Oh that Nora Ephron and the company she keeps these days!
There's George W. Bush, Keith Richards, and Glenn Beck, three dudes pedaling new books that are just ahead of Ephron on the November 28th New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. Ephron's new collection of essays, I Remember Nothing, debuted in the number four spot, to her delight, but she also feels a smidgen of outrage since some of the books ahead of hers were written with the help of a co-author. Whether the celeb author is truly the book's writer could be in doubt, which is not the case with Ephron's tart essays, in her distinctive voice mixing rueful and wry.
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"It's not fair to be in the non-fiction category with those co-authored books," Ephron remarks during an interview in Seattle, the city she forever linked with "sleepless." "I think there should be a separate category for books like that...And I'd like to knock Glenn Beck out of box!" Ephron admits reading Bush's memoir during a sold-out talk at Town Hall and then quips, "Bush's book could also be called I Remember Nothing!"
Ephron's amnesia is, at least, all-natural, the result of age advancing into bonafide seniorhood. She is six months short of her 70th birthday, although she looks much younger, with her shaggy mop of well-coiffed hair and prodigious bangs, animated face and toothy smile, and rail-thin figure adorned in trademark all-black, topped this time with a quasi-military jacket buttoned up for reasons familiar to the one million readers who bought her I Feel Bad About My Neck. Ephron was shocked when that first essay collection in more than two decades vaulted to the top of the 2006 best-seller list, allowing her to assume the role of Official Voice for Reluctantly Aging Women Everywhere, just as she became the Official Voice for Cheated-upon Women Everywhere when she turned the philandering ways of her second husband (Carl Bernstein) into the oh-so-sweet revenge novel entitled Heartburn.
I Remember Nothing does all it can to align itself with I Feel Bad About My Neck, featuring the same number of pages, a cover with similar design, plus the same subject matter and approach. "Nothing" does not deliver quite the same pithy punch, perhaps because some of its previously published short essays retain the aura of their Internet origin. They were first seen as "blogs" (now "posts") on the Huffington Post, where Ephron serves as Editor-At-Large.
Ephron concedes that writing for the Huffington Post is not like The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Vogue, where her work appears in print. As she puts it, "Writing for the Internet is a significantly different thing with a soap-bubble's existence. If it does live beyond that, you're kind of surprised. Some of the things I did for the Huffington Post, I do not even know what they're about anymore."
"Nothing" has its bon-bons of Ephron wit, lists of "What I Won't Miss" (including "E-Mail," "Panels on Women in Film"), "What I Will Miss" ("Reading in Bed," "Pie") and "Twenty-five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to be Surprised by Over and Over Again" ("Beautiful young women sometimes marry ugly, old rich men," "The Democrats are deeply disappointing"). But the most satisfying reading in "Nothing" is provided by the longer original essays, where Ephron offers well-crafted remembrances of her start in journalism ("I didn't know much about anything, and I was in a profession where you didn't have to. I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines. I loved that you wrapped the fish."); her failing memory ("I went to stand in front of the White House the night Nixon resigned and here's what I have to tell you about it: My wallet was stolen."; her two divorces that preceded two decades of rancor-free marriage with writer Nicholas Pileggi ("The point is that for a long time, the fact that I was divorced was the most important thing about me. And now it's not.").
Ephron finished her essay entitled "The D Word" last summer when friend Arianna Huffington was visiting her beach house on Long Island. Much of the discussion among three women friends that weekend was about past marriages and divorces, prompting Ephron to suggest that a new separate section on the Huffington Post could be devoted to divorce. As Ephron recalls, "There are whole magazines devoted to getting married, like Brides, but it takes a lot longer to get divorced ... I believe there is an entire group of people who think of themselves primarily as divorced since nothing settles down then." Ephron even offered her own divorce essay to kick off the new Huffington Post page when it finally debuted, as it did on November 9th. She believes the page should add to the national conversation about divorce.
The classic status of several Ephron romantic film comedies, plus the popularity of her essay collections, obscures the fact that she has had many creative disappointments. Some of her films have been critical and popular failures (remember Michael and Bewitched?), some of her essays remain unfinished, some of her screenplays have gone unsold. Ephron's touch is sometimes golden, sometimes closer to bronze or even lead. She turns that into a characteristic wisecrack: "I could operate an entire movie studio with all the screenplays I wrote that never got made."
But such failures are "painful and mortifying," Ephron admits in one new essay: "Flops stay with you in a way that hits never do. They torture you. . . .Failure, they say, is a growth experience; you learn from failure. I wish that were true. It seems to me the main thing you learn from failure is that it's entirely possible you will have another failure."
What distinguishes Ephron's creative efforts—whether they result in hits or misses or something in-between—is her ability to vault across artistic boundaries. She has ventured well beyond her journalistic roots to write a novel, screenplays, and plays; she has also directed films. Her most recent film effort—Julie & Julia, with its inspired performance by Meryl Streep as Julia Child—saw Ephron assume the roles of screenwriter and director, as well as co-producer. She might also have done the film's catering, given her well-developed culinary talents, although there is no hint of that in the credits.
But trying to get Ephron to reveal which of her talents is indeed her strongest suit is fruitless. "I don't think that way," she says. "I'm certainly lucky that I don't have to rely on what I make in the book biz, or the movie biz, or the theater or the Huffington Post, which pays nothing." Instead, Ephron has hopscotched between varied creative projects, often learning from the basement up ("it took me 10 years before I could write in the first person"), but gradually reaching a level of genuine distinction. Her greatest satisfaction is meeting different challenges. The new essay collection is finished now, so she can start writing her screenplay about singer Peggy Lee, a film likely to star Reese Witherspoon.
Ephron may decline to reveal her best talent, but she has no hesitancy in disclosing the source of her creative drive—her late parents, both successful screenwriters. As she puts it, "I was encouraged at young age to look at everything as material, then turn things into a story for my parents. That's how I got their attention. And I'm convinced that, however old they are, people still keep trying to get their parents' approval, even if they've been dead for 40 years."
Family matters deeply to Ephron. She has written screenplays and a play with one of her three sisters, Delia. She is close to her two grown sons, the best result of her marriage to Bernstein, whom she praises as "an excellent father." And she has hopes of celebrating her 70th birthday next May with her husband and maybe her sons.
"I'm thinking of going to Istanbul and hoping to get my sons to come along, although I know they'd rather go to Vegas," Ephron says. "I haven't been to Istanbul and I hear it is fabulous. For years, I said I wanted to go to Barcelona and 'was I ever going to get there' became a running joke in our house. Now I've been to Barcelona four times and I love it."
Nora Ephron, it turns out, does remember Barcelona.