Nora Ephron in conversation
Since coming to New York last August, I’ve been taking courses at NYU. This means not only that I get to learn useful stuff, but also that I’ve access to wonderful resources, and to events. Today Nora Ephron was speaking with Pete Hamill at the so-called Arthur Carter Institute of Journalism at NYU, as part of a series called Primary Sources.
I’ve had a crush on Hamill since I first spoke to him a few weeks ago. I know he’s fairly famous and all that (he’s been editor-in-chief of the New York Post and the Daily News, has written numerous novels and covered wars in Lebanon, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, etc.), but he’s also simply nice (if that’s a word people still use as a compliment), friendly, and has a wonderfully benign air about him.
It also so happens that I recently read Ephron’s book Heartburn, about the demise of her marriage, when I visited a friend in London in September. I liked it. As Anna Shapiro put it in the New York Observer a few years ago, her wit is “sublime.”
Hamill and Ephron worked together at the New York Post, and the conversation was relaxed, as they reminisced and chewed over anecdotes. Ephron is 68. She looked effortlessly elegant, in black trousers, a black polo neck, and black boots, with dangly earrings. She gestured widely when speaking but otherwise sat utterly still, looking straight at whoever she was talking to, and sometimes blinking at an alarming rate. Hamill is 74 (or at least, he was born in 1935), and I don’t know why, but he reminds me of an old lion, it may be his beard.
The pair sat on red leather chairs chatting and bantering while the NYU profs fussed about getting the video ready (I’ll post it when it’s up but it’s not out yet).
Here are some excerpts from their conversation. My paraphrases and comments are in italics.
Update (Dec 24): After writing this post I realized that I found Ephron’s focus on the past somewhat grating. I’ve recently heard several journalists talk about how great it was to be a reporter in the good old days. Implicitly, and in some cases, explicitly, the suggestion is that young journalists now are a) not as good as they were and b) don’t have as much fun as they had. It’s annoying to hear that, especially when they’re presumably (?) getting paid to speak to college grads studying journalism. Surely they could offer something more positive? If they can’t, harping on about times of yore hardly helps. Having got that off my chest: the conversation is below.
NE: When I started out at the Post [in 1963] I was a mail girl, then a clipper, then a researcher. It was so sexist and yet nobody really thought about it. Men were writers, women were researchers — which really meant fact-checkers.
Hamill joined the Post in June 1960. He had been working as a cartoonist or, as he put it, “graphic artist.” When he got a job at the Post he worked as a journalist by night and did other work by day, so sleep was not high on his agenda.
NE: Times were different then. There wasn’t this thing that you had to go to journalism school.
PH: They [The Post] had a custom of summer tryouts, they were depleted over the summer when people took holidays. There was that sense of editors rolling the dice and taking a chance on people who didn’t have resumes but might have talent. It’s different now.
The Post also took a chance with women reporters.
NE: Yes. And why?
PH: The publisher was a woman.
NE: The paper had a tradition of a certain kind of sob-sister writing. There were seven editions in the course of the day and your job was to make the news into a feature story. This was the readers’ second paper [after the Times, which told them the news] so you gave them a point of view.
Another reason they had women was that they were cheaper.
PH: But my first pay stub was $108 per week!
NE: That was my second wage, after I got a raise. I started at $98. Ephron starts talking about the city room, the newsroom at the Post where she used to work. One door had a glass window. It was so dirty that someone had written “Philthy” on it with their finger, in the dust. It was romantic in its own way. You didn’t even have your own desk.
PH: They were always two chairs short.
NE: It was really fun being a reporter at the Post, that was why we all loved it. The front page stories of the Post in those days were very short — five or six hundred words. Fred McMurrough [I’m not sure about this spelling] said, “never start a story with a quote. We always want to know who’s saying it!”
Ephron’s recounts how she found her first front page story incredibly hard to write, even though she had great material. Another staff member helped her write it.
It takes a while to learn to do things, even things that look very simple. Always be careful that you overreach.
[My note: although her experience also proves the opposite. That front page story must have helped her career; and she later said she loves doing new things that she knows little about! See her comments on screenwriting below]
PH: We had terrific editors. One thing an editor said to me that was good advice for life — “if you want it to be true it usually isn’t.” It’s good advice — you wanna believe the woman or guy you’re madly in love with is perfect but they’re not. You roll the dice a few times in life before you hit seven. The editors were educating us as young reporters. It was all about craft.
NE: I didn’t know how to write a long piece or a profile or a column when I started, yet four years later I was writing a column for Esquire. You need to put yourself in a position where you can write and write and write, and finally you can write!
There’s no question in my mind, I have to say in all honesty that I not only wanted to be a journalist, I definitely wanted to date a journalist. And I did. I wanted it to be romantic in every sense. It was romantic and exciting but it was also fun after work. Journalists are so smart, and they’re unspecialized, you don’t have to worry about marrying a heart surgeon and having to talk about heart surgery for the rest of your life.
PH: They happen to be the worst husbands as well. The Hotel Earl, not too far from here, was full of musicians and newspaper men whom their wives had thrown out. But there was sense of the craft. That came first because nobody was going to get rich.
NE: We weren’t poor either.
PH: It was a lot more bohemian. Later, in the seventies, when people started getting paid what they should have been paid, the editors started to move to the suburbs.
NE: Everybody was a drinker. Well, not me, but all the guys. It was wild. People were just falling down drunk. Then they would sit down at their typewriters; and they were drunk.
PH: When did you start moving into other forms? Was that an accident?
NE: In my last year at the Post, I started doing freelance stuff at magazines. I was thinking, now what? Magazine work was harder and interesting. Then I became a freelance magazine writer. But I never gave up the first thing before the next thing came along. Looking back on it I pretty much changed my career every ten years. There’s no question, with screenwriting I really didn’t know what I was doing. And that was exciting.
PH: Says he taught himself to write by typing out the books of authors that he loved, like Raymond Chandler (not the whole book)
I think every writer is self-taught. I kept a journal. And for example, I took a Joseph Conrad paragraph — “storm at sea” — and would transform it to “snowstorm on land.”
NE: When I started screenwriting I knew about beginnings, middles and ends from journalism.
In the Q&A session I ask Ephron whether she thinks things have improved for women in journalism. In a Guardian interview she said that online journalism was a man’s world and I wondered why. She vehemently says there’s less chauvinism in the field, but says the digital world works better for men than women because they have more ADD and like multitasking. “And I believe men work fundamentally differently from women,” she adds.
In response to a question from Ephron herself — what advice would Hamill give to a young journalist starting out today — Hamill offers his thoughts.
PH: Get out and get a couple of years of becoming fearless in front of a keyboard. Don’t work for free. Get the fear out of yourself, the computer doesn’t write the story any more than the piano writes the music. I’m optimistic. I do think journalism is going to survive.
*The pic at the top is from the New York Observer (http://www.observer.com/node/39261).