Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Dead Beat

Writing coaches always tell you to read other writers to unlock the secrets of their particular mojo. Author Marilyn Johnson found inspiration in an unlikely place: The obituary column. "Good obit writers can bring someone -- well, to life," she explains. "It's a demonstration of great writing and I was very interested in how they did it." She was so interested, in fact, she started writing obituaries herself -- and then wrote a book on the subject called The Dead Beat. We spoke to Marilyn about the obit genre:

VT: You wrote celebrity profiles then switched to writing obits. Why?

Marilyn: I was doing celebrity profiles as a journalist and I hated it, to tell you the truth. Celebrities were often defensive and it was very difficult to be able to say anything creative about them -- you couldn't really get deep behind the scenes. Doing obits, I realized, meant cutting the celebrities out of the celebrity story. Plus, I didn't have to interview any of them! I was writing about people who were prominent enough that there was a written record about them, and a body of work that they left behind. This was sufficient for me to come up with something fresh to say.

VT: But you don't have to be a celebrity to be the subject of a captivating obituary?

Marilyn: I taught a class recently and gave an example from the Times of London. It was an obituary about Louise Bennett-Coverley, who was considered the mother of Jamaican culture, one of the first people to do poetry, songs and humor in the Jamaican patois. She had an impact on Bob Marley and a whole generation of Jamaican artists and rappers. But outside of Jamaican culture, who knew about her? That a writer could identify her and analyze her impact on her culture at the time of her death -- and bring her to life. You read the obit and thought, "my God, and I didn't know anything about her!" In my mind, that kind of ability to document the impact of a person who isn't a household name is an art.

VT: What else do you get out of reading the obits?

Marilyn: You think there are only, like, five story lines in life, you know, growing up, falling in love, going on a quest, etc... plot lines that are so fixed and formulaic. But when you read obituaries you begin to realize how deeply creative people are at constructing their own lives. You see how they incorporated the tides of history and bad luck or good luck -- or whatever happened to them. These people invented their own way. It's inspiring.

VT: In your book you write about the differences between obituaries in England and the USA.

Marilyn: There's a British trend to be witty, to use euphemisms humorously -- do "warts and all" stories. The idea is to write outrageously about outrageous people or deeply about deep people. Obit writers there have the ability to turn it into a written art, and also to have fun. It's an attitude that's beginning to appear here, too.

The other trend started at Philadelphia Inquirer. A writer named Jim Nicholson picked ordinary people and used his skills as an investigative journalist to write long tributes to them. They were just ordinary people who had died, a plumber or a grandma who played poker -- but they were fascinating. This trend got a boost after 9/11, when the New York Times and New York Newsday did pieces about the ordinary people who died in the attacks. These were syndicated and consequently papers like the Oregonian now run wonderful pieces every week about someone in their community who died. When you read them they're like reading short stories.

VT: So you're reading obituaries as "writing" -- and learning from them.

Marilyn: Oh yeah. One of the best reviews I got was a rave in the LA Times which I loved not just because the reviewer had fantastic things to say about my book but because she said she read it as a book about writing. There are tons of obits and some are like lists of facts, but when you read one that gets that detail just right, or gets the subject's voice in there, you have a real sense of that person. You find terrific writing.

(photo credit: Margaret Fox)


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