Nora Ephron: Forget the hamsters

Nora Ephron on how the clash between reality and fiction in her novel Heartburn still causes friction today

It's been nearly 25 years since my second marriage ended, and 22 since I finished writing Heartburn, which is often referred to as a thinly disguised novel. I have no real quarrel with this description, even though I've noticed, over the years, that the words "thinly disguised" are applied mostly to books written by women. Let's face it, Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge they were never hit with the "thinly disguised" thing.

But as I was saying, I have no real quarrel with this description. My second marriage in fact ended exactly the way the one in Heartburn does, shortly after I discovered that my husband was having an affair with an unbelievably tall person. In the book, I thinly disguised myself by making myself considerably more composed than I was at the time, and I thinly disguised my ex-husband by giving him a beard that belonged to one of my friends. The unbelievably tall person he had the affair with remained unbelievably tall; it's my experience as a novelist that some things lose everything if they are disguised, even thinly, and that therefore it's best to just leave them alone.

On the other hand, most of the characters in Heartburn are entirely fictional, and many of the things that happen in the book didn't happen at all. I made them up. Or I stole them from other people. My therapy group, for instance, was never robbed at gunpoint, but I had a friend whose group was, and the minute she told me the story I stashed it in my "Use This Someday" file and hoped I would be the first person to take advantage of what seemed to me just the sort of comic, slightly public episode that was destined to be used by someone, sooner rather than later. The world I live in is filled with ravenous writers looking for material, and you have to move quickly if you want to write about even your own life, much less someone else's.

What's more, I am not and have never been a food writer. My mother never ran off and joined a commune run by a man named Mel who thought he was God. There were no pet hamsters named Arnold and Shirley in my first marriage, and my first husband did not talk to me in a high squeaky voice that was meant to be Arnold's, and I did not reply in a high squeaky voice that was meant to be Shirley's. But I do love food and occasionally write about it; it was my sister who ran off and joined a commune run by a man named Mel who thought he was God; and during my first marriage there was quite a lot of talking in high squeaky voices, on account of the cats.

Furthermore, I left out a lot of what happened, but I never get credit for this, especially from my second husband, who ought to be grateful I did.

Everyone always asks, "Was he [first husband] mad at you for writing the book?" and I have to say, "Yes, yes, he was". He still is. It is one of the most fascinating things to me about the whole episode: he cheated on me, and then got to behave as if he was the one who had been wronged because I wrote about it! I mean, it's not as if I wasn't a writer. It's not as if I hadn't often written about myself. I'd even written about him. What did he think was going to happen? That I would take a vow of silence for the first time in my life?

Here's another fascinating thing about the episode: the unbelievably tall woman who had an affair with my then-husband had a husband of her own - an extremely pompous British civil servant I thinly disguised as an extremely pompous American civil servant - and to this day he constantly takes shots at me for the damage I did to his family. I mean, really! He and his wife eventually divorced, and let me tell you, it was not my fault! And this book had nothing to do with it either! This is the first time I have written about this episode when I wasn't thinly disguising things, and look at all these exclamation points that have just leapt into the text.

My mother taught me many things when I was growing up, but the main thing I learned from her is that everything is copy. She said it again and again, and I have quoted her saying it again and again. As a result, I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book - if I could just stop crying. One of the things I'm proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy - and if that's not fiction, I don't know what is.

Nora Ephron

The GuardianTramp

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