A Collaborating Dream Hallie Ephron

"I was afraid he was going to want to write, and he was terrified I was going to make him write."
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Combine a forensic neuropsychologist's knowledge with the skill of someone who has writing in her genes, add the comfort of a longtime friendship, and what do you get? A collaborating dream team.

Hallie Ephron and Donald A. Davidoff, writing as G.H. Ephron, have collaborated on three mysteries: Amnesia (2000), Addiction (2001) and Delusion, due out this fall (all from St. Martin's Press' Minotaur imprint). The central character, Peter Zak, is a forensic psychologist. The series has garnered excellent reviews, including Publishers Weekly's take on Addiction: "Some books grow on you. They start off in a leisurely style that just barely holds your interest but never quite gives you an excuse to quit entirely when, inexplicably, you find yourself increasingly interested in who and what's going on."

The collaboration works, Ephron says, because, "We always say we have absolutely no overlap in skills sets. He lives the life our character lives. I love to write. I was afraid he was going to want to write, and he was terrified I was going to make him write."

The Ephron-Davidoff friendship goes back to their college days in New York, when Ephron's then-fiance (now husband), Jerry Touger, was one of Davidoff's teaching assistants. The families stayed in touch and, several years later, ended up in the Boston area. In 1996, the pair decided to try their hand at working together.

"We meet one or two times a week, either in person or by phone," Ephron says. "We talk about what's new with the book, go over what's been written." They work together on an outline before starting a new book. "Outlining is like putting on training wheels," she says. "It gives me the courage to write, but we always go off the outline."

To help keep the main character fresh and compelling, Ephron and Davidoff allow only short time lapses between the times the novels occur. Zak "has to have something to change him—an obsession, a big setback, health, other relationships, old nemeses, crises at work. ... Don's already thinking about our fifth book."

It's been challenging for Ephron to write in a man's voice (the novels' point of view is first person). Feedback in the first novel's early stages helped make Zak's reaction to a confrontation physical rather than verbal, and provided other assistance. "A man notices a woman's figure when she walks in a room. Women have eight million words for blue; a man says dark blue or light blue."

She's most productive when she starts writing shortly after rising at 7 a.m. "I'm sharpest early, and though I can rewrite any time, day or night, I'm useless after noon when it comes to writing first draft."

Ephron's work space is what was once the play room for daughters Molly, 26, and Naomi, 21. "It's a small cozy room hanging off the side of the house with windows all around." A ladder of Chinese fortunes graces the wall by her computer: "Whenever I get discouraged, I read them. 'You are capable of fulfilling your ambitions' is the one on top. My favorite—'You will succeed in a far-out profession.'"

While one might quibble about whether writing is a far-out profession, it's not the only one Ephron has pursued. She's been an elementary school and college teacher and a high-tech trainer, and she's worked in multimedia design and marketing. Even today, she spends about 25 percent of her time as a freelance magazine and marketing copywriter.

If the Ephron name sounds familiar, it's no wonder. Her parents, Henry and Phoebe, were screenwriters, and then there are her sisters. Nora is best known for You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle and Heartburn; Delia's work includes Hanging Up and How to Eat Like a Child: And Other Lessons in Not Being a Grown-Up; and Amy's books include A Cup of Tea and White Rose. However, Hallie didn't start writing fiction until relatively recently.

"Coming from a family full of writers, I was always trying to define myself as something different—and that began with 'I'm not-a-writer.' ... Also, my sisters set the bar very high. What if I failed? Failure in private is one thing—in the public arena, it's quite another. ... I think I just got old enough and developed enough of a sense of who I am that it finally stopped mattering what other people think. I decided I'd rather have tried and failed than have never found out whether I can do it. Knowing I had the genes gave me the confidence to try. Then it turned out to be fun, I love it, it works!

"The thing that tipped me over into writing was a call I got from a freelance writer who said she wanted to write a piece on me because I was 'the one who didn't write.' That was all I needed to hear. 'If anyone's going to write about me not writing, it's going to me,' I found myself saying. I started with personal essays, moved on to short stories, a novel. It was a few years after that that Don and I started working together."

In addition to collaborating with Davidoff, Ephron's worked on a couple of novels on her own, including a coming of age story set in Southern California, where she was raised. As for future projects, "I haven't given any thought to collaborating with my sisters. It would be great fun. My daughter Molly is a wonderful writer—someday I'd love to collaborate with her."

From the September 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.

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