Mystery writer Hallie Ephron finds her place in a literary family

[20 April 2011]

By Allen Pierleoni

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When you’re Hallie Ephron and your sisters are Nora, Delia and Amy Ephron, comparisons, however unfair, are inevitable.

That’s because novelist Hallie Ephron’s siblings were publishing novels and writing acclaimed screenplays long before she broke into fiction.

Consider a few titles by Nora (“You’ve Got Mail,” “Julie and Julia”), Delia (“The Girl With the Mermaid Hair,” “Frannie in Pieces”) and Amy (“One Sunday Morning,” the upcoming “Loose Diamonds”). Plus, the sisters’ late parents were Henry and Phoebe Ephron, acclaimed Broadway playwrights (“Three’s a Family”) and Hollywood screenwriters (“Carousel,” “Captain Newman, M.D.”).

Though she was late to the literary table by family standards, let’s not overlook Hallie Ephron’s own writing chops: four nonfiction books, the five-title psychological-suspense Dr. Peter Zak series (with Donald A. Davidoff, writing as G.H. Ephron) and two out-of-series thrillers. The first, “Never Tell a Lie,” was made into a Lifetime Network movie titled “And Baby Will Fall.”

The second is “Come and Find Me.” In it, computer security consultant Diana Banks has suffered from agoraphobia for two years, since the death of her husband. Psychologically troubled and taking too much Xanax, she has confined herself to her home. There, she “lives” and works through her avatar, Nadia, in a cyberspace arena called Otherworld. When her sister goes missing, Diana must venture into the real world, where some shocking surprises await.

At first, Hallie Ephron avoided involvement in the family writing dynamic, instead evolving from an over-credentialed elementary school teacher into a college teacher, and later into an education and marketing consultant for corporations.

“I don’t think anybody in my family meant there to be any pressure for me to write,” she said by phone from her Boston home. “But our parents were incredibly verbal and wrote for a living. The house was full of books and we all grew up steeped in language. I mean, our mother recited poetry at the dinner table.”

Ephron has had “quite a few careers,” she said, “and then I decided to try writing. Our good friend, neuropsychologist Don Davidoff, evaluates suspects who have been charged with murder. At dinner at our home one night, he was talking about his work. He and I love to read mysteries, so we decided to write one, using Don’s experiences as a backdrop. That turned in to five novels (2000 through 2005).”

Then Ephron broke out with her first stand-alone, the surprise best-selling, award-winning “Never Tell a Lie” (2009).

“It felt like stepping off a cliff,” she said. “I depended on Don for the grit of (our series), and there I was, all alone. I was afraid I was never going to come up with an idea, but I literally found it at a yard sale.”

Ephron had stopped at a neighborhood yard sale at a house “I’d been in many times. My daughter used to play with the daughter of the former owner.”

She began chatting with the new owner, who was renovating the house. “I was asking question after question, and finally she said, ‘Would you like to go inside and look around?’

“The house was empty and creepy. I’m walking around and I think, ‘What if a woman goes to a yard sale, somehow talks her way into the house, goes inside and never comes out?’ That was enough to get me started. I was really excited because it was my idea, not one that was the product of a partnership.”

Ephron paused and added, “Everyone thinks when they start writing that they can’t do it. I was lucky. My sister Delia was the most important person in terms of encouraging me.”

In an email exchange, Delia Ephron said, “Hallie has all the math and science aptitude, so it never crossed our minds that she was a writer until she started writing. Then it was obvious. I read her early writing and it was terrific. When I gave her (editing) notes, she came back with fantastic rewrites. And everyone knows that a writer is someone who knows how to rewrite.

“My rule of writing is that no one can do what you can do, so jealousy or competitiveness are pointless. I am always happy when one of my sisters has a book published that I get to read.”

Hallie Ephron is on a national promotional tour for “Come and Find Me.” The novel is a “cautionary tale,” she said, that raises a number of issues about the dangers and ethics of cyberspace.

“There are all kinds of ways (hackers) can plant programs on your computer to capture keystrokes or take over your computer,” she pointed out. “It’s a pretty scary online world.

“I’m someone who sits at a computer eight hours a day and I look in that pinhole camera at the top of my screen and think, ‘Someone could be watching me.’ I go shopping online and then I go into Google and all the ads are for shoes. It feels like Big Brother is watching, but really it’s Big Marketers.”

In “Come and Find Me,” former hacker Diana Banks spends much of her time doing business in avatar mode in Otherworld, an online virtual universe partly modeled after the real Second Life (whose inadvertently ironic promo at its home page urges potential customers to “Be yourself”).

For help understanding technical matters, she said she tapped the knowledge of computer security experts, one of whom was a former hacker. She tried Second Life and learned from the “residents” there as well.

Ephron does have “another life,” but a real one as the crime-fiction reviewer for the Boston Globe. Her award-winning column “On Crime” has appeared in its Sunday Books section for six years.

“The mystery genre is very rich,” she said. “A lot of authors who 20 years ago may have written serious novels are writing under the big umbrella of crime fiction. You get everything, and there’s a place for all kinds of readers to find authors they really like.”

One she really liked was the debut novel “The Informationist” by Taylor Stevens. “It’s in the tradition of the superhuman, damaged female protagonist who stands on her own,” she said. “Like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander (‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’).”

Nicole Lamy, the books editor at the Boston Globe, said Ephron’s knowledge of the genre is wide and deep. “She keeps up with the latest trends and is able to place each book (she reviews) in context of the whole genre,” Lamy said. “If her column doesn’t appear one Sunday (because of limited space), readers call us wanting to know where she is.”

She’s working on another novel set in the Bronx. Outside of writing, Ephron enjoys international travel with her husband, physics professor Jerry Youger. They have two adult daughters, an architect and a writer.

“We like taking trains and walking — anything but renting a car and trying to translate road signs,” Ephron said. “And we like to hike, bird-watch and go to art museums. And eat.”

When she gets together with her sisters, they talk about travel. And “food, what we’re reading, the movies we’ve seen, the children. ... We don’t talk about writing very much.”

Who’s the best cook?

Hallie Ephron paused, then, in a self-assured tone, said, “I am.” Followed by a laugh — but a very brief one.



Hallie Ephron teaches writing workshops and is the author of “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How To Knock ‘Em Dead With Style,” nominated for a 2006 Edgar Award. What advice does she offer aspiring writers?

Write: “You can’t write a book without writing, so put your butt in a chair and pick up a keyboard.”

Trust yourself: “It’s one thing to find out how other people suggest you write, but you have to trust your own style. Too often, people look for formulas. There are plot-planners and there are by-the-seat-of-your-pantsers. There’s no one way. You are what you are.”

Read: “You should be reading as many books as possible in the genre in which you’re writing.”

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