Delia Ephron, 67, is a best-selling author, playwright (“Love, Loss, and What I Wore”) and screenwriter (“You’ve Got Mail,” “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”). Her newest book is “The Lion Is In,” Blue Rider Press ($24.95).
She spoke with the Detroit Free Press from her home in New York.
Q: Your parents Henry and Phoebe Ephron were screenwriters. You and your three sisters, Nora, Hallie and Amy, are successful writers. Did you ever consider another career?
A: Yes, I did, not seriously. ... My mother was going to raise writers and so was my father. There wasn’t another issue about it. It was at a time when women didn’t have careers at all. My mother was the only career woman that we knew. At the dinner table it was like, “That’s a great line, write it down.” There was just a constant nurturing of one’s literary skills.
It was almost like it’s the family business and that was your expectation. So, of course, I didn’t become a writer. I just married the first man who asked me and went off to Rhode Island. I got to the end of my twenties and I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got one life.” You just think it is going to go on forever — all the possibilities and all opportunities — and then I got to that 29 and I thought, “I’m going to try and be a writer.” It was very difficult, but I left and went to New York and I decided that I had just enough money if I lived really cheaply, I had two years to sort of make it.
When I was down to my last $500 — I would have had $700 but I fell in love with an orange coat — I wrote this piece called “How to Eat Like a Child.” It was just 500 words about children and food and the New York Times bought it and it was on the last page of the New York Times Magazine. It was really funny; I got the idea because I was eating chocolate pudding the way I always do, which is scooping it from the bottom out from under the skin, you know the kind of pudding you cook. And I just thought: I’m still eating like this. It was deadpan descriptions on how children eat food and it was the equivalent of what going viral is today. People just were insane for it and I was so stunned. I was offered a book contract and I wrote “How to Eat Like a Child and Other Lessons in Not Being a Grown-up” and it was a best-seller (in the late ’70s). I was just the luckiest girl in the world.
Q: A dream was your inspiration for writing “The Lion Is In.” Does that happen often?
A: It has never happened to me. It was such a powerful dream about three women in a roadhouse with a lion and Tracee was in a wedding dress and I knew her name. I knew the title when I woke up — but then again, my father at the dinner table was always yelling “That’s a great title” — so I probably had to know the title. I just started writing this story about three women on the run and the lion that would change their lives. It was like going to sleep and giving yourself a gift.
I had this really amazing experience in that the dream took place in North Carolina and I’ve never been to North Carolina. Once I’d written a draft or two, I couldn’t not go there. So I went to this area called North Hampton County and it is mostly farmlands and pine forests and very small towns. I would get up in the morning and just put a random destination into the GPS and follow the directions saying take back roads. I found the very thing I had written. I answered an ad on the wall of the Mexican restaurant because I wanted to go into some homes to get the feeling of what some of the homes are like. The ad said a woman was selling bread out of her house so I called her up and I went over and I went in and bought some bread and I was chatting with her. And you know how in the book Clayton drives a vintage Bel Air? Her husband comes in and then when I leave, parked in front of the house is a vintage Chevy Bel Air, convertible, orange interior. How weird is that? I felt like the book was a complete destiny for me.
Q: What else has inspired you to write?
A: I think once you are a writer you have stories to tell. I always try, when I write, I want you to not want to leave the chair. I want you to be with that book. I love storytelling so that you keep turning the pages. The emotional life of the characters is so important to me, characters that you can relate to. That’s what I really strive for.
Q: Do you prefer writing a novel or screenplay and why?
A: Screenplays are tremendous fun. They’re so much fun that you completely forget that you’re going to be tortured when it’s over. You’re going to be asked to rewrite it 500 times. They might fire you. I have a project that’s been in development for more years than I wish to say and I’ve been fired off it twice and rehired. A screenplay is not a finished work. It is a blueprint. A movie can’t exist without a good screenplay, but movies are collaborations and the final movie is the work of a lot of people. It is not just what you put on the page. A book is purely your stories. It is a much harder task because it has to have grace and you have to care about the sentences and how you tell the story. A screenplay is very straight forward. A good movie is a miracle. There are just so many hands on it and such a tricky thing but ... when it works and when it’s happening it is tremendously thrilling.
Q: You often collaborate with your sister Nora. How about your other sisters?
A: Nora is the oldest and I’m the second oldest so we have always been very close and our sensibilities are very similar. I adore all my sisters. I just haven’t collaborated with them. Sisterhood is a big thing in my life. I do think having sisters sort of sets you up to have the greatest girlfriends in the world.