Alumna’s new book captures rom-com New York


By Joseph Longo, Managing Editor for Reporting

Tom Hanks wouldn’t be one of the nicest guys in Hollywood if it wasn’t for Nora Ephron — the late director and screenwriter who put Hanks on the map in the late ‘90s as everyone’s loveable, endearing faux-boyfriend.

Ephron first directed Hanks in the 1993 classic “Sleepless in Seattle,” which garnered her an Oscar nomination for screenwriting. The duo would go on to work together again on the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail,” which starred another one of Ephron’s adored muses, Meg Ryan.

In 2015, entertainment reporter and University alumna Erin Carlson wrote an oral history of the latter for Vanity Fair, where she spoke with cast and crew of the film, including Ryan. The story proved successful, getting major pickup online.

The article served as the inspiration for Carlson’s debut non-fiction book, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy,” which was released in August.

Carlson spoke to The Daily Illini on coming to understand the pioneering director, covering entertainment as a kid of the Chicago suburbs and refusing to take the advice of one cynical professor.  

This article has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full interview, please check out The Daily Illini’s To the Orange podcast.


The Daily Illini: Where did this book idea come from?

Erin Carlson: I did an oral history of “You’ve Got Mail” for Vanity Fair. I was freelancing at the time, and I’m just obsessed with that movie. I graduated U of I in 2003, which is forever ago. I really did grow up with Nora’s films. Now they’re kind of being passed down through the generations. But that movie, especially, we would watch in our dorm rooms or our apartments. It’s like a warm blanket on a chilly day.

DI: New York is a huge character within both your book and Nora Ephron’s work. How did you go about deciding how much you wanted to focus on the city?

EC: This is my first book, so it was 500 pages when I was done with the first draft last summer. I was originally supposed to hit 275, so I went totally over. I just had all these extraneous details that I thought were important, but my editor, going through the first cut so to speak, was like, “You know there are four characters in this book. There’s Meg, Tom, Nora and New York. You have to cut everything else out and focus on these four characters.”

Nora kind of took the Woody Allen shiny, beautiful idyllic view of New York, and her view of New York was like Woody Allen’s but on steroids. “Sleepless in Seattle,” of course, the ending was set on the Empire State Building. After that movie, ticket sales for the observation deck on the Empire State Building skyrocketed. Her rosy-colored, twinkle-lit view of New York really captured the public imagination.

DI: Having read your book and acclimating more to Nora Ephron, it seems like the HBO series “Girls” could stem from a Nora Ephron view of New York City.

EC: Lena (Dunham, creator of and performer in “Girls”) grew up in Tribeca in downtown Manhattan. She was the daughter of artists, and she really understood that gritty 1980s New York. Nora grew up in Beverly Hills in sort of a cloistered environment, and she loved New York City as an outsider would. And she never grew out of that. She never got jaded. She always looked at it as if it was this magical place, so her films reflected that. Lena’s “Girls” just reflects the gritty reality of four young women trying to make it Brooklyn, as it were, and just kind of stumbling along the way. Nora never saw herself like that. She was just kind of a go-getter from a different era.

DI: Was it the Nora Ephron influence? That might be the more go-to answer. Or was it a combination of both those shows?

EC: It was a combination of all of those TV shows and movies that influenced me growing up and in my 20s. Then you get there, and you see how hard it is to live there and how you have to hustle all the time. A big kind of comforting film for me to watch when I lived in New York on that Sunday when I didn’t have to work and didn’t have to cover any red carpets was “You’ve Got Mail.”

There was a sense that anything is possible in Nora’s work, and there is a sense of optimism about the future that doesn’t exist in pop culture anymore. I think the culture reflects the times, and America is pretty bleak right now.

DI: How much of Ephron do you relate to?

EC: Nora liked to run people’s lives. I like to let people figure things out and live their lives. I try to not have as much judgment; however, I am a little bit sarcastic. I have in my life at times thought more about the cutting one-liner than somebody’s feelings.

A lot of women, we feel we need to put people at ease and be bubbly. I certainly have that, but she didn’t have any of that. She carried herself in sort of a masculine way. She didn’t feel the need to entertain anybody. She knew the power of silence.

DI: Did you always want to become an entertainment reporter on one of the coasts?

EC: Growing up, I would watch “Entertainment Tonight” every evening and would read Entertainment Weekly front to back. I was obsessed with the award shows, like the Oscars.

I’ve kept a perspective on the whole thing. I never thought I was going to write for any of these titles and I was going to be successful in any way. I wanted to be around actors that I loved, write about them and cover them. I didn’t know how I was going to. Because who am I? I’m somebody from Illinois.

DI: Finally, is there any wisdom to impart to current University students?

EC:If you really want to cover entertainment, you should absolutely move to New York or Los Angeles and don’t listen to your professors who say to work in a podunk newspaper in Central Illinois.


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