Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Author Spotlight: Hallie Ephron

Posted by Hannah Roveto

Some writers’ classes and conferences deliver more than others, in large part because the leaders have both a generosity and a gift for clearly and honestly communicating how to navigate those tricky next steps. Hallie Ephron is one of those who stand out for anyone who has heard her speak or taken her classes.

The author of the acclaimed Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style (Writers Digest Books), Ephron is also a co-author of the five Dr. Peter Zak mysteries, is an award-winning book reviewer for the Boston Globe, and has two new books on the way. The first is a readers’ guide, 1001 Books for Every Mood, coming out May 13 from Adams Media. The other is a suspense story entitled Baby, Baby and is coming out in early 2009 from HarperCollins.

Hannah Roveto: As we are a writers’ group blog, let’s start there. I know you are in a group yourself. Can you tell us how many people are in it and about your process?

Hallie Ephron: We have four: Barbara Shapiro, who writes mysteries; Jan Brogan, who writes mysteries too and who’s also with me at Jungle Red (the blog of five mystery writers); Floyd Kenske, who writes fiction; and myself. We meet once a month, and anyone who has pages submits them. We say we can’t do more than 30 pages (each), but sometimes people exceed that.

HR: Did you start that group with them, or how did it evolve?

HE: They were in existence for a long time already, and I joined two years ago when they were looking to replace someone who’d left. I’d been in another group for about eight years, which I loved, but I needed a group more focused on what I do.

HR: How many times does the group read one work? You’ve mentioned that you think there’s a danger of over-reading by the same people.

HE: We usually read as it’s evolving, then when the person does a major rewrite we might read it again. Beyond that, I have other people, about a half dozen whom I read and whom I use.

HR: So how many revisions of each project might you do?
HE: Many! Upward of eight, fifteen or more.

HR: Your bio lists earlier careers as a teacher, educational consultant and marketing copywriter. In fact, you recently blogged about passing a milestone in that all your work is writing or writing-related. When did you decide to focus on writing?

HE: Twelve years ago. I was always writing, of course. I taught. I worked in high tech writing marketing copy. But it wasn’t fiction-writing, storytelling.

HR: What prompted you to make the leap?

HE: I was old enough not to care if people compared me to my sisters (laughs). I’d stopped worrying about that. It was finally okay to try and fail; it wasn’t okay to fail to try. My kids were grown, too, and I had a room. Having a dedicated place to write changes your state of mind. If you take it seriously, your family does.

HR: Tell us about your first story?

HE: It was non-fiction. A terrible tragedy happened to a friend of mine. I rewrote it as fiction, but I ended up deciding not to proceed. There were survivors. I couldn’t do it, and decided I wanted to write fiction, something totally made up and not from real pain.

Right after that, my friend Donald Davidoff and I were chatting. We had him and his wife over and I was talking about what happened to my efforts with a book. Then we were talking about books we loved, and we started talking about mysteries. He’s a neuropsychologist at McLean Hospital and evaluates people who’ve been accused of crimes and testifies in court, which was fascinating. We decided to try to collaborate.

HR: The first G.H. Ephron book the two of you did – with forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Peter Zak and investigator Annie Squires – was Amnesia, which came out in 2000, then almost one a year appeared through 1995. Do you pull ideas from the news to some degree?

HE: Our inspiration comes from everywhere. The news, a dream, an idea. A what if.

HR: How does it feel when you get reviews like those from Publishers Weekly, saying you wrote a series to watch, with sharp writing, or when someone like Patricia Cornwell says your book is “original and entertaining?”

HE: It feels great. As nice as it is, though, it still comes down to wanting to make it work (long-term). It’s hard to make money, but it feels great to be a writer. It’s boring when people complain about the business. You get to meet people, travel, and I’ve had such fun with it.

HR: I took one of your editing classes last summer. It was very practical and hands-on, probably the best class I ever took. Your book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, is the same way, an amazing resource. How did that come about?

HE: Thank you. I am a big believer in “show me, let me try it, evaluate what I did.” You don’t learn much if all you do is listen.

I taught my first writing course at the Cape Cod Writers Center. I had just published and of course, I taught before. One of the people there was from Writer’s Digest. We hit it off and she sat in on my class; she was the one who said I should write a book. It just landed in my lap, which proves you never know what things you do will lead to interesting opportunities.

I’m a teacher. I enjoy it. I wanted to write a book that showed the thinking, that explained things but didn’t undersell the complexity. It takes it step by step: your ideas, before you write, how to start writing, how to introduce characters, how to revise and of course, how to sell. For me, that’s what other books didn’t always show. They offered generalities, or addressed specific topics. I wanted to take people through the entire process. When they’re done with that book, with all the exercises, they have the basics. I can’t teach people how to write, but I can show them how to produce a competent mystery novel.

HR: The book is useful for any writer, not just mystery. I refer to it all the time.

HE: The concepts do apply to fiction, non-fiction that tells a story, memoir.

HR: Now you are coming out with another non-fiction, with 1001 Books for Every Mood. Tell us about that.

HE: I was talking with my editor, who’s a friend, about books we love. Each of us was furiously writing down titles the other recommended. We weren’t talking about high-falutin’ books, necessarily; sometimes you’re just not in that mood. Sometimes you want something funny, or something about dance or food. Books can alter your mood, and you want that. So I wrote the proposal. There are more than 80 categories, like For A Kick in the Pants, or For A Shot in the Arm, For A Trip in the Fast Lane, For A Trip Down Memory Lane. I haven’t seen the galleys yet, but I’m really excited. Kirkus just interviewed me about it.

I included old books and new books. In the first section (For a Good Laugh), I have books by James Thurber and David Sedaris and Carl Hiaasen – quite a range. I came up with a system for rating the books on factors like literary merit, influence, inspiration, humor, controversy. I flagged books that are good choices for teens for for kids. I wrote a snappy, short description of each book and came up with lots of fun quizzes for the readers. We wanted to make it really a delightful book!

HR: There are always news books we want to try, but often it does come down to wanting something that makes you think or laugh. That should be a fun book to promote, and I imagine book groups are going to love it. You’ve also got another book coming out in early 2009, another mystery. Is this another G.H. Ephron mystery, or a Hallie Ephron book?

HE: Baby, Baby is my first solo effort; it’s psychological suspense. It’s about a woman who goes to a yard sale and talks her way into the house, then never comes out. It’s about what happened to her, but also what that disappearance does to the couple holding the yard sale: the wife, who is nine months pregnant, and her husband.

HR: You read a bit of that at Grub Gone Spooky when you were writing it, didn’t you?

HE: Yes, exactly. It’s really the brass ring for me as a writer.

HR: Can you tell us quickly about Jungle Red Writers? (The blog is a joint effort between mystery writers Rosemary Harris, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jan Brogan, Roberta Isleib and Hallie Ephron.)

HE: Hank was really the prime moving force behind that. She’s absolutely fantastic to work with. Tireless, funny. And Jan Brogan and Roberta Isleib – wonderful mystery writers and great friends – are sharp and funny. Rosemary Harris is the new kid, and her first novel Pushing Up Daisies just came out. Writing the blog is a fascinating process – sometimes I don’t know what I think about a topic until I write something about it.

HR: One last question: where did the initials G.H. come from for your first books?

HE: G. is from David’s pseudonym; I think it’s a family name. He was A.A. Greeley for our first book because we didn’t know whether the McLean would be comfortable with the fiction. They loved it, and let us use the site for our launch parties even, which was a lot of fun. The H. is for Hallie.

Check out Hallie’s Web site on May 13 to celebrate 1001 Books for Every Mood. If you submit a reader’s guide for one of the books it includes, you might win an autographed copy! You can find a list of upcoming workshops and conferences, and helpful writing tips as well.


Lisa said...

What a great interview! I just got "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel" and I'm looking forward to digging in and "1001 Books for Every Mood" is right up my alley -- it also sounds like the perfect gift.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

If Hallie comes anywhere near where you live doing workshops, I highly recommend making the effort to take one. The revision class I took was excellent, and the reason why I chose her as my first interview!


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Best line here: "It was finally okay to try and fail; it wasn’t okay to fail to try." Truer words were never spoken.

I was also a student of Hallie's and as I've said a thousand times over, she is among the best writing instructors out there. Since she's writing exclusively now (a big round of applause for Hallie!!!, you'll have to buy her book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, though it absolutely applies to all genres. It helped me over a major hump in my book. And I can't wait for Baby, Baby -- just-cannot-wait! Thanks for stopping by, Hallie. You're a goddess.


Barrie said...

Great interview! It was interesting to hear how your critique group functions. I'm in one too, and it's always fun to see how others handle it. Also, I read Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel and loved it.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for an interview both enlightening and interesting. I'm always curious about how other critique groups work and how people finally come to write a novel after thinking about it for a long time.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

What a terrific interview! And I do agree, Hallie is amazing. And her classes are amazing. In fact, that's where Amy and I met, right? Sitting together, newbies, entranced and enchanted (And somewhat intimidated) by Hallie's 2-day seminar on mystery writing at Grub Street.

So many good things from that one weekend. Hallie. Amy. Writers' Group. Grub Street. Jungle Red. Writing. The mystery of mysteries. Yikes.

Congratulations, Hallie, on Baby Baby. And on the 1001 Books.
Can't wait to read it!

Anonymous said...

I have to echo Hank's comments. Hallie's workshops are fantastic, but you'd better arrive early if you plan to attend one. She speaks to large rooms filled to capacity.

Sustenance Scout said...

I agree that this line "It was finally okay to try and fail; it wasn’t okay to fail to try." is priceless. It jumped out at me and will stay with me for a long time. Thank you!! K.