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Everything Is Copy

On the plane to New York last week, I saw a documentary called ‘Everything is Copy’ about Nora Ephron (1941-2012), the American writer/director known for films such as Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia. Ephron was also a formidable journalist and novelist. Her best-known and most controversial book was Heartburn, in which she depicted the demise of her second marriage in barely disguised fiction.

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The documentary was made by Ephron’s son after her death, and featured interviews with her writer sisters, her friends and colleagues, and even the ex-husband of the excoriating Heartburn. Its title came from the mantra of the Ephron sisters’ parents: both writers, who led reckless, destructive lives, and who seemed to justify disorder in order to write about it to earn their living. These days we’d say #nofilter.

Only, at the end of the film, the phrase is amended to apply to Nora specifically: everything is copy once you’ve lost it, or once it’s been thrown away. Because while Nora Ephron exposed nearly every aspect of her life, she concealed the fact that she was dying from almost everyone she knew. She didn’t write about it. She controlled the disclosure of her passing. That wasn’t copy. That was living.

Yesterday, I listened to Artemis Cooper tease the discussion in another direction in her conversation with Mariella Frostrup on ‘Open Book’. They were discussing Cooper’s biography of the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, of whom you could say (as you could say of many writers): how is it her fiction was so wise and perceptive when in life she appeared naïve and careless? Cooper turns the paradoxical questions into one statement: it’s because of the way she lived her life that her fiction is so rich and knowing.

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Both programmes got me thinking: to what extent is fiction dependent on reality? Is it a requirement for that essential ring of truth? As writers, how can we be sure that we’re sufficiently in control of our experiences to record them usefully for other people?

Maybe we should steer clear of it. Anne Tyler says that if something happens in one of her novels, you can guarantee it hasn’t happened to her in real life. She wants to live other lives, not to pontificate on her own. Jan Mark said, ‘Don’t write about people you know, write what you know about people.’ (In her adult novel, Zeno Was Here, an author speaks of characters being created from parts, like Frankenstein’s monster.) But Ann Patchett wrote Commonwealth, a novel based on her parents’ divorce and remarriage, where each of her real-life siblings has a direct fictional counterpart, because she could think of no greater fictional challenge than writing about her own family. To Patchett, writing this story was life breaking through a barrier which would enable her to move on and tell other stories.

I subscribe to Jan Mark’s characteristically wise and practical advice because it led to some truly brilliant and memorable characterisation from Thunder and Lightnings right through to Voyager, her final novel. Most importantly, to me it speaks of that essential space around (beneath? above?) your physical writing life and your creative life that I wrote about recently. I think the Howard and Ephron programmes speak of this too, in different ways.

Do you agree?

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