him telling me I had to, he didn't want me to write. I had written the beginning of my crochet book and I recited it to myself, there's no wrong way to crochet. And I kept saying that to myself just to block him out. And we used that in the play.

Enrique:
Go back to the crochet book when you asked about that, what kind of it, was it a funny, ha, ha, kind of thing?

Delia:
No, it was serious. It was like a how to because I knew how to crochet. And it was a very earthy time in this world. Everybody was making things. So it was actually a pretty successful book. It was called the adventurous crocheter. Yeah. How cute is that?

Enrique:
I could see that.

Delia:
Yeah.

Enrique:
You can already see it on create.

Delia:
But my first big success was how to eat like a child. And it's instructions about, from the child's point of view, like eat peas, mash and flattens and thin sheet on plate, right? And I realized, oh, it started with a crochet book. I was writing instructions there, I got really good at it, and then I just applied it and turned it into comedy.

Enrique:
So, okay. Lion is in. What's in the works?

Delia:
Well, I have a movie that I think is going to get made in September, which is about a pet psychic. And well, it's about a woman who talks to animals, falls in love with a man to talks to the dead, okay?
[LAUGHTER]
Only she can do it and he can't really do it. So she thinks he can do it because she can. And he thinks she's a fraud because he's a fraud. And he has a dog. And that's all I'm telling you.

Enrique:
Might Nora be a part of that one too?

Delia:
No, no. This is an original actually I wrote. And I think we now have a director and a star. Movies are like these things, they may happen, they may not happen. Until they're actually shooting, my goodness.

Enrique:
Sitting in a chair watching it and it all just falls apart. The book is called, the lion is in. Delia Ephron. Thank you so much for stopping by. And it's a great joy talking to you. And I feel so honored that I've managed to talk to two of the four.

Delia:
Two more to go.

Enrique:
Yeah, I know. Tell them when they come to Seattle, they have to stop by.

Delia:
I think they'd love to.

Enrique:
All right. Delia Ephron, thank you so much.

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