Sticking Her Neck Out

Photo: Elena Seibert

It’s been almost twenty years since Nora Ephron last published a book (having written and often directed some of Hollywood’s most affecting—and lucrative—romantic comedies in the interim). But the former journalist kept writing essays, and her new collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck, is about what it’s like to be “a woman of a certain age—to use that old-fashioned expression.” By turns wistful and funny and coldly realistic, Ephron chronicles her hours of daily maintenance and looks back fondly on a complicated life of divorces, dinner parties, and victories great and small. She talked to Boris Kachka.

What made you want to write a collection like this?
I kept getting sent books that were called things like The Wisdom of Menopause that I just wanted to throw at the wall. Betty Friedan wrote one called The Fountain of Age, and you just want to go, “Ahh! Please, could somebody be honest about this!” 

People who know you only as the writer of When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail might be surprised you’re such a cynic about old age.
I can’t worry about that. Besides, that isn’t the only mode I’ve worked in, but it’s almost all I’ve been able to get made. I’ve written other things, sad scripts that are on the shelf that are unbelievably serious, hard-hitting political things—one of them I still have high hopes for is a movie about Mike McAlary, the columnist, which I hope Home Box Office is going to do.

Wasn’t there also one about those hawks in Central Park?
See, that’s another divine script that didn’t get made. I don’t want to be too pathetic here, because I’ve had a good life.

Your early essays were more journalistic, but these are really mostly observational humor. Do you think…
What, that people still want to read about their experiences? I hope so. I don’t see why it would stop, just because my book is being published.

Janet Maslin wrote in her Times review that “this is the wrong moment in world history to be worrying about finding the right shampoo.” Do you worry that some of your potential readers might agree? 
No, and I don’t think anyone should be criticized for thinking about things like what they look like—and, by the way, about all the things that go with old age: your health and the health of your friends and what your life was about. But I also write for Huffington Post about political stuff. So it’s not that all I do is about my neck.

So I guess you feel pretty good about blogs. Your generation seems a little more skeptical.
Yeah, well, in an era when everyone is dumping on journalists, it’s great for journalists to have something to dump on. But I think everyone feels a little bit beleaguered by the blogosphere, because it’s fundamentally such a parasitic thing. The New York Times just reminds me of some poor dead zebra on the veld that the lions are eating and then the coyotes are eating and then the vultures are sitting on the trees waiting to eat. These people at the Times who are the subject of Websites—this is unbelievable.

Would you say, with this book, you’ve gone over to the postfeminist camp?
No. I never fell into some category of feminism that believes that you didn’t care about physical appearance. And I don’t think I fall into real postfeminism, which is some kind of Sex and the City thing that believes walking around half-naked with breast implants is a statement about women in power. I would have to say if there was anything I was truly opposed to, it was tank tops. On all ages. 

You write quite a bit about cosmetic surgery in these essays. Can you tell me exactly what you’ve had done?
Is this on your list of “After it’s over and it seems all right, I’m gonna ask her that?” I’ve done all sorts of things. My favorite thing, it’s the thing we call filler. It’s in the book. But once they shot something in my lips and it was a complete tragedy.

What else is beyond the pale?
Face-lift—I’m just terrified of that. It’s a scary thing, when you have friends you actually don’t recognize.

Your neck looks fine, by the way.
Thank you, but see how high my collar is, right there? So you can’t really see it. I wore this for you.

Sticking Her Neck Out