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Take Five: Delia Ephron is dreaming of a lion

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2012 - Tracee is a kleptomaniac, fleeing in her wedding dress. Lana is a recovering alcoholic, running away from a past filled with bad baggage. Rita is a desperate housewife, married to a cold-fish minister. Marcel is a lion.

Together they are the main characters of "The Lion Is In," a funny, touching new novel by Delia Ephron. Stranded in a North Carolina town, the women spend the summer finding out more about themselves than they ever knew, all with the help of a lion caged in a bar who serves as a kind of spiritual adviser and counselor.

The characters quickly establish themselves in the first few pages, with this brief exchange of dialogue between Rita, who is walking along the road, and Lana and Tracee, who are on the lam in Lana’s Mustang.

“Where can we drop you?”

“Where are you going?”

“We’re not sure.”

“That’ll be fine.”

Ephron – part of a writing family that includes sisters Nora, Amy and Hallie as well as her parents, screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron – said the novel sprang from a dream that she had. It didn’t spring fully formed, of course. Writing and re-writing are a process she has honed through novels, screenplays, books of humor, journalism and a play written with sister Nora, “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” which has been performed worldwide.

In a telephone interview from Nashville, part of the tour for “The Lion Is In,” Ephron said she enjoys getting out to meet readers.

“I love talking about this book,” she said. “This is the most fun book to talk about. But someone told me if you talk about things like you’ve been trying to sell something all day, it depletes your ego. So I’m very worried about getting ego depletion. But I’m really having fun.”

Though she may be best known for her screenplays for such movies as “You’ve Got Mail” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” Ephron said she always thought of “The Lion Is In” as a novel, not a movie. Still, she added, one editor said the book could be thought of as Thelma and Louise and one more meet “Born Free.”

Ephron’s tour will bring her to St. Louis on May 2 at Macy’s West County as part of a girls’ night out that includes makeovers, modeling, prize drawings and refreshments. It is sponsored by the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

Tell me more about the dream that inspired the novel.

Ephron: It was a very, very powerful dream about three women. I knew two of them were 26 and their names were Lana and Tracee, and the third woman was older, in her 50s. I ended up naming her Rita when I woke up. Tracee was in a wedding dress, and there was a lion. When I woke up, I knew it was my next book, and I knew what the title was and I knew the lion would be in for everybody in the story, in one way or another. I also knew I would put them in North Carolina, a state I had never been in, ever.

I started writing in what writers call a white heat, where you think you’ll be done in five days. I knew these women were on the run. I knew that they had all kinds of secrets from each other, that they had done things the others didn’t know about. I didn’t know until I started writing that two of them had been best friends from childhood.

I wrote a draft before I went down to North Carolina, which was weird because I found things there that I had written, really specific things. There’s a moment in the story between Rita and the lion where she wants the lion to have a tree. She sees a lone tree in the middle of a field that looks like it has been struck by lightning. I got up in the morning in an area north of Rocky Mount and took back roads to random destinations, and I passed a field and saw the very tree I described. I screamed. I was really shocked. In the book the lion doesn’t know what to do with the tree, he just rubs himself against it. I got out of the car to look at the tree and a guy comes over and said you know, the bark is rubbed off the tree because the goats over there come over and rub themselves against it. I didn’t know what to say. It was really overwhelming.

In the book, Clayton drives a vintage Chevy Bel Air convertible. In North Carolina, I went into a house and was chatting with people. It was a place where people don’t have much money. The husband came home, and when I left, there was a vintage Chevy Bel Air convertible he was driving. I really think it was some sort of destiny for me to write this. Don’t you think it’s strange? I don’t understand it at all.

The opening of the book is very cinematic, almost like stage directions. When you got the idea, did you have to decide whether it would become a book or a screenplay?

Ephron: With any sort of thing I think of writing, that’s always a question. What is it? I have tried to write in different areas. Each thing you write tells you what it is, if you really, really love something, and it’s personal.

If you write something as a screenplay, and this could really be a movie, you don’t own it. Someone else could come on as the writer, and you could be fired. Almost all screenwriters are fired, some very frequently. I knew it could eventually be a screenplay, but not at first. It has too much of my voice in it. I try to find that sweet spot between comedy and drama. With movies, it always has to be a comedy or it has to be a drama. There are so many rules about movies. I didn’t want to trust this story to the movies. So all of those things meant this was not going to be a screenplay first.

You come from a family of writers. Is that something that is genetic or learned, nature or nurture?

Ephron: It’s definitely genetic, but in my family it was also about nurture. My parents so rewarded anything that had to do with writing. My father would say that’s a great line, write it down. That’s a great title. We were constantly being clever. We were being told we would leave California, it’s not a serious place, we would have to move to New York. The messages from our parents were direct and indirect, but we all knew writing was what we were supposed to do.

Nora started immediately. I didn’t even think about being a writer until I was 28, my sister Amy started in her middle 30s and my sister Hallie in her 40s. In the end it was a destiny for everybody. It had to have a genetic component.

It’s really a fun life. If you can make a living from your imagination, it’s kind of great. It’s good fortune. Really, I am so grateful that my parents encouraged it. So many people grew up in families where they were told not to be an artist to do something more reliable. I am so grateful my parents told me to go for your dream. And in “The Lion Is In,” Marcel is the facilitator, the shrink, the higher power, the one helping these women change their lives. I think we all have the imagination to change our lives. We need to have the bravery to use it.

How do you like to write? How do you like to read?

Ephron: Of course I wrote on a computer. But having said that, I still believe in rewriting and I so value once having had a typewriter, I always print everything out and type it over again, because it gets you into a zone where you are free associating and gets you into the right spot mentally. I do so much printing out.

And I totally believe in work habits. You have to have them. That is the first thing a writer needs to do. I love to write now, but when I first started it was so painful, I had to practically glue myself into the chair. But now I love it. It’s kind of like working out. You may hate it at first, but once you start doing it, you get into the habit.

I like reading paper books. I like to know where I am, I like to be able to move forward and backward, especially backward because sometimes I have missed things. A book feels like more of a commitment, a real book. So I buy things I love in book form. But you can never resist the change in the world. It’s there, and you have to go with it. I love bookstores so much. I grew up browsing in bookstores. I think they’re a national treasure.

In the acknowledgements in “The Lion Is In,” you thank “my dog Daisy (may she rest in peace), who started it all.” What role did she and other animals play in your life?

Ephron: Until I had a dog I didn’t know about animals, I didn’t know how they could expand your heart and your imagination and what is possible in the world. Daisy did that for me. In my 30s, when I got Daisy, I was also a stepmother, and it’s nice to have a dog in the house when you’re a stepmother because a dog loves you. I began thinking different about things in life because of Daisy.

Marcel is a lion, but I know I would never have had that dream about a lion if I had never had a dog.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.