Q&A with Jeanne Marie Laskas

Jeanne Marie Laskas is a New York Times bestselling author, contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and correspondent at GQ. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two daughters, where she is also a distinguished English professor and founding director of the Center for Creativity at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Depicted in the last months of President Obama’s presidency, “To Obama With Love, and Hate, and Desperation” was a touching feature that examined the daily operation of a formal policy he instituted eight years prior. It was to read 10 letters a day, or “10LADS,” as they became known, from thousands of letters that the Office of Presidential Correspondence received daily. This story, for which Laskas was named a National Magazine Award finalist in Feature Writing, would inspire the book she published a year later: “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope.”

In the midst of a tour for that book,  Laskas spoke with me about how she produced the article Obama would describe as the “single favorite story of my presidency.”

Q: How did you find the story?
A: It came out of a conversation. My editor and I at the Times Magazine were thinking of how the Obama administration was coming to an end, what kind of stories we could tell and we didn’t really have any ideas that I thought were worth pursuing. And then, in talking to people I know in the White House, as it happens, from previous things I worked on, one of them said something like, “What about all these letters? Why isn’t anybody interested in all these letters?”

And I said, “What letters?” When I heard that Obama was reading 10 letters a day, I was like, “Really? How did I not know this? If I don’t know this, surely other people don’t.” They just invited me to go down to the mailroom to check it out and one trip in there and I thought, “Oh my god, this is like Wonderland.”

Q: Can you walk me through how you reported the story?
A: It was an immersion type of research where you just hang out without any particular agenda and just try to understand what’s going on. In this case, it was like trying to understand a giant fact tree. You’re just a fly on the wall until you start seeing who the main players are. In the very beginning, we weren’t thinking of writing about the mailroom staff, we were just going to look at letters and go interview letter-writers. But hanging out in that mailroom, watching people so dedicated and seeing their lives were changed so profoundly by this mail, I ended up just rooting the story there.

Q: Near the beginning of the article, you wrote, “…every letter was a real object from a real person, and now you were holding it, and so now you were responsible for it.” As the journalist responsible for the stories within the piles of letters, of the staff in the mailroom, of the president’s role in this operation — how did you choose who to include and who not to?
A: It became pretty clear to me, early on in the reporting, that [Fiona] Reeves, she embodied this entire operation and the spirit of the place. It was really her story. I envisioned it through her eyes and I stuck to her through the reporting as soon as I realized that. I mean, this is the person who picks the 10 letters and this is the person everyone looks to. But, I also wanted to show the interns, who were an integral part of this. This notion that everybody’s voice mattered — both in the mail as well as in the staff — I wanted to show that. It wasn’t a hierarchical approach, so I had to include everyone; everyone was crucial to this operation.

Q: Was the choice to include President Obama minimally compared to mailroom staff purposeful?
A: These letters were so important to him. It was obvious, as he was answering so many of them, but the delivery of 10 letters each day was such a big deal to everyone. I thought it was important he was another voice in this story, so I put in the request. I don’t know that anyone had really asked him about it before. He was delighted to talk about it. But as you noticed, he’s embedded in the middle of the story — he’s not a central character. That was done intentionally because he’s not the most important piece in this story. I wanted to pull people in, but not just for him. 

Q: Could you describe your writing process behind creating this feature?  
A: My principle around writing it was to walk through the sequence of when a letter comes in. First, you’re in the heart of that mailroom. Then, if you’re chosen, you are a letter on this couch that [Reeves] is picking which 10 from. And then you’re at the president, where the letter is read and responded to. It’s not obvious in the article, because it doesn’t need to be, but that was the organizing principle that guided the writing process, through this sequence of events from when letters first came in through each stage of the process.

And then the whole story changed because of election day and the day after the election. If you think about it, I was researching that story when everyone thought that Hillary Clinton was still going to be president and it was still going to be a Democratic administration. The fact that I was right there the day after the election, I knew that had to be a very big theme because that is when everything took on so much importance — it was now going away. The staffers were always going to move on because they were political appointees, but now the function of this mailroom was clearly no longer going to exist. So, that needed to be the big crescendo of the piece, where readers could get a sense of how precious it was.

Q: Looking back on the article now, is there anything you would have done differently?
A: Those letters were so cool and I couldn’t fit many of them. Some of them were so beautiful and I wanted to use more of them. Also, I didn’t get to talk to many of the people who actually wrote the letters, I didn’t get to do that whole other arm of it where I got to include more of the letter-writers in the story, and I wanted to expand it. But, that’s how [“To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope”] came together. But that was one article where I felt like we really accomplished what we were trying to accomplish — I keep saying we because I worked so closely with my editor, it feels like a partnership.

It just felt like it captured that moment of time in that underground, little-known world that you got to peek in on. 

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