Hollywood Childhood Inspires Hallie Ephron's Latest Suspense Novel
Hallie Ephron began writing what’s become her latest suspense novel, “Night Night, Sleep Tight,” about two decades ago. But at that point, it wasn’t a novel—it was a memoir about her growing up in the ‘60s with her family in Beverly Hills: 20th Century Fox screenwriter parents Henry and Phoebe Ephron (“Carousel,” “Daddy Long Legs,” “The Desk Set”) and writers-to-be sisters Nora, Delia and Amy.
Was it a glamorous life?
“If you’re the daughter of screenwriters, you’re not with movie stars, you’re not A-list,” says Ephron. And a fall was around the corner.
“My parents lost their jobs when 20th Century Fox let them go as contract writers,” Ephron says. “The studio system was falling apart. This was really seismic change time and 20th Century Fox was nearly bankrupted by ‘Cleopatra.’ Suddenly, my parents are working from home and they’re working on spec, as everyone does nowadays. I think they aged out. They went back to writing plays and they wrote [another movie] “Captain Newman, M.D.,” for which they were nominated for an Academy Award. But it wasn’t the same; there wasn’t a steady income coming in and it was unmooring for them. It never really was the same after that.”
As to their life at home, “My parents went out and drank and smoked. They [worked] at home. There was a risk they would be there [when we came home from school] and they would not be happy. I remember my parents going to see ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and they came back and vowed they would stop fighting and drinking. They were pretty moved by it. But that lasted ten minutes.”
Ephron says when she began writing about those days the writing consisted of “a lot of episodes strung together that didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t know about the story arc, but I knew I had a story to tell." In 2013, with eight suspense novels under her belt, she knew what she wanted to do. “I went back to thinking I would like to write about that,” Ephron says, “and for me at this point that means a murder. That’s what I’m good at."
So, that set the scene for “Night Night, Sleep Tight,” where the first-chapter death of faded screenwriter Arthur Unger opens a world of whodunits for his grown children, daughter Deirdre and son Henry.
There’s a key flashback to the mystery surrounding another murder, that of a famous actress’ abusive boyfriend. That was triggered by another real-life scenario: The infamous stabbing murder of Lana Turner’s gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato in 1958 and the confession of her daughter, Cheryl Crane.
“It actually happened right around the corner from where we lived when I was ten years old,” says Ephron. “I remember reading about and thinking what it must be like to be that girl. I’m sure she was never the same.” (It was ruled a “justifiable homicide.”)
There’s an advantage to writing about Hollywood because of all the recorded material. “It’s very convenient,” she says, “when the place you’re talking about is Beverly Hills and there’s so many archival pictures and tapes. You really can go back and do your research in an easy way. It’s not hard to figure out who would have been at a glamorous party in such and such a year and what movie they’d be in. I wrote about Deidre going to city hall as it was then and there’s a film crew filming out front. What would they be filming? Well, that was right before 'Beverly Hills Cop' came out. 'Beverly Hills Cop' filmed at that location. The wonderful thing about writing about the film business is you can make very realistic connections between things that really happened and your utterly fictional world.”
It’s not veracity, Ephron says. “I wasn’t trying for veracity. As a fiction writer, I’m shooting for believability.”
Ephron, now 57, began her novelist life in 2000 as part of a team, with Donald Davidoff, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital. They wrote five crime novels under the G.H. Ephron pen name, featuring forensic psychologist, Dr. Peter Zak.
“I think after five books we kind of felt we had done what we could together,” says Ephron, “and I was certainly ready to start writing my own stories. I wanted my books to be personal and every one of them is. I’ve done much better than the two of us did.”
Zak’s territory was greater Boston and Ephron’s first two standalone books were set in a fictional version of Milton, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Says Ephron: “The first book I wrote on my own, ‘Never Tell a Lie,’ is about my first child and being alone—that seismic change when you’re a working woman and all of a sudden you’re marooned in the suburbs with an enormous belly. It was so much to lose all of a sudden; I wanted to write about that.”
Ephron set “There Was an Old Woman” in New York City, where she went to college. “Now for number four,” Ephron says, “I go way back to where I grew up.”
Ephron’s main character is Deirdre, who, in 1985, is still reeling from the results of a car accident 20 years ago. It happened the night her mother’s boyfriend was killed with a single stab wound. Her mother, Elenor “Bunny” Nichol, had thrown a big party. All Deidre knows is that she and her best friend, Bunny’s daughter Joelen, were at the Nichol house, drinking and carrying on and then ushered out.
Her father may or not have been responsible for the subsequent accident. After that it’s a blur. Her father’s death a couple of decades later brings her back to Beverly Hills to settle his estate and try to find out what happened that fateful night.
Ephron, speaking of the twists and turns the novel takes, says, “A lot of people say they’re surprised at the end.”
For that matter, Ephron was, too. Many writers work from outlines. John Irving famously writes the last line of his novel first. Ephron says, that for her, "It’s a mess. …This book took me two years and I would say the first year was spent groping and hoping and not having a clue where it would eventually go."
"I was about two months from finished before I knew who did it. I have to keep going back and tie things up so there’s a through-line. It’s very iterative."
Hank Phillippi Ryan, award-winning mystery writer and WHDH investigative reporter, has been a supporter and friend of Ephron’s for a decade. “Hallie is fearless as an author,” says Ryan. “She gives herself permission to mine the deepest experiences she’s had. She opens her heart and soul to it. She’s an incredible communicator of not only story, but character and motivation and emotion.”
"Hallie understands that one the main tenets of successful crime fiction writing is to entertain your audience," she says. "Hallie has perfected the page-turning suspense novel."
Ephron’s late older sister, Nora, was, of course, the writing star of the family. “I’m always wary when people talk about her,” Ephron admits. “I’m always afraid somebody’s going to compare me to her because I can’t write what she writes. On the other hand, she couldn’t write what I write. It just took me a while to have the confidence to not be afraid of being compared and not being afraid of being not as good because how many people can be as good as her? She was amazing.”
Ephron says the two weren’t particularly close. “I loved her and we saw each other on holidays,” Ephron says. “But she was seven and half years older than me, lived in New York and had a very glitzy life. I lived in Boston and am more of a soccer mom, working person.”
But, Ephron, who reviews crime fiction monthly for the Boston Globe, says, Nora encouraged her to write: “She always said ‘You should get going.’”
Might she follow her sister’s path and attempt a screenplay from her books or write an original one?
“You know, I’d never say ‘never,’” Ephron says, “but I’m not really drawn to screenwriting. All of the things I do well — setting, internal dialogue, emotion, creepy sensations — it’s pretty much not what screenwriters write.”
Ephron starts off a skein of Masschusetts readings Tuesday night at 7 at Brookline Booksmith. Public readings could be the bane of a solitary writer’s existence, but Ephron says, “It’s almost my favorite part. I love meeting people and what could be more pleasant than talking about your own work and having people listen? It’s the ultimate. And I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m a suspense writer; I’m not a literary writer. I really want to entertain and want people to have a good time with my books.”
Ephron begins a series of area readings on March 24 at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith.
Jim Sullivan is a former Boston Globe arts and music staff writer who pens the arts-events website jimsullivanink.com and contributes to various publications, TV and radio outlets.