In Conversation with a 32-year-old Nora Ephron
On Writer's Block, Distractions, and Missing the Point
The following is from an interview by Michael S. Lasky published in Nora Ephron: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
At 32, Nora Ephron is everywhere and it didn’t take her very long to get there. To interview her for even just a few hours can be nearly as impossible as typing with your elbows.
Nora is elusive these days. If she isn’t in California or in Houston, covering Bobby Riggs’s tennis matches for Esquire, New York, or Oui, then she is off to France for a one-week spree of the best Michelin three-star restaurants—all expenses paid. Then again, if she isn’t in France or California or in her sparsely furnished New York apartment, she is probably in Israel covering the Mideast turmoil, or in Las Vegas for the fun of it.
Michael S. Lasky: What happens when you can’t get a piece started, when you are completely cold?
Nora Ephron: I am never completely cold. I don’t have writer’s block, really. I do have times when I can’t get the lead and that is the only part of the story that I have serious trouble with. I don’t write a word of the article until I have the lead. It just sets the whole tone—the whole point of view. I know exactly where I am going as soon as I have the lead. That can take me three or four days and sometimes a week. But as for being cold—as a newspaper reporter you learn that no one tolerates you if you are cold; it’s one thing you are not allowed to be. It’s not professional. You have to turn the story in. There is no room for the artist.
And so trouble with the lead is as close as I get to being cold, and yes, I do go away from it for a while and go buy a pair of shoes or have dinner. And I know that maybe if I can talk to someone at dinner I’ll find the thing I am looking for.
ML: Do you have any distractions that particularly bother you?
NE: Life. I mean the main thing that distracts me is the pressure to go on with one’s life. That you have to stop to have lunch with someone or you have to take the cat to the vet . . . just the everyday routine is what bothers me. I mean things like the supermarket. I have been to the supermarket maybe twice in five months. I just can’t seem to get there.
Being single is a distraction. I mean one of the things about marriage that is good for both men and women is that it frees you from all that energy that you use to put into dating. You can put it into work. You don’t have to worry about who is going to take you to the dinner party tomorrow. It takes time to be single, it seems to me.
ML: Once you have all the notes and you are ready for writing, what comes the hardest?
NE: As I said before, the lead. It carries the point of the story, as I said. I have this great story about leads that I always tell. I had this fantastic high school journalism teacher who left the teaching business almost instantly and is now some sort of millionaire record-store owner in Los Angeles. Anyway, the first day in the class we were learning to write leads. So he dictated this set of facts: “The principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the faculty will travel to Fresno on Thursday for a seminar on the new mathematics. Speaking there will be Edward Teller, Albert Einstein, and . . . oh, Margaret Mead.” So we all sat and wrote these leads that sounded almost exactly like what I just said. And we turned them in and he stood up and said, “The lead to this story is ‘There will be no school Thursday.’” There was moment of the lightbulb going off in your head and I thought to myself, “Ohmigod, it’s about the point!” Ever since then I am always sure that I am missing the point.
ML: Did you ever really miss the point?
NE: God, yes. When I was living in Paris in 1963 and freelancing for The New York Times overseas edition, I went to do a story on how they were cleaning Notre Dame—they were cleaning all the buildings in France to get them from a gray to a beautiful creamy color. I didn’t speak French well at all and did these terrible interviews in pigeon French. After I turned in the piece, my editor called me and said, “The piece is fine but you are going to die when you see what you left out.” I got this sinking feeling in my stomach and I asked, “What did I leave out?” And he said, “The reason they are cleaning Notre Dame is it is its four hundredth birthday.” I felt so foolish. I had no idea.
ML: Once you get a go-ahead on an idea for an article, do you have an outline to organize your material?
NE: No. I just seem to muddle through. I interview people and they tell me about other people to interview. I talk to many more people than I ever quote. And I know in my mind what I have to cover. I spend much too much time researching things. But I think you have to know too much so you can be on top of your subject.
ML: Is humor essential to a story? Every piece of yours always seems to have its share of humor.
NE: Well, it’s just that my point of view happens to be faintly cynical or humorous—and that’s just the way I see things and that’s how it comes out when I write it. It is not anything I am conscious of, though. A piece about a “heavy” subject can be written a little bit light so the piece doesn’t seem quite as heavy. You’ve mainly got to trust yourself to write the way you feel about something.
From NORA EPHRON: THE LAST INTERVIEW AND OTHER CONVERSATIONS. Used with permission of Melville House. (c) 1974 by Michael S. Lasky. First published in Writer’s Digest in April, 1974.
Nora Ephron photographed by Jill Krementz on April 11, 1975; all rights reserved.