Imagine, if you will, that you are a journalist. Working away at a newspaper, a television station, a Web site newsroom. Happy to be telling stories, chasing your next lead. Doing the work because you love it. Imagine, much as you love your life, however, you sometimes find yourself wondering what it would be like if one day lightning struck – and you came across an incredible story that overnight propelled you to fame and fortune, the Oprah Show, and maybe even a month on the best-seller list.
What would it do to your life as a journalist? What would it do to your life, period?
Even if you never imagined that scenario for yourself, what about such a twist of fate for any newsman or woman?
This is a question I first pondered passing the mounds of books for the Randy Pausch book, "The Last Lecture," by Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Zaslow, which, as any sentient journalist knows, you couldn't help but trip over at the local bookstore, not to mention all the story's network coverage and the overall hoopla. Knowing the book was not just a best-seller, but a publishing/media frenzy phenomenon, it crossed my mind to wonder about the author. "What must life be like now for that guy?"
Here was a journalist who'd hit the newsman's jackpot. There are 4.5 million books in print. Four million of them sold. In the United States alone. "The Last Lecture" is also available worldwide in 46 languages.
Zaslow himself is the first to admit he had no idea any of this would happen. When we spoke, "The Last Lecture" was still on the best-seller list, for its 79th week.
He had written several books before. Books that never sold. (To drive home that point, he modestly quipped in an aside that in the minute we'd been talking, more copies of "The Last Lecture" had just been sold than the total for all his earlier published books together.)
The "Last Lecture" book grew out of a Wall Street Journal column. When I ask if he had any idea "all of this would happen with the book," he moves the question one step backward, to "I had no idea this would happen" even earlier, when he went to write the column. Zaslow had talked to Randy Pausch on the phone and been intrigued. To write the column he felt he wanted to see him in person. To see him in person, he had to travel from Detroit, where he lives, to Pittsburgh, where Professor Pausch lived and taught. To fly would have cost the paper $850. To drive, $300. He spent the $300 and made the drive. He's glad he did.
At first, he says, Randy wasn't sure he wanted to do a book.
But the column had gotten a lot of attention. Immediately. Zaslow started hearing from book publishers the day the column came out. They had done a small video to go with the column, and overnight the video, too, was being played all over.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Now that it has happened, what's it been like to live inside that whirlwind?
"Remarkable" is the simple answer.
Bittersweet, in one way, too, he offers, "because Randy's gone," although Zaslow knows Professor Pausch was alive to see the book's great success. And he notes one downside you might not have thought of. Regular people, several a day now, send him a message, asking, "Will you write my book?" Zaslow says he believes everyone has a story in life, but not everyone has a story that's a book, or even a column. Over the course of a week, several a day add up. He has to look at them all and turn them all away; although he admits maybe one of them one day will be worth doing.
So does his success mean he can now run off to the islands and drink martinis at the pool? How has life changed? Ever the journalist, he says, what the success of "The Last Lecture" means is that now he can have a few failed books. And it would be okay. That's how life has changed.
As for his career, Zaslow is still writing for the Wall Street Journal. After taking book leave, he is back at his column, down to once a month, and now as a freelancer. I'm still a journalist, he tells me. I'm still a storyteller. After time off for book writing, he says, he needs to get back to what he's always done. In his words, I'm still telling stories.
Certainly the success of "The Last Lecture" has made it possible for Zaslow to do that, and at the highest level, not just with his column. His newest book, out only a few weeks, is a huge "get" for any journalist. Zaslow is co-author of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's "Highest Duty" which came his way because Captain Sullenberger had read "The Last Lecture" and picked Zaslow to write his story.
He knows the success of "The Last Lecture" is a "once-in-a-lifetime thing." Nothing else will be "The Last Lecture." (The book that followed, Zaslow's "The Girls from Ames," which he'd been working on before "The Last Lecture," sold 160,000 copies and spent 16 weeks on the best-seller list. Not bad, he admits. And the new Sullenberger book is doing well.) He admits he's concerned. Is there another book ahead for him? Then again, he muses, look at what's happening in the newspaper business. The newspaper business is in trouble.
All in all, he knows he is very lucky. He has opportunities now.
Not least of which is being back at his column. After this phenomenal ride, he wants to keep doing it.
Simple answer, from a journalist: "That's what I do."
Doing the work because you love it.