Writer, producer and director Nora Ephron is responsible for titles that have become indisputably iconic in America’s cultural archive: “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Julie & Julia,” to name just a few. Now, with a new book of essays, “I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections” (Knopf), which includes everything from Ephron’s thoughts on Pellegrino to the state of her elbows, the veteran humorist has added to her best-seller list.
In February, Ephron dropped by the JCC in Manhattan to speak with author and journalist Abigail Pogrebin as part of the ongoing series “What’s Everyone Talking About.” Ephron spoke candidly about her hits and occasional misfires, and why she doesn’t like being labeled a Jewish director.
Abigail Pogrebin: What can you do when an actor is on set and you see that the words you wrote aren’t coming to life?
Nora Ephron: I haven’t had a whole lot of that, but my sister, Delia, and I have this thing where we look at each other and say, “N.F.,” which is the worst thing you can say about an actor: “N.F.” Not Funny. But you know, you just have to hope when that does happen, that what’s there is good enough.
You’re clearly identified as a comedic writer and director but it was a serious drama,“Silkwood” (1983), that was, in many ways, the turning point in your career. Can you talk about why you haven’t written another drama?
Oh, I have. And I hope if you have $30 or $40 million, you might want to make it. I’ve done a couple of serious scripts. That’s one of the saddest parts of being a screenwriter: the unproduced scripts.
So you literally have them in drawers?
In a closet.
How did you make the transition from being essentially a stay-at-home mom to suddenly having to leave your two sons for the movie set?
I have to say, they were shocked to discover I had a career. Because when you’re a writer, you’re home.
I’m sure you’re asked all the time, “How did you do it?” Did you wrestle with having to travel for chunks of time or did you feel unapologetic about it?
Well, when I finally went off to do my first movie, the kids were, I think, 11 and 10, and I thought, well that’s more than half their childhood they’ve spent basically thinking I was Barbara Bush…. I did the latkes and all of that stuff at the nursery school Passover. So I thought when I left for a bit of time, they’d be fine…. But there’s no question; it would have been better for them if I hadn’t gone.
Do you think your decision to write “Heartburn,” about your divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein, and its success as a book (1983) and a movie (1986), helped you come through it ultimately?
Well, the money certainly helped, I will tell you that.
Where do you stand on marriage and romance?
I don’t have an overall view of it. I do think that some people get lucky. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it, but I do think I found somebody that is really good at it. So that makes it easier.
The New Yorker said that you were “probably the most successful woman director working in the country now,” and you said, “That’s a sad sentence in a way.”
I think when you call someone a woman director, when you have this little group called “the woman directors,” you’re basically marginalizing what directors who are women do. Everybody who is a director does the same thing… so to me it’s just a way of marginalizing.
What about when you’re called a Jewish director?
Nobody calls me that but you.
When I interviewed you for my book “Stars of David,” you said being Jewish probably would not rank in the top five most important things about you. Can you talk about why, since we’re at the JCC?
I very much grew up in a home where my parents were anti-religion. Did I tell you the story of when I wanted to be an Episcopalian? They always said, “We don’t believe in anything, but if you ever decide you want to have a religion, you can.” So when I was about 11, I went to camp one summer and read a book called something like, “Charles and Mary Lamb’s Bible Tales,” and I… decided to become an Episcopalian. My parents said, “Why?” and I said, “Because I believe in our Lord, Jesus Christ.” And they both fell on the floor, laughing. They thought it was the funniest thing ever. So that was the absolute end of my Christianity.
You did mention being Jewish in the John F. Kennedy op-ed in The New York Times.
Yes. In searching desperately for the reason why I was the only intern in the Kennedy White House that he did not make a pass at, I came up with the theory that perhaps it was because I was Jewish, but I don’t really believe that. The truth is, he did have an affair with a Jewish person, a couple of them.
Why did you once say, “It seems to me the most important thing you learn about failure is that it’s entirely possible you will have another failure”?
There are all of these books about learning though failure, and growth through failure. But really, failure is horrible.… I always thought it would be interesting to do a panel on movies that didn’t work, because people really remember them in some terrible way.
When you have a hit like “Julie & Julia,” do you believe the success can make you gun-shy, too, because you don’t want to take the chance that the next project won’t be as good? How do you bounce back when you’ve had projects that didn’t go as well?
Well, you just find the next thing you want to do. The thing that happens with writers is that you write something and you believe in it. And then you want to do it, and it’s kind of like childbirth: You forget the pain.
Abigail Pogrebin is the author of the books “Stars of David” and “One and the Same.” She’ll interview Alexandra Styron about her new memoir, “Reading My Father,” at the JCC in Manhattan on April 27.