Monday, June 22, 2015

What We're Writing: @HallieEphron, the sister who didn't

HALLIE EPHRON: It's What We're Writing week again, and (bowing) thank you, thank you, I get to kick off the festivities. I am working on a new book but it's still very much in flux so I'm keeping it under wraps. Instead I'm offering up part of an essay I wrote about having sisters who write. I wrote it to celebrate the publication of my somewhat autobiographical novel Night Night, Sleep Tight in which the protagonist who really is the virtual me has no sisters.  

*** Whenever I get together with my sisters and reminisce about something that happened when we were growing up, one of them will pipe up, “It wasn’t like that.” Another will pile on: “And you weren’t there.”

And maybe I wasn’t. Memory is like that. Photos in family albums morph into memories, while events that weren’t seared into consciousness fade.

For years I sat back and didn’t write while my sisters did, and it’s always illuminating when one of them writes about a time when I was there.

My older sister Delia’s first book, the huge bestseller How to Eat Like a Child, has a chapter on “How to torture your sister.” In it she reveals techniques that she and I practiced on our younger sister, Amy. (“I’ve got to tell you something. You’re adopted!”) Delia would go on to write Hanging Up, miraculously finding humor in our screenwriter father’s bouts of alcohol-soaked self-pity. 

My oldest sister Nora, who inspired a generation of women to feel bad about their necks and who wrote and directed some of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’ best films, gave me a moment on the page as the "good" daughter (“to distinguish her from me,” the protagonist explains) in Heartburn, her painfully funny autobiographical novel about the breakup of her marriage to Carl Bernstein.

Then there’s the time I nearly killed Amy. She immortalized it in her first novel, Cool Shades. She couldn’t pedal
her tricycle fast enough to keep up with my two-wheeler, so I tied my bike to her trike. Soon we were flying along. Near the corner, I hit the brakes. But tricycles have no brakes, so Amy kept on going until the rope snapped and she flew off, skidding face-first across the macadam. Reading her book brought back the full horror of that moment when I realized what I’d done.

I've gotten used to being written about, and whenever one of my sisters publishes something (as in just about every other week), I brace for another cringe-worthy episode from my life to get aired. 

For years I couldn't fight back. I didn't write.

Then, one day I got a call from a freelance writer. She wanted to write a magazine piece about me. “You’re the sister who doesn’t write,” she said, like “the fourth Brontë sister.” Which sounded unappealing, not just because the fourth Brontë sister died young of tuberculosis.

Then it struck me: the longer I waited to write, the less material there would be to claim as my own.

I told that freelancer that if anyone was going to write about me not writing it was going to be me.


After telling that freelance thanks, but no thanks, I started where most writers start, essays about my own personal experience. I piled page on top of page, thinking maybe I was writing a book.
But when I read it, I knew that while the words were fine, and some of the sentences were lovely, the story was circling the drain. I had no idea that characters need arcs, that there had to be stakes, and the story had to go somewhere.

I tucked that unfinished manuscript away. When I pulled it out about three years ago, I was surprised to find that it didn't smell as bad as I thought it would. In fact, pieces of it are in Night Night. (The episode where Deirdre gets nabbed for shoplifting at J. J. Newberry's really happened. Sadly none of my sisters were involved so I missed an opportunity to humiliate one of them.)

Which leads me one of my hard and fast WRITING RULES. Save everything you write because today's garbage is tomorrow's compost. Which is a corollary to my other WRITING RULE: Just hold your nose and write.


  1. Life without sisters? Not nearly as exciting . . . I enjoyed your sister reminiscences.

    Your "episode from my life getting aired" made me chuckle because I just did a double-take when I came across these "best lines I've read in a book lately":
    “I didn’t say anything for a moment. Channel 7 news teased SHOOTING IN SOUTHIE. Three dead. Local reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan was at the scene.” [From “Robert B. Parker’s Kickback” by Ace Atkins, page 260,]

  2. I have two sisters, and while there wasn't a lot of humiliation, we do have plenty of mismatched memories.

    Totally agree about never throwing away earlier work. I was able to repurpose a couple of scenes and the entire world I'd set up in the very first mystery I wrote (but didn't finish), twenty years ago, when I wrote my first Local Foods mystery in 2012. I still have a bunch of unpublished short stories that I dust off once in a while to see if I can rework them. Ya nevah know.

    Love that line from the Atkins book, Joan!

  3. Love this story Hallie--no wonder it took you a while to figure out you were going to write! And I use your advice all the time:)

  4. May I just say how happy I am that you are no longer the sister who doesn't write?! Terrific piece, Hallie.

  5. Love that the "sister who didn't" does now and that you didn't toss any of your material, which we get to enjoy in different books. I am particular grateful to read this post early this morning as I continue with the dreaded task of downsizing my belongings and today is the day I face my piles and bins of writing. I've agonized over whether to toss pieces I've found little use for, but now I think I'll just organize them until I find the right place.

  6. Michelle, the good thing is you will use the downsizing in a book. I know you will. And you'll have all the emotional angst to layer onto it.

    Thanks, Kaye! Thanks, Susan! Lucy, we take each other's advice!

    Edith, it always astonishes me when I find another way that the stories of our lives intersect.

    Joan, great line!

  7. Hallie, I love the reminiscing. I was sufficiently older than my siblings that I don't have many stories - mostly because I was hiding in my room reading while they ran amok. Although there were those family vacations where I sat in the back of the station wagon and got to eavesdrop on their bickering in the middle seat. I should mine that for something, although I'm not sure what.

    I live by your rules, especially during that first draft stage. Especially "hold your nose and write."

    And Joan - yes, what a great line!

  8. Hallie, I have three sisters, too! The youngest was short, petite, and a beautiful child. Her name is Barbara and we called her our Barbie doll and dressed her up. "I need my sisters!" is a cry to drop everything and go running, as does the phone call "We need a sister day!"

    So glad you found your own way to writing. Dumpster-diving, I call it, when I trawl back through efforts consigned to the heap.

  9. Fun post to read with my morning coffee. I'm glad you decided to become a sister who writes.

  10. So agree with those who say they're glad you decided to join the crowd!

    In a very big Catholic family, I'm the only writer, and still have not written any fiction. Not sure I'm brave enough to do it yet, either.

  11. Hallie, thank you for using your writing gift!

    I have three younger sisters, and I sure am glad they DON'T write! As the oldest, though, I often tell them that MY memory of things that happened when we were growing up is more accurate than theirs. (And, actually, most of the time they accept that!)

  12. Hallie, I'm so glad you are no longer "the sister who doesn't write." I'm not sure whether to envy you your sisters, or to be glad I only had to compete with my very smart much older brother who, although he does many things very well, doesn't write:-)

    And I can't wait to see what the book-in-progress is about!

  13. SO funny! And yes, so lovely how everything turns into fodder.

    And yes, Joan, SO funny about that line in Ace's book. I was incredibly surprised, I had no idea--and I was reading it on a plane. I burst out laughing! The guy in the seat next to me couldn't resist asking what was so funny. and it was such a treat to show him!

    xoxo and happy writing all! I have to finish my short story TODAY. Maybe I'll kill off the heroine's sister…:-)

  14. Oh so funny! Leave it to family to get the sweet/hurt spot and drag it into the open. I am especially glad that you are now a sister who writes. It was your book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel that got me into this game! Thank you.

  15. I'm the oldest of three sisters -- I SO get the sister thing. I sometimes say to them, It's like we had different childhoods. I'm the only writer, so I'm "the artsy fartsy" one according to my youngest sister. :-) According to my middle sister, I'm the one who has a passion.

    Gotta say, their lives seems a lot simpler and less fraught than mine. :-)

  16. The trike incident is hilarious. You know it is siblings' duties to try to kill one another accidently. My older brother and I were responsible for the middle child (sister) hitting her face so one of her baby teeth in front died and turned dark. I don't remember how this was done; it was an accident due to rough housing. However my mother was not pleased and even less so when we started calling sis Black Tooth. Remember Soupy Sales with White Fang and Black Tooth? I'm sure we were punished accordingly.

  17. Kait, thank you! Love your comment: leave it to family to get the sweet/hurt spot and drag it into the open. You got that right.

    FChurch: Dumpster-diving! So perfect.

    Pat D: that black tooth! Yikes. Good thing it was a baby tooth

    Lisa: There are enough years between us and my parents lives were so chaotic that we really did grow up in different families. The younger you were, the tougher it got. :-(

  18. Hallie, i always longed for sisters but only had one much younger brother. But I can see there was definitely a dark side to having sisters. My three daughters get on brilliantly now but there was a lot of "disputing" while they were growing up. And they remember all the embarrassing incidents about each other.
    And I am now glad to call you "the sister who writes beautifully!"

  19. Hallie, that you all became such talented writers is quite amazing for one family, even if it was in your genes. I'm so glad that you recognized your proclivity towards telling stories in writing and giving us wonderful books to read. I hate to admit that I've only read Heartburn by Nora in your sisters' body of work, but it is an all-time favorite, and the movie is one I've watched more than once.

    I was the baby of the family, two older sisters and one older brother. My sisters were 8 and 10 years older than me, so they didn't really torture me much. The older of the two was more mothering. There was the one time my next to older sister pretended to be a vampire when I came to be (we were sharing a bedroom at the time). I had been watching a vampire movie and was scared, which was the point of watching it, and when I came to bed she rolled over and made a vampire sound. I guess it's only fair since my father was chasing me to give me a whallop for some misbehavior and I slid under the bed where my sister was napping. He thought I had jumped in the bed and pulled the covers over me, and, yes, she got the whallop. My brother did torture me with grasshoppers, which led to a lifelong fear of jumping critters like that. Oh, and my brother helped my mother powder me when I was a baby (he's 3 years older) and got it all over the place, including my eyes. Hmm, accident or displeasure in another girl in the family?

    And, it is funny how we sometimes remember events differently, isn't it? Thanks for sharing about your sisters and your decision to join the writing club.

  20. Kathy Reel, love your reminiscences!

    Rhys, well into their twenties, still couldn't get along in the back seat together.

  21. Hallie, this is wonderful. I'm sorry I wasn't here earlier. xoxox