In 1987, there was a contest to replace Ann Landers at the Chicago Sun-Times. After 31 years at the paper, she had left for the rival Chicago Tribune. More than 12,000 people applied for the job as her replacement. I was a 28-year-old reporter for The Wall Street Journal, based in Chicago, and I wanted to write about the contest, but I needed an angle for my story. I decided to enter the contest so I could write a first-person story on it. As the Sun-Times winnowed down the applicants, I kept making the cuts from 12,000 to 120 to 7 and finally won the job. I worked at the Sun-Times for 14 years, and it was great fun. I would host an annual singles party for readers, The Zazz Bash, that had 7,000 attendees a year and led to 78 marriages.
As an advice columnist, I learned a great deal about people's innermost needs and feelings. Readers guided me, berated me, encouraged me, and shared their lives so openly. All of those experiences informed the column I began in 2002, when I returned to The Wall Street Journal to write about life transitions.
By the time you came on the scene, "Ask Ann Landers" was such a popular feature, many people started the day with it, even before hitting the sports section! Were you shocked that you got the job, assuming it would go to a woman?
While at the Sun-Times, you took the column beyond simply dispensing advice, using it as a springboard for charitable work. For this, you received the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award. What kinds of projects particularly interested you?
I liked to get readers of the column involved in hands-on projects. Every year, we'd have 47,000 needy kids in shelters and low-income neighborhoods in Chicago write letters to Santa at Christmas, and then we'd pass their letters on to 47,000 readers, who'd volunteer to buy the requested gifts for the kids. It was pretty wonderful. I also had a project each year in which readers donated school supplies to about 5,000 kids living in homeless shelters.
The Sun-Times didn't renew my contact in 2001. Two new editors from Canada were looking for ways to save money, and didn't have a sense of the programs I'd put together over the years there, or the bonds I had tried to build with readers. After 14 years, I mourned the loss of that job at the Sun-Times, but carried a lot of it with me back to the Journal. The Journal is a national publication, so I couldn't do hands-on reader involvement projects like I did locally in Chicago. But I am still writing about people's emotions, what's in their hearts, which is what I did as an advice columnist. I like the topic of life transitions because it zeroes in on very vital moments in our lives.
The Sun-Times' loss, in my opinion. On the other hand, I have never considered the Journal to be a touchy-feely kind of publication. How did you convince them to bring you back, with life transitions as your beat? It's so out of keeping with their image.
The Journal has long been an outlet for meaningful feature stories, and in recent years, the paper has branched out by creating a new section, the Personal Journal, which began the month I arrived. So actually, my column is a good fit for the Journal today. And I think my columns sometimes stand out and get noticed because they're more emotional, while a lot of the rest of the paper is about finance or politics.
As for how I convinced the Journal to bring me back: I was at the Journal from 1983 to 1987. Some of the other twenty-something reporters I began with at the Journal back then were top editors by the time I approached the paper in 2001. It's nice to have friends in high places! They welcomed the idea of having me return, for which I'm grateful.
Your timing was impeccable! It looks like I'll have to revise my image of the Journal. Who writes in to comment on your columns? Did you worry initially that what the emotional material might not appeal to those who consider themselves "manly men"?
I have to admit, it sounds like a dream job to me! Let's switch gears and talk about your books. Not only have you written three best sellers, but you ended up working on the last two, The Last Lecture and The Girls from Ames, at the same time. Can you tell our readers how that came about?
I had written a column in 2003 about the differences between male and female friendship, and heard from a great many readers. In 2007, I went through the emails I'd received from women about their close groups of friends, and thought there may be a nonfiction book in "the biography of a friendship." That led me to write The Girls from Ames , about the 40-year friendship of a group of women, now in their mid-40s. The Last Lecture also grew out of a column. I went to see a Carnegie Mellon professor, Randy Pausch, give his last lecture, and after my column ran, Randy received a great deal of attention when the actual lecture began spreading on the Internet. I ended up putting the Ames book on hold to write The Last Lecture with Randy. Here's a story I wrote for the Journal about the process of working with him.