Five Questions About Edgar Allan Poe: Hallie Ephron

Hallie Ephron is an author, teacher, and book reviewer. She writes a monthly column for the Boston Globe entitled, “On Crime”, and spends much of her time traveling the country teaching writing workshops. Hallie is the author of the books, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style and 1001 Books for Every Mood. She has co-written several thrillers with Donald A. Davidoff under the pseudonym, G.H. Ephron. Her latest page-turner is Never Tell a Lie. The book centres on David and Ivy, a pregnant couple doing some Spring cleaning in their new Victorian home. The prospect out of “out with the old and in with the new” begins promisingly, until an old friend shows up at David and Ivy’s yard sale. This friend, Melinda, informs the couple she used to play in their big, old house as a child. Melinda takes time out to have a look around, and disappears causing concern that the couple may have done away with her. What happened to Melinda? Of course, as in the best mystery novels, all is not as it appears.

Hallie Ephron is today’s Re:Print Special Guest, here to tackle our Five Questions About Poe:

Describe your first Poe experience.

For me, the poems came first. My mother was a playwright and screenwriter, but I think if it hadn’t been for Broadway and Hollywood, she would have been an English teacher. She loved to read aloud, relished the sound of a well-turned phrase, and at dinner when I was growing up she’d recite stanza after stanza of poems like Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo” (“Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom!”) or Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevey” (“… child of scorn…”). Soon, I knew them by heart, too. Poe’s poems had pride of place — particularly “The Raven” (we’d chime in, quothing the Raven, “Nevermore”), “The Bells” with its echoing refrain (“Of the bells, bells, bells, bells, / Bells, bells, bells), and the sad sweet rocking rhythm of “Annabel Lee”.

So it wasn’t Poe’s horror or that seduced me, it was the music of his words.

What would you consider Poe’s greatest work, and why?

I’m not a Poe scholar, but by far my favorite of his stories is “The Cask of Amontillado”. Something about that narrator. As he sets the last brick in place and the story reaches its terrifying crescendo, the reader realizes this guy’s stark raving mad. Talk about an “unreliable narrator”. It’s utterly chilling.

Never Tell a Lie
January 2009, 271 pages, $24.99

How has Poe’s work shaped you as a reader/writer?

When I was writing “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel”, I reread The Murders in the Rue Morgue. It’s credited as the first detective story and I’d hoped to find in it some new insight. The story, for me at least, is largely unreadable. Take its opening line: “The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis.” I’ve read those words over and over and still I don’t know what that narrator is going on about. On top of that, the plot preposterous. I mean really, the orangutan did it and stuffed the bodies up the chimney? Still, in the middle of the muddle, there’s C. Auguste Dupin using “ratiocination”, examining evidence, and convincing an eyewitness to spill all. Voila, sprung whole from Poe’s pen is crime fiction’s detective. Seems to me there’s a straight line from Dupin to Sherlock Holmes to CSI’s Gil Grissom, and from all of our fictional detectives back to Poe and Dupin.

Which of your own works owes the largest debt to Poe and why?

Never Tell a Lie. As I wrote it, I was constantly aware of the mystery-horror boundary which, in Poe’s work is rather porous. I also tried to take a page from him by creating an unsettling situation and allowing the unease to build gradually before delivering the shocks and secrets. And, of course, like Poe, I gave my story a narrator who sees events through the distorted lens of emotion.

If you were hosting the celebrations for Poe’s big day, how would have your guests celebrate?

The guests arrive to find the door locked from the inside, a window open. They must break in and figure out who ate the birthday cake. The clues, like those in The Purloined Letter, will all be hiding in plain sight.

Hallie is currently on tour around the country. She will appear at BookMania! in Stuart, Florida on 23-24 January. Visit her website here.