March 29, 2011

It takes two: partners in crime

Behind the Book by
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It was a leaden, wintry Sunday afternoon two years ago, and Don Davidoff and I were supposed to be brainstorming ideas for our fourth Dr. Peter Zak mystery we share the pseudonym G. H. Ephron. Instead, Don was enthusing about a new magnetic resonance imaging scanner that had recently arrived at McLean Hospital, the psychiatric hospital where he runs an inpatient unit. This was not just any scanner. “It’s a 3.5 tesla,” he said. Teslas? I hadn’t a clue what those were. But if Don thought 3.5 of them were a lot, then I knew enough to be impressed. “What if . . . ” Don began. Obsessed with the brain since he first dissected one in graduate school, he was off, speculating. Could an up-close look at functioning brain cells reveal signs of dementia long before intellect began to noticeably decay? Don’s enthusiasm was contagious. We could use this in the book, I thought. Magnetic resonance imaging could be the backdrop for a story about a brilliant doctor whose research is driven by the tantalizing idea that dementia can be diagnosed and treated early. I began taking notes. By the end of the afternoon, we had a premise, a rough plot outline and a working title: Obsessed. During the week, I massaged the outline and e-mailed it to Don. That’s how our partnership has worked for the past eight years. We meet every Sunday, moving from general idea to broad outline to specific scenes. I bring the characters to life, create the drama and suspense, sprinkle the red herring, while Don lives, eats and breathes the issues we weave through our books. Lower-case amnesia, addiction and delusion have all turned into upper-case book titles. Obsessed, our latest, explores a range of obsessions from psychosexual stalking to obsessive hoarding to apotemnophilia (the desire to be an amputee). As in all our books, we examine what goes on in the mind and how that shapes the reality a person creates.

Our partnership is based on a 30-year friendship, and works precisely because we have virtually no overlapping skills. When we started to work together, Don was afraid I was going to make him write. It took me a while to realize that I’d been afraid he was going to want to write. That surprised me, because I’d spent decades insisting that I was not a writer.

I come from a family of formidable literary talents. My parents were Hollywood screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Carousel; Desk Set). My sisters Nora, Delia and Amy are all novelists and screenwriters. But I didn’t try my hand at the family business until about 10 years ago. That’s when a freelancer called. She wanted to write an article about me because I was, as she pointed out, “the only one who didn’t write.” I was shocked to hear myself shoot back, “If anyone’s going to write about me not writing, it’s going to be me.” Soon after that, my husband and I were having dinner with Don and his wife, Susan. Maybe it was too much wine, but by the end of the evening, Don and I had agreed to collaborate on a mystery series with a central character based loosely on Don.

“My better half,” is what Don calls Peter Zak, who is a little taller, a little younger and a little more conventionally handsome than his prototype. Like Don, a neuropsychologist, Dr. Zak runs a unit at a psychiatric hospital, and spends time in jails in four-by-four cubicles evaluating people accused of murder. That’s Don’s voice when Dr. Zak says, “A lot of people who end up accused of serious crimes are poor schnooks, in the wrong place at the wrong time, who rarely get an adequate defense.” I remember one of our earliest working sessions. It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in late summer, and we were supposed to be coming up with an opening scene for Amnesia, the first series novel. Instead, Don was wishing he was out rowing on the Charles River. I hate boats, but I found myself mesmerized as Don described the Zen-like state of calm rowing brings him. “You’re pulling, harder and harder, until the stern clears the puddles before the oars dip again, and boat, body and mind become one,” he said. I didn’t know if the stern was the front or the back of the boat, and I wasn’t sure what he meant by “puddles,” but I was absolutely certain that our character was going to be a rower. I began taking notes.

Hallie Ephron and her coauthor, Dr. Don Davidoff, both live and work in Massachusetts. Their fifth novel, Obsessed (St. Martin’s, $24.95, 320 pages, ISBN 0312305311), released under the pen name G.H. Ephron, goes on sale this month.

G.H. Ephron

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By G.H. Ephron
St. Martin's
ISBN 9780312305314

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