You're Going To Want To Remember This
A few words with Nora Ephron: writer, filmmaker, foodie, and turtleneck enthusiast
Long before she would feel bad about her neck, remember nothing, parlay an excruciating real-life betrayal into a bestselling roman á clef, subsequently write the movie in which she would be played by Meryl Streep, or have any inkling of her future as a successful journalist, screenwriter, and director, Nora Ephron was obsessed with the size of her breasts, or lack thereof. This was in grade school. Years later, in 1972, Ephron would write about the desperate measures she undertook, back in the fourth grade, to alter nature's course: buying a Mark Eden Bust Developer, splashing cold water on her chest every night, and sleeping on her back for four years. That essay, "A Few Words About Breasts" (collected in 1975's Crazy Salad), received, among other accolades, star-billing in University of Texas English department writing guru John Trimble's course materials, making an indelible mark on successive classes of Trimble students. Trimble, the purveyor of fine writing par excellence, championed Ephron's gift of genially opinionated phrase, or, as he put it, the ability to be funny as hell while conveying an inner seriousness and emotional honesty. (Now retired, Trimble remains an Ephron fan, quoting her at length, most recently in the just-published third edition of his bestselling Writing With Style).
Ephron is about to hit the big seven-oh. She still writes bestselling books, her byline appears in publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the Huffington Post. (She was recently tapped to edit a new HuffPo section on divorce.) She's got an enviable filmography under her belt as a three-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally) and has directed many hits, as well as some flops, the pain of which she talks about without naming names in her latest book, I Remember Nothing. And, as evidenced by 2009's Julie & Julia, she's hardly slowing down. After two divorces (the second being the pay-dirt lemon from which she's still squeezing payback lemonade – à la Heartburn), she's been happily married for 20 years to fellow writer Nicholas Pileggi, with whom she lives in what I'm sure is a very nice Manhattan apartment. Her two sons are grown. And she looks good, really good, chatting up the gals on The View or talking to Oprah while promoting her new book. (By the way, nothing beats hearing Ephron reading her own books on audiotape.)
So you might think that with all of this – and how many decades have passed since that first terror-stricken glimpse at her bosom? – the last thing Ephron would still be obsessing about would be her looks. But you would be wrong. Kind of ironic, when you think about it, that while once she fretted about not developing fast enough, today she wrings her hands over "developing" too fast. One may feel like screaming "enough already!" with the aging angst. Is this really the message – that it never ends – that a feminist wants to transmit to today's already looks-obsessed girls? But the truth is, if she stopped, if she changed the message, we'd be the real losers. Because, come on, who else would ever think, much less say, that not having to worry about your hair could be the "secret upside to death"? Or admit that it's the possibility, no matter how slim, of running into any former boyfriend who'd ever rejected her that stops her dead in her tracks whenever she considers, fleetingly, a dash to the grocery store – without eyeliner?
Austin Chronicle: You don't really feel old, do you?Necks and the other physical stuff notwithstanding, we really feel like the same, never-aging person throughout, don't we?Or maybe that's the problem.
Nora Ephron: I know what you mean, and that was true for me for a long time. I looked back with amusement at how misguided I was about what it was like to be old, because I thought, as I got older, that I was the same person I used to be, only in some ways wiser (and of course, more forgetful). But then I'm sorry to say, you reach a point where you have a very conscious awareness that you are in fact not just older but old, and that life is short, and it's not just because of your neck.
AC: You've worn so many hats – journalist, screenwriter, director, playwright. Do you prefer one over the others?
NE: I actually prefer writing for print because it is so much less complicated getting something published than it is (for example) to get a movie made or a play produced.
AC: You write often about your battles with the seriatim challenges of today's technology – from e-mail to the TV remote – even going back to your initial, if short-lived, resistance to the Cuisinart. But you famously wrote years ago in The New York Times that you preferred the typewriter over the word processor, because only the former accommodated your need to run through 300-400 sheets of paper in the process of writing and rewriting something as short as a 1,500-word essay. The word processor, you insisted, was all wrong because it allowed "a writer to change only the sentences that clearly need changing without having to retype the rest, but ... you can't always tell whether a sentence needs work until it rises up in revolt against your fingers as you retype it." I assume you've come around?
NE: Yes I have come around. The computer has conquered me, it has ravished me. But I suspect I was right in the first place.
AC: Why do you suppose that no one listened to you, post-Watergate and after your divorce from Carl Bernstein, when you figured out and routinely divulged to anyone who asked the identity of "Deep Throat"?
NE: I don't know. It's truly a mystery to me because I said it again and again.Of course, I put it in a fairly amusing way, and that sometimes makes people take you less seriously.And since I never claimed I'd heard it from my ex-husband, there was no real reason to take me seriously. Still ....
AC: Is the secret to life really to "marry an Italian"?
NE: It is also: Never buy a flag lot. Don't serve fish at a dinner party. Buy low, sell high.
AC: And have you made your peace with your neck yet?
NE: You are asking me at a good moment.It's winter and I'm wearing a turtle neck sweater.
AC: You say in I Remember Nothing that the most important thing about you used to be that you were divorced, but now it's that you're old. Without taking a position on either of those statements, I'd add that many of us think of you as a foodie and cooking maven, and not just because of Heartburn. Some of your funniest stuff is about your heady days of competitive cooking and your serial culinary infatuations with the likes of Craig Claiborne (ultimately disappointing) and Lee Bailey. So, I must ask, who are you currently enamored of in the kitchen these days?
NE: I love Ina Garten, and I'm currently cooking a lot of recipes from Andrew Carmellini's cookbook Urban Italian.I like simple recipes that don't involve a lot of dirty pots and pans.
AC: In your last book, you talked about your feelings about Bill Clinton. Do you still feel that way?
NE: I still feel that Bill Clinton squandered his presidency, yes.
AC: Have you ever worn that red coat that your mother told you never to buy?
NE: I wore my red coat. Exactly once. My mother was right: Never buy a red coat, she said.(Why? I asked her. She replied: "Because people will see you, and they will say, 'There she is, in her red coat.'")
AC: Do you think that women will ever rise up (it would have to be in lockstep, no holdouts) against the tyranny of the never-ending hair-coloring cycle?
NE: I think that hair dye has revolutionized women's lives.For one thing, it makes them look younger, which (I'm sorry to say) makes them more employable.Okay, it takes time, but at least you can read while you're having your hair colored. I mean, it's all very well and good to go gray, but I notice that my friends who are defiantly gray happen to look good with gray hair.
The Paramount Theatre presents An Evening With Nora Ephron on Thursday, Feb. 10, 8pm. Tickets are available at 474-1221 or www.austintheatre.org.