The big O.

Nora Ephron will forever be remembered for that scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” but there’s much more to her cinematic career than the shrieks that made Meg Ryan a star and helped Katz’s Deli sell mountains of Reuben sandwiches.


In “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” entertainment journalist Erin Carlson takes readers behind the scenes of the late writer/director’s big three: “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” She shows Ephron’s evolution as a filmmaker and gets down to the details of how the rom-com sausage is made.

While the focus hovers around the late 1980s to the late ’90s, the book opens with a look at Ephron’s childhood in Los Angeles with her sisters and screenwriter parents, who demanded wit and emphasized “career, career, career.” Carlson also touches upon Ephron’s start as a journalist and her three marriages, particularly her years with Carl Bernstein. The background is helpful for readers who are newer to the Ephron oeuvre.

But the main course is the three films and their players, as Carlson looks at “Sally,” “Sleepless” and “Mail” from idea to box-office success. And while there are insights from A-listers, Carlson doesn’t just interview top-billed actors. We even hear from assistants to the assistants — like the guy who taught Meg Ryan “how to actually use email.” The book’s wide net of sources, along with Ephronisms and movie dialogue, proves to be a wonderful recipe, giving readers a sense of what it was like working on an Ephron project at every level.

Author Erin Carlson (A. Jesse Jiryu Davis)

Seamlessly woven into the narrative are bits of behind-the-scenes gossip that will surprise even the most die-hard fans. Did you know Demi Moore, Sharon Stone and even Madonna wanted the part of straight-laced Annie in “Sleepless”? Imagine “When Harry Met Sally” if Harry had met Helen Hunt?

Fast-paced, humorous, yet impressively researched, Carlson’s voice feels cut from the same cloth as Ephron’s, but her ode isn’t all warm meet-cutes at the top of the Empire State Building. She dings Ephron for the lack of diversity in “her daffy, urban universes,” and she interviews a set designer on “Sleepless” who had such difficulty with the director that he begged to be fired.

Carlson points out that as a female director, Ephron was under tremendous pressure to deliver hits. That pressure certainly hasn’t gone away, and neither, Carlson believes, has Ephron’s movie magic, with countless romantic comedies still inspired by the filmmaker’s work. They all still want to have what she’s having.

Karin Tanabe, a former Politico reporter, is the author of four novels, including her latest, “The Diplomat’s Daughter.”

I’ll Have What She’s Having
How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy

By Erin Carlson

Hachette. 341 pp. $35