There is an art to telling great stories well and New York Times best-selling author Jeffrey Zaslow has it down pat. The prolific Wall Street Journal columnist has written a string of engaging, critically acclaimed books, including The Girls from Ames, The Last Lecture (co-authored with Randy Pausch), Highest Duty (co-authored with Captain "Sully" Sullenberger), and Gabby (co-authored with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly).
Zaslow's newest book, The Magic Room: A Story about the Love We Wish for our Daughters (Gotham Books, 2012) is a powerful love story for anyone who has a daughter. It tells the story of four generations of the same family who have run Becker's Bridal Shop in Fowler, Michigan. During that time, some 100,000 brides have passed through the shop's doors and this intriguing book follows eight of them on their paths to the altar. Simultaneously, the author examines the profound societal changes that have affected the institution of marriage.
In this exclusive interview with Life Goes Strong, Jeffrey Zaslow shares some of his thoughts about love, marriage and the art of storytelling:
What made you decide to pursue this unusual story now, and what led you to Fowler?
I'm the father of three girls, and I wanted to write a nonfiction book about the love we all wish for our daughters. I needed a place to set the book — a place with great emotion — and I considered all sorts of possibilities. Maybe I could visit maternity wards, dance studios or daddy-daughter date nights. Maybe I'd hang out at spas where mothers and daughters go to bond.
But then my wife suggested that I find a bridal shop. "There's something about a wedding dress…" she told me. She was right.
I was willing to go anywhere in the country to find the right store and the right stories, but I began by looking closer to my home near Detroit. When I came upon the Web site for Becker's Bridal, which is exactly 100 miles from my house, I was very intrigued.
I got in my car, drove there, and fell in love.
I loved that Fowler, Michigan, is a town with more wedding dresses (2,500) than residents (1,100). I loved that the store has remained in the same family since it was founded in 1934, and that it inhabits an old bank building. Not many people outside of Michigan know about the women of Becker's—a daughter, her mother, her grandmother, and her great–grandmother—who built and nurtured the store, guiding 100,000 brides into dresses over 78 years. It's a beautiful story that hadn't been told.
Can you briefly describe the actual "Magic Room" at Becker's Bridal and explain why it played such a prominent role in your story?
The room is the old bank vault transformed into a mirrored space where brides go when they think they've found "the one." Saleswomen at Becker's don't use the word "magic" lightly. They routinely watch brides and their mothers melt into tears when they enter the space. After seeing their daughters on the Magic Room pedestal, many fathers excuse themselves, and can be seen pacing up and down Main Street in Fowler, blowing their noses and wiping their eyes.
I was very moved by the heightened emotions I found in that room, and by the people I met there who were willing to speak from the heart and to be reflective about their lives. Through their experiences, I thought I could try to tell a broader story about the bonds between parents and daughters in the twenty–first century.
In writing the book and looking back in time, what shifts did you find in the ways Americans view marriages and weddings?
For starters, buying a dress used to be a much easier process. In the 1930s and 1940s, a bride came into Becker's, tried on three or four dresses, and was out the door in an hour. Now the search takes weeks. A bride might try on 80 dresses and visit five different stores. Then she'll buy it for $50 cheaper on the internet.
Weddings used to be about two families coming together. Now, a wedding is a bride's chance to be the star of her own show. The reality TV programs about brides have exacerbated this a bit, too.
Beyond weddings, I learned about the changes in relationships.
At Becker's, they're very aware of the statistics regarding marriage. Half of weddings end in divorce. Only 51% of American adults today are married. And a recent Pew study shows that 39% of Americans believe marriage is "becoming obsolete."
And yet, a bridal gown remains a symbol of hope – for both brides, and their parents. I saw that clearly.
Read the second half of this interview with Jeffrey Zaslow.