A Q&A with Jeffrey Zaslow about The Magic Room

How did you come up with the idea for the book THE MAGIC ROOM?

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 completely 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.

So what did you do?

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 seventy–six years. It’s a beautiful story that hadn’t been told.

You have a knack for finding stories that seem to be about one thing but are really about the human experience. How did you know Becker’s Bridal was the right setting for a more sweeping look at parents and daughters today?

The minute I stepped into the Magic Room, I knew. 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 at Becker’s, 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.

What did you learn about the bridal industry while working on this book?

I saw that it is a business, yes. But I also realized that those in the bridal industry are selling much more than dresses. They’re selling dreams, love, the future. I tried to capture all of that in the pages of the book.

I got to know Shelley, the owner of Becker’s, very well. She and her staffers resist the hard sell. Their clientele tends to be middle–class, and they don’t conspire to steer brides into more expensive dresses. Instead, they aim to be good listeners. Every bride has a story, and they tease out those stories from brides and their families. For the book, I focused on eight brides. I saw how their purchase of a dress was in some ways the culmination of their entire lives up to that moment. Pretty powerful stuff.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Trying on all those dresses!

No, I’m kidding about that. The challenge was making sure I was honoring the stories of the families in the book, including the Becker family. They entrusted me with their secrets, and they revealed their fears and doubts. The things I asked them to talk about were not always easy.

All the books I’ve authored or coauthored – including THE GIRLS FROM AMES, THE LAST LECTURE, and GABBY – try to offer a window into people’s hearts. That was especially true for the women I found in The Magic Room. I was grateful that they were willing to open up to me, and I didn’t take lightly the responsibility of sharing their stories with the world.

What do weddings today say about our culture?

In 2011, we all know about the odds of divorce. Polls show that 39 percent of Americans today believe marriage is becoming “obsolete.” And yet, week after week, dozens of Becker’s brides take that walk down the aisle. For each of them, and for their parents, their wedding is a moment of hope. There’s an old saying, “Every time a marriage takes place, a new world is created.”

THE MAGIC ROOM is about the anticipation parents and daughters feel as they approach that new world.

You have three daughters. How did your time at Becker’s influence how you will someday help your daughters shop for their wedding gowns?

I’ll try to remember what Shelley and her staffers at Becker’s told me. A bride should make the final decision about which dress she feels she looks best in. What a parent thinks is secondary. If I ever get a chance to be the father of a bride, my job will be simple. My job will be to tell my daughters I love them.