DELIA EPHRON: Essayist, Dog Lover, Cronut Cynic

Delia and her dog!
Delia and her dog! // Brian Ulicky

Delia Ephron can claim all the major titles of the literary world — novelist, screenwriter, playwright, essayist. Her latest work,“Sister Mother Husband Dog,” came out on Tuesday, and on Wednesday Ephron stopped by the Yale University Art Gallery to talk about the book. She wrote this collection of essays in the wake of her sister Nora’s death in 2012, which ended a lifelong creative partnership between the two. Their collaboration spawned the films “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle”. With sporadic asides to her dog — “honey, down!” — she spoke to WEEKEND over the phone about her writerly genealogy, the tweetable future of essays and trendy New York pastries.

Q. Your latest work, “Sister Mother Husband Dog” came out today. How did this collection differ from other pieces you’ve written?

A. I hadn’t written a collection of essays for ages, not since I wrote about being a stepmother, when I published a book called “Funny Sausages” — God, I don’t even know how many years ago. My last book was a novel that came out last year called “The Lion Is In,” and the two books before that were novels. I had been writing for the New York Times op-ed section, but really, it was the death of my sister that started it. I would go into the office, sit down and just start writing. It was a way for us to be together — we were sisters, writers, collaborators. It was a complicated life and I wanted to understand it. And I needed a way out of this world I was in. It was like living in a world where the street signs were missing.

At one point, later, I was at a Jewish bookshop, and I was being bombarded with questions about how Jewish I was — and I was raised in a very non-religious family — and so I wrote an essay about religion that made its way into the collection.

So I had these two things, and then I realized I was on a journey. Somehow I branched into all my major food groups, writing these essays.

Q. The essay is having its “moment” — hailed, I think, as this Mason Jar of literary form: simple and versatile. What do you see as the future of the craft? Have we arrived at what the New York Times dubbed the “essayification of everything”?

A. I don’t think of essays as trendy. I think of blogs as trendy, and I don’t think blogs are essays. I liked writing the essays because there’s a whole way to weave in and out of storytelling. I’m a dramatist, I deal with drama, I write screenplays, and you can create a drama in an essay. I have no idea what the future of it is, I’m not comfortable predicting that — I mean, maybe the essay will be reduced to 140 characters and we’ll tweet them. I don’t know.

Q. Do you have a “favorite” piece of writing, or writer?

A. I’m a huge E.B. White fan. Someone recently sent me an essay on his dog Daisy’s death, and I had a dog named Daisy, so … so, well, I feel an enormous bond to E.B. White, not so much his essays, but his children’s work. “The Trumpet of the Swan,” “Charlotte’s Web” — the way he combines whimsy and emotion — there’s a whimsicality to his work that I worship.

Q. Often, writing is characterized as a solitary profession by nature. How did your relationship with your sister, Nora, influence your creative process? 

A. My rule for writing is, “Only do what you can do.” It keeps you looking inside, instead of becoming obsessed with what’s popular. Since I come from a family of writers, it seemed important to figure out who I was through writing. It was my fingerprint.

When we collaborated, it was best to find material that was personal to both of us — but not personal to one more than the other. Collaboration is a shared interest, and the two collaborators have to like the same things, they have to have a mutual investment, because it’s very important that the material be a place where you can be creative equally.

Q. You champion a style of enviable familiarity, a breezy authenticity mastered by many successful screenwriters. Have you always approached writing with this informality? 

A. I remember my mother saying that if you want to be a good writer, write a letter and take off the salutation. I’ve always remembered that. Writing must come from a more natural place. The important thing is that you access truth — and I take that really seriously. You can be conversational and be emotionally thoughtful. For me, it’s always, “Can I make you laugh and can I make you cry?” I want to do both.

Q. How do you explain your approach to writing?

A. When I first started, I thought that I needed to try something new every year. I wrote these craft books in my 20s, but in my 30s I really started my career and I thought I was late and that, no matter what I did I had to learn all these new things. I had wasted my 20s, absolutely wasted them, so I thought I better figure this out.

But an idea, a plot, a story, a notion — if I’ve started to fantasize about something — I think good ideas stay with you. Is this a novel, a screenplay, an essay? You have to figure out what the idea is.

Q. Your family has a dynastic dynamism. Nora, of course, but also two screenwriter-parents and two more writer-sisters. Did your childhood feel exceptional as a result? I can only parallel the eccentricities of the Kennedys or the Foers.

A. Everyone’s childhood … Everybody has different parents. You are born in and you relate to your parents differently. I think my experience with my parents, for example, was different from my sisters’.

I think something very exceptional about my childhood was that I was raised at a time when women didn’t work, and my mother worked. But she was an alcoholic. One version, a sane version during the day and then at night, she was … she was another person.

I had, on the one hand, blessing, and on the other hand, trouble. But it was my experience — and it was different than how my siblings might relate to our parents.

And, I think this is especially true given your audience. You start to look at your parents differently when you go to college. But I think that all of your 20s is such a major shock to the system. Some people have it all figured out, but there’s this humongous group of us who are still floundering. And sometimes finding your way later is better. I truly believe that. My essay “Blame it on the Movies,” from the collection, is about my 20s and I think that really explains a lot.

Q. Do you describe yourself as a “career writer”? That is, have you always wanted to be a writer?

A. I was raised in a family where it was the expectation, but I just got — well, I had the genes! And the temperament. I like to be alone. It’s been a blessing that I’ve been able to do that professionally, that I’ve been able to make a living at it.

Q. Any advice for stumbling undergraduates (Yale is full of them!) with an interest in the craft? 

A. That piece, “Blame it on the Movies,” is extremely useful for getting yourself into writing. The most important thing, if you want to be a writer, is that you develop work habits. It means gluing yourself to a chair several hours a day. And it’s so hard now, with all the social networking, but you’ve just got to get into the habit. You have to do it five days a week, until you start to like it.

Q. Thoughts on the merits of writing classes? 

A. I never took any writing classes. I’m sure a great teacher is very helpful — and for some people, it’s the right thing.

Q. I want to end with a reference to your latest opinion piece in the New York Times on bakeries. Thoughts on the cronut — is it the latest version of the “depressingly American” idea of “having it all”? Or worth the hybrid hype?  

A. I personally did not like the cronut. It’s certainly not my version of having it all. It’s this way overdesigned pastry — it’s a pastry that’s also a punchline! Way too sweet for me.

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