This month’s book club takes a slightly different tack in the form of a conversation between Will Schwalbe and Lisa Highton, respectively author and publisher of The End of Your Life Book Club, but both connected through publishing to The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.
The Last Lecture was one of the last books that Will was involved with before resigning his position as Editor in Chief of Hyperion Books, New York, in January 2008. Ironically, given that The Last Lecture is a book concerned with the imminent death of a man with pancreatic cancer, Will’s own mother had just been diagnosed with the same insidious disease. Lisa published the UK edition of The Last Lecture.
LH: The publishing of The Last Lecture was big news in the publishing world. The story of a man given a short time to live, and his ‘message in a bottle’ to his wife and young family, touched millions of people. Your mother read this in manuscript, didn’t she? Did you feel a little awkward giving her a book which so precisely mirrored her condition?
WS: I’d already left Hyperion when the finished manuscript came in – but my friends there shared it with me. Mom knew about Randy Pausch from a video of his last lecture that had gone viral, and from the news, and from my telling her about the book when my colleagues acquired the right to publish it. But I still wasn’t sure if she’d actually want to read it – I was worried that it would be too close. So instead of giving it to her to read, I mentioned that I was reading it, and then left it out in the open, on a table, for her to find. She read it right away – and had a reaction to it that surprised me. She said it made her feel lucky. I asked her how that could be, given that she had the exact same disease. ‘But he’s got three small children and will never see them grow up,’ she said. ‘And he’ll never know what it’s like to have grandchildren.’
I’m curious what elements of The Last Lecture spoke most directly to you, Lisa. Were there particular aspects of Pausch’s life or his approach to his death that were especially compelling for you when you were acquiring the right to publish the book in the UK?
LH: I think I must find approaching death compelling on some level. That may be age of course! But I’ve published a lot of books on this topic – some famous like Tuesdays With Morrie or The Last Lecture, others less so. I think the fascination is seeing what people do with their lives when they know how little of it they have left. Randy Pausch approached his demise with a kind of muscular energy and a goal oriented (dare I say male) list. His aim being to achieve his childhood dreams but also to leave ‘a message in a bottle’ for his children so they could understand his love for them. Do you think the appeal is as much in its wake-up call for all of us not to fritter our lives away and drift?
WS: Yes, I do think that’s part of it – we all know we need to ‘seize the day’ but most of us need to remind ourselves constantly of that. One of the things I love about the Pausch book is that he’s so specific. He starts by describing his situation as an ‘engineering problem’. The question he poses himself is how to spend what he knows is a limited amount of time, using lessons he’s learned from throughout his whole life. Even a simple thing like rethinking how you handle the telephone (Pausch said he never put his feet up when talking on the phone) is valuable to ponder. Handling the phone differently doesn’t just give you back hours every week – it changes how you look at your priorities, where you choose to spend whatever time you have left.
Do you find yourself employing any of Pausch’s more specific tips? I’d also love to learn more about lessons you learned from Jai Pausch’s book.
LH: One of my favourite chapters is ‘The Park is Open till 8pm’, when Randy’s preparing to get his diagnosis. It’s a perfect example of glass half-full. Whatever the outcome, he says to Jai, this is a wonderful day, right here right now. I also like his nod to manners and old fashioned courtesy, e.g. dance with the one who brung you (that metaphor could go far and wide!) and that a hand-written thank you note can make all the difference. Both are a reminder that the simple courtesies and respect for other people should never be forgotten, no matter how busy we are. Always take time to stop and say thank you – people like to be appreciated. We all need to remember to do that. So, thank you and I’ll leave it to you to have the last word on The Last Lecture.
WS: One of the best things about The Last Lecture is that it isn’t really possible to have the last word on it – it’s a book you can revisit constantly and it constantly gives new gifts and insights. But I think I’ll end by pointing out something we haven’t yet discussed – the incredible contribution of Jeff Zaslow, who wrote the first article on Pausch’s lecture and who helped Randy Pausch write the book. Tragically, Jeff died in a car accident on February 10, 2012, while promoting a wonderful new book he had written. Jeff Zaslow also left an indelible legacy. So I’d like to leave this post with heartfelt thanks to Randy and to Jeff, for their books and lives.