When Jeff Zaslow became a journalist, I bet he never thought he’d be up in front of an audience of 500 women talking about turning maxi pads into house slippers. Amazing, the places writing can take you. In town on his ninth stop of a 22-stop book tour, Jeff Zaslow was as charming as ever, funny and mind-bogglingly prolific. For he was touting not one book — The Girls of Ames: A Story of Women & A Forty-Year Friendship — but two, the second being Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, co-written with Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The Girls took center stage.
Back in 2003, Zaslow wrote an article about the differences between men’s and women’s friendships. The former he concluded are side-by-side – fishing in a boat, hitting balls on a golf course. But women’s friendships, he realized, are face-to-face. Zaslow heard from more than 250 readers, stashed all their letters in a file and moved on. As his daughters grew up, he thought it would be interesting to study women’s friendships. Out came the file and when he got to a letter describing the girls from Ames, Jeff Zaslow knew he had hit pay dirt — eleven childhood friends who had maintained their connection for over forty years.
None still live in Ames, so Zaslow flew all over the country interviewing the women, reading their diaries, poring through albums and taking notes on the ebb and flow of relationships that spanned decades and encompassing college and careers, marriages and divorces, illnesses and the mysterious death of one of the group. Zaslow made it clear that the women would have to be truthful. “I didn’t want to write a Hallmark kind of book,” he said. And while the girls of Ames talked about the hurts they had caused one another, the wounds that are still tender, they also shared mountainous moments of laughter and love, recollections both fond and fraught.
Ultimately, though, the author agreed to cut forty pages from the final manuscript. I can imagine how hard that must have been. And I also understand why Zaslow did it, sacrificing content he knew made his book better but unwilling to sacrifice the good will of women who had shared so openly. Sometimes we just have to be the vessel and put aside any thoughts of being the contents as well.
When he began the evening, the author said he doubted anyone would pay money to read a book about men’s friendships. I beg to differ. Jeff Zaslow is a good writer because, as he put it, he’s a good listener and cares about people. I’d imagine there are powerful stories men might share about their friendships. The challenge for this wonderfully peripatetic author might simply be mastering the art of listening side-by-side.