'Sister Mother Husband Dog': 6 questions for Delia Ephron

Story highlights

  • Delia Ephron is a best-selling author and co-screenwriter of "You've Got Mail"
  • Ephron's sister Nora, a famously prolific writer as well, died recently
  • Delia's book "Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)" delves into creativity, connection and loss
The death of a beloved sister is at the heart of best-selling author and screenwriter Delia Ephron's new book, "Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)." Her sister, famed writer and director Nora Ephron, with whom she worked on projects like the film "You've Got Mail," passed away last year. CNN's Jack Gray asked Delia Ephron about writing through her grief, sibling rivalry, and working with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. An edited transcript of the conversation is below.
CNN: Congratulations, it's a wonderful book. Understandably, the passing of your sister and occasional collaborator, Nora Ephron, has a place of honor: You begin with an essay about her death. I recall hearing her mentioning in interviews that your mother, also a writer, liked to say "everything is copy," meaning everything is material for writing. Even though Nora didn't publicize her illness, do you think she'd be on some level pleased with you writing about it? Perhaps she'd be disappointed if you hadn't?
Delia Ephron: Thank you. My mother didn't say everything is copy, although for writers everything is copy. She said "take notes," when she was in the hospital and she was dying. But she didn't say it to me. She said it to Nora. To me she said, "I hope you never tell anyone what happens here." So, mixed messages. I write about that.
Nora always said we shared half a brain, and we loved one another's work. I know she would appreciate this book. But she also said to me, about herself, "What is there left to say? I've said everything." Nora was rarely wrong, but she was wrong about that. It was a joy to write about her and it helped me a lot to do it.
CNN: You make the point in your book that there's no right way or wrong way to deal with terminal illness, even if you're a celebrity. Nora chose to keep her diagnosis private, while writer Christopher Hitchens went public with his. Why do you think it's difficult for some to accept that different people have different ways of approaching the end of their lives?
Ephron: Death is scary. It makes people frightened, upset, angry, and sad. How could it not? In Nora's case, I understood ... if you don't tell a friend that you are seriously ill, how shocking and upsetting that discovery must be. (Friends might ask themselves), "How close were we, should I have noticed?" (There is) a sense of betrayal and a desire to have been of help. And when people read you and love you through your work as they did with Nora, in their hearts they have a relationship. Or maybe some people are just judgmental. I have noticed that people are a tad judgmental, myself included.
CNN: It's a very poignant and emotional book in places, yet there is also plenty of humor and fun nostalgia. You and Nora wrote the film "You've Got Mail." Who would you rather be stuck in an elevator with, Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan?
Ephron: Meg, because she's more likely to be carrying a bottle of water and we might get dehydrated.
CNN: I'm a huge Diane Keaton fan and I got kind of nervous while reading the essay in which you describe a film adaptation of one of your novels, "Hanging Up," that she directed. Was that a bad experience? Please don't ruin Diane Keaton for me.
Ephron: I am so sorry that I made you nervous. In my book I am writing about the complicated nature of collaboration, and about how movies belong to directors, not to screenwriters. "Hanging Up" the movie belongs to Diane Keaton. "Hanging Up" the novel belongs to me.
CNN: You write lovingly about your dog, Honey. Is she really on a kangaroo diet? What does that entail? Because it sounds kind of sketchy.
Ephron: Sketchy? I buy dog food made of kangaroo and feed it to her. Honey loves it. Do you mean, how could kangaroo food cure her tendency to chew her paw? Well the truth is, it did for several months but then, just recently, she started chewing her paw again, just in time for publication. Maybe she's having anxiety about being written about. She's a very private dog.
CNN: Obviously, "Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)" is a book that's very much about family. In addition to you and Nora, your sisters Amy and Hallie are also writers. Was there/is there much competition? And how tired are you of people asking you what it's like being from a family of celebrated writers?
Ephron: Since much of "Sister Mother Husband Dog" is about what it's like to come from my family, I can't really get upset if someone asks me about my family. In fact I'm thrilled.
As for competition, siblings are basically uncivilized. My first memory of Nora was of her biting into a tomato in such a perfect way as to squirt juice in my eye. But, coming from a family of writers, we all take pains to respect one another's work and feel that we all have a right to write what we want. That's what we strive for. And mostly we succeed.