By GAIL LOWE
It’s the question every fiction writer must ask before sitting down in front of a computer or, in rare cases, notebook and pen.
Suspense novelist Hallie Ephron is no exception and she taught her audience a thing or two about writing at last night’s Sweetser Lecture, the final talk of the 2015 season.
The event, held in The Saving Bank Theatre at Wakefield Memorial High School, drew a respectable crowd eager to hear what it was like to grow up in a family of writers in a Beverly Hills, Calif. home that cost her famous screenwriting parents Henry and Phoebe Ephron $100,000 in 1964 and sold last year for $7 million.
The three other writers in Hallie Ephron’s family are Nora Ephron, who authored “When Harry Met Sally” and is now deceased and Delia and Amy Ephron.
Between 60 and 70 books have been written and published with the four Ephron sisters’ bylines on their front covers and there will be more to come. In fact, Hallie Ephron spoke last night about her most recent book “Night Night, Sleep Tight,” a suspense story about the murder of Johnny Stompanato, boyfriend of mid-20th century film star of Lana Turner.
Born in 1948, Hallie Ephron is the third daughter born to Henry and Phoebe and the last to take up writing. Unlike her sisters, she did not start writing until she was in her 40s. And when she did, she had immediate success with the sale of an essay titled “The History of My Hair” to National Public Radio for a small amount.
But that first check spurred her on to greater heights that include being nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award, achieving New York Times bestseller status and being nominated three times for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.
At the beginning of her talk, Hallie introduced her parents. Henry, a Russian immigrant and Bronx resident, was the youngest of eight sons. Her mother, she said, also lived in New York and was educated at Hunter College in New York City.
Once the couple’s first child was born — Nora — Henry suggested that he and Phoebe co-author a play. Phoebe agreed and “Three is a Family” went to Broadway in 1943. The couple rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who went backstage to congratulate them on the success of their play.
Soon, the Ephrons moved to Hollywood to work for 20th Century Fox. Among their film credentials are Carousel, Daddy Long Legs and Desk Set, starring Katharine Hepburn.
Several decades later, the film Cleopatra was so expensive to produce that it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. The Ephrons took to working out of a home office and “wrote on spec,” said Hallie. Then came an Academy Award nomination in 1963 for Captain Newman, starring, among others, Bobby Darrin.
But a dark cloud was forming over the Ephron household. Phoebe Ephron was developing a fondness for alcohol.
“My mother had no friends. Meanwhile, my Dad had other women, and she drank and drank and drank,” Hallie confided. In spite of her mother’s brilliant talent and success, Phoebe Ephron succumbed to the bottle in 1971 and died from cirrhosis of the liver. Hallie was 22 years old.
As ill as Phoebe Ephron was, she gave brief parting words to daughter Nora. “You’re a writer. Take notes,” she said. Those simple words were meant not only for Nora but for all four of her daughters.
“My mother gave us permission to write,” said Hallie.
Over the years following her mother’s death, Hallie taught students at the elementary school and college level and for a time worked in the high tech industry.
“I was a typical mother of two daughters, taking them to soccer practice and piano lessons,” she said. But when she reached her fourth decade, she told herself she had “better get going” if a writing career was in the cards.
Instead of enrolling in college programs geared toward writing or working toward a master of fine arts degree, Hallie joined writers’ groups and signed up for writing classes. It was there that she learned about voice and point of view.
Then, in 2001 she sold her first novel, “Never Tell a Lie,” published by Morrow. In a Publishers Weekly review, the book was called “stunning” and a “deliciously creepy tale of obsession.” USA Today wrote, “You can imagine (Alfred) Hitchcock curling up with this one.” The book was later adapted for film as And Baby Will Fall for the Lifetime Movie Network. Another book is titled “There Was an Old Woman,” a popular book club pick.
The idea for the book came to her after she went to a yard sale and the owner of the house invited her inside to see renovations.
Her writer’s mind spinning, she went away from the encounter wondering what would happen if the woman invited inside the house never came out — and what if both women were nine months pregnant?
Threading her own life experiences into a suspense plot is something that comes natural to Hallie Ephron. She said, “You cannot write a novel based on your life experiences unless you lie.”
She touched on what it felt like when she returned to Beverly Hills after a multi-year absence.
“I don’t fit in with Beverly Hills as it is now,” she said. “Everyone is blonde. And here I am, gray.” She now lives in the Boston area with her husband, a physicist.
She explained the geography of Beverly Hills, pointing out that the farther south of Wilshire Boulevard you lived, the less likely you were to be notable.
“You knew the pecking order in Beverly Hills,” she said, adding that her family lived in what is known as “The Flats.” Carl Reiner and The Fugitive actor David Janssen were among the Ephrons’ neighbors.
Her latest book “Night Night, Sleep Tight” (based on the Stompanato murder) is one that her agent called too “episodic” when she read 100 pages of the first draft, so Hallie went back inside herself and decided the book needed a murder.
She found just what she was looking for in the Johnny Stompanato case. As a young girl, Hallie would walk to the scene of the crime only two streets away from where she lived, stand on the sidewalk and look up at the second floor of the home where the murder took place. Then came the “what ifs.”
What if Cheryl Crane — Lana Turner’s daughter and murderer of Stompanato — and Hallie were friends. The “what ifs” didn’t stop until the book’s conclusion.
Since the book’s publication, Hallie has created a virtual cast, with Debra Winger taking playing Hallie as Cheryl Crane’s friend.
In illustration of how Hitchcock built suspense into his work, she presented a scene from Suspicion, a story about a wife who comes to believe her husband is trying to murder her. The scene shows Cary Grant ascending a staircase carrying a tray with a glass of milk that seems to glow.
“Hitchcock placed a light bulb in the milk glass,” Hallie explained. “Building suspense into a novel is ‘finding the light bulb in the milk’ moments.”
During a brief question and answer session, Hallie responded to questions about her education (she hated English 101 in college), her favorite TV programs (”The Good Wife” and “Unbreakable”) and reading habits (she is a voracious reader).
She also shared her motto for would-be writers at the conclusion of her talk: “Just hold your notes and write,” she said. “And remember to look for the light bulb in the milk.”