INTERVIEW WITH HALLIE EPHRON
by Marilyn Brooks
It’s hard to believe, but best-selling mystery author Hallie Ephron didn’t begin her writing career until she was 40. That’s because she came from the well-known Ephron family–her parents were Hollywood screenwriters; her three sisters were published authors; and she was intimidated, a bit afraid of competing with them. How lucky, then, for the many readers of her 11 mystery novels and 5 works of non-fiction that she decided that perhaps she could become a writer after all.
Hallie spoke on December 12th to the Writers’ Guild, a group of BOLLI members who are working in various genres, including romance novels, memoirs, and poetry. She emphasized that it’s never too late to write, keeping in mind that writing and being published may be two different things. That should not stop anyone from writing, she stated, but noted that “my goal was always to be published when I started writing,” and she kept at it even after several years of rejections.
Because she started later in life, “I developed bad habits,” Hallie admitted. “I needed a different skill set than I had had before.” She had been a teacher and a technical writer, but since non-fiction is so different from fiction, she realized that she needed to develop expertise in plotting, characterization, and settings in order to tell compelling stories.
The beginning ideas of her novels often come from real events, but Hallie emphasizes that she doesn’t write true crime books. The murder of a friend’s brother was the idea behind one of her novels, but “I don’t want to write true crime—it’s too awful.”
“I didn’t know what I didn’t know” is how Hallie described the many lessons she learned in creating her mysteries. She emphasized three: 1) this career is not for the faint-of-heart; 2) novels have to have shape—a beginning, a middle, and an end; and 3) drama in the novel is driven by the character’s (protagonist’s) goal, and without a meaningful goal, there is no story.
The story, the plot, is obviously important but often overlooked is the protagonist’s goal, the why of his or her determination to solve the crime. In writing books in which the leading character is not a detective, there needs to be a meaningful objective that explains why the protagonist gets involved. Perhaps the leading character has just come upon the body of her brother and is suddenly accused of his murder; solving that crime is, for her, an understandable goal.
Hallie outlines each novel, but as its storyline progresses, she goes back and revises it, reflecting new ideas and changes from the original. She “rewrites, rewrites, and rewrites” as well. Next, she gives it to friends to read, then to her agent, and then to her editor. Each one makes changes to her work. As noted earlier, “This is not a career for the faint-of-heart.”
She describes her technique as “underwriting” rather than “overwriting,” meaning that she has to go back to add to the story rather than removing any excess. But “writing is so personal, there’s no one way to write a novel,” she stressed. “Do what works for you.”
Her own goal in writing is that “I want to write something to astonish the readers but that will leave them wondering how they missed the clue” that led to the solution. Mentioning the movie, The Sixth Sense, she said that the shocking ending of that film was a perfect example of that–a sort of why I didn’t I see that on the part of the filmgoer or the reader.
In talking about her latest mystery, Careful What You Wish For, Hallie took parts of her own life, e.g., an organized wife and a husband who cannot pass a flea market without stopping. But, she pointed out, it’s a novel, fiction as opposed to fact. It’s not Hallie in the book, nor is it her husband, but in the hands of such a gifted writer, fiction can be stranger and more interesting than fact.
I’ve always been a mystery reader, starting with Nancy Drew (my favorite, of course). I think I find mysteries so satisfying because there’s a definite plot to follow, a storyline that has to make sense to be successful. And, of course, there’s always the fun of trying to guess the ending! My blog, published every Saturday, is located at www.marilynsmysteryreads.com.