"I didn't want to be a writer; I was too scared," says Delia Ephron of her younger self, whose body of work now includes 15 books, seven films (six of which were co-written with her sister Nora), two plays and countless articles. Ephron grew up as part of a powerhouse family of writers — her parents were successful screenwriters, and her sisters Nora, Amy and Hallie all became writers too ... eventually.
"Everyone knew they had to do it but couldn't face it," she told Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg of the family destiny.
Her journey is rife with experiences that beg to be chronicled with the trademark Ephron mixture of humor and compassion: a stint as a "Girl Friday" for a terrible boss, an ex-husband who didn't want her to be famous, a penchant for crocheting, and a recent visit to the pet psychic with her dog, Honey. Ephron's latest book of essays is Sister Mother Husband Dog, Etc.
Having penned the likes of You've Got Mail and having produced Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron is no stranger to romantic comedies, and was game for an Ask Me Another Challenge in which she had to name famous "rom-coms" based on their tag lines. We're just a game show, standing before a writer, asking her to play with us.
This story originally ran on February 13, 2014.
On writing about her sister Nora's death
My sister had died in June, and it was September, and the seasons changed. It was such a big thing that she wasn't there for the fall. I just was so lost, because I'm second, and we were collaborators as well as sisters. She bossed me around from the day I was born; she was thrilled to get me. I just was so confused, and I started to write. Because I'm a writer, and that's what we do. We write to get to another place.
On a lifelong search for the perfect comeback
I had a mean boss. I was a "Girl Friday." He started ragging on me about whatever I wasn't doing right. I stood up and I said, "I quit." And as I walked out the door, he shouted, "You're flat-chested." This is my favorite thing that ever happened to me. It was a lifelong regret that I did not answer back. I've spent a long time thinking about what I could have said in return.
On finally deciding to commit to the family business
I said to my husband — my first husband; that's an important part of this story — "I think I really want to be a writer." He said, "I don't want you to be a writer. Suppose you become famous." So I said, "I promise I won't become famous." Isn't that sad? So obviously I had to leave him.
On learning how to write humor
I was eating chocolate pudding one night. And I was eating it my way. Which is: You know that pudding you cook and it has a little skin on top? I like to make a little hole in the skin, and scoop the soft pudding underneath, and then save the skin for last. I was doing this, and I suddenly thought: "Oh, my God, I am eating like a child." So I wrote directions about how children eat food, and it was called How to Eat Like a Child. And it got published in The New York Times. It was my first real success.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WNYC's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg. Please welcome our very important publisher, screenwriter, director, playwright and author of the new book "Sister Mother Husband Dog, Etc.," Delia Ephron.
DELIA EPHRON: Hello.
EISENBERG: Hello. I ate this book up. I loved it.
EPHRON: Oh, thank you.
EISENBERG: It is very heartfelt. It's a memoir. It's stories about your life and also present and past - and the very funny, dark humor. The first chapter is about you and your sister, Nora, your sisterhood, the complications, the love, the generosity, her sickness. It seemed to me that that was a very difficult - beautiful, but difficult - chapter to write. And I'm just wondering what made you decide to start with that.
EPHRON: Well, my sister had died in June and it was September and the seasons changed, you know, that was such a big thing that she wasn't there for the fall. I just was so lost because I second and we were collaborators as well as sisters and she bought me around from the day I was born; she was thrilled to get me.
EPHRON: And I just was so confused and I started to write at that, just because I'm a writer and that's what we do, we write to get to another place.
EISENBERG: You did many different things before you became a writer and...
EPHRON: I had - I had a mean boss.
EISENBERG: You had a mean boss?
EPHRON: Yeah. I had this - has anyone here had a mean boss? The thing about him...
EPHRON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Oh, was this when you were a girl Friday?
EPHRON: I was a girl Friday, have the same boss and I didn't know 'cause he wasn't really mean to me for a while. But then I found out that eventually a mean boss is mean to everyone. So he started you know, ragging on me about whatever I wasn't doing right. And I stood up and I said, I quit. And as I walked out the door, he shouted, you're flat chested.
(SOUNDBITE OF DISMAY)
EPHRON: I swear. I swear. This is my favorite story.
EPHRON: This is my favorite thing that ever happened to me because I love to tell it. I just love it. And, of course, it's a lifelong regret I did not answer back, you know?
EPHRON: I just left. But I mean I've spent a long time thinking about what I could've said in return.
EISENBERG: The little, yeah, fake fights.
EPHRON: Yes. I mean, you know, it was great 'cause then I became a crocheter.
EISENBERG: Right. You're the one percent...
EPHRON: Yes. My...
EISENBERG: ...of crocheters that have made money from crocheting?
EPHRON: Yes. Right. My first book is called "The Adventurous Crocheter." And, you know, I...
EISENBERG: "The Adventurous Crocheter."
EPHRON: ...I just didn't want to be a writer. I was too scared, you know, so now I'm just crocheting and then I wrote it as a book. And I, then I thought, oh my, I think I really do want to be a writer. And I said to my husband - well, my first husband, that's an important part of the story.
EPHRON: I said to him, I think I really want to be a writer. And he said, I don't want you to be a writer. And I said, why? And he said, I don't want you to be famous. Suppose you become famous? So I said, I promise I won't be famous. Isn't that sad?
EPHRON: So obviously, I had to leave him. But...
EPHRON: But then I went to New York and I, I went after it, you know, I finally did it
EISENBERG: How do you go from writing about adventurous crocheting...
EISENBERG: ...to writing personal humor and novels?
EPHRON: Well, I was eating chocolate pudding one night and I was eating it my way - which is that it has - you know that pudding you cook and it has a little skin on the top and I like to make a little hole in the skin and scooped the soft putting underneath and then saved the skin for last. So I was doing this...
EPHRON: OK. And I suddenly thought, oh my god, I'm eating like a child. So I wrote directions. You see, I was good at directions because I had written a crochet book. I wrote directions about how children each food and it was called "How To Eat Like A Child," and it was like that, about the chocolate pudding and about, you know, like the Mallomar, where you eat the graham cracker first, and then you peel the chocolate part off and then you leave the marshmallow between the cushions of the couch. It's like that, you know?
EPHRON: And it got published in "The New York Times." It was a big success. It was my first real success and I got offered a book contract and I was a comedy, then I was writing humor. I mean I had this amazing thing. But it - amazing thing, I was already, I was 32.
EPHRON: I wasn't quick, want like I graduated college and I...
EPHRON: ...you know, I knew what I was doing.
EISENBERG: But once it happened it happened quite quickly.
EPHRON: I just wasted my 20s. I just...
EPHRON: I mean everyone wastes their 20s, right? Well, not everyone. Some people are too smart to do that, but I, I mean I blew the whole decade.
EISENBERG: Well, in your book too, you know, there's dog. That is one of the major parts of the dog.
EPHRON: Yeah. Dog. Right. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Honey, your dog, how's Honey doing?
EPHRON: Yeah. It's one of my major food groups.
EPHRON: Honey. Well, I mean I got a dog because I'm a stepmother and anyone here who is a step parent knows you have to get a dog so there's someone in the house that loves you.
EPHRON: And it changed my life to get Daisy.
EISENBERG: Are you feeding her weird food, like hypoallergenic...
EPHRON: Oh, she is on the kangaroo diet.
EPHRON: Yeah. Yeah. Well, she was eating her paw, so I did take her to the doggie dermatologist. And don't ask what the bill was.
EPHRON: And they said she's allergic to her food and she has to eat kangaroo.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Well...
EPHRON: So they may kangaroo into food? It seemed a legal to me.
EISENBERG: In dogs it's fine.
EPHRON: I know. I thought it had endangered or something? But apparently not. It's dog food. Well, I have to tell you we had a pet psychic over and...
EPHRON: I did. I was writing a screenplay about a pet psychic, of course, that's why I did it. And Jocelyn came over and she said that Honey was happy - which we knew. We knew she was a happy dog. But she said that...
EPHRON: That Honey wanted a litter. She didn't care that she wasn't a mother, but she wanted a litter of squeaky toy gorillas.
EPHRON: I thought oh, OK. Right. It seemed a little weird. But then she said, Honey is worried about your left thigh. And I was wearing jeans that night. I had had something taken off my left thigh that week, OK. And there was no way Jocelyn could have known. I mean it was, it turned out to be fine but I was waiting for results and everything. And I certainly hadn't mentioned it to the dog...
EPHRON: So I was really flabbergasted. OK. So...
EISENBERG: And there wasn't like a little blood coming out of your jeans or anything?
EPHRON: No. No.
EPHRON: Nothing. No. There was no way. So I said well, of course, I got her a litter of squeaky toy gorillas. I mean she obviously really wanted a litter. I mean I was really, yeah.
EISENBERG: But does she like them - the litter?
EPHRON: Yeah, you have a dog, right?
EPHRON: Do you want Jocelyn's phone number?
EISENBERG: Yeah. I mean...
EISENBERG: Maybe. I'm afraid.
EISENBERG: I'm afraid though, she'll be like, Mocha isn't that happy.
EPHRON: Yeah. Yeah. Right.
EISENBERG: I'm going to ask you this, would you like to take an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EPHRON: Well, no, actually.
EPHRON: I mean I will, but I'm totally terrified. I've never ever been able to answer a question right on the show. I have a question that you should ask me. Does espresso have more caffeine than regular coffee?
EISENBERG: OK. Hang on.
EPHRON: Do you know the answer?
EISENBERG: Delia, does espresso have more caffeine than regular coffee?
EPHRON: No. Less.
EISENBERG: It does - what?
EISENBERG: See, isn't it fascinating?
EPHRON: Why aren't I drinking it?
EISENBERG: I don't know. I don't know.
EPHRON: Yeah. Clearly, I don't know. Thank you.
EISENBERG: You're welcome.
EPHRON: That's very helpful.
EISENBERG: One more time for our VIP, Delia Ephron.
EISENBERG: Now here's a game that we put together for you. It's about movie taglines. Those one sentence summary and movie posters that hopefully get your attention and make you want to watch the film.
EPHRON: No. OK.
EPHRON: Go on.
EISENBERG: So in this game, we're going to focus on what else, but romantic comedies. We're going to give you the tagline for a well-known romantic comedy and all you have to do is guess the movie. For example, if I said, it's Monday morning, Bridget has woken up with a headache, a hangover and her boss? You'd say, "Bridget Jones Diary."
EPHRON: I would.
EISENBERG: And if you need a hint...
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton is going to give you a clue.
EISENBERG: All right. Here we go. Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?
EPHRON: OK. "When Harry Met Sally."
EISENBERG: Yay. And what you think? What is the answer to that in reality?
EISENBERG: They can?
EPHRON: Oh, yes.
EISENBERG: Two friends could sleep together and still love each other in the morning?
EISENBERG: OK. Good.
EISENBERG: I asked you three times because I was trying to convince you out of it. It's very where with me.
EPHRON: Do you think - you think the answer is no?
EISENBERG: Well, you know what? I'm not sure.
EPHRON: Oh, OK. All right.
EISENBERG: And the most famous film star in the world fall for just an ordinary guy?
EPHRON: Oh, that's at "Notting Hill," isn't it?
EISENBERG: Yes. Exactly.
EPHRON: Aw. I like that movie.
EISENBERG: I know it really is like can two incredibly attractive people...
EPHRON: Gorgeous people.
EISENBERG: ...possibly make it work?
JONATHAN COULTON: Can two movie stars pretend to fall in love?
EPHRON: Guess that's the premise of all of romantic comedies, right?
COULTON: That's right.
EISENBERG: She walked off the street into his life and stole his heart.
EPHRON: You mean is that "Pretty Women?"
EISENBERG: Yes. It is.
COULTON: Wow. Very good.
EISENBERG: Imdb.com claims that there was another tagline for this. Honest to god, who knew it was so much fun to be a hooker?
EISENBERG: A mother, a daughter, three possible fathers. Take a trip down the aisle you'll never forget.
EPHRON: Yeah. I know that one. "Three Somethings And A Baby."
COULTON: Three possible fathers and a baby.
EISENBERG: "Three Men And A Baby," right?
COULTON: What if I play this (Singing) You can dance. You can jive. Having the time of your life.
COULTON: (Singing) See that girl.
EPHRON: Music is on my list, you know, no question?
COULTON: (Singing) Watch that scene. Digging the dancing queen.
EPHRON: Oh, is that - wait a minute. But there is "Three Men And A Baby," right? And there is...
COULTON: That is a movie.
COULTON: That is definitely a movie.
EPHRON: And then there's the Greek movie that you're talking about, "Mamma Mia." OK.
EPHRON: All right. OK.
EPHRON: But the plots are exactly the same, right?
EISENBERG: You're right. The plots, all of these are the same, I think.
EPHRON: They are. All romantic comedies are about why two people can't be together. That's the premise.
EISENBERG: And then at the end they run.
EPHRON: Yeah. Right.
EISENBERG: At odds in life. In love online.
EPHRON: Oh, "You've Got Mail." Yeah.
EPHRON: Thank God.
EISENBERG: Thank God.
EISENBERG: Yeah. I feel like you kind of nailed this one. So we are going to give you, I know that you need some toys in your life. So you are going to receive an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube.
EPHRON: Oh, thank you.
EISENBERG: You're welcome.
EISENBERG: Let's hear it one more time for our fabulous VIP, Delia Ephron.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOS")
COULTON: (Singing) Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find. I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind. Whatever happened to our love? I wish I understood. It used to be so nice; it used to be so good. When you're near me, darling can't you hear me, SOS. The love you gave me, nothing else can save me, SOS. When you're gone hw can I even try to go on? When you're gone, though I try how can I carry on?
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.