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Wednesday, December 21,2011

Zaslow keeps it personal

The success of 'Last Lecture' led the former columnist to tell more inspirational stories

by Bill Castanier

Journalist and author Jeffrey Zaslow is a great example of going the extra mile for a story.

In 2007, Zaslow learned that Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch was about to give his final lecture. An $800 airline ticket to Pittsburgh was a little steep, so Zaslow decided to drive from his suburban Detroit home to Pittsburgh: That’s approximately 600 miles round trip. That journey led to Zaslow’s “The Last Lecture,” which has sold more than 5 million copies to date and has been published in 48 languages.

“It was a good lesson,” Zaslow said in a phone interview. “If I didn’t drive, the book wouldn’t have happened. In life, you have to take the extra step.”

Pausch’s last lecture was different from the last lectures traditionally given by a retiring professor: Pausch was dying and he lectured his students about what was really important in life.

Zaslow went home and wrote a 629-word story for “Moving On,” his life transitions column in The Wall Street Journal. By coincidence, right before leaving for Pittsburgh, Pausch’s online editor told him the Journal wanted to do more online video, so Zaslow brought a tape of the lecture home with him. It was edited into a four-minute video clip, which accompanied the article.

“It was a perfect marriage of old and new media,” Zaslow said, adding that it “made an instant impact” and he began watching his e-mail box fill up with comments.

Several of the e-mails were from publishers who thought the story would make a great book. Zaslow contacted Pausch and pitched him the idea.

“At first he said he wasn’t sure,” Zaslow said. But about a month later, Pausch contacted Zaslow to give him the go-ahead.

Zaslow said Pausch’s only caution was, “It better be meaningful.”

Pausch wanted the book to speak to his children, who were 5, 2 and 1 at the time of the lecture, Zaslow said. Pausch and Zaslow talked for an hour on the phone each day for 53 days, often while Pausch was biking.

“Randy was a very cocky, upbeat guy.” Zaslow said. He also was very funny: During his lecture he told his students he had a “deathbed conversion” — he had bought a Mac.

Zaslow said some of this more religious readers did not like this example, ”but Randy was a man of science, a Unitarian.”

Otherwise, Zaslow said, “we chose not to deal with religion in the book.”

He said besides religion, the only other topic that was intentionally left out of the book was the conversations Pausch had with Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs who, as it turned out, was also dying of pancreatic cancer.

Zaslow admits to learning an important lesson from his co-author: “Life is short.”

Zaslow said he would often send links to Pausch about “The Last Lecture.”

“Eight days before he died, he said, ‘Stop Googling my name — go hug your kids.”

Since “The Last Lecture,” Zaslow has written four other books, all deeply inspirational.

“The Girls from Ames,” about the friendship of 11 girls over a lifetime, became a New York Times Bestseller. His next book was “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” co-written by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the resourceful US Airways pilot who made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009. That was followed by the recent publication of “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope,” about U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly. Both “Gabby” and “Highest Duty” are in-depth looks at individuals that Zaslow describes as having “prepared their whole life for one moment.”

Zaslow has had an interesting career in writing and journalism. Besides working as a feature writer for several newspapers, he was also the original replacement for Ann Landers at the Chicago Sun-Times. He landed the coveted stint after applying for the job as part of column he was writing for The Wall Street Journal.

His next book is “The Magic Room,” which, on the face of it, is about marriage and the wedding industry. The story is told through the eyes of brides-to-be who have bought their wedding dresses from Becker’s Bridal in Fowler. The book is being released Tuesday. 

Zaslow said the book is really about how the wedding dress represents “the dreams we have for our daughters.” Zaslow, who has three daughters of his own, still has the wedding dress experience ahead of him. 

In the book, Zaslow tells the inspirational story of nine women — not all young and not all first-time brides — who show up at the fourth-generation bridal store to buy a wedding dress. The book is also an insightful way of looking at the wedding dress industry and the changing institution of marriage.

So how did the author come across Becker’s Bridal as he was researching ideas for his new book?

“I Googled it,” he said.

Zaslow will be in Fowler and Okemos to promote “The Magic Room” during mid-January, stopping by Schuler Books & Music in Meridian Mall for a book signing and discussion on Jan. 14 (time is still to be determined).

Joining Zaslow will be Shelley Becker, the owner of Becker’s Bridal, whose own story as a bride, daughter and mother is told in the book.


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