Author Jeffrey Zaslow finds the words for our ordinary heroes

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You may not know the name Jeffrey Zaslow, but chances are good he's gotten to you, right where those lump-in-throat De Beers ads get to you -- the place in the heart you thought had been plaqued over by snark but apparently still bleets out a faint pitter-pat of hope.

Zaslow was the guy who discovered Randy Pausch, the tragically handsome, tragically ill computer-science professor, giving a talk about achieving childhood dreams in a classroom at Carnegie Mellon. Zaslow's months of conversation with him became a book, "The Last Lecture," published in 2008, just a few months before Pausch died at 47 of pancreatic cancer. It became a national bestseller.

He was the guy who discovered the Ames girls, 11 women from rural Iowa who went through tragedy and puberty together, and remain the best of friends in adulthood. He wrote a book about them, "The Girls From Ames." It became a national bestseller.

When the stoic pilot Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger decided to write his memoirs, Zaslow was the guy he picked to partner with. "Highest Duty," about the life that prepared Sullenberger for his five pressure-cooker minutes above the Hudson River, was released last month. It has become a national bestseller.

Zaslow writes about heroes, the humble types who live ordinary lives until circumstances force them to rise above and discover higher truths, learn things, such as "that confidence is stronger than any fear," as Zaslow/Sullenberger write in "Highest Duty."

"Here's the thing about earnestness," says Zaslow, a Detroit suburbanite whose day gig is writing a column on personal transitions for the Wall Street Journal. "People want that. People are yearning for that. Our culture discounts earnestness," but that's what often stays at the top of the bestseller list, what we buy en masse and then read on the Metro carefully hidden behind copies of the Onion.

You want heart, you go to Jeff Zaslow.

He hears it all

"I want to tell you about my good friend Barbara," a coiffed older woman is saying to Zaslow, tugging Barbara to her side. "We've been friends for 37 years. Now, you could write a book about women like us -- women who have so much to offer at our age. I mean, why retire?"

"That's right," he says. "Why retire?"

He writes a personal note in her copy of "The Girls From Ames," then moves to the next fan. The line inside Rockville's Jewish Community Center snakes around the large room and nearly out the door.

"I want to tell you about my son," says another woman, a little farther down the line. "He's 38, and he's very, very close with his friends. So it's not just the girls."

Zaslow has spent the past year signing, promoting, schlepping from event to event, things like this book festival, which recently brought him to Washington. He does a lot of listening on these trips. People want to tell him about things. Lots of things. When he wrote about Pausch, people wanted to talk to him about illness, about their daughters with cystic fibrosis, about their mothers who were survivors.

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