Jeffrey Zaslow didn't plan to write three bestsellers at the same time. It just happened that way.
Zaslow, a longtime Wall Street Journal writer whose Moving On column focuses on life transitions, has been the author or co-author of three high-profile bestsellers since 2008: The Last Lecture, the international phenomenon that he co-wrote with Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch; Highest Duty, which he co-wrote with Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed an airliner in the Hudson River; and The Girls From Ames, Zaslow's chronicle of 11 women from an Iowa town whose long friendships began in their childhoods and have endured into their 40s.
Zaslow wrote a column years ago about women's friendships and got hundreds of e-mails in response. "I put them all in a drawer for years," he says. "But I have three daughters, and I thought maybe I should write a book about female friendship."
So in early 2007 he took a leave from the Journal to report and write The Girls From Ames, which was sparked by one of those e-mails he saved.
He was still writing one column a month for the Journal, and he heard about a talk coming up in the Last Lecture series presented by Carnegie Mellon, his alma mater. The speaker was a professor of computer science and human-computer interaction named Randy Pausch, and what made his talk unusual was that it really would be his last lecture — he was dying of pancreatic cancer.
Zaslow pitched the story, but covering the lecture would mean flying from his home in Detroit to Pittsburgh. "My editors said $800 for a plane ticket was too much. They said, 'Why don't you talk to him afterward?'
"So I drove. It was the best 300 miles I've ever driven."
Just before he went to Pittsburgh, he got an e-mail sent to all Journal staffers announcing that the newspaper wanted to use more videos on its website and asking reporters to plan to use them when possible.
On Sept. 18, 2007, Pausch delivered an unforgettable, upbeat lecture, and Zaslow wrote about it. A four-minute video highlight clip went up on the Journal website. And a phenomenon was born.
The full-length video went viral, drawing "a perfect storm" of media attention. After some hesitation, being reluctant to give up any remaining time he had with his family, Pausch decided to do a book. So Zaslow put The Girls From Ames aside and spent five "intense" months working on The Last Lecture. It was published in April 2008; Pausch died in July of that year.
"I hoped it would be a big book, but I though maybe people would look at it online and not need to buy a book," Zaslow says.
The book spent 85 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (with a return visit this graduation season), has sold 5 million copies in English and has been translated into 46 languages — a success Zaslow calls "bittersweet."
He returned to and completed The Girls From Ames, but before it was published, "Sully landed in the Hudson River, and then he read The Last Lecture on a plane — as a passenger, not the pilot."
Soon Zaslow found himself working with Sullenberger from hotel rooms as he toured doing book signings for The Girls From Ames. "He was a great guy. In a way he reminded me of Randy. They're both scientific, both sure of themselves."
Working with the 10 women (one of the girls died young) he profiles in The Girls From Ames was "much harder," Zaslow says. They all cooperated with him as he researched the book, detailing memories of how their relationships with each other had changed and endured. But when he showed them the first draft, they "flipped out. I had learned more than they wanted me to learn."
The women told him, "We don't care what the world thinks, but we don't want them reading it in Ames."
Zaslow says he made about 40 pages of cuts in the book, and the women are happy with it now. "We're all hoping Betty White plays everybody in the Lifetime movie."
Reader reaction to the three books has been interesting, he says. "Readers love The Last Lecture. They love Sully. But The Girls From Ames — about one-third of readers hated it."
He says that one of his publishers gave him some insight. "She said none of us has given the last lecture, none of us has landed a plane in the Hudson. But all women have friends," and they compare the book's story with their own.
Readers of The Girls From Ames are, he guesses, "98 percent women. But women read books. If I'd written The Boys From Ames, it never would have gotten published."
Besides, he says, male friendships don't offer the same fertile ground for writers. He writes in an afterword to the paperback edition of the book that he plays poker every week with a group of male friends, and they never talk about their personal lives. He asks one of them if he can name Zaslow's children.
"He shrugged, paused to think, and then smiled sheepishly. 'I could rename them,' he said."
Those children were the inspiration for Zaslow's next book, which he's working on now. "I wanted to write about the love we have for our daughters."
He decided to build the book around a bridal shop and found one in the small town of Fowler, Mich., located in a former bank building. "They took the vault and made it into this special room lined with mirrors. They call it the Magic Room. That's where the bride and her parents go to try on the dress."
Once again, it's a learning experience, he says. "A lot of brides come in with whole notebooks filled with how they want their dress to be, how they want their wedding to be. But they don't have a notebook about how they want their marriage to be."
Despite their seemingly different subjects, Zaslow says, all his books are about the same thing: "They're about love: the love of friends, of flying and family, of life, of a pretty dress and our daughters."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.