Author Hallie Ephron pits reality against virtual reality in latest suspense novel

P. Amy MacKinnon

Hallie Ephron is bold. The week before her novel “Come and Find Me” was released (March 22), she sat in the living room of her Milton, Mass., home surrounded by a wall of books and lush greenery, perfectly relaxed, blissful even, about her future.

“It’s very exciting to be my age and to feel as if I’m starting again,” said Ephron, 63. “The important things in my life haven’t changed, but I think I’m interesting in a way I didn’t use to be.”

If interesting means carving out a hugely successful writing career after enjoying a comfortable career teaching and working in high-tech, the world would agree.

Though Ephron was born into a family of writers, she didn’t plan that life for herself. Growing up in Hollywood, her parents were Henry and Phoebe Ephron, screenwriters of such classics as “Carousel,” and her three sisters are Nora (“When Harry Met Sally”), Delia (“You’ve Got Mail,” along with Nora) and Amy (national bestseller “Crazy Salad”).

But it wasn’t until 1998 that Hallie Ephron felt the calling herself. That year, she began her writing career when, with full consent, she fictionalized the murders of a friend’s sister and co-worker. After spending three years writing that book, she decided to put it away because she was concerned its publication might inflict more pain on the victims’ families.

Soon after, she and her friend Donald Davidoff, a neuropsychologist, began collaborating on a novel. He provided the science and she the writing for what would eventually become the modestly successful Peter Zak mystery series. Though Ephron said their publisher wanted to buy more stories, she and Davidoff were no longer inspired. And Ephron wanted to write her own book, but she was intimidated by the prospect of crafting a novel by herself.

“I was scared to death I’d never have any good ideas,” said Ephron of those uncertain months. “I was afraid to find out I didn’t have the right stuff. I knew I could write, but I didn’t know if I could do the twists and turns that are required to plot a book.”

Ephron was so concerned about getting it right, she didn’t show her literary agent the novel until it was completed to her standards. She needn’t have worried.

“She gave me a very haunting story, ‘Never Tell a Lie,’ her own first standalone, which was harrowing, this side of ‘horror,’” said Ephron’s agent, Gail Hochman. “It was exciting and escapist and believable all at the same time. I sold that very quickly to Harper Collins. We were successful with this one in France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Czechoslovakia and it saw a television movie.”

That movie, renamed “And Baby Will Fall,” debuted on Lifetime with a repeat due to air Sunday.

Hochman said Ephron’s strong writing and storytelling – which won her rave reviews from USA Today and others, in addition to magnificent support from Indie Next and Barnes & Noble – made it easy to quickly sell her second novel, “Come and Find Me.”

In the new book, Ephron delivers a compulsively readable story about what could have been a complex topic. It’s the story of Diana Highsmith (yes, that’s a nod to the great thriller novelist Patricia Highsmith), whose life and company are based in a virtual online world until her sister goes missing and she must assume the identity of her avatar in the real world to find her. A pretty risky move to try to distill such a concept, but a good writer can make the difficult appear easy, and Ephron is a good writer.

Said Hochman, “These novels deliver just what a reader wants, a smart, stylish, very engaging story.”

Ephron’s editor agrees.

Kate Nintzel, a senior editor at William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins, said Ephron is the ideal author because she’s smart, works hard, and consistently delivers great novels.

“Her books always have a high concept with an ending that really packs a punch,” Nintzel said. “We just bought two more books from her. We think she has a very bright future. We’re excited about continuing to work with her.”

Ephron’s friend and blog partner on the website Jungle Red, Hank Phillippi Ryan, is a big fan, too. Ryan, author of the Agatha Award-winning Charlotte McNally mystery series, said Ephron came into her life just when she needed her most.

“There’s a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” Ryan said. “That’s what happened with Hallie and me. I was halfway through writing my first mystery and realized I had no idea what I was doing. Not five minutes later, I saw an email from Grub Street, advertising a weekend mystery writing workshop with Hallie Ephron. Of course, I knew her novels, and her reviews, so I thought, well, the universe is sending me a message.” That was in 1995 and they’ve been friends, colleagues and critique partners ever since.

“What makes her special as a writer? The same things that make her special as a person,” Ryan said. “She’s passionate. Relentlessly curious. She’s well-read and thoughtful and hilarious – with a droll and sometimes wicked sense of humor. She sees the possibilities in everything. She’s always asking ‘what if?’ which is the mantra of mystery authors. And she tells a knockout story.”

Some might say that willingness to challenge herself, to be bold where others might be content, is what sets her apart.

“I think I do something that’s hard to do well,” Ephron said. “It’s really hard and I do it, and I do it well.”

The Patriot Ledger