Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Hallie Ephron is an award-winning book reviewer for The Boston Globe, a writing teacher, and the co-author with Dr. Donald Davidoff of five Peter Zak mysteries, published under the pseudonym G.H. Ephron. Never Tell a Lie, her first stand-alone suspense novel, was published yesterday.
Hallie grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron (The Desk Set and Carousel are among their credits) and the third of four sisters. Although her siblings – Nora, Delia, and Amy Ephron – became writers, Hallie worked as a teacher, educational consultant, and high tech marketing copywriter before launching her own career as a fiction writer.
Never Tell a Lie has already received rave reviews. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “stunning” and “a deliciously creepy tale of obsession.”
Q. Tell us about your new book.
A. It's about a couple, Ivy and David Rose, who have what looks like the perfect life. Once high school sweethearts, they're happily married, live in a big beautiful Victorian house, and are expecting their first child. On a late pregnancy cleaning binge, Ivy clears out the attic and holds a yard sale. A former classmate, a woman named Melinda whom neither Ivy nor David have seen since high school, shows up.
Melinda, who was an outcast in high school, is about to have a baby, too. She talks to Ivy as though they were close friends, asking intimate details about Ivy's pregnancy. David, realizing how uncomfortable Melinda is making Ivy, offers to show Melinda around inside the house. The last Ivy sees of Melinda is David ushering her into their house. In fact, that's the last anyone sees of Melinda.
Q. What was the inspiration for this story?
A. The idea for the novel came to me when I was at a yard sale at a beautiful Victorian house that had been recently renovated. I was talking with the woman throwing the yard sale, peppering her with questions about the renovations, when she invited me to have a look around inside. I let myself in. Being a mystery writer, as I'm wandering around this knock-down-dead gorgeous interior I'm thinking: What if a woman goes to a yard sale. Somehow she manages to talk her way into the house. She goes inside. And she never comes out. The idea made me so creeped out that I had to get out of that house. Really fast.
Q. Some suspense/thriller writers would yawn at the thought of setting a novel in the suburbs. What is it about the suburban setting that appeals to you?
A. I wanted to write about exactly that--an ordinary suburban life that gets thrown right off its pedestrian rails. Ivy and David are the couple who, to the outside world, seem to have everything--a great house, a happy marriage, a baby on the way--and with this woman's disappearance they now have everything to lose.
Q. In exploring the destructive effects of teenage experiences that can linger into adulthood, did you draw on your own memories of high school?
A. I drifted through high school like most kids, not a popular kid but not a pariah, either. I did a lot of watching from the sidelines. In every school, as in mine, some kids are victimized and ostracized by their peers. Some of us escape the box that our peers put us in; I wanted to write about a character who didn't.
Q. After writing five novels with Donald Davidoff, why did you decide to strike out on your own? Was it difficult to adjust to working without a partner to share the plotting and writing? Did you have to motivate yourself in a different way?
A. I was eager to fly solo. The series novels had been set in my co-author's world--psychiatric hospitals and courtrooms and prisons. This would be set in my world. I'd write about what I know. I knew I could do the writing because I wrote all the Peter Zak books. But Don and I brainstormed and plotted together. That part is a lot harder to do alone. So I relied on my writing group and fellow writers to bounce ideas off.
Q. With your family background, you seem like a natural for a career writing fiction. So why did you wait so long to try it?
A. I was always the sister who said "I don't write." I'm not a natural writer. I've never been big on diaries or letters. But knowing I had the same genes as they did gave me the courage to try. And by the time I'd gotten into my 40s I no longer cared if people compared me to my sisters. I decided it would be okay to try and fail, not okay to fail to try.
Q. How do you divide your time among writing, reviewing, and teaching?
A. It's about 1/2 writing, 1/3 reviewing, and the rest teaching gigs. I like the variety...
Q. Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline before you start a book? Do the story and characters develop and change during the writing?
A. The last few novels I've written as a synopsis, first. Usually it goes like this. I write a 5-page synopsis and send it to my agent. She sends back 10 pages of questions. I revise and send her a 10-page synopsis. She shoots back 7 pages of questions. And so on, her list of questions getting shorter and my synopsis longer. A 30-plus-page synopsis is a great starting point for a novel. Of course, the story changes, especially when a character won't do something that sounded perfectly reasonable when I was planning but seems preposterous when I go to write it.
Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?
A. I think I understand the overall structure of a suspense novel—what you have to do to keep the reader reading. Plotting is still hard for me. I have to force myself to think 'outside the box.'
Q. What's harder for you to write, the beginning of a book or the ending?
A. Neither. It's the mushy middle that kills.
Q. Do you ever have writer's block? How do you get through it and start writing again?
A. Usually when I get blocked it's because I get stuck—I know what's supposed to happen next but I just can't make it work. I have a million tricks for getting unstuck and sometimes one of them works. Brainstorming. Reworking my outline. Forcing out pages. Backing up and revising. Transferring my outline to colored index cards. Creating mind maps. Torturing fellow writers, friends, and my long-suffering husband. But it's usually something completely tangential that gets me unstuck—an AHA! that comes to me while I'm in the shower or cooking or driving and couldn't write anything down even if I wanted to.
Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books are must-reads for you?
A. I'm inspired by my writing group and by fellow writers--by their generosity and lucid thinking and honesty. I confess, I'm a sucker for books written for kids. Harry Potter. Peter Abraham’s Echo Falls series. I love re-reading favorites like Charlotte's Web and The Little Princess and Rootabaga Stories.
Q. Do you have any thoughts about the current state of crime fiction? As a reviewer, do you see any new trends developing?
A. I'm not a great trend spotter. Crime fiction is still full of cozies, private detective stories, police procedurals, legal thrillers, political thrillers, Da Vinci clones, ghosts and vampires. There's books for every taste. I'm always looking for that felicitous book where a great story and great writing come together.
Q. What's in the future for you? Will you continue writing stand-alones, or can you see yourself trying another mystery series at some point?
A. If I had an idea that lent itself to a series, I'd write it. Right now I'm working on another standalone. Also set in the suburbs.
Q. In parting, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A. Besides "Don't quit your day job"?
Seriously. Make it the journey that counts. Take pleasure in the people you meet. In the strengths that you didn't expect to find in yourself. Write for the pleasure of rereading your own words. Because it's really hard. And because you can.
Visit Hallie's website at www.hallieephron.com. Visit her blog at www.jungleredwriters.com.