06.09.09

Sully's New Co-Pilot

Writer Jeffrey Zaslow told the world of Randy Pausch’s last lecture. Now he’s landed Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir. Sara Nelson talks to Zaslow about his new book, The Girls From Ames.

Jeffrey Zaslow has a cold.

But while a little thing like a respiratory infection doesn’t stop the Detroit-based Wall Street Journal-columnist-turned-megaselling author from flying to New York to have a celebratory lunch with the team at Gotham Books, which just published his latest book, The Girls From Ames (already climbing the charts), meeting with the Jewish Book Council about a publicity tour for that book, surely having some meetings regarding the forthcoming memoir he’s co-writing with hero-pilot Chesley Sullenberger, or, in fact, meeting with me—it does preclude him from shaking my hand. He’s super-solicitous about it, in fact, apologizing several times for his stuffy nose and warped voice, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to cut the interview short or limit it in any way—but you get the feeling his willingness to pay for the Starbucks and sit on a bench on a windy island in Columbus Circle and talk is only partly because he wants to get his story out. A reporter to his bones, Zaslow likes to ferret out other people’s stories, the more personal the better, and he’s happy to discuss his interviewer’s own career trajectory. He was, after all, a hugely popular advice columnist at the Chicago Sun Times for 14 years before moving the to Journal, where he writes a column called “Moving On,” about life’s transitions. It was in that column, in fact, that he initially launched The Last Lecture, the book about living and dying, with Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch that went on to be a megabestseller.

“He liked getting links of reviews and news about how the book was doing,” Zaslow says of Randy Pausch and  The Last Lecture, “but in the last months, he started to care less. He’d say, ‘Stop Googling my name and go hug your kids.’ ”

At first blush, Zaslow seems an odd choice to write the kind of pieces legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown used to call “emo” stories. He’s a poker-playing guy, for one thing, and denies being “all that touchy-feely.” Much of his success, he suggests, comes from his years of working as a journalist, which has taught him how to write fast. When told that some in the typically jealous journalistic world think of him as “lucky,” he shrugs. “I’m also a hard worker.”

Still, his menschiness is undeniable, and not just because he’s careful about spreading germs. Zaslow really loves talking about—and helping—“real people"; those who know him say that it’s no surprise that while at the Sun Times he received the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award for using his column to run programs that benefited 47,000 disadvantaged Chicago children. There’s also a bit of the yenta in him, as evidenced by the annual singles party for charity he started—Zazz Bash, an upscale mixer that resulted, he tells me proudly, in 78 marriages.

Clearly, this is a guy whose prose and attitude touches people’s hearts—especially when those hearts belong to women, who happen to be the largest percentage of book buyers. (“If I’d written The Boys From Ames,” Zaslow says, “nobody would be buying it, I don’t think”; the book follows a group of women who have been friends for 40 years, a kind of anatomy of a lifelong friendship.) And while he demurs when I suggest he’s abnormally close to his feminine side, Zaslow does admit to a very “empathetic” childhood, and has written and spoken a great deal about how living with a wife and three daughters has had an impact on how he thinks. For a journalist, especially one who writes for a business paper, he’s definitely long on heart.

“I vowed early on that I didn’t want to hurt anybody.” When I tell him that somebody once told me early in my career that if I wanted to be liked, I should find another profession—he laughs. “I’ve written some hard stuff [in the column and the books] but I am careful. When I was the editor of my college paper, a boy at school committed suicide. I remember we wrote stories about finding him, and the smell of the body and the room, the smell, the smell. When the story came out, the boy’s father called me and said, ‘I know you have to write about what happened to my son, but you didn’t have to write about the smell so much.’ And I thought: You know? He’s right.”

The hard stuff in Ames is mostly about the death of one of the group of women, and the serious illness of one of their children. And there was a point, last year, when it looked like the book might fall apart, as the women began revealing to their Boswell personal information that the others might not have known about. But Zaslow has suggested that the fact that he was an outsider—and a man—might have helped rather than hindered the story. “Some people said it was an inappropriate project for a man,” he told USA Today. “The girls even rolled their eyes at some of my questions. But I knew so little that I kept asking, so I think I had a wider canvas. I was just asking and asking and asking.”

The Last Lecture almost didn’t happen, either, he says, because while he was planning to cover Pausch’s soon-to-be-famous speech at Carnegie Mellon for a Journal column in September 2007, he almost didn’t get there—because his editor told him the cost of the plane ticket from Detroit to Pittsburgh was too high, and that he might as well just talk to Pausch on the phone. At the last minute, though, he decided to drive the 300 miles see Pausch talk, show videos of his cancer-ridden pancreas, and talk about his life and death. “I just knew it would be a good column,” he says now. Once the piece was published, he was invited on to Good Morning America, and voilà:  Book interest began at 9 a.m. Still, there were doubts—mostly from Pausch himself. “He was dying,” Zaslow says, “and he said ‘I’m going to spend much of the rest of my life with you?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to do it, to take time away from his kids.”

Pausch did do it, of course—and the rest is publishing history. Hyperion paid more than $6 million for the book, Zaslow and Pausch spent 53 hours talking and building a friendship and a book, which Pausch did live to see become a roaring success. “He liked getting links of reviews and news about how the book was doing,” Zaslow says of The Last Lecture, “but in the last months, he started to care less. He’d say, 'Stop Googling my name and go hug your kids.'” Pausch died in July 2008 and The Last Lecture still lives on international bestseller lists, having sold more than 4 million copies.

Zaslow calls the success of The Last Lecture “bittersweet”—“Randy died. We all lost.”—but acknowledges that it jumped him many rungs on the career ladder. Indeed when Sully was looking for a co-author to write Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, there was no question whom he’d choose. (“I can’t talk about that book,” Zaslow says politely. “But [Sully] is a good man, a great storyteller.”) As for what he does next, Zaslow hasn’t a clue. Like the reporter he has always been, he’ll likely continue to jump into whoever’s story next interests him. “I’ve never had a master plan,” he says.

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Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.