Culture

How Nora Ephron’s ‘When Harry Met Sally’ Inspired My New Novel

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally… (1989) © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Editor's Note:

Camille Perri is the author of The Assistants and When Katie Met Cassidy. She has worked as a books editor for Cosmopolitan and Esquire. She has also been a ghostwriter of young adult novels and a reference librarian. She holds a bachelor of arts degree from New York University and a master of library science degree from Queens College.

Nora Ephron’s “When Harry Met Sally” is a classic. If you ask any adult woman in this country to name an iconic romantic comedy, I bet the answer you’ll hear more often than not is going to be “When Harry Met Sally.” If the question were asked on an episode of “Family Feud,” for example, it would place number one on the board. And if it doesn’t, those fools the show polled are just wrong. “When Harry Met Sally” will endure. It will be the standard rom-com that others will improvise on for years to come.

When I knew I wanted to write a novel that would be a twist on a conventional romantic comedy, I re-watched “When Harry Met Sally,” as well as the other two films in the indomitable Ephron trifecta — “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” I also re-read a lot of Nora Ephron’s writing. I drank it all in, this delightful research, hoping to fill myself up with enough of Ephron’s wit and intelligence that it would magically, or maybe even scientifically — by osmosis perhaps — help me spit out something good and sincere and worth the price of a hardcover when I sat down to write.

I started calling the novel I was working on When Katie Met Cassidy as a placeholder. I chose it as a cue to myself, a reminder of what my intentions were with this book (to create a traditional romantic comedy about two women) and the integrity I was aspiring to (to say something of value about gender and sexuality.)

At first I was shy about the title. I’d blush when people inevitably asked what the thing I was working on was called. I’d fumble to explain it was like, you know, “When Harry Met Sally” but with women, like an homage to Nora Ephron, but not really. I’d mishandle my explanation this way because all things Nora Ephron I felt too sacred to touch. Who the hell was I to claim this title for my book? I didn’t know her. I never met her. I hadn’t earned the right to play with her words this way, as so many others have.

In spite of the fact that I’d long been a fan of Ephron’s work, it was only recently that I learned of the ways she was known during her life for bringing people together — how she would jot off a note to someone whose writing she liked and become their friend or mentor them, invite them to fancy dinners. The author Meg Wolitzer has great stories, so does Meghan Daum, so does Lena Dunham, so do hundreds of others, apparently. I want to be clear: I am not one of those blessed people. And I’m careful to not tread on that hallowed ground.

But the placeholder title to the thing I was working on stuck. So what now?

Well, to all those out there who knew and loved Nora Ephron in real life, I’m coming clean here. I have no claim on Nora, not even the right to refer to her in written form solely by her first name, like so many writers do. But my respect and admiration is genuine, and I hope that counts for something.

As for the next generation of readers and media consumers, the ones who can’t remember a time without the Internet or cell phones or social media … in order to get the name-check of my novel’s title, they will have to know and understand the original, its namesake — and they damn well better. Because there is only one original. And there will only ever be one Nora Ephron. And “When Harry Met Sally” will live on forever.