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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.

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Publishers Weekly reviews Bridge Daughter

Publishers WeeklyPublishers Weekly has reviewed Bridge Daughter and I couldn’t be more pleased. An excerpt:

Nelson … smoothly realizes a provocative alternate present seen through the eyes of naive adolescent Hanna Driscoll. … Hanna is an engaging protagonist, and her thought-provoking story blends action, introspection, and social commentary in a stark but indirect critique of efforts to control female bodies and restrict reproductive rights.

I’m honored to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly, negatively or otherwise, and such positive comments are more than welcome. Read the entire review, and if you’ve not picked up a copy of Bridge Daughter, you can start by going here.

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Real-life bridge daughter

Reddit ScienceA friend of mine stumbled on a true-to-life bridge daughter. Recall the premise of my novel:

Hanna is a “bridge daughter,” born pregnant with her parents’ child. In a few months she will give birth and die, leaving her parents with their true daughter.

Compare it to this Redditor’s story (from /r/raisedbynarcissists):

The summer before I turned 16 my parents went to a fertility clinic in the city to see about having another kid. My mom had been sterilized after my sister was born because of complications during lil sis’ birth that made it obvious that trying for another kid wouldn’t be healthy. 10 years later, all of my mother’s kids are grown into at least preteens and she was without a baby.

Then [my parents] asked me, their 15 year old daughter, if I would allow 3 of my parent’s fertilized eggs to be planted in me when I turned 18. They wanted me to carry potentially 3 of my own siblings to term and give birth to them. Mom would take the next batch of 3, and the last egg would go to me.

The whole crazy story is here. Download a sample of a far saner version of this story at Amazon.

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Greatest rejection letter of all-time

Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1953Recently I picked up Robert Silverberg’s superb Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction, an unfortunate title for a remarkably sturdy book. Part memoir, part writing guide, part anthology, I’d recommend it to every writer whether or not they’re interested in science fiction as a genre or pursuit.

Silverberg mingles his breezy autobiography of struggling to get published as a young man in the 1950s with nuggets of practical writing advice he picked up along the way. All of this package is humbly offered to the reader. Even when penning the book in 1987, Silverberg remains in awe of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein (“our Great Exception in almost everything”), although by that time Silverberg’s name was mentioned in the same breath as those masters, and more.

Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951Science Fiction 101 also reprints thirteen classic science fiction stories from authors like Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Robert Scheckly, Vance, Pohl, Aldiss…the table of contents reads like the short list of first-round inductees to The Science Fiction & Fantasy Hall of Fame. Alongside each story, Silverberg comments on why it impressed him and what he gleaned, offering hard, complete examples to his writing wisdom that so many other guides lack.

It’s fair to compare Science Fiction 101 to Stephen King’s On Writing. Both books are a bit more practical and pragmatic in their advice than loftier musings on the craft, such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I suspect Gardner would peer down his nose at writing advice from Silverberg or King, which is too bad. Anyone who can forge a lifetime career with pen in hand deserves to be listened to and considered.

As a young man, while sweating over a typewriter struggling to earn publication credits in the science fiction magazines of yore, Silverberg also earned a degree in English Literature at Columbia University. He applies some of that study here, coming up with incisive observations about storytelling I’ve not seen made before. Offering advice on how to build a story, Silverberg does something wonderful and avoids the conflict word. I’ve discovered “conflict” is off-putting to some young writers, possibly because it suggests violence or supercharged stakes or overwrought emotions. Instead, looking back to the ancient Greeks, he frames story as propelled by dissonance:

Find a situation of dissonance growing out of a striking idea or some combination of striking ideas, find the characters affected by that dissonance, write clearly and directly using dialog that moves each scene along and avoiding any clumsiness of style and awkward shifts of viewpoint, and bring matters in the end to a point where the harmony of the universe is restored and Zeus is satisfied.

It’s not the final word on how to write a story, but it’s a surprisingly serviceable start.

Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1951Silverberg’s candor and generosity to the reader is so no-nonsense, he even reprints the rejection notes he received while canvassing science fiction magazines with his early work. Big-name writers usually dip into their rejection stack for the wrong reasons: to settle a score, or thumb their nose at those who stood in their way years past. Here, Silverberg reprints rejection slips that served to make him a better writer, admitting how he deserved them, and how he was often too young to take their advice at face-value.

My favorite rejection letter comes from H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. Galaxy was a bit before my time (I grew up reading Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction). but Galaxy was well-known to me merely by its reputation. Galaxy was a “serious” science fiction magazine, known for avoiding the lewd subject matter and titillating covers the other science fiction magazines lured in readers with. (I’ve included a few of Galaxy‘s best covers here. The Internet Archive has a remarkable collection of back issues, covers and inside matter, that’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in science fiction’s past.)

Galaxy editor H.L. Gold sent Silverberg this rejection in 1956, when Silverberg had already broken into the field and was padding the back pages of science fiction magazines:

You’re selling more than you’re learning. The fact that you sell is tricking you into believing that your technique is adequate. It is—for now. But project your career twenty years into the future and see where you’ll stand if you don’t sweat over improving your style, handling of character and conflict, resourcefulness in story development. You’ll simply be more facile at what you’re doing right now, more glib, more skilled at invariably taking the easiest way out.

If I didn’t see a talent there—a potential one, a good way from being fully realized—I wouldn’t take the time to point out the greased skidway you’re standing on. I wouldn’t give a damn. But I’m risking your professional friendship for the sake of a better one.

Robert Silverberg was 21 when he received this remarkable letter, perhaps the greatest rejection letter of all-time.

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Tasty review of Bridge Daughter at The Hungry Bookworm

The Hungry BookwormThe Hungry Bookworm posted a foodie review of Bridge Daughter earlier today. Hungry Bookworm combines book reviews and cooking in a rather delightful way, offering recipes that complement the book or its subject matter. Blogger dreammkatcher paired Bridge Daughter with Lemon Zucchini Pancakes, an interesting choice considering the role pancakes (and flapjacks!) play throughout the novel:

A strong character, I found myself sympathizing with Hanna and rooting for her until the very end. The morning her mother forces her to make pancakes for breakfast, it becomes clear things are shifting for Hanna. Later on, pancakes are on the table again as her life takes another unexpected turn.

I’m sure Hanna made traditional breakfast pancakes, but since I decided to make them for dinner, I opted for a more savory recipe – Pancakes with a Heart of Gold. An apt name, I think, as Hanna counts on the goodness of many along the way.

It’s a great concept, pairing recipes with books. Read the whole wonderful review, and if you make these savory pancakes, I hope you accompany the meal with a setting of fresh-picked flowers.

Bridge Daughter is available at Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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Interview at Jim Jackson’s My Two Cents Worth

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonAuthor Jim Jackson has featured me on his blog today, answering questions about writing, inspiration, and Bridge Daughter. An excerpt:

I can’t fully explain where the idea for Bridge Daughter came from. One morning while preparing to write a chapter for another book I’m (still) working on, a strange thought struck me: What if we lived in a world where daughters are born as surrogates for their mothers, growing up to young teens and giving birth to the “real” child before dying. Rather than brushing aside this strange notion, I asked myself some questions how a world like this would look. These questions became the kernel for Bridge Daughter.

Check out the full interview as well as Jim Jackson’s web site and books.