New books: Erika Hayasaki

New books: Erika Hayasaki

Three authors will local ties have recently released new books. See Patricia Hruby Powell and Richard Powers.


A veteran reporter who covered school shootings and other disasters confronts mortality in a new book called "The Death Class: A True Story About Life."

Gifted writer Erika Hayasaki has two strong local connections: Her father is a gymnastics coaching legend; and she earned her journalism degree at the University of Illinois.

After clerking and interning at The News-Gazette and other newspapers, she spent nine years at the Los Angeles Times before becoming a professor at the University of California-Irvine.

Her new book is a page-turner, crammed with dramatic incidents and intimate details of the protagonists' lives.

Too close for comfort in the case of Norma Bowe, the "professor of death" at New Jersey's Kean University. Bowe teaches a Death In Perspective course at Kean, which has a three-year waiting list, and she asked Hayasaki to be less revealing about her personal life.

"As a professor, she didn't talk to her class about her life," she said.

Hayasaki said Bowe pushed her, too, when she took her class.

"It is a very delicate relationship," said Hayasaki, who explored the murder of a high school friend in the class and in the book. "I was revealing my own vulnerabilities in the class, (which is) not a traditional approach to reporting."

Hayasaki also dealt with her feelings about covering the Virginia Tech shootings as a national correspondent for the L.A. Times. A senior at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks in 2007.

Hayasaki wrote about a victim of the shooter there. Later, on a trip as part of Bowe's class, she encountered the victim's husband in the very classroom where his professor wife was shot.

As a UI student, Hayasaki admired journalism Professors Leon Dash and Walt Harrington, who spend extensive time with their subjects. In her nearly four years with the death class, she followed several projects — becoming a fly on the wall as well as a class participant.

"I definitely had a lot of anxiety going into the class, but I was able to learn from personal and psychological perspectives. The field work made (death) less terrifying, even comforting," she said.

The years she put in and the relationships she built helped make her reporting and writing compelling to the reader.

"A benefit of sticking around for so long was access," Hayasaki said. "I wasn't initially invited on the Virginia Tech trip, but I just popped into the van and we did it."

The details and vivid quotes (recorded at the scene) carry the book along.

Hayasaki said one place she honed her attention to detail was working as an obituary clerk at The News-Gazette before she got on at the Times at age 21.

"I learned that any mistake I made could matter a great deal in peoples' lives," said Hayasaki, now 35.

FAST FACTS: Some things you ought to know about Erika Hayasaki

Hayasaki is a professor at the University of California-Irvine in the English department — not journalism. She teaches literary journalism in the digital age, narrative nonfiction and immersion journalism.

One of her first stories for her high school newspaper was about the violent death of a friend, which she further explores in her book, "The Death Class: A True Story About Life" (right).

She will have a book reading and signing at 2 p.m. Feb. 1 at Barnes and Noble, 65 N. Market St., C.

Topics (2):Books, People