You might know the name Ephron — yes, the dynasty: mother and father screenwriters and four daughters, all writers — but if you’re a crime fiction reader, the Ephron of note is Hallie. Hallie Ephron is a New York Times-bestselling author and a perennial honoree during crime fiction award season. In her talented family of origin she was the obedient one, the sister who took decades to try her hand at writing. In the community of mystery writers and readers, she needs no qualifier. She’s the one who helps budding crime authors tune up their craft, and she writes a hell of a story.
Ephron’s novels are hyper-contemporary, engaging with our very of-the-moment fears about family life and the modern world. In her latest, Careful What You Wish For, Ephron has written what might just be the first crime fiction novel to “spark joy” by inciting terror in the decluttering industry. (Think Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up crossed with Storage Wars plus, well, murder.) Careful What You Wish For is a tidy novel without a lot of subplots or loose threads. What it’s likely to spark is a night or two up past a civilized bedtime.
I talked to Ephron about the origins of her novel, her advice for dealing with a pack rat, and what sparks joy for her.
Where did Careful What You Wish For start for you? An image, a character…? What drew you into this story?
For me, stories usually start with a click — something personal connects with something I start hearing about in the news or social media. For this book, over the years I’ve written pieces inspired by my husband who’s a world-champion yard sale-er. There will never be enough shelves in our house for his books. He doesn’t have a filing system so much as a piling system.
When I found myself slavishly following Marie Kondo’s instructions for decluttering my closet and folding my socks, I knew I needed to write about the kind of marriage where one partner is inured to clutter and the other is not. It got darker from there.
Your protagonist, Emily, is a professional organizer, sort of a Kondo-esque figure using Instagram and video to complete the process — all of which makes the story feel very today, very modern. Was that something you set out to do?
It was. It’s so easy to share photos and videos these days, it occurred to me that it would be easier to part with that beloved herd of plastic horses that you collected when you were eight or that flowing pink chiffon you wore to your senior prom if you had its image saved in a digital archive. Emily Harlow makes freeze-frame videos capturing the possessions of her clients before they vanish. She calls her business Freeze-Frame Clutter Kickers.
Emily’s husband, on the other hand, is a hoarder — a little like your own husband. I’m sure you don’t want to murder him (not a spoiler), but how much do you use real life in your fiction?
First things first. My husband is a sweetheart with many redeeming features. He sparks joy. He is not in the book, but his stuff is.
All the material about old books and prints and maps are there because that’s his sweet spot. Most of what he drags home ends up in our basement or attic or garage, but occasionally he brings something home that I love, too. Like a framed 19th century Japanese woodcut that a woman was selling for $5.00 because a friend gave it to her and it “didn’t go with my décor.” But he’s never scored original magazine art cover like what’s in the book, though he’d dearly love to.
What authors have been your inspiration? Who do you read to keep current?
I write what you might call women’s fiction with a twist of suspense. Creepy, not icky. I want readers to think, Yes, this could happen to me, and shudder. Authors who’ve inspired me would be Daphne du Maurier, Amanda Cross, and Ruth Rendell. This time out, I truly owe a debt of gratitude to Patricia Highsmith and Strangers on a Train. I try to read the bestsellers that people are talking about, but I’m a big baby when it comes to graphic sex or violence and studiously avoid stories in which children get hurt.
You’ve had a ton of accolades and have reached the gold standard in sales, the New York Times bestseller list. But you also teach a good deal. What do you like about teaching and what advice would you give to someone starting out writing or publishing their first crime novel?
Thank you! I was a teacher long before I ever thought about writing fiction. I come from a family of writers and my mother, a Hollywood screenwriter, was horrified when I became a teacher. I spent years teaching elementary school, then college, then adults in high-tech companies. I started writing fiction around the time I turned forty. Combining my two passions, teaching and writing, is like having my cake and eating it, too.
My advice to writers would be to read in your genre. If you’re writing thrillers, read thrillers, Suspense? Read suspense. Know what the clichés are so you can avoid them. Publishers want: “the same but different.” So it behooves you to know what “the same” looks like… and then give it your own unique twist.
I also think you should write the story that speaks to your heart. It’s too hard and takes too long to do otherwise.
In all your research into decluttering, have you arrived at some tips for taking on a packrat spouse?
I have! Tips born of experience:
– Pick your battles: If his bureau drawers and closet doors shut, what’s inside them is not your problem. Your challenge is to stop thinking about it.
– Catch him unawares: At a quiet time, say, “Honey.” Pause and wait. “I need to ask you something.” Pause. “You know that pile on the basement stairs…”
– Bring in reinforcements: Got any grown children up your sleeve? Enlist them to help execute whatever plan to which you get Honey to agree. Your help will probably not be welcomed.
– Bribe, barter: The promise of homemade lobster bisque or a back massage can be a powerful incentive.
– Sublimate: It will be much easier to write a book about his clutter than to get him to change.
– And finally: If he speaks to your heart, keep him.
And what sparks joy for you, Hallie?
What sparks joy for me is the chance to help unpublished writers move their writing to the next level. I know, that sounds very Pollyanna-ish. But it’s the thing that truly sparks joy. Also: birds. I’m a very amateur birder. Spotting a bird you’ve never seen before is like adding to a collection without adding to the clutter.
Hallie Ephron is the New York Times-bestselling author of Never Tell a Lie, Come and Find Me, There Was an Old Woman, Night Night, Sleep Tight, You’ll Never Know, Dear, and Careful What You Wish For. Daughter of Hollywood screenwriters and the third of four writing Ephron sisters, she is a five-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, as well as a nominee for the Anthony and Edgar Awards. She’s the author of Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel: Revised & Expanded, and teaches writing at workshops and conferences.
Careful What You Wish For
By Hallie Ephron
Published August 6, 2019
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.