In January 2004, shortly after her mother died, Lori Jakiela, her husband and their young son moved into the house she grew up in. The relocation from Pittsburgh's boho South Side to a Trafford rancher qualifies as ironic foreshadowing. Within months, Jakiela had an agent, then a publisher, for the memoir she'd been working on for years -- an empathetic book about home and family doubling as a bracingly funny book about escaping home and family.
In Miss New York Has Everything, Jakiela recounts her life from her 1970s childhood through her anecdote-rich stint as a New York-based flight attendant, in the '90s. Inspired mostly by television -- especially That Girl, the bachelorette-in-Manhattan sitcom that supplied the book's title -- the adolescent Jakiela longed for the fabled big city. Guided by the image of the cosmopolitan artist, this aspiring poet longed to see the world.
Her airborne career wasn't nearly as glamorous as she'd hoped: The uniforms were off-the-rack polyester, and there were more layovers in Atlanta than in Amsterdam. But the life of a flight attendant did provide material. It just wasn't the material she'd expected.
Jakiela's admitted propensity for mishaps is evident: While it's not surprising that a flight attendant would encounter celebrities, for instance, perhaps only Jakiela would hobble Walter Cronkite with a beverage cart.
But most of the memorable moments in Miss New York occur on the ground, among family -- particularly Jakiela's father, the gruff and contrary mill-worker son of Polish immigrants. Throughout the book, there's a growing sense of how this Braddock boy's long-abandoned dream to become a professional singer, and his fitful romanticism, inform Jakiela's own artistic dreams.
Jakiela and her husband, Dave Newman, both teach writing at the University of Pittsburgh's Greensburg campus, while raising son Locklin, 5, and 20-month-old daughter Phelan. While there's an "I Love New York" bumper sticker on their mini-van, Jakiela is clearly at home in her small Mon Valley town.
Yet if Jakiela's best material springs from this modest outlier of Greater Monroeville, she had to leave -- and come back -- to figure that out. As a self-consciously "worldly writer" overseas, she says, "You wind up writing about statues and things, which isn't very interesting."
Junior Miss pageants, a Shaun Cassidy infatuation, an aunt who's a nun with a drinking problem, a newspaper internship in Erie, her father's devotion to his toy poodle ... this is Jakiela's terrain. From an eighth-grade classmate who served as an extra in Dawn of the Dead to glimpses of the late-'80s South Side bar scene, Miss New York is a vivid and often hilarious slice of Pittsburgh cultural history, as well as a coming-of-age tale.
Jakiela, who earned her MFA in poetry from Pitt, has published verse widely. But the memoir began as a series of failed poems. "The lines just kept getting longer and longer," she says. In 2000, when her mother fell ill after her father's death, Jakiela returned to Pittsburgh and began teaching journalism at Pitt-Greensburg. She continued developing the book for that most Pittsburgh of reasons: She needed to keep her job.
Miss New York did help Jakiela get tenure; she now heads Pitt-Greensburg's writing program. But the flight wasn't totally smooth.
Inspired by candid, probing memoirs including Tobias Wolfe's This Boy's Life and Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, Jakiela started crafting essays. They ran in literary journals including Pushcart and River Styx, and local publications like City Paper. (Full disclosure: Miss New York's acknowledgements thank City Paper and several current and former staffers by name.)
She still needed representation. After a couple years haunting literaryagents.org, Jakiela hit paydirt with Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company, whose commercial successes now include John Grogan's favorite-dog memoir Marley & Me. "You need to have a narrative flow here," Jakiela says Abkemeier advised her. The chapters -- including "Love Your Friends, Bite Your Enemies" and "Strip Yahtzee" -- still suggest self-contained essays, with condensed narratives built from scenes, much like poetry.
Rewrites were extensive. Jakiela says that when asked where his mother was, her son would reply, "'She's in the basement, writing' -- like I was a troll under the stairs."
Miss New York is published by 5 Spot, a new trade-paperback imprint Time Warner is aiming at what Jakiela calls a "smart chick-lit" readership. The book's Jan. 23 publication came complete with a New York book party and ads in The New York Times. Reviews have been positive ("witty, charming and packed with emotion," says RoundtableReviews.com). In his back-cover blurb, local literary hero Chuck Kinder practically proposes to her. And in February, Jakiela learned that Miss New York is selling well enough that a second printing of 10,000 will follow the initial run of 20,000.
Many copies no doubt grace the carrry-on bags of workers in her former line. "Flight attendants read like crazy," says Jakiela.
But Jakiela, whose next book will likely focus on her late mother, says all readers like seeing themselves in what they read.
"I think there's art in all these little moments," she says. "You can see truth in the smallest thing."