Pittsburgh author Jeanne Marie Laskas has carved her own path to journalistic excellence
When Pittsburgher Jeanne Marie Laskas was offered a dream job as a writer at The Washington Post in the 1980s, she said yes to the job, no to Washington, D.C., and, more specifically, no to the awe-inspiring but intimidating Post newsroom.
"Honestly, it was a very strong reaction," said Ms. Laskas. "No way could I get any writing done in that environment. Oh, Lord, I was terrified! Horrified! Like maybe seeing soldiers in trenches. You respect it but know you could never do it."
OK, understood, but Ms. Laskas, author of the new book "Hidden America," is something of a perfectionist about getting details exactly right. She isn't finished yet:
"Wait, maybe not soldiers. More like a giant high school cafeteria filled with cool people. And you're supposed to go in there and sit down and EAT? Like, I would run to the nurse and fake illness so I could be sent home. Or I would find a janitor and ask if he would share his mac 'n' cheese with me by the sink. THAT kind of fear. But in the janitor's closet: yes."
It's vintage Laskas, a rush of words in search of the precise meaning of an experience, something she's a virtuoso at, and in a recent interview, she talked about how she became a magazine journalist and a writing professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where she first found her writer's voice.
On Thursday, Putnam is publishing "Hidden America" -- her sixth book -- about "the unseen people who make this country work": coal miners, truck drivers, air traffic controllers, NFL cheerleaders. It's been selected as one of this fall's top 25 "big books" by USA Today, and as a September "must read" book by Oprah.com. Also Thursday, she'll be signing copies at Barnes & Noble at The Waterfront in Homestead.
Ms. Laskas never did hole up in a janitor's closet at the Post. Instead she returned to Pittsburgh, rented a one-room office in the Benedum-Trees Building, Downtown, and proceeded to build, story by story, a big national career as a writer. She wrote not just for the Post but for GQ and Esquire and other magazines, beguiling readers with long, quirky pieces about movie stars, vacuum cleaner salesmen and second-string football players.
"Hidden America" is the inevitable result of all those years of poking around into the lives of others, except it is very specifically about a certain subset of Americans: those who do the essential jobs that no one knows or cares about.
Sharing her insights
"These stories made me confront my own inner spoiled brat," said Ms. Laskas, 53, curled up in a lawn chair at her farm in Scenery Hill, Washington County, one sunny afternoon last month, while her five dogs romped across the yard.
"What if my power goes out, my trash isn't picked up, my air conditioner goes on the fritz? The outrage! You know, that's how we react. As if clean air, heat or pasteurized food were rights. Well, they're not. They're privileges. And they're privileges built on the shoulders and maintained by the hands of millions of people like those in 'Hidden America.' "
In this book, she goes everywhere so we don't have to: into a coal mine (500 feet down and 6 miles in from the nearest exit); onto an Alaska oil rig 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, and up inside the control tower at New York's LaGuardia Airport (it took her a year to get permission from the FAA). She lived among migrant blueberry workers in Maine and stood with salespeople behind the counter at Sprague's firearms emporium in Yuma, Ariz.
Ms. Laskas is very often a character in these stories -- the stunned observer or insatiably curious student who wants to know why, why, why? Why does anyone sell assault rifles? Haul garbage through landfills? Work on an oil rig in subzero weather? Or for that matter, travel to the most inhospitable places on Earth to write about such people?
"I stood there and tapped my foot," she writes in "The Rig," after being left in her sleeping quarters while researching the Arctic drilling story. "I stood there utterly cut off, a person in a tiny bubble of warmth, out on the ice, beyond tundra, beyond good sense, a freezer door away from a solid white wilderness, a place I figured even God forgot."
Most of her stories -- originally published in different form mostly for GQ -- had a masculine cast, so she found Shannon Smith, one of the "precious few women truckers" out there driving an 18-wheeler ("She had 44,000 pounds of warm beer in the trailer, and when she hit the brakes, she could feel the beer slosh forward"). The chapter is called "Sputter," and O Magazine published a slightly different version in its June issue. She also wrote for GQ about another Shannon, a cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals, a "Ben-Gal."
Shannon's hair was, Ms. Laskas wrote, "a celebration, a testament to extremes, curls streaming like Niagara Falls down her back, crashing into the bend of her bottom" and who, like the other women on the squad, are paid $75 a game to prance on television before an audience of millions before going back to their day jobs as cancer researchers or pouring cement.
Ms. Laskas has her own day job -- director of the same writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, where, in 1983, she was first awarded a teaching assistant fellowship after Lee Gutkind, founder of the university's creative nonfiction program, read her clips. They included a college paper making a case against veal.
"She was the first and has always been the best student we had," said Mr. Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, an influential literary journal based in Pittsburgh that defines the genre as "true stories well told."
"She has great energy in her work," he added, "smart prose that's lively and has personality and reaches out and touches other readers."
Later, at Pittsburgh Magazine, she let loose. Ever wonder about why that giant slag heap sits behind Century III Mall? So did she. Tap dancers? Oh yes. Those barges going down the Monongahela? She hopped on one for a week and wrote about it.
"She did stuff with language that was unusual for a magazine like that," said Bruce VanWyngarden, a former editor at Pittsburgh Magazine, now editorial director of Contemporary Media in Memphis, citing a profile of Fred Rogers where she was able to get the shy legend to open up about himself.
Instead of some cartoonish cover, they ran a black-and-white close-up of Mr. Rogers. "It was kind of an edgy cover, seeing him as this Zen master." The powers-that-be at Pittsburgh Magazine were not thrilled, but Mr. VanWyngarden and Ms. Laskas were.
"It was kind of a bonding moment for us. She had observed Fred Rogers so closely and was so insightful," Mr. VanWyngarden said. "She wrote about him in ways he had never been written about before."
She started sending her clips around. First the airline magazines took her pieces. Then, the Washington Post put her under contract. "I lived in Regent Square and I was sitting on my front porch, in my bare feet, talking to my mom on the phone and she was sort of urging me to go for it and I said I just couldn't leave Pittsburgh." She now has lived in the region for nearly 30 years.
She had also started writing for the newly revived Life magazine, which had attracted a truckload of talented editors and writers, "and the world was looking big and exciting and I felt I had access to it by staying in Pittsburgh, living cheap, working for all these new editors I was meeting in New York. Remember, I grew up in Philadelphia and so the East Coast did not hold any lure for me at all -- AT ALL."
She had left the noise and the speed of the East, but she wanted to write about everything that went with places like that, noisy, crazy places, and quiet places too, just not too "Washington-centric."
"I did a story about a junkyard in D.C. Everyone thought it was so exotic."
At Life, later at Esquire -- the quintessential men's magazine which once published Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Dos Passos --and then GQ, she wrote about the great, the near-great, the not-so-great: a profile of John Travolta, just after his career comeback in "Pulp Fiction," at Scientology's headquarters in Florida. She spent time with a young Tom Cruise and interviewed Madonna in her very posh London townhouse for Ladies' Home Journal. She talked with Laura Bush and, in 2007, hung out in Joe Paterno's kitchen, despite resistance from his handlers, noting "a definite inner-sanctum situation going on here at Happy Valley."
Ties that bind
Today, she is a highly regarded practitioner of what Tom Wolfe originally dubbed "The New Journalism," in a 1973 anthology of pieces by Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Rex Reed, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson. They were writers who became celebrities if not symbols of an era, while her generation either can't or won't. (Pop quiz: Who is Tom Junod? Jon Wertheim? Matt Taibbi?)
Ms. Laskas' lack of interest in self-promotion is "part of what makes her a good writer. She listens to people, and gets them to say things that are remarkable and insightful," said Andy Ward, her longtime editor at Esquire and GQ who now works at Random House.
Mostly, though, Ms. Laskas likes to tackle big, intractable subjects that fascinate her simply because they are so unsolvable: brain concussions in football, for example. In "Game Brain," she wrote about Pittsburgh pathologist Bennet Omalu, the first to discover microscopic changes in brain tissues of deceased players, which led to researchers establishing a link between fatal head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy in professional athletes. That piece for GQ was selected for the 2010 edition of "Best American Sportswriting" and helped prompt two U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearings on the problem, leading to new guidelines for reducing traumatic brain injury in the NFL.
Her March 2011 follow-up story, "The People v. Football," profiled former Minnesota Vikings star linebacker Fred McNeill and his desperate efforts to cope with life after football. It helped trigger a total of 89 lawsuits with more than 2,400 NFL players named as plaintiffs against the NFL, NFL Properties (the licensing and merchandising arm of the NFL) and Riddell (the NFL helmet manufacturer). Look for it in the 2012 edition of "Best American Sportswriting."
Still, she is hardly a household name in football-mad Western Pennsylvania, whose residents probably didn't subscribe in large numbers to The Washington Post, which ran her personal, highly popular Sunday column for 14 years, and where she used the minutiae of family life on a farm to illuminate bigger issues. She retired the column in 2007.
"It was hard, writing about myself. Everything was always material. You'd drive down a gravel road and think, 'Oh my God, is there something here for the column?' "
With a book to promote and other assignments to plan for, she can count on her husband, Alexander Levy, a psychologist, to tend to their daughters Anna and Sasha when she's gone, plus a menagerie of horses, donkeys, dogs, cats and parrots, and a sprawling, charming house in a permanent state of renovation.
"When she's off on a story, and it's starting to come together, her voice changes on the phone," says Mr. Levy. "She gets excited and starts speaking in scenes."
There are other ties that bind her here, too: the writing program she runs at Pitt, the very place where she first became a writer, something she finds "crazily ironic."
In this attention-deficit-disordered culture of Twitter, blogging and 24/7 cable television, teaching students to craft compelling, important long-form journalism may not be one of those "Hidden America" jobs that prop up a nation, but essential in its own way.
"The urge to give back only grows deeper as I go deeper into old ladyhood," she says. "I am hugely, hugely grateful."
First Published September 12, 2012 12:00 am