Thriller writer shares her story
An audience of library supporters gathered virtually on Thursday night for a talk by thriller author Hallie Ephron, who talked about growing up in a family of writers in Beverly Hills, her winding path to writing, and how she builds suspense in her novels that have been called “deliciously creepy.”
The virtual event was held in place of the Wareham Library Foundation’s usual dinner and author talk.
Ephron is the author of the Dr. Peter Zak mysteries and a number of standalone domestic thrillers. Her most recent book, “Careful What You Wish For,” follows a professional organizer married to a man who can’t pass a yard sale without stopping.
Ephron’s parents, Henry and Phoebe, worked as screenwriters for 20th Century Fox beginning in the 1940s. The duo got their start in New York, co-writing a play while living with the in-laws and raising their first daughter in the Bronx.
All of their children are writers, too: Nora, the eldest daughter, wrote a number of books and screenplays, including “When Harry Met Sally;” Delia writes novels and screenplays, including “You’ve Got Mail” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants;” and Amy writes novels for children and adults, including “A Cup of Tea” and “The Castle in the Mist.”
Hallie Ephron said that when she was young, she adamantly did not want to be a writer. She said her conviction stemmed at least partially from a desire not to become her mother. Her mother, though brilliant, was a severe alcoholic who eventually died fairly young due to cirrhosis of the liver.
Ephron said her sister Nora told her that once while she was visiting their mother in the hospital, Phoebe said, “You’re a writer. Take notes.”
So -- resolved to not write, Hallie Ephron became a public school teacher in Upper Manhattan, and loved her job. She went on to work in high tech, and spent time teaching at Curry College, where her husband is a faculty member.
“I think I may never have become a writer if I didn’t know I had the genes for it,” Ephron said.
After her daughters were older than she was when her mother died, Ephron said she finally felt able to write.
“I had stories to tell,” she said.
Her first five books follow Dr. Peter Zak, a forensic psychologist who unlocks mysteries through behavior, not physical clues. Ephron co-authored the series with Donald A. Davidoff, Ph.D, a longtime family friend and psychologist who works at Maclean Hospital and evaluates murderers, often serving as an expert witness at trial.
Ephron then began writing her standalone thrillers that often are tightly tied up with family life: studying marriages, sisterhood, or multiple generations of a family. Ephron said she especially enjoys writing sharp-witted elderly women.
“I’m inspired by old movies. I like to think of the narrator as the camera’s eye, and I like to put you right in the narrator’s head so you see what they see, feel what they feel. So if there’s any suspense, you’re getting it right here,” Ephron said, putting her hand on her chest.
She said that while writing, she often thinks of a scene in “Suspicion,” the Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine. In it, Grant plays a young man married to a wildly wealthy but ailing woman.
Throughout the film, the sense that he might kill her for her money grows to fuel an especially chilling scene. Grant’s character is bringing a glass of warm milk to Fontaine’s character as she lies in bed. He slowly makes his way up the stairs with the milk on a silver tray -- the shadows of the bannister creating an ominous web of shadows over his body as she lies waiting, while the viewer waits to find out if he is on his way to kill her with a glass of poisoned milk.
As the tension in the scene grows, the glass of milk seems to glow.
And, in fact, it does: Ephron said Hitchcock put a lightbulb inside the glass of milk, making it impossible for the viewer to gloss over or ignore it.
“That’s what I try to do,” Ephron said. “Put a lightbulb in the milk.”
Personalized copies of Ephron's latest book, "Careful What You Wish For," are for sale for $20, with proceeds to support the Wareham Library Foundation. To purchase a copy, go to http://www.supportwarehamlibrary.org/annualfundraiser.asp. Books will be for sale through the end of the month.