Interview by BWG member Carol L. Wright
Bethlehem Writers Group: You grew up amid Hollywood of the 1950s and 60s with parents, Phoebe and Night Night, Sleep Tight, is a former studio contract screenwriter whose murder in 1985 sets the plot in motion. How close to home does this book come for you?
Hallie Ephron: In some ways, very close. My parents were contract writers at Twentieth Century Fox who, like the rest of the contract writers at Fox, lost their jobs in the aftermath of the massive cost overruns of the movie Cleopatra. I wanted to write about how dramatically and practically overnight, the movie business changed – from an insider’s viewpoint. The screenwriter who gets killed in my book is based on my dad, a charismatic storyteller and bon vivant. (He did not get killed.)
BWG: Is it true that a particular incident you remembered from your childhood inspired the backstory of the novel? How much of it did you incorporate, and how did you make it your own?
Hallie Ephron: I was ten-years-old, growing up in Beverly Hills the daughter of Hollywood screenwriters, when the news broke that Lana Turner's fourteen-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane confessed to murdering her mother's gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. Like the rest of the world, I was riveted by the story of the murder, by the hearing that followed, and pored over the pictures and articles that ran in the newspapers.
The house where it happened was a few blocks away from where we lived. I'd bike over and just stand on the sidewalk out front, staring up at the bedroom window where I thought the murder had occurred. I tried to imagine the kind of courage it must have taken for Cheryl – I thought of her as someone I might have been friends with – to do what she did and then to face the consequences.
In Night Night, Sleep Tight, I create an fictional set of characters in a situation that echoes that 1958 murder. I gave the daughter a best friend who is based loosely on a 15-year-old me.
BWG: You’ve set the book in Beverly Hills, seamlessly switching between two time periods: the 1960s and 1985. It is rich with references to familiar landmarks and celebrities from those times. Was it difficult to make both time periods ring true?
Hallie Ephron: I remember them so vividly, and I’ve been away since the 80s so my memories are pretty well frozen in place.
BWG: You’re one of four Ephron daughters, all of whom went into the family business of writing—and with great success. Nora, Delia, and Amy became screenwriters, producers, and, like you, bestselling authors. You’ve said that in large part your mother is the reason you all became writers. In what way did she influence you toward writing?
Hallie Ephron: No matter what awful thing was happening, my mother would say “Take notes. Everything is copy.” She encouraged us to write. And she gave us wonderful books that had strong female protagonists. She thought she could do anything and we did, too.
BWG: But you came later to writing than your sisters, first being a teacher. What did you teach? Did that experience influence your writing?
Hallie Ephron: I taught elementary school and then I taught at the college level. Now I teach writing at conferences and I love love love teaching. Being a good teacher is about being methodical, formulating goals, and then figuring out how to reach them – great practice for a writer.
BWG: What inspired you to write your nonfiction books 1001 Books for Every Mood and The Bibliophile’s Devotional?
Hallie Ephron: Loving books, of course! What could be more fun than sharing my favorite books.
BWG: You are a reviewer of crime fiction for the Boston Globe. What finally impelled you to “give into your genes” as you put it, and write your own suspense fiction?
Hallie Ephron: Maybe I ran out of excuses? And also, I gained enough self confidence that it stopped mattering to me whether my work would be compared to my sisters’.
BWG: You co-authored several books with Donald A. Davidoff, a forensic psychologist, on the Peter Zak Mysteries under the joint pen name of G. H Ephron. What did you learn about writing, doing a series, and collaboration from this experience?
Hallie Ephron: I learned how to write a novel, plain and simple. How to plot it. How to raise the stakes. How to think in three act chunks. How to build a plot arc. When I was done with the last Peter Zak mystery I was ready to write my own books.
BWG: In 2005 you wrote Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel with Writer’s Digest Books. It’s a great handbook for aspiring mystery writers. Then, in 2010, you produced The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel. Is there any advice you’ve learned since these books that you’d like to add?
Hallie Ephron: I keep thinking it’s going to get easier, but it never does. So my advice has become: JUST HOLD YOUR NOSE AND WRITE.
BWG: Your stand-alone suspense novels, including Never Tell a Lie (2009), Come And Find Me (2012), There Was An Old Woman (2013), and your current Night Night, Sleep Tight have been described as “deliciously creepy,” “Hitchcockian,” and “spellbinding.” High praise indeed. You’ve also been a finalist for the most prestigious awards in the genre. You could certainly rest on all these laurels, but do you have plans for more books ahead?
Hallie Ephron: Of course! But my writing process is so messy I really don’t know what I'm up to until after I’ve completed a first draft, and right now I’m only about a tenth done with the next one.
BWG: Never Tell a Lie was made into a Lifetime movie. Did you enjoy the process of seeing your work adapted for television? Were there any surprises despite your familiarity with that world?
Hallie Ephron: I wasn’t at all involved in the movie they made from Never Tell a Lie. I loved the first three minutes of the movie which was all my characters, my dialogue . . . and then it ran off the rails. It just wasn’t my story. But I’d been connected to Hollywood for long enough that I wasn’t surprised.
BWG: So if we want to know the real story, we'll have to get the book!
You teach writing seminars and are active in Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. What benefits do these organizations offer? Have these experiences affected your approach to your own writing?
Hallie Ephron: Misery loves company! We love to complain to each other. Also to support one another’s works in progress, enjoy each other’s successes (up to a point.)
BWG: What advice do you have for aspiring mystery writers?
Hallie Ephron: Um, repeating myself here: Just hold your nose and write! Seriously.