The World of Nora Ephron: A Reading List

Nora Ephron (Photo by Munawar Hosain/Fotos International/Getty Images)

Every Thursday, I wake up and perform the same routine: I drive to downtown Durham, NC, park and walk to the bakery for a coffee, then cross the street and unlock the bookstore I work at. I crank Dusty Springfield up, sweep the mats, straighten the display cases, and flip the open sign around. Occasionally, someone will wander up and try to come in, five minutes before open, at which point I can offer one of those tiny retail mercies — outsized, and ultimately more rewarding for me then them — and say, it’s fine, really, go ahead and come on in.

It’s a nice sequence, though it’s not lost on me that while doing my job I’m also reenacting a scene, one I’ve secretly carried close since high school. Few movies made it into my parents’ strict North Carolina household, but You’ve Got Mail did, somehow, and the opening reel played on loop in my head for years: Meg Ryan skipping down the steps, buying her coffee, rolling up the gate to her bookstore. It’s autumn in New York; the trees blaze with color and the Cranberries are playing. The scene was adhesive not just because it was a prelude to romance, but because it was a vision of adult life was that funny and smart and paid attention.

Ephron cherished the use of routine in her movies, in much the same way that she cherished the use of references — movies, books, songs — to make us feel as if we’re pulled into a greater narrative, one at once familiar and inevitable. Years after first watching the movie, I’d walk through Washington Square Park, smack dab in the middle of a thrilling autumn, as my friend SJ delivered an impassioned monologue about how messed up it was for Joe Fox to actively deceive Kathleen Kelly through an online avatar. (Now we have a set of unflattering romantic shorthands — catfishing, ghosting, benching — not yet available to Ephron in the ’90s.) In theory, I probably agreed with SJ, but I was new to the city and new to dating and not yet entirely deformed by cynicism. Mostly, I was distracted by how much the argument itself seemed pulled from an Ephron film: two friends (Ephron loved, and lingered, on the banter between friends) walking through a park, tugging their coats closed and arguing about love and narrative and the movies.

Somehow, You’ve Got Mail turns 20 this year. The landscape of romance and the social mores and New York has all changed (Amazon now representing a much less charming evil than 1998’s Fox Books), and my own relationship with her writing has changed, too. I’m less sure than I was, 10 years ago, about what she was trying to say. Still — I think the language she offered up for love and revision is as relevant as ever, and as happily easy to rip off. “Everything is copy,” Nora Ephron liked to say in reference to her omnivorous approach to art. Increasingly, I feel it’s just as true to say of the people who watch her movies and feel the tug of longing, of wit, and of attention.

1. “Nora Ephron’s Potato-Chip Legacy” (Matt Weinstock, June 28, 2012, The Paris Review)

In Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” last year, the most important — or at least, most quoted, most tweeted — line comes when the titular heroine is called into the office at her Catholic school. They’re discussing college options. It’s clear, the nun tells her, that she loves Sacramento. “I guess I pay attention,” Lady Bird says, at which point the nun looks at her intently. “Don’t you think that’s the same thing? Love and attention?”

Matt Weinstock makes a similar point about Ephron’s working definition of love, as found in a typical Ephron film — that anecdotal evidence of love can be found in the things you notice about another person, as when Harry delivers a monologue on New Years Eve, in When Harry Met Sally, about the amount of time that it takes Sally to order a sandwich, or when Sam describes his ex-wife in Sleepless in Seattle. Succinctly: “She could peel an apple in one long, curly strip. The whole apple.”

The beautiful thing about Weinstock’s piece is how closely it examines her flaws. It’s not mean-spirited, but it does take careful account of the inconsistencies of Ephron’s body of work, and the ways that she seemed to edit out her neuroses, or at least, outsource them to her characters. No matter. It’s a love letter, deeply felt, that doesn’t just pay attention to the quippy highlights of her legacy. The list of Sally’s idiosyncrasies that Harry rattles off, after all, aren’t all things that he necessarily likes about her. They’re his way of saying he’s paying attention.

2. “An Oral History of You’ve Got Mail,” (Erin Carlson, February 13, 2015, Vanity Fair)

Crisp white blouses, crab cake lunches on set, her aversion to the color blue — Delia Ephron, Meg Ryan, Hallee Hirsh (the actress that played Annabelle Fox — F-O-X!), and assorted cinematographers and producers from “You’ve Got Mail” gather to discuss Ephron’s relationship with her set, which of course also comes out to a conversation about her relationship with New York City.

John Lindley (cinematographer): [Nora] grew up in Los Angeles, right, but she had a love and a loyalty to New York that exceeded any native New Yorker that I ever met. She lived on the Upper West Side when we made that movie, and it was a little love story to the Upper West Side. And one of the things that I remember her saying is that many people think of New York as this monolithic, intimidating place. But when you live there, you realize that what it is: a bunch of little villages. And her little village was the Upper West Side.

3. “Nora Ephron’s Final Act,” (Jacob Bernstein, March 6, 2013, New York Times Magazine)

Ephron didn’t tell a lot of people that she was dying from Leukemia—an act of privacy that confounded her admirers, who’d grown accustomed to tracking her life, both onscreen and on paper. Wouldn’t a woman so intent on using her life for material (divorce, heartbreak, insecurities, messy purposes, dreams) want to write about her final act? Jacob Bernstein, Ephron’s son, wrestled with this idea enough to write a beautifully intensive piece on the last days of her death — and then, following in his mother’s footsteps, to turn it into art (“Everything is Copy,” his documentary, is available on HBO).

All her life, she subscribed to the belief that “everything is copy,” a phrase her mother, Phoebe, used to say. In fact, when Phoebe was on her deathbed, she told my mother, “Take notes.” She did. What both of them believed was that writing has the power to turn the bad things that happen to you into art (although “art” was a word she hated). “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh,” she wrote in her anthology “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” “So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”

4. “On the Front Lines With Nora Ephron” (Lawrence Frascella, July 8, 2013, Rolling Stone)

What kind of generation did Ephron think she was writing to? Her movies were often cultural close studies, taking her essayistic impulse to diagnose and putting it to screen. In 1993, on the cusp of stardom — before Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail — she debriefed with Rolling Stone’s (patently misogynistic) Lawrence Frascella about the state love in the 90’s.

The younger persons that I know, especially the ones in California, I don’t even think they have sex. They have business dinners and business breakfasts, sometimes two business breakfasts. But I believe very strongly that underneath all of that is just a bunch of romantic stuff. Everybody’s got it. That’s one of the reasons Tom Hanks’s character moves to the Northwest. He goes from Chicago, which is your modern, work-driven urban environment, to Seattle, which is – let me tell you, after three days there with my husband, Nick says, “This is a city where people have chosen lifestyle over work.” And he’s right. There are cities like this all over America, full of people who are kayaking and living the good life.

5. “You’ve Got Mail” (Casper Ter Kuil, February 20, 2018, On Being)

Like me, fanboy Casper Ter Kuile grew up loving “You’ve Got Mail,” and he freeze-frames that experience — of growing up in the age of AOL, and watching too natural-born enemies bumble blindly toward each other on a chat room — beautifully, here. In the late 90’s, it hadn’t become quite creepy to chat with strangers on the Internet—novelty still had its grip — but it also hadn’t become normal to the point of banality, either. There was plenty of room for projection.

MR. TER KUILE: Right. She doesn’t even know, really, who he is. And she says, at some point, “I just wanted to write this down. So good night, dear void. Even if it’s just going into the void, good night, dear void.” And I remember, like, I wrote that in my diary to myself. [laughs] I really thought I was that kind of person.

MS. PERCY: Oh, my God.

MR. TER KUILE: Just, like — yeah, just, like, you have so many feelings, and where is it all going? And I think that’s what I love about this movie, is, yes, it’s a love story, but they don’t meet until the very last scene of the movie. The story is really about an idea of someone. And I met my husband online, so there’s an echo in my own life here. But there is a — the story and the love that builds inside both of these characters is one of longing, and of really projection onto the unknown of what might be. And I’m someone who always lives kind of in the future. I love to think about future plans. And I think this movie is so much about that — that it’s — you get to create perfection in your mind before it even happens.

6. “An Interview with Nora Ephron,” (Kathryn Borel, March 1, 2012, The Believer)

Enough attention is directed at the aesthetics of mid-90’s romantic comedies, that it’s easy to forget that Ephron led a prodigious career as a journalist, for over a decade, before co-writing her first script with her first husband, Carl Bernstein, in the mid-70’s (she began her career as a mail girl at Newsweek, and went on to be promoted and, eventually, sue Newsweek in the class action lawsuit that was serialized in Amazon’s lamentably short-lived show, “Good Girls Revolt.”) Her 2006 interview in The Believer, though, devotes some nice attention to her years at the Post and Esquire, and the making of Ephron as a writer.

That moment, for me, was not Heartburn. It was a piece I wrote in Esquire called “A Few Words about Breasts.” I knew when I finished writing that piece that either it was going to be a huge success or be judged as a kind of “Who needs to know any of this?” kind of thing. One or the other was going to happen, but I absolutely knew that both were possible. By the time I did Heartburn, I was around forty. I had a very clear memory of being at my typewriter in Bridgehampton, where Carl [Bernstein] and I had had a house—that was now in the divorce—but we were still using it at alternate times. I was supposed to be writing a screenplay. And when I started writing, sixteen pages of that novel came out in two days. I thought, Oh, I’ve found it. The whole time the marriage was breaking up and I was in a state of complete torment and misery, I knew that this would someday be a funny story. I absolutely knew it. It was too horrible. It was too ridiculous not to be.

7. “Nora Knows What To Do,” (Ariel Levy, July 6, 2008, (The New Yorker)

This is one of the New Yorker’s best-paired profiles, with Ariel Levy a charming, adaptable match for Ephron’s rapid-fire banter. She also manages to pull a difficult trick, which is that her profile is an entirely reverent one which also finishes, in the last three paragraphs, with a modest pan of Julie & Julia. And yet, the register of the piece — staged thematically over award dinners and lunches across New York (if it has any flaws, it’s probably that too much time is probably devoted to Ephron’s tidy eating habits) — is still adoring, and probably gives us as much insight into the prismic mind of the icon as we’ll get.

Ephron detests whining: you can acknowledge a problem, but only in the service of solving it. “Nobody really has an easy time getting a movie made,” she said. “And furthermore I can’t stand people complaining. So it’s not a conversation that interests me, do you know? Those endless women-in-film panels. It’s, like, just do it! Just do it. Write something else if this one didn’t get made.

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Sarah Edwards s a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Village Voice, NewYorker.com, and The Baffler, among others.