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Archive for Sunday, November 14, 2010

Aging and algorithms: Nora Ephron explores memory process

November 14, 2010

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— Nora Ephron is thinking about algorithms.

She wonders what they are. It’s one of those concepts, such as Twitter and heavy metal, that exist only to remind her she has lived too long. Unsure of her own definition, she takes a little nip from that electronic flask in her handbag, that digital demon rum: her iPhone.

“Algorithm,” she reads, “a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps, as for finding the greatest common divisor.”

Exactly. “Thank God for my portable device.”

She is seated at an Upper East Side diner, around 10:30 a.m., warmed up in a dark blouse and matching slacks, enjoying scrambled eggs and crisp bacon, undisturbed by the occasional glances from two middle-age men, in business attire, in the next booth.

Ephron is 69, known for such books as “Heartburn” and “Crazy Salad,” and for the movies “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Julie & Julia.” She is a parent and grandparent settled in a long-term marriage with her third husband, author Nicholas Pileggi. She has been writing about silly and serious matters for 50 years, from hooded seals to nuclear power plants to the silly and serious matters of men and women.

As middle age became a certain age, the laughs have turned darker and the joke has increasingly been on herself. In 2006, she had her biggest commercial success as an author with the million-selling essay collection “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” The subjects included aging, illness and death, a corrective she says, to all those books that tell you how wonderful it is to grow old.

She is back with “I Remember Nothing,” essays about family, journalism and everyday and eternal bothers. There are lists of what she’ll miss (bacon, Paris) and what she won’t (funerals, mammograms). Much of the book is a farewell to her own memory. She’s not writing about Alzheimer’s, but the way people and places and events fade as if erased from tape.

This is a new kind of name-dropping. She can brag about having met the Beatles, but not about what they said. She doesn’t know. Same for Cary Grant, Dorothy Parker and Eleanor Roosevelt. She marched on Washington in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War and remembers only the sex she had in her hotel room.

As a reporter for the New York Post, she interviewed the much-censored Lenny Bruce several times.

“Lenny Bruce kept being thrown out of New York and every time he was, I was sent to meet him at the airport,” Ephron says. “What did he say? You don’t know and neither do I.”

When the brain fails, technology fills in. It’s her friend, her foe, her shadow. Her iPhone means she will never truly forget the name of a favorite character actor. But she worries that the screen is harmful to writing. In the old days, the blocked author had nothing but walls to stare at. Now, there’s Facebook.

And lying about your past is a lost and impossible art.

“My grandmother didn’t know when she was born. She had no idea, because she was born in Russia. The calendar was different. It was 18-something or other when she came to America,” Ephron says.

“I think you certainly can make the case that the ability to reinvent yourself is a lovely thing that’s probably been stolen from us completely by all this record keeping.”

Daughter of Hollywood

Born in New York in 1941, Ephron, the daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, spent much of her childhood in Beverly Hills, Calif. As she writes in her new book, regular visitors included “Casablanca” co-writer Julius J. Epstein, “Sunset Boulevard” collaborator Charles Brackett, and the team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who worked on “The Thin Man” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Everyone was in movies, “the business.”

“People who were not in the business were known as civilians,” Ephron writes.

She graduated from Wellesley College in 1962, moved to New York and started out as a “mail girl” and fact checker at Newsweek. A newspaper strike at the end of the year proved her breakthrough. Victor Navasky, the future editor of The Nation, was then running a satirical magazine called the Monacle. He was working on a parody of the New York Post, “The New York Pest,” and asked Ephron for a spoof of Post columnist Leonard Lyons.

She succeeded so well that the newspaper’s publisher, Dorothy Schiff, reasoned that anyone who could make fun of the Post could also write for it. Ephron was asked to try out as a reporter. Within a week, she had a permanent job.

‘Heartburn’

By the 1970s, she was reporting for Esquire and New York magazine and had met and mated with Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who teamed with Bob Woodward on coverage of the Watergate scandal. They married in 1976, and had two children. Ephron was pregnant with the second when she learned Bernstein was having an affair, a betrayal that had its rewards, once she stopped crying.

She wrote a novel, “Heartburn,” later a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. The book was so close to her life that Bernstein threatened to sue. The memory of the book’s birth is easily summoned.

“Yes, totally, completely, absolutely, sitting at the legendary and long-gone Smith Corona electric typewriter that I once had,” she says. “I was working on a screenplay and wrote the first 10 pages of a novel, and I knew the title, knew there were going to be recipes in it. This I remember, exactly where I was, working and knowing, ‘Oh, I see, enough time has passed that I’m ready to do this.”’

What’s next

She doesn’t know if she’ll write another novel and doesn’t worry. She just likes the writing process, whether essays or screenplays or the occasional entry on the Huffington Post. Her iPhone has not kept her from writing every day and from working on a film about singer Peggy Lee, with Reese Witherspoon expected in the starring role.

In “The O Word,” an essay from her new book, she anticipates growing too old to make jokes about her age. She will be “really old,” beyond sex in a hotel room, or even a frozen custard at Shake Shack. It would be nice if she believed in a higher being, she agrees, but the phrase “everything happens for a reason” is a sermon that only annoys her.

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