Pitt Writing Program’s Jeanne Marie Laskas Finds the Special in the Ordinary, Both in Life and Work

Issue Date: 
January 20, 2014

As a magazine writer and book author, University of Pittsburgh English Professor Jeanne Marie Laskas immerses herself in other people’s lives. She observes, she asks questions, and she listens, listens, listens—working to figure out what motivates and animates her story subjects. She has a talent for getting her subjects to Think Big, to explore their inner philosophies, so that, for instance, gruff oilmen talk about discovering humility under the stars.

OnceJeanne Marie Laskas she has excavated a mass of information, Laskas starts the process of building her story—figuring out which details should be part of the story’s framework. The process of building often happens during her hour-long commutes between Pitt’s campus and her farm in Washington County, when she replays interview experiences in her mind and asks herself, What’s that all about? until she has answers.

Laskas has dug into her own life, too, as much as the lives of others. Readers of her three memoirs, all published by Bantam Dell, not only know that she bought her own farm, had a surprise wedding, and adopted two daughters from China but that she grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, earned her bachelor’s degree from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and then began taking graduate courses in the University of Pittsburgh’s writing program.

Being a student in Pitt’s writing program was, she says, both challenging and nurturing. Her assignments required her to sit down and attack blank page after blank page. Most importantly, the experience gave her the confidence to call herself a bona fide writer. After graduating from Pitt with a master’s degree in writing in 1985, she rented office space in downtown Pittsburgh, pushing herself into entrepreneurship as a freelance writer. She pitched story ideas to editors locally and in New York and Washington, D.C., offering to meet for coffee to talk about her ideas. If an editor said yes, she’d whip up travel plans and story ideas on the spot, which eventually led to a story assignment to write about traveling vacuum-cleaner salesmen for The Washington Post Magazine—and ultimately the opportunity to write a weekly column for the Post’s magazine titled “Significant Others.”  

Laskas became an expert in telling stories about quirky characters. Her first book to be published was The Balloon Lady and Other People I Know (Duquesne University Press, 1996), followed by five others, including her memoir series. She also wrote profiles in national magazines about celebrities like Madonna, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise. But her favorite people to write about are ordinary folks with intense passions who tend to illuminate unusual facets of life. That’s exactly what she does in her latest book Hidden America (Putnam), a collection of stories published in September 2012 and named a top 25 book that autumn by USA Today.

The reaction of book reviewers was just as enthusiastic. Hidden America was named a “Must-Read Book” by O, the Oprah Magazine. A Publishers Weekly reviewer said, “Laskas’s depictions are sharply delineated, fully fleshed, and enormously affecting,” and according to The Huffington Post, “Each of these profiles rings true, offering an enlightening, entertaining, and often poignant glimpse into occupations that most of us know little about.” Some of the stories were first published in GQ magazine and received acclaim. For instance, her story on coal miners, “Underworld,” was a finalist for the 2007 National Magazine Award.

While Laskas was in the process of finishing Hidden America, the directorship of Pitt’s Writing Program became available. Although she was busy wrapping up the book, she decided to apply for the position. “I felt a kind of duty because I had been through that program, and it really did help to form my professional life, if not a good bit of my young adulthood,” she says.

In 2011, Laskas was named director of the Pitt Writing Program, whose notable graduates include Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon (A&S ’84); Terrance Hayes (A&S ’97G) whose poetry collection Lighthead (Penguin) won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2010, and Rebecca Skloot (A&S ’07G), whose book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown), has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 145 weeks and was featured on more than 60 critics’ lists for best book of 2010.

In her role as director, Laskas has been continuing the program’s long-standing history of creating an environment where students can have the space and time to encounter a blank page, over and over again, and build the confidence necessary to call themselves writers. She’s also leading a charge to encourage faculty and students to embrace digital technologies and the new ways that readers are engaging with literature through e-readers, blogs, and the like.“It’s not about bells and whistles and video and fancy-pancy stuff on a Web site that’s going to attract a reader. It’s still about the story,” says Laskas, who continues to translate lived experiences into pieces of literary art.

(This article was excerpted from Pitt Magazine, Spring 2013.)