The Girls from Ames: An Interview with Best-Selling Author Jeffrey Zaslow

by Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow tells the remarkable story of the 40-year friendship of a circle of eleven female friends and pays homage to the significant role that friendship can play in the course of women's lives.
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The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow tells the remarkable story of the 40-year friendship of a circle of eleven female friends. The tale chronicles more than the experience of coming of age in the Midwest--it offers universal insights on growing up, living a life, and meeting the sobering challenges faced by grown-ups, which often include: marriage, divorce, raising a family, balancing life and work, and coping with serious illness and death among family members and close friends. The narrative pays homage to the significant role that friendship can play in the course of women's lives.

The "girls," who all met as children in the "corn-and-college" town of Ames, Iowa, are introduced in photographs with short bios at the beginning of the book. As the reader turns the pages, however, each woman develops a textured persona as Zaslow brilliantly weaves together their individual and collective stories through interviews, letters, photographs, scrapbooks, news clips and diaries. Their long friendship as a group has enabled the girls from Ames to piece together and preserve the anecdotes that comprise their lives individually.

This compelling and beautifully written non-fiction book is destined to become a classic in the female friendship literature. I was pleased to be able to speak to Jeff about himself and his latest book.

I read that you replaced advice columnist Ann Landers when she left the Chicago Sun-Times, is that true? How did that role prepare you for writing The Girls from Ames?

Yes, I did an advice column for the Chicago Sun-Times for 14 years. I was 28 when I started in 1987 and my readers were predominantly women. You have to remember, though, it was a different time: before the Internet. People would write me a letter and wait six to eight weeks for a response. Now, if people want advice about their "acne," they just Google it.

That role really did prepare me first for writing The Last Lecture with Randy Pausch. Randy wanted to leave advice behind for his kids, almost like putting himself in a bottle that would wash up on the shore. It was advice that he wished he had twenty years to give to them but he only had a few months. We tried to do that together with his book. With The Girls from Ames, the women are all in this bottle together, giving each other advice all the way through and we learn from them.

Of all the topics you could possibly have written about, why, as a male, did you decide to write a book about female friendship?

In 2003, I wrote a column on female friendship for The Wall Street Journal, and I knew that it had touched a nerve when I received 300 letters and emails from women. I've seen my daughters (now 13, 17 and 19) struggle with their friendships and I've seen how friendship can lead to great things.

I'm always curious about people and I like to think of myself as a sensitive guy. With a wife, three daughters and no sons, I live in a world of women. So the topic resonates. And if I had written The Boys from Ames, no one would have cared. Men don't want to read books about male friendship.

Why did you specifically choose to write about The Girls from Ames?

I had put those emails and letters in a drawer and the letter from Jenny Litchman from Ames about her friends definitely stood out. The girls had lost one of their group, Sheila, under mysterious circumstances at the age of 22 and she still remained in their thoughts every day. Another friend, Karla, had a daughter named Christie who had been diagnosed with leukemia and they all rallied around her.

The women came from the middle of the country and were baby-boomers in their forties. They seemed to be the right age -- an age to which many women could relate. And Jenny also told me that she and her friends laughed so much when they were together that they couldn't always make it to the bathroom. When I looked at the literature, I couldn't find any other books, written by an outsider, that told the biography of a friendship.

I've learned that one of the characteristics of good friends is the ability to be authentic with each other. Do you think that the Girls from Ames were authentic in telling you their stories?

They were very open. But writing this book was a difficult process. The girls shared diaries and letters from middle-school through college with me and by reading them, I learned things that some of them didn't want to tell me. Some women became the focus of the book because they had interesting and compelling stories, and were more willing to share them. Others were more reticent.

It was tough though. The project became so hard about 6 months ago that I almost abandoned it. The girls were honest with me but they didn't want it all to appear in print. I understood that what I was asking them to do was very hard and took a lot of courage. I promised them meaningful discussion of the content but couldn't give them the final edit. In the end, even though there was some friction between all of us, they rallied together and drew lines in the sand that I agreed to live with. They supported one another.

What did you learn about women and their friendships?

Women's friendships are so different than male ones. I have a friend who says, "I love you" at the end of every phone call. We're very close friends but it still makes me feel uncomfortable to hear that. Women are more emotional in their friendships. It's almost innate and I envy them although I know I can't be that way.

Doing the book was really a test of the friendship among the Girls from Ames. I was very pleased when they all showed up at an event in Iowa last week before about 500 people residents of Ames. They could easily have walked away from the book, but we all soldiered through and we're proud of the finished product. They seem happy with most of it.

I admire that they were willing to share themselves. Even my wife says she couldn't have shared her life story. So I'm very grateful.

In writing the book, I learned about the great power of longtime female friendships. I want my daughters to have what the girls from Ames have. Women readers are now telling me "this reminds me of my friends" or "I wish I had friends like that." That's gratifying.

Was there anything about the personalities or circumstance of the Ames Girls to which you could attribute the longevity of their friendship?

Ames, Iowa was their shared womb; they all had the same background and knew each other's families. Even though some have high-powered jobs now and some work at home, they aren't competitive with each other. Within the group, Marilyn and Jane were very close when they were young. Marilyn and Jane are still close, but now that Jane is older, she has also bonded with Karla. As women evolve, their friendships change and there was room in this group for that to happen. If there were only 3 or 4 in the group, perhaps things would have fallen apart.

I'm convinced, though, that these women from Ames will never part. They are connected with each other and stay in touch daily. In their twenties, they would have to go to the post office and send off 10 envelopes in the mail. "Reply all" on email has been a huge help. It allows them to stay in constant contact. Not everyone writes back to the others everyday, but they're all connected. They worry about their daughters and sons who have a thousand friends on Facebook and wonder whether they have real friendships like their own.

Some women might be skeptical of a male writer telling this story but might there have been some advantages?

I think my being clueless about women and their friendships may have actually helped. I was able create a wider canvass. The girls rolled their eyes and thought I was naive in a lot of ways but they would answer me when I asked questions. In that way, I was able to collect a lot of information. 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. I wasn't aiming for a novel -- more of an extended Wall Street Journal feature story.

I predict that The Girls from Ames will be finding its way to the New York Times bestseller list. Do you have any idea what you will be writing about next?

Yes, it just landed this week at number 5 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list. So that's exciting. As for what's next, I'm working on a book with Captain Chesley Sullenberger who successfully landed his plane on the Hudson.

About the author:

Jeffrey Zaslow is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to writing The Girls from Ames, he was co-author of the international bestseller The Last Lecture. Zaslow's column, Moving On, focuses on life transitions and often attracts wide media interest.

Zaslow was drawn to the story of Randy Pausch - and to the Ames girls -- because he has created a beat unlike almost any other in journalism. While The Wall Street Journal covers the heart of the financial world, Zaslow tends to the hearts of its readers. The Girls from Ames grew out of a column Zaslow wrote about the power of lifelong friendships.

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