Delia Ephron, LEFT ON TENTH

Delia Ephron, LEFT ON TENTH

Zibby is joined by bestselling author and screenwriter Delia Ephron to talk about her latest book, Left on Tenth, which combines emails, articles, medical records, and memoir. Delia shares what she learned from the moments that she did not remember as she went through treatment for leukemia as well as why her New York Times essay about her diagnosis was infamously missing her byline. The two also discuss the influence Delia’s late sister, Nora, has had on her career, how her new relationship stabilized her throughout her second battle with cancer, and the uncanny experiences she has had that reveal her strong sense of intuition.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Delia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful memoir, Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life, and love and hope. I love this cover.

Delia Ephron: I love the book jacket. It is very, very lovely.

Zibby: Delia, this memoir is amazing. It’s a combination of emails and letters and articles and your life story of losing your husband, falling in love again, and your own illness and getting through that. It’s funny and raw and open and just awesome. Why did you decide to write this memoir? Why do it?

Delia: After I got well — let us just say I survived leukemia, AML, which is fierce leukemia. I had a stem cell transplant, which is also known as a bone marrow transplant. I was so completely sick and so debilitated. I couldn’t walk. I was in a wheelchair. It took me a year to come back and to know that I would stay alive. I didn’t think I would ever write again. It was such a debilitating — well, you can read about it. It was quite an ordeal. I’ve had a good writing life, so I thought, oh, okay, but writing is a calling. It is the place where I’ve always been happiest. Then just one day, I started collaborating with a friend in the building who’s a composer to do a musical based on my book, The Lion Is In. The next thing I knew, my writing heart was beating again. Then we had COVID. That is not the reason I wrote it, but it certainly was a great isolation time for having this to do. Then, it was two years post-transplant. In fact, I went in to see the doctor in February 2020. He said, “Okay, it worked. You’re no more likely to get leukemia now than I am, and I’ve never had it.” I practically danced out of that place. That was February. In March, the whole world shut down. I realized life had given me an amazing story. I’m a dramatist, so it was everything that I could possibly want, and also, enormous eccentricities, the kind of things I love, like the fact that I met Peter because my internet crashed trying to disconnect my late husband’s landline. That is so perfect for me as a writer.

I had a friend, a young filmmaker, she collected everything in my computer that I had written from the time that Jerry had died. She got all my emails. Here, let me show you. She gave me six loose-leaf binders this gigantic in chronological order, everything printed out. I began to work from that. There were things I didn’t know, especially when I was sick. I didn’t know them because I didn’t remember them. I was too fragile in the hospital to know. When my friend Mara said to me, “You were in the ICU,” I said, “When?” I had no idea. Doing the book was kind of a treasure hunt for all these things that now that I had the safety of being healthy, I could hear and appreciate in a different way. All my friends told me things I simply could not believe. My friend Gail Monaco, who lived in the building then — when I found out my leukemia was back and then I really just either had this bone marrow transplant or I would die — I had very low odds. I came home that day, and I just roped her up in the — I met her in the lobby. “I need you. Please come up.” She never had been in my apartment, this poor woman. a therapist. I was rounding up my warriors who I needed to go on this journey. She said I had absolute undefended terror. She said the terror was so powerful in the room that she just felt sucked right into it. From the safety of being well, that was a powerful dramatic element. The book has so much drama. It’s a festival of drama. Also, I sent for my hospital records. I was in the hospital a hundred days, so I had six thousand pages of hospital records. I did not get through them. I stopped at about page 4,020.

Zibby: Wow. The funniest part — I can’t even say that it’s —

Delia: — Well, it is funny. It’s a funny book. It’s sad, but it’s also funny.

Zibby: When they were trying to get you in the MRI around the time of the ICU stay. You were cursing at the people. You wouldn’t let them put you in the machine.

Delia: I know. Mara said it was the most upsetting thing she’d ever experienced. She’s experienced worse things, I think, in other times and parts of her life, but in my life. She could not believe it. Peter came in and just took charge. I ripped my clothes off. He covered me up. She said it was so moving. I was sort of horrified by it. I was thrilled by it because I got to put it in the book. It was an amazing thing. It was the truth. It’s what happens. You have to tell the truth if you’re going to write your stories. That was what happened. Also, I’m not someone who does go around swearing at people. I was kind of excited from a safe place of health to hear that I’d acted out a little bit. Boy, they boss you around a lot in a hospital.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I like how they were reminding you, you are not your sister. Yet how can you not be worried when you get a disease and you just lost your best friend and sister, and now you have the same thing? How can you not go to such a dark place? I loved how you wrote about dealing with depression about your diagnosis and going through everything. Just tell me a little bit more about that.

Delia: I’d grown up trying to do everything Nora did because she was just my — the four of us, I want to say. There were four sisters. Nora was the firstborn, then me, and then Hallie and then Amy. All four of us are writers. Nora and I were close growing up. I just tried to do everything she did, but she was going around the track so fast. I couldn’t keep up. Your writing is your fingerprint. No one else sees what you see or understands what you do. Because she was my sister and I tried to be like her and then had to learn how not to be like her — but then we collaborated because our talents were so mutually — she could do things I could not. I could do things she couldn’t do. The voice melded really beautifully. There was a lot of, I don’t know where she ends and I begin in my life. My friend John, who’s a doctor, and my leukemia doctor, Dr. Roboz, both independently said to me — they did not discuss it with each other. They just said, “You’re not your sister.” They knew that I had to believe that. What they meant, really, was simply, under a microscope, my leukemia was not the same as her leukemia. It had the same name, but its characteristics were different. Therefore, I could have a different outcome. They knew psychologically, also, how important that was to me. Yet it felt like betrayal. I felt like I was betraying my sister. It was a difficult thing to handle. Everything about it was difficult. That’s for sure. That was another element. We were different kinds of patients too. The differences between us were so clear when we got sick.

Zibby: I know you also made the decision — I could not believe that your byline was not on the article that you wrote about it.

Delia: Isn’t that hysterical?

Zibby: It’s insane. I was like, this can’t be right, as I’m reading. I’m like, no, she just didn’t see it or something. Anyway, you decide to go public with —

Delia: — We can just explain that.

Zibby: Yeah, let’s explain that.

Delia: When I my leukemia in The New York Times — I had kept it a secret until I went into remission the first time. I kept it a secret because I had to protect my hope, but it didn’t suit me. It was very difficult. I never felt honest when I was with girlfriends at dinner. I announced this. I wrote this piece in The Times. I worked really hard on that piece. I sent it to everyone I knew the night before so they got it from me. “This is going to run tomorrow. I just want you to know that.” It was a way to get my story out in a way that I could control the information. Everybody got the same information. Then the morning it’s in the newspaper — I’m someone who reads a newspaper.

Zibby: I do too, in the actual paper.

Delia: I like that feeling. I get a call in the morning from John, my doctor friend. He says, “Did you leave your name off on purpose?” I said, “What?” Lo and behold, they have left my byline off the piece in the printed paper, the most personal piece I’ve ever written in my life. My editor, she said something like that she was mortified, but she said, “You know, most people read the online thing.” I was remission, so I thought, okay, you’re in remission. Be thankful for that. I tried to control my feelings about it. Do you believe that?

Zibby: Unreal.

Delia: I had written, at that point, at least ten or more pieces for The New York Times op-ed page. They had never done that before.

Zibby: Did they issue a correction? How did they handle that?

Delia: They did. I didn’t see it, but somebody said to me that he saw the correction.

Zibby: Unbelievable.

Delia: Someone in my lobby said to me, “What does a girl have to do to get a byline?”

Zibby: Once you got it out eventually, what was the reception of it? Aside from the fact that it was hilarious, what ended up happening — oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it. Putting it out there in the world, getting feedback, having kept this secret from your sister Nora for all those years and having that weigh on you, and now you come forward, tell me what that feeling was like when people all of a sudden started responding. Then you have to deal with their responses to it also. That can be a lot.

Delia: It was like a jackpot hit. It just was magical. Aside from the wonderful notes I got from all my friends that I sent it to, and businesspeople, anybody that I was connected to, it was the number-one most emailed at The Times. I got so many comments. One of the wonderful things about them is that they understood it was a love story, that it was about love. They were so happy that I’d fallen in love again. They focused more on that, even. That made me feel that I had really accomplished what I wanted to accomplish with that piece.

Zibby: Wait, let’s talk about your relationship with Peter, which is amazing. My favorite is when he finally came to town after all your back-and-forth banter. You said to him right away, “We’re not getting married this weekend.”

Delia: the other day because we were talking about that on an interview. We were sitting at dinner. We were both fairly tongue-tied having poured our hearts out for a month to each other on the phone without even setting eyes on each other. We were sitting there. I said, “We’re not getting married this weekend.” He started laughing. He told me last week he was sitting at the table thinking, we could get married this weekend, at the moment that I said that to him. I’m very intuitive. I was just cracking the ice. He said it was like I’d seen right into his heart.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so funny. Wait, I think you’re beyond very intuitive. The coincidences that happen that you write about in the book, you’re clairvoyant. You have some sort of — tell the story of what happened when you dreamt about characters in a book, and a setting, and then it all came true. It was giving me chills reading about it.

Delia: When Jerry and Nora were sick, I was thinking, how can I get through this? It was so difficult. I went to sleep that night. I had this dream about three women and a lion in a bar in North Carlina. I’ve never been in a bar. I’ve never been to North Carolina at all, ever. I knew it was a premise for a novel. I knew what the title was. I woke up with the title, The Lion Is In. I started to write it the next day. That’s never happened to me before. It was this very magical book to write. It was very joyful for me. I’d never went to North Carolina. I picked an area that one of my best friends knew about. Deena had told me she’d done some research there. It was north of Rocky Mount. After I finished the book, all my writer girlfriends are saying, you cannot write a book about a place you’ve never been, so you better go there. I now have a draft. My niece Anna and I got on a plane. We fly down to Raleigh. We drive. We begin to explore that area just to see. I, every morning, would just put in the GPS, take back roads. We had no plan at all. We’re driving around a curve.

In my book, there is a very specific tree that the older woman wants to dig up and bring back to the lion. It looks like it’s been struck by lightning. It has no foliage. It’s just sort of sheared off. It’s alone in a field. We take a curve on a back road, and there in a field is the tree. Anna was driving. I screamed. She was so terrified. We pulled over. She didn’t even know. She’d never read the book. I said, “It’s the tree! It’s the tree!” We pull over. We get out. We’re just standing there staring at this thing that I thought I had conjured out of my imagination and somehow found it. It was such a stunning moment that I didn’t know what to do with it. I believe now because of that and because another very strange thing happened on this trip — I wanted to go inside someone’s house because I wanted to see where my male character, Clayton, where he might live. Clayton had the bar, the lion, and a vintage Chevy Bel Air convertible. Those were his main things. We answered an ad on the wall of a Mexican restaurant for a woman who makes sweet rolls. I thought, we’ll go there. We’ll get some sweet rolls. We’ll see what her house looks like. We go in. We’re chatting with her. We buy some sweet rolls. Her husband comes home. We chat with him. We leave. He was driving a vintage Chevy Bel Air convertible which was parked in front of the house exactly as I described it. The top was down. It was a gorgeous car. All I’ve been able to figure from this, I just think that there are things in life that we don’t understand, that science can’t explain. I don’t think, necessarily, religion explains it. I think it’s something that we’ve created because we need religion. I’m not a religious person, but I’m something. I believe in the power of the world to shape your life. Those things had happened before I met Peter.

Yes, I think I do have some sort of — I think my sister Amy has it too. She’s talked about it a little bit. That incident was so crazy that even when I talk about it, I don’t think people understand what that was like, to just turn that corner and see that tree. It was really freaky. I’m not somebody that googles very much. I mean, I google like everybody. I googled Peter the minute he wrote me a letter. hours googling him. When I got sick, it’s not my way to do that. I think when you get sick, you have to just do things the way you do them because that’s who you are. There’s no right way to be sick. If you’re going to google, if you need to talk to a million doctors, if you need to do that, you will do that. It will help you. If you’re like me and you just need to find a — I had a doctor that I knew was great. Peter said to me — this is Dr. Gail Roboz at Weill Cornell. He said to me, “We’re on the Roboz train. She goes wherever she tells us to go.” She told me to go have this bone marrow transplant. She said, “You’re not a statistic.” Right, you’re not. I did what she told me.

Zibby: Wow. You’ve been through so much, you and Peter collectively, your stories, even the loss of his mother, the accident he had to witness as a child, all these losses, and your spouses. Yet here you are starting fresh with all sorts of hope and love and the innocence of a childhood crush. Now you’re in this mad love affair. It sustains you. Even when you got sick, he was like, we’re going to get through this. It’s going to be okay.

Delia: Yeah, I know. I kept saying to him, “How did you –” He said, “I don’t know. I just thought, we’ll get through it.” He gave me this lovely little Valentine that we put on the wall, which was a couple going through a tunnel of love. It was in the 1920s. He said, “We’re going to go through the tunnel. We’re going to come out stronger.” We put it on the wall in the hospital. In fact, I don’t know where it is now.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Delia: That’s just like me. I can’t tell you how likely that is.

Zibby: You’ll have to print a copy or something.

Delia: Also, when you’re moving hospital rooms — I don’t think it made it. I don’t know if it made it home. It certainly made it into the Ten West where I had my bone marrow transplant. It was on the wall there.

Zibby: How do you now move forward one step or another? As you mentioned, you finish your book right before the pandemic hits. Even at the beginning of this book, I was thinking, oh, my gosh, after this, after she —

Delia: — No, I started the book at the beginning of the pandemic.

Zibby: No, no, but it ends. The narrative ends.

Delia: Oh, yes, it does. That’s correct. Yeah, it does.

Zibby: The reader knows what’s coming next for you even though you don’t tell it, which is even more powerful. You could’ve been like, and then… We all know, March of 2020, oh, my gosh. Now here we are at, not the end, but at some new stage. How do you go forward in the world and make sense of all of this? Where are you emotionally at this point in your life? After all of this, what meaning are you finding in it all? I know that’s kind of a big question.

Delia: It’s a hard question, actually. One of the reasons I ended it at COVID was that my story became everybody’s story at that moment. COVID is a shared experience. It’s transformed us in so many ways. It’s transformed us differently at different ages. My nieces, they’re raising little children now, and their life seems so difficult to me, and trying to figure everything else out. It was so hard to be in my twenties and thirties and figuring it all out. How could I have the career I wanted? Why did I marry this — my first husband was — I just married him because he asked me. I didn’t even realize in my twenties that you could have a life. If I had been in my twenties and this had happened too, I don’t know how I would’ve found my way. I think it’s a very difficult time we’re living in. I’m lucky I have a home I really love on 10th Street. I have had a fantastically lovely career. I’ve made my living by my imagination, which has been a great joy. I’ve had great love. I feel that I’ve really been blessed. I find this a very difficult thing. I find this thing of putting on masks and being — I’m not a careful person. Peter and I, in the beginning of the pandemic, we’d walk down the street, and he would just yank me suddenly because I, of course, was involved with something I was looking at and walking into a person without a mask. New York is a happening place. It’s struggling now because everyone wants to do things, and it isn’t as safe as it was. I think everyone’s just having a rough time trying not to be depressed, trying to be positive, trying to figure it all out. If I had been a kid in that house with my parents, trapped with my parents when they were difficult and drinking all the time, god knows. Really, god knows.

Zibby: I’m glad you said that about Peter grabbing you on the sidewalk because my husband Kyle does that to me all the time. I’m constantly engaged in something else, like what I’m thinking or what I’m doing or something. He literally has to steer me away. He’s like, “I don’t understand what you did without me.” He’s my second husband. Especially in the airports. I also don’t think I hear people. I don’t know what it is. I can’t tell when people are close to me. I’ll just randomly almost bump into someone or turn with a waiter with a tray and stuff. He’s like, no!

Delia: I’m exactly the same way. We all do navigate the world differently.

Zibby: Somebody told me, oh, I think my son has that. I was like, has it? It’s a thing? What do you mean? Has what?

Delia: That is so funny.

Zibby: I think it goes back to some test I took where it said I was — what was the word? I can’t remember what they said.

Delia: The word is imaginative. That’s what the word is.

Zibby: Thank you. I was going to say impaired. I think they told me I was impaired when it came to spatial relations.

Delia: No, you’re not. Imaginative.

Zibby: There’s too many inputs.

Delia: That’s just curious, imaginative. That’s what it is.

Zibby: Thank you. I like the positive spin on that. Maybe we’ll bump into each other.

Delia: It’s definitely a thing.

Zibby: It’s definitely a thing. Oh, good. I’m glad I’m not alone. What are you hoping the most? The book is coming out very soon. What are you hoping the most having this out in the world? What would make you feel like, okay, that was all worth it?

Delia: I hope everybody buys it. I hope it sells. That’s what you always want with a book. I hope people read it and laugh and cry. That’s what I hope.

Zibby: You’ve been through so much. We didn’t even touch on your amazing career because there was just so much in this particular book. As you said, I jumped on the chance to talk to you because I’ve been a fan of yours for so long. I just knew it would be good. I couldn’t wait. Of course, it was.

Delia: Would you mention the title again? Which is Left on Tenth.

Zibby: The title is Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life. Everybody, please go pick up this book. It is beautiful and wonderful and inspiring and — again, I hate saying funny when there are sad things. On the other hand, that’s what gets us through the sad and the hard, is finding the humor in all of it. Thank you. Thank you for coming on.

Delia: Thank you very much. It was an absolute joy to talk to you.

Zibby: Thank you. I hope I bump into you.

Delia: Me too, on the street, on purpose, not by accident.

Zibby: On purpose.

Delia: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Delia Ephron, LEFT ON TENTH

LEFT ON TENTH by Delia Ephron

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