The Gray Lady dances with The Obituarist: “Obituaries for the Pre-Dead”

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim NelsonI now owe Eric Zassenhaus twofold, both times in relation to my short story “The Obituarist”. (Shameless plug: “The Obituarist” is in my in new short story collection A Concordance of One’s Life, now available as an e-book at Amazon, soon to be available at Kobo and Apple’s iBook store.)

The second time Eric came through was this morning. He alerted me to a New York Times Insider story that went up on August 29th, two days ago. “Obituaries for the Pre-Dead”, penned by Times staff obituary writer Margalit Fox, is an insider’s view of researching and writing obituaries. This is an amazing bit of synchronicity for me, as August 29th was the same day North American Review posted my essay “Origins of The Obituarist” regarding my struggles five to six years ago to write a short story about a Times staff obituary writer. (A selection from the story can be found here, where I first announced the NAR essay.)

In the conclusion of my NAR essay sits the first time Eric helped me in regards to “The Obituarist”. In April, Eric posted on Twitter a link to Mickey Rooney’s AP obituary and noted that it was partially written by a now-deceased staff reporter. As insensitive as this sounds, I chuckled when I read it, as this strange situation in journalism is prominent in “The Obituarist” and something I pondered a great deal while drafting it. To handcraft and polishing story after story fretting they’ll only make it to print after one has perished is just one phylum of neuroses endemic to the writing profession. I made a mental note of Rooney’s obit and, months later, included it in my NAR essay as the concluding flourish.

Now flash ahead to this morning, when Eric again sent me a link, this time to Margalit Fox’s Times piece on obituary writing. That’s two I owe you, Eric.

I’m agog reading Margalit Fox‘s wonderful essay. I dearly wish I’d had access to it years ago when I was researching and drafting my story. As I wrote for NAR, the sundry details of the obituary-writing profession is underdocumented (and is crying out for a nonfiction or New Journalism tell-all, if one hasn’t already been published). Day in and day out, to research and write these miniature biographies of the living in preparation for their deaths (as well as the responsibility of selecting your subjects, a journalistic dead pool), I have to believe this is the kind of writing life few aspire toward. It’s certainly something newspapers don’t appear to discuss much. Perhaps I didn’t dig deep enough in my research six years ago, but what little I’ve read about obituary writing (obituarism?) since then appears as a trickle compared to the discourse on other aspects of journalism, like investigative reporting or sports writing.

The synchronicity of the timing is one thing, but Maraglit Fox’s writing voice mirrors my own obituarist’s voice so much, I shuddered reading her piece. Here’s Fox on her profession:

For my colleagues and me, the world cleaves, portmanteau-style, into two neat compartments: the dead and the pre-dead. In the singular view of human existence that we obituary writers come to hold, it is the only truly meaningful taxonomy.

And my obituarist:

My editors and my fellow obituarists have a little list, The Nearly Departed we call it, celebrities and politicians and artists and authors whom we agree are not long for this world. The unlucky are crossed off the list the same day their obit hits the back pages of the Times. The unluckier are those added when that slot opens.

It was also a relief to see so much of what I’d guessed at verified by Fox. On obituary research:

One of the most stressful aspects of reporting an advance entails, when feasible, telephoning its pre-dead subject for an interview. This is one of the stranger social predicaments in human experience and, trust me, there is nothing in Emily Post to cover it.

My obituarist on the same:

I interview their colleagues and relatives under a variety of pretenses. Ethically I’m bound to supply my name and the name of my publisher, but beyond that, ethics take on a certain…plasticity. When I say I need a quote for the Sunday supplement, which Sunday? Which supplement?

…I maintain and revise obituaries for three, eight, sometimes twelve years. Maintenance consumes much of my time, for the type of elderly I follow are forever hunting up one more notable achievement to stuff and mount. The fire that drove them into the public sphere decades ago burns on.

Fox on the eventual publication of her toil:

Then, when the time comes, a writer or editor has only to drop in the when, the where and the how of the death, an act known in obituary parlance as “putting the top on the story.”

(How I wish I’d known of this parlance!) Here’s my obituarist with some of my own invented argot:

Publication awaits a heart attack, a drug overdose, a plane crash. A missed step on an icy set of stairs outside a packed Georgetown auditorium, a broken neck twisted gruesomely in the snow, the limousine driver aghast at the fall he’s witnessed, a double-click of my mouse, and the politico’s obituary arises from The Freezer, ready for its final revision and publication. … A heartbeat ceasing is tacit permission to publish. Death seals an obituary.

And Fox on subjects outliving their obituarist:

Subjects can live so long, in fact, that they survive the writer. When that happens, if the byline is celebrated enough — and the writing too good to consign to the dustbin — our editors may decide to publish the obit, as if from beyond the grave, once its subject has joined its author. The result is a vivid journalistic status symbol the author will never see.

As mentioned. this was the central issue my own obituarist faced:

Most of the stories in The Freezer will be published after my death. There is irony in that somewhere. When I understand that irony, perhaps I will then accept my mortality. It has not happened yet.

If I had given my obituarist a name, it should have been Robert McFadden. As Fox explains:

The most vigilant among us is undoubtedly Robert McFadden, our Pulitzer Prize-winning obit-writing colleague at the paper, whose job is devoted entirely to advances and who, as of this writing, has 235 of them on file.

In my story I goofed the numbers (my obituarist has written thousands, not hundreds, of obits) and my character never won a prize, let alone a Pulitzer, but this devotion to the form is exactly what I’d hoped to capture. My character’s initial reluctance to pursue obituary-writing as his chosen profession was followed by eventual bittersweet acceptance, finally topped off by him announcing his retirement and requesting his own obituary:

I told [my editor] to conjure up a replacement and send him over so he could begin my entry. There are flexibilities with and within my profession, but writing one’s own obituary is bending the reeds too far.

It doesn’t sound like McFadden and Fox ever questioned their decision to write obituaries, and they may have well looked forward to it when they first begun. I wanted to write about someone less eager, someone with their eyes on a different literary career who discovered, in the thick of it, that their calling was penning the death notices of the celebrated and famous.

At the bottom of it all, I remain amazed people like Fox and McFadden exist, although rationally I knew they did before I even started my first draft. Fox also gave me the opportunity to relive the questions I had about their line of work and, lacking much primary source material, the answers I ultimately (and delicately) chose. Part of the creative process for “The Obituarist” was putting the logic of the pieces I had in my hands together and, with a bit of guesswork, surmising the experience of a lifetime of quiet and unrecognized authorship, of anonymously writing about the living as though they were dead.

“The Obituarist” is available in my new collection of short stories, A Concordance of One’s Life, available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon (and coming soon to Kobo and Apple’s iBook store).

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North American Review: “Origins of The Obituarist”

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim Nelson

The North American Review blog has posted a piece I wrote for them, “Origins of The Obituarist”. In it I detail the inspiration and creative process I worked through to write my short story “The Obituarist”, which NAR accepted and published in their Summer/Fall 2009 issue. A sample from the original short story:

My editors and my fellow obituarists have a little list, The Nearly Departed we call it, celebrities and politicians and artists and authors whom we agree are not long for this world. The unlucky are crossed off the list the same day their obit hits the back pages of the Times. The unluckier are those added when that slot opens. There is no announcement, no press release of their addition. My subjects are not informed privately. We guard The Nearly Departed, not even speaking of it around lower staffers. Is it out of etiquette or some nobler purpose we do not make public our little deal pool? Or is the reason as crass and self-serving as the embarrassment of admitting we’re little more than vultures circling for the first moment we can unlock the work we’ve invested dearly in? Ah, there is one aspect to this game I am unsure of.

I interview their colleagues and relatives under a variety of pretenses. Ethically I’m bound to supply my name and the name of my publisher, but beyond that, ethics take on a certain…plasticity. When I say I need a quote for the Sunday supplement, which Sunday? Which supplement? And my name means little to anyone outside of the Times. Of the thousands of obituaries I’ve choreographed into print, not once have I enjoyed credit. It takes a peculiar modesty to pen the death notices of the famous and infamous. It takes even slimmer pride to gallop down to the newsstand and slap through the pages to locate the twelve column inches of your painfully sculpted prose. When someone particularly famous dies, there’s whole milk in my morning cappuccino.

There are others like me at the Times, but none with as much experience. I’ve written five thousand obits but my colleagues are developing thousands more as well. The Times is prepared for at least ten thousand celebrated lives to expire. Of the glitterati and politicos that fell within my sphere, only thirty-five hundred or so have expired. Those remaining fifteen hundred obituaries are on ice in The Freezer waiting for that special phone call from my editor. The liver transplant didn’t take. Or, Dropped dead on the back nine. Or, The pack-a-day finally caught up with him. Fifteen hundred unpublished obituaries is a sweet chunk of intellectual property, as the Times‘ retained lawyers say. My legacy.

Here’s what I wrote about this character and his odd profession for North American Review:

I wanted to know if this grim duty was a primary occupation or one-off work for idle journalists. I wondered if anyone would actually aspire to join the ranks of obituarists, or if junior journalists were lassoed into the role because more senior writers could take a pass on such bleak work. I did a bit of research, online and at the city library, and discovered that this particular field of journalism is remarkably underdocumented. Obituaries are a perverse and morbid obligation, one newspapers are obviously reluctant to discuss. In fiction voids can be filled in with imagination, like spackle covering up a crack in a wall, but with so little to work with I fretted I would muff the basic facts of my story’s subject matter.

A. O. Scott said “a great obituary is like a novel in miniature.” What would a writer learn after penning these miniature novels for thirty years? Compressing lives into column inches, never receiving a byline, not even being a full-fledged member of the newsroom, merely earning a check when someone famous died?

Read the whole thing here.

(Update: A follow-up on a NY Times story on obituarists published the same day as my NAR essay can be found here, “The Gray Lady dances with The Obituarist: ‘Obituaries for the Pre-dead'”.)

“The Obituarist” is available in my new collection of short stories, A Concordance of One’s Life, available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon (and coming soon to Kobo and Apple’s iBook store).

The craft of funny

Ask me my favorite movie moment and I’ll tell you a scene from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Before this morning I would have told it like this:

Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters are in a private prop plane and the pilot has conked out. Silvers convinces Winters to take the wheel and fly the thing: “How hard could it be? Just put your hands there and there and your feet there. Now keep it steady while I go in the back and fix up an Old Fashioned like granddad used to make.”

Winters fumbles with the wheel and says, “What if something goes wrong?”

Silvers grins and shrugs, mugging a little for the camera. “What could go wrong with an Old Fashioned?”

Phil Silvers

It’s pure early-60s Tinseltown comedy: the oddball situation, the over-the-top response, the now-passe drinking humor, Phil “King of Chutzpah” Silvers playing a shtick nowhere to be seen in today’s Hollywood, and on top of that, breaking the fourth wall in a manner as old-fashioned as the cocktail he goes to prepare. All that’s missing is a Don Knotts double-take and someone getting trapped in a Murphy bed—both to be found elsewhere in the flick, of course.

One problem: the scene I just described is completely wrong. I’ve had it wrong for years.

I rewatched Mad, Mad World last night (finishing the second half this morning—it’s a long movie). Here’s how the scene really goes down:

Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney are in a private prop plane that Jim Backus is piloting. Backus finishes his Old Fashioned and tells Rooney to make him another, this time not so sweet. Rooney suggests that maybe two drinks are enough. Backus dismisses this and orders Hackett to fly the plane while he goes to the galley to make an Old Fashioned “the way dear old Dad used to.”

Hackett fumbles with the wheel and says, “What if something happens?”

Backus replies in his upper-crust voice, chin jutting out, “What could happen to an Old Fashioned?”

As the cockpit scene started, I said to myself, “Wait, this isn’t it. When do Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters charter a plane?” When Jim Backus is drinking Old Fashioneds, I thought, “This must foreshadow a scene to follow”—as though Mad, Mad World is some French New Wave masterpiece and not a Vaudeville crazy quilt of gags, farce, and one-liners.

It’s a pretty serious lapse on my part. I confused all the actors and the details of the situation. (Backus conks out after the exchange, when Hackett starts whipsawing the plane to and fro.) I’ve only caught bits and pieces of the movie on cable over the years. I doubt I’ve seen it in its entirety since the early 90s. I think I invented elements because those elements made so much sense. Phil Silvers is the best-cast actor of the whole film (yes, even over Spencer Tracy) because his shtick is so attuned to the movie’s cold worldview. It’s his con-man personality, his P. T. Barnum patter that verbally corners his victims into submission. (See some of it on display here.) He’s a natural fit for Mad, Mad World‘s winner-take-all tale of All-American greed. Silvers and Winters are at each others throats throughout the movie, so I paired them in the cockpit. Not that Backus wasn’t suited for the scene, or that Hackett and his Play-Doh face was a poor substitution for Winter’s thick-as-a-brick truck driver, but the pair I imagined in my head seemed so much better.

Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney

My most serious lapse was to goof the set-up and the punchline. “What if something happens?” turned into “What if something goes wrong?” “What could happen to an Old Fashioned?” became “What could go wrong with an Old Fashioned?” If you’re telling a joke and you botch the set-up and the punchline, you’ve failed. The joke can’t be salvaged. It’s not dead-on-arrival, it’s a miscarriage.

And yet whenever I told my version, people laughed. After watching Mad, Mad World my girlfriend said that my version was actually better. She’s not an unbiased judge, but you know what? I think she’s right. My version is better.

Mark Evanier’s retrospective of Mad, Mad World mentions a quote attributed to Ed Wynn: “A comedian is not someone who says funny things…a comedian is someone who says things funny.” That distinction is vital. So vital, in fact, I think that distinction should be taught in every creative writing class out there. The twist is, it is being taught, even if instructors don’t know it. Some might even deny it.

I think Wynn’s observation is that a comedian takes great care in selecting his words because the right language can make a joke great, just as they can a story or a poem. Poor decisions not only rob the joke of its humor, they can even make the joke not a joke. “Take my wife—please!” may not carry as much water as it once did, but “Will someone please get my wife the hell out of here” is simply Neanderthal crudity.

The beautiful sentence movement has grown so mainstream, it has its own movie. I say let’s start the beautiful joke movement—an appreciation of their structure, grammar, flow, and word choice.

A fiction writer with any interest in humor should study the craft of funny. (A fiction writer with no interest in humor should consider another pursuit.) Jokes are the original microfiction, the first short-shorts. At their best, they’re Western imitations of Zen koans, but when told right, both hands are clapping. Great jokes have a sturdiness to them, a similar sturdiness I find in great literature. Great jokes leak humor. It pours out from them in all directions. Often the blunt force of a joke’s initial contact—the impact that yields the first laugh, the rest of the laughs only arriving when the full implication of the punch line descends—often lay in a single phrase, or even a word. “Wrecked him? Damn near killed him!” is demolished when a novice repeats it as “Wrecked him? He almost died!”

Here’s my latest favorite joke:

How many Freudians does it take to change a light bulb?

Two: One to screw in the bulb and the other to hold my penis—my mother—the ladder!

Freud may be a genius, but his work forever linked his family name to screwing, dicks, and moms. Mrs. Freud must be so proud.

I know it’s odd to admit I’ve thought a lot about the words penis and mother in this joke. I hope you believe me when I say I’ve also considered what’s left out of this joke. With writing, addition can be subtractive:

How many Freudians does it take to change a light bulb?

Two: One to change the bulb and the other to hold my penis. I mean my mom! No, the ladder!

The funny is still there, but the unnecessary I mean and No stilt the delivery and ruin the impression of beating back the subconscious. The formal mother delivers a sense of matriarchal authority that mom lacks. Think how completely derailed this joke would be if dick was used in place of penis. And don’t overlook the loaded meaning of the missing screw.

Seventeen ways to split a joke

And that’s why I prefer my cocktail debate over Mad, Mad World‘s. “What could happen to an Old Fashioned?” fits Backus’ old-money alcoholic because it places his primary concern with the well-being of the cocktail—but it doesn’t align with Hackett’s question, “What if something happens?” Backus should think Hackett is referring to the preparation of the drink, not the drink itself. The gag gets laughs because drunk pilots are always played for laughs. Its humor lies outside language and the characters’ subjective reality.

My version isn’t colossally superior, but it succeeds because Phil Silvers’ answer does align with Winters’ “What if something goes wrong?”—an Old Fashioned solves problems, ergo nothing can go wrong. His answer invites the audience in and makes them complicit in the joke—that is, the imaginary audience that never saw the joke that only existed in my head.

Now that I’ve amputated the funny bone from these gags (if you agree they had one) I head toward my liquor shelf asking myself the $350,000 question: What could go wrong with an Old Fashioned?

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The Tusk’s Fiction First Friday: “Roast”

I’m pleased to share that The Tusk has published an excerpt from my upcoming novel Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. Titled “Roast”, it’s the novel’s opening chapter and introduction to the narrator, Gene Harland. Here’s the opening grafs:

The Petrenkos were barbecuing people. They barbecued in sweaters and jeans, they barbecued in swimming trunks and bikini tops. The first clear weekend of the year, they rolled their venerable Weber out from its corner in the gardening shed and ratcheted on the attachments. With strips of steak and breasts of chicken arranged on a marble slab, they lit the mesquite and charcoal with a long match and grilled into the sunset.

Devout barbecuing people, the Petrenkos faithfully miniaturized the Great Outdoors in their backyard. It was nineteenth-century Manifest Destiny with candy-striped patio furniture. The kidney-shaped pool was as blue as Tidy Bowl water and the hose-fed slide, a kitsch Niagara Falls. Paths of crushed volcanic rock that stuck to bare feet wound between the tropical and jungly flowering greenery. The only way to leave without appearing desperate was through the patio door next to the grill, a door Ives Petrenko guarded with an oversized barbecue fork.

I’ll announce Barbecuing People‘s release here, of course.

I owe Tusk editors Lizzy Acker and Nate Waggoner (who also illustrated the piece) deep thanks for inviting me to submit this for their site. Read the whole thing!