Terrible news has a way of traveling almost instantaneously over very long distances. On Friday evening, I was vacationing in Mexico when I learned that Wall Street Journal columnist and best-selling author Jeffrey Zaslow was killed in a car crash on a snowy road in northern Michigan earlier that day.
I first "met" Jeff when I read The Girls from Ames and was profoundly impressed by his gift for telling stories with an engaging blend of passion, pathos and humor. I found it charming that any man could so exquisitely tell the nuanced stories of women with such sensitivity and understanding. I mentioned that when I interviewed him in May 2009 for an article in The Huffington Post. He responded: "With a wife, three daughters and no sons, I live in a world of women. So the topic resonates."
"I think my being clueless about women and their friendships may have actually helped. I was able create a wider canvass," he added. "A woman probably would have gotten different answers, for better or worse. I took a journalistic approach and I wasn't judging their friendships compared to my own."
Although Jeff had already achieved incredible journalistic and literary success, he was extremely humble. He considered himself a regular Joe -- perhaps, that too, enabled him to bring voice and heart to ordinary as well as extraordinary people.
Before long, like many, I was a "Zazz" groupie. I read each of his books and columns in the Wall Street Journal, Moving On, which focused on life transitions. Probably feeling like I knew him better than I really did, I took the bold step of asking this man, whom I so admired, to provide a sentence or two for the cover of my book on friendship, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, that was published in September 2009. Any author will tell you that it is exceedingly awkward to ask someone to blurb your book, especially if you're a relatively unknown, first-time author.
I thought my email would be deep-sixed in an in-box overflowing with letters from readers and other fans as The Girls from Ames soared on the bestseller list. But Jeff couldn't have been more generous in not only responding positively, but in a more timely fashion than colleagues who were far less important -- and whom I suspect had far more time.
Over the years, we had other email interactions and spoke on the phone. Most of the time, I leaned upon him for advice and I was always surprised that he took the time to respond. When I told him about my traumatic experience of showing up to give a talk about my book in a public library on a back-to-school night and no one attended but my husband and another author, he wrote back encouragingly:
You're not a radio DJ until you've been fired
You're not a pro athlete until you've been cut from the team
You're not an author until you show up for a book signing and no one else does!!
I'm heading out to the Jewish Book Fairs next week. I expect good crowds... and maybe some very small ones, too! Who knows?
When Jeff came to give a talk in my corner of the world, I couldn't wait to meet him. I was part of a crowd that assembled in a temple in nearby Armonk, New York, to hear him speak about his latest book, Highest Duty, written with Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, who piloted his plane to safety over the Hudson River. Jeff had made the long trip as a favor because he knew someone on the temple board.
Listening to him speak threw the adage "never meet the author" on its heels. Jeff was warm, wise and engaging. He loved telling stories and as he stood upon the stage, I thought he might just as well have been a Rabbi in another life.
A friend we had in common introduced us afterwards and Jeff warmly embraced me like one would a cousin you hadn't seen for a while. He chatted with me leisurely as throngs of people waited for him to sign books, and asked me about my son before he inscribed a copy of The Last Lecture to him in a very personal way, seemingly oblivious to the lateness of the hour.
Jeff had such a talent for finding the right stories that it's almost as if they found him. He co-authored Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly's story, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, which was published in November 2011, and wrote to tell me that The Magic Room would be published soon after in January 2012. When I read the book that turned out to be his last, it read like a love story to his wife and daughters.
When I interviewed him about The Magic Room last month, he wrote about his love for his family, which spills over in the book:
I'm the father of three girls, and I wanted to write a nonfiction book about the love we all wish for our daughters. I needed a place to set the book -- a place with great emotion -- and I considered all sorts of possibilities. Maybe I could visit maternity wards, dance studios or daddy-daughter date nights. Maybe I'd hang out at spas where mothers and daughters go to bond. But then my wife suggested that I find a bridal shop. 'There's something about a wedding dress...' she told me. She was right.
Jeff's productivity was staggering, as was his stamina to show up at events in even the smallest of towns or tiniest of bookstores. Despite his busy life, he had an uncanny ability to not only form connections but to nurture them. One news report said that one of the clinchers, in him getting the Gabby Gifford's book deal, was that of all the applicants he was the only one who started the dialogue by asking the Congresswoman how she was feeling. A simple act of kindness.
In too short a time on earth, Jeff has left an indelible legacy of love and humanity. His words and deeds will continue to inspire legions of readers and writers around the world and remind us to focus on the important relationships in our lives. Moreover, he was a role model in showing writers how important it is to pave the way for those looking up to you.
He was only 53 years old at the time of his sudden death and it appeared as if his trajectory as one of America's greatest storytellers was unstoppable. When I recently asked how he could write one blockbuster book after another, he replied, "... I need to slow down and stop writing for a while!"
My heart goes out to his family, friends, and colleagues who have suffered such a profound and untimely loss.
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