MJ: I think if you’re at a small community paper and it’s a small town, I think you need to resolve that you’re interested in the truth. There’s always kind of a bail-out clause, which is if the family really doesn’t want the person written about. For instance, if a loved one bragged about military service that might not have actually happened and the obit writer finds out, that writer could go to the family and ask if the family would prefer that they didn’t write about the person at all. To me that is reasonable, especially in a small town.
Otherwise, I don’t think you owe anything to the family. You owe them the truth. You are doing more than just reporting the facts. You are trying to conjure somebody up, to give them a curtain call. So to try and do that with somebody you don’t know, there is an art to it. The prose has to be alive and the ear has to be tuned to the person’s voice. What you owe to the family is to get that right.
GB: But I imagine that can sometimes conflict with the family’s conception of the person.
MJ: Well, sure, any time that you take a life of, say, 93 years and put it in a few column inches, you are doing an act that is not going to make everybody happy. What’s incredible is how many people get it right. How many people have families who come to them and say, I don’t know how you did it, but you got it.
GB: It’s almost like you need distance to fully see the person.
MJ: The distance helps a lot, and they call around. Some of these people do 10 interviews. It’s very intensive if you do it right and with the kind of skill that I celebrate.
GB: And you don’t have much time.
MJ: It really compresses it. I think it’s a heroic act of writing when you do it right. Now tell me why does ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors] only celebrates obituary writers every 20 years? It gets no respect.
GB: You said they’ve changed enormously over the last 20 years. What did they used to look like?
MJ: Well, they used to look like a bunch of very serious white guys and a list of their jobs, and clubs and accomplishments and survivors.
GB: So they weren’t writing about everyday people.
MJ: No, not at all. They were writing about prominent people. And the women were all daughters and wives. No, they really aren’t all that interesting, except as sociology or archeological artifact. In the late 1800s, you could read — and I just read this on the New York Times’ Web site, which is really good about putting up old obituaries — one for Louisa May Alcott where you have to read about her death scene for so deep into it before you get to her life. The whole piece was about her death. We take care of that in a phrase now.
GB: It is interesting that obituaries have such tight structure. It seems a bit like jazz in that way, in that you have these rules and then you improvise around them. I wonder if that helps makes the writing of them so creative.
MJ: I think it really calls out the best in some of these writers. And how they convey a style. How does Margalit Fox [at the New York Times] convey such style when she absolutely adheres to that structure every time? It’s incredible. You see someone like Gayle Ronan Sims at the Philadelphia Inquirer, she can do it all. She can do it straight as an arrow but also infuse it with personality and character.
GB: Do you think the structure kind of keeps things in check, keeps the person coming back to the necessity of chronology, to those certain number of things that have to be there?