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Margalit Fox & Bruce Weber, NY Times obituarists, on NPR’s Fresh Air

In the comments for a previous post on Ann Wroe, obituary writer for The Economist, Peter Marinov helpfully pointed me to a recent NPR interview with two New York Times obituarists, Margalit Fox and Bruce Weber.

Margalit Fox wrote an eye-opening Times essay in 2014 on the art and craft of writing obituaries, so I’m familiar with her name and work. The recent NPR interview coincided with the release of a documentary on Fox and Weber, Obit: Life on Deadline, which I certainly look forward to seeing.

Obit: Life on Deadline, a film by Vanessa Gould

My own interest in all of this comes from a short story I published years back in the North American Review called “The Obituarist”. Researching and writing that story led to my own interest in this underappreciated field of journalism.

Like Ann Wroe’s thoughts on the profession, Fox and Weber share fascinating insights on this odd but rewarding career path. There’s a goldmine of wisdom in the interview, but it’s this observation that stood out for me:

And I think the other great attraction is we are the most purely narrative genre in any daily paper. If you think about how an obit is structured, we are taxed with taking our subjects from cradle to grave, and that gives obits a built-in narrative arc, the arc of how someone lived his or her life. And who doesn’t want to start the day reading a really good story?

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Ann Wroe on the art of writing an obituary

Death, Matt Batchelor (CC BY 2.0)

From The Economist comes an interview with Ann Wroe, one of their in-house obituarists. I’ve documented my interest in the profession here (multiple times) and elsewhere, and even wrote a short story about the career choice.

Wroe on the craft:

I look through the obituaries of the New York Times and the Telegraph. I’ll spot someone who looks really interesting and I’ll hear a bell going off in my head. I do it for the story, and not whether the person is famous. I love it when someone’s had a quirky career that we wouldn’t be dealing with in any other part of the paper, such as a woodcarver or a whale hunter or a firefighter.

On the career itself:

It’s odd because people think it’s a rather gloomy job, but it’s very seldom a sad job. Usually, the people you’re dealing with have lived for ages and have done really interesting things. … An obit is really a celebration of a life. It’s really a joyful thing most of the time. That’s why I love the job.

I believe a great exercise for any student of writing would be to select someone currently alive, famous or not, and write their life story in under 1,000 words. Do that five, ten, twenty times, each time a different person. The exercise will change how you approaching writing stories, from microfiction to saga-length novels.

Externalizing inspiration

<cite>North American Review</cite>, May/Aug 2009.

North American Review, May/Aug 2009.

Last time I wrote about keeping a writing notebook. Let’s say you started one, or have been keeping a notebook for some time. What do you do with it? Once you’ve filled a notebook with all these ideas, how do you transfer that inspiration to a final story or novel?

From an essay I wrote for North American Review regarding a short story of mine they published, I discussed how I used a writing notebook:

On occasion I revisit my writing notebooks for inspiration…Many of my stories evolve from my own (sometimes misplaced) attempts to wire two or three bits of disparate inspiration together and see if sparks fly.

The inspiration for the story the published (“The Obituarist”) came from three lines scribbled into my notebook years ago:

“The Obituarist – Dying, old age, writes obits for living ppl. Also writes fiction—short stories?—and has come to realize that man is reliant on conflict, tension, etc. because all our stories rely on them, and they are not stories otherwise. Speaking to a young person writing his obit. (Or he writes book reviews.)”

That was it. I had a title alright, and some idea of a character and his situation, but nothing further. As I explained for NAR, about a year after writing this in my notebook I began working on the story itself, which is now collected in A Concordance of One’s Life.

This is the true value of a free-form writing notebook. For some people, a writing notebook is to prevent forgetting something. For others a notebook is a journal, a way to talk to one’s self, a method of expressing pent-up emotions.

My writing notebook is to externalize my thoughts. Externalizing inspiration, no matter how crazy or random the inspiration may seem, is itself an act of creation. Writing an idea in a notebook is as important as sitting down before the computer and formally typing the story. Those erratic sentences I scribbled about the obituarist were not subsidiary or tangential to writing the story. Those words were the genesis. The story started with them, not a year later when I typed the opening sentence in my word processor.

By committing some scattered notions to the page, I’m getting them out of my skull, where they’re fluid, malleable, and insubstantial, and forcing them into the physical world, where they take shape and harden into form. It’s important to judge my ideas objectively in the bald daylight to determine if they’re worth expanding upon.

Plenty of my inspirations go no further than the notebook. That’s not a bad thing. Most do not age well. When I return to my notebook, I often blanch upon reading these old inspirations. I will hurry to turn the page—a sure indication I made the best decision not to pursue them.

Wiring sources of inspiration together

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim NelsonIn my NAR essay I wrote that “The Obituarist” grew from a single idea. More often I find success in combining ideas, “to wire two or three bits of disparate inspiration together and see if sparks fly.”

I hold a pet theory that true inspiration is rarely, if ever, a single atomic idea. I see inspiration as multiple ideas coalescing. They accrete mass over time until a tipping point is reached and the creator feels the urgent need to get the accumulation down on the page in the form of a story. (Or on the canvas, or modeled in clay, and so on.)

For an example of wiring disparate bits of inspiration together, I point to another story in the collection, “A Concordance of One’s Life.” The elements from my notebook contributing to the story include:

  1. Man writes a concordance of his own memoirs (but why?)
  2. Adult feels cheated about something that happened when he was young
  3. Small town becomes a literary tourist attraction (a la Hemingway’s house in Key West)
  4. A man with a name no one can pronounce

When I began writing “Concordance” the early drafts only involved points 1 and 2. When I paired them, I thought I’d answered that first question (“but why?”). I was wrong; the early drafts of the story went nowhere. I’d noted the second two bits of inspiration in my notebook before starting the first draft but failed to make a connection. I thought they were for a separate story, if I used them at all.

In a later draft I added the third inspiration and sparks began to fire. The quiet mountain town as a tourist attraction added a quirky backdrop to my drafts, odd scenes of faceless people going from location to location with their well-worn concordances in hand. Still, the story was shiftless and moody and failed to progress.

The final bit of inspiration came from waking one morning and, hazy-headed, realizing the cheated man was not the concordance’s author. Rather, the narrator was a friend or an acquaintance who went unmentioned in the concordance (even though everyone else in town is described within it). I’d given up on the story several times over a span of nearly two years. Patience and focus on the story’s needs led to plenty of sparks that Saturday morning. The draft I wrote became more-or-less what was published by Watchword later that year.

(Somewhere in this is a moral about not giving up on stories, but I must confess it’s sometimes good to cut anchor and move on. Some stories simply cannot be salvaged.)

The fourth point on inspiration—”man with a name no one can pronounce”—found its way into the story during the Saturday morning writing session. I’d been thinking about the man with the unpronounceable name as the basis for another story, but it had no feet. At the computer Saturday morning, I included it as a gag, a side bit of detail. As the story came to fruition, I realized it was one of the most important and salient aspects of “A Concordance of One’s Life.”

Aside

Eye-popping origami at Setting the Crease

Brill’s Double Cube, from Setting the Crease

Readers of Bridge Daughter might be interested in Setting the Crease, an origami blog I recently stumbled upon.

Just as I was amazed at the prizewinning origami displayed at Paper Tree in San Francisco’s Japantown (inspiration for a chapter in Bridge Daughter), Setting the Crease likewise is a demonstration of crafting stunning sculptures from flat paper. “No cuts, no tears, no glue.”

Calling itself a blog dedicated to “paper-based procrastination,” the origami is part of Setting the Crease‘s “365-2017” project: a new origami model for each day of the year.

Impressive stuff!

Bridge Daughter on sale for 99¢

Kindle Scout is celebrating its 2nd anniversary this month! To mark the occasion, the entire Kindle Scout catalog will be on sale for $0.99 from March 20th to April 3rd.

This sale includes Bridge Daughter, so if you’ve not picked up a copy for yourself or a friend, now is the time!

And check here for more Kindle Scout books from a variety of authors, from science fiction to mystery to contemporary.

Bridge Daughter on sale for 99¢ all December

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonGo ahead, open before Xmas: As part of Amazon’s “120 Kindle books” promotion, Bridge Daughter is on sale the entire month of December for the bargain price of 99¢!

Jump straight to Bridge Daughter on Amazon to take advantage of this deal or visit Amazon’s “120 Kindle books” to see all books priced at 99¢. (Sale ends December 31st.)

“Thought-provoking story blends action, introspection, and social commentary.” – Publishers Weekly

“Intelligent, gripping, and hard to put down.” – The Drifting Paige

“My favourite novel of 2016.” – Katherine Hayton, author of The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton and Breathe and Release

The Drifting Paige reviews Bridge Daughter

The Drifting PaigeBook blogger The Drifting Paige recently published a flattering 5 out of 5 review of Bridge Daughter. To quote:

This is an incredible scifi novel that bridges (ha) the gap between religion and science. It is so emotionally superb and is not overhanded with any of the themes … Nelson achieved the nigh impossible. You learn and grow with Hanna, you come to understand the world she exists in and the choices that she has to make…

I would suggest this novel to everyone- it is intelligent, gripping, and hard to put down. … Nelson is a tried and tested author, and I genuinely suggest his book to all scifi and high fantasy lovers.

Read the entire review (which masterfully avoids dropping a single spoiler) at The Drifting Paige. If you haven’t already, download a preview of Bridge Daughter at Amazon.