Ilena Silverman on Editing “The Lives They Lived”

The editor of the New York Times Magazine year-end obituaries issue discusses how the subjects were chosen, written and edited.

Ilena Silverman has been an editor at the New York Times Magazine for the past five years and is editing the upcoming “Lives They Lived” issue, an annual end-of-the-year feature for over a decade that looks at individuals who died this year and whose accomplishment or significance has not quite gotten attention.

Gal Beckerman: Tell me a little bit about putting this issue together. How do you decide whom you are going to focus on? Do the ideas come from writers or from the editors? How do you assign them?

Ilena Silverman: We go into the issue knowing that there are lots of people who died who are deserving of space. But the ones who have been written up in great detail, we tend to move away from those people because they have gotten so much coverage, and we tend to go for people who are a little bit more minor players on the scene.

As to how we figure out whom we are going to write about, it’s a collaboration between the editors and writers. We have a big meeting here first among the editors and whoever’s in charge of the issue, in this case me, will ask editors to read different groups of obituaries put together. And in addition to that, everyone brings to the meeting things that interest them and possible ideas for writers. And then I just follow my interests and instincts and we let writers follow their instincts and interests.

There’s a piece, for example, about this guy Joseph Frelinghuysen, who got a very tiny obit in the Times. He was a World War II POW. He was caught in Italy and he escaped prison camp and he came upon an Italian family who sheltered and fed him for two weeks, and he eventually brings that family back to the United States years later after the war. It just seemed like an amazing tale. And we have a writer, Sara Corbett, a contract writer for us, who I just thought could really bring this story to life. This was her sort of thing. She’s a great narrative writer. And she did. She read his self-published memoir, she called the Italian family, who are now in their eighties in New Jersey. She was able to piece this story together and it just made a great narrative. …

There’s a piece in here about Elizabeth Hoffman, who was the poetry editor for Ladies Home Journal from 1948 to 1962. And I remember seeing that and thinking it was so weird — a mainstream women’s magazine had poetry for fourteen years? She published Auden and Marianne Moore. What was that about? I also thought it was an opportunity not necessarily to write about her, but also to look at women’s magazines and how they had changed, and how they thought about poetry then and what they were giving to women. So sometimes it’s about the person, about him or herself, and sometimes it’s about an idea that the person represents.

GB: I was interested to see on the list that you had, in addition to the almost-famous and under-acknowledged, you also had everyday people who seemed to offer a window on something else, like this New Orleans police officer, Laurence Celestine, who committed suicide in the aftermath of Katrina.

IS: We get to follow our obsessions. And I had been very curious from the time I heard that there had been two New Orleans police officers who had killed themselves. I was just so curious about what that was about. What had they seen or experienced that had led them to that? Obviously you don’t want to make it overly simplistic and say, oh, it was the hurricane that killed them. They might have had other things going on, but that certainly seems to have been some kind of precipitating event.

And I felt that in all the Katrina coverage, and there was tons of it, and some was very good, but you often didn’t get narrative texture. You got moments of it, here and there. But I had read very little about the hurricane itself where someone had stuck with one person or one place. And that had been my initial hope, that we could really recreate the days and hours of his life while he was dealing with the hurricane, right up until the moment that he killed himself. It turned out to be harder than we thought, because the police were reluctant to talk about it. They would talk a little and then not talk again. The writer really had a hard time figuring it out, trying to piece it together. In the end, he dug out every piece he could to put together the story of those six days between the time that the hurricane hit and the time that this guy took his own life. It wasn’t so much about him as an attempt to describe from the perspective of a cop what it was like to be there.

GB: Why do you think it’s been such a successful issue now for twelve years?

IS: I think two things. I think that the writers really love writing for it. I could have put together two issues, easily. There were lots of people who wanted to write who I had to turn away because I already assigned enough pieces. Journalists see an opportunity to use a different muscle. Some of these pieces are pure storytelling. And a lot of our writers love that narrative non-fiction writing.

GB: Also, it seems, you are not limited by the topical. You don’t have to worry about a news peg.

IS: Right, you don’t need a nut graph. And I think that is incredibly appealing to people. And, also, I think there’s a variety. The pieces are different. Some of them are narrative. Some of them are about an idea. They are less about the person, per se. The piece about Frank Purdue is about Frank Purdue. But it’s also about the idea of creating a certain type of brand. Or the piece about Thurl Ravenscroft, who was the voice of Tony the Tiger, is really not about him at all. It’s about the idea of our relationship to cereal and the characters. And in that case, Elizabeth McCracken is a novelist, she’s not a journalist. And she has an incredibly creative mind and every year she does something really unique.

Writers get really into it. They spend a lot of time on these pieces. They do a lot of reporting to get it right. And I think readers respond to these little capsules. People in general respond to lives and to obituaries. But because the Times does so many obituaries and does them so well, we are trying to figure out a way to do them differently. Make them a little bit more idiosyncratic, a little more literary, give them a slightly different sensibility. Because we are not obligated to tell the whole story, we can take a slice of it.

GB: Having worked on these types of pieces, do you think the standard, daily obituary is too narrowly defined?

IS: I think the daily newspaper has an obligation to its readers and its subjects. And, you know, often those obits are very interesting. It’s those obits that have spurred me to think about doing a piece. For example, in the obit of this woman, Georgiana Jones, who was an in vetro [fertilization] pioneer, it was in that obit where they quoted this young woman, Elizabeth Carr, who was the first test tube baby. And it was because I read that obit and read that quote that I thought we should get this woman to write a longer piece. So without the work of the daily obit writers going out and finding this young woman, I would have never come to it. So, in a way, I think the two work nicely together. …

GB: Tell me more generally about changes at the magazine. It seems that the format, at least, has shifted lately, with the new front-of-the-book sections. What has that evolution been about? There seem to be a lot more shorter pieces.

IS: It’s actually remained pretty standard. We always have a cover story around 8,000 words (unless it’s Barry Bearak’s story, in which case it’s 18,000 words). And we always have two second pieces which are six pages each, which are 4,500 or 5,000 words. And that’s pretty standard. Certainly, in the bigger issues there is a lot of material in the front of the book, and those pieces are shorter than features. But I don’t think the pieces have gotten shorter.

One of the recent changes is that we used to have, more often, four pieces in the well instead of three pieces, and each of those pieces were shorter, 3,500 or 4,000 words. Now we have two 4,500- to 5,000-word pieces. So I actually don’t think that the magazine has changed. I would say that the addition of the funny pages and the other front of the book stuff has been great. I don’t work on those pages, but I think readers seem to like them.

It’s always helpful for a magazine to maintain its identity and what people like about it, but also keep itself fresh, figure out new ways to surprise readers. An editor once told me when I worked at Harper’s, when I was an editor on their reading section, that putting together a good magazine is always a delicate balance between predictability and surprise. And I think that’s right. Readers go back to their weekly or monthly magazine because they know what to expect and they want what they expect. Yet you don’t want to start getting the same thing over and over again, because you’d start getting bored. You do need to give people something new. Not something that feels completely incongruous with what they know. You have a comfort zone and you want it in that comfort zone but you don’t want to get bored.

GB: I’m curious. As an editor there, where I imagine you deal with a very high caliber of writing, how much of your editing is line editing for things like word choice and syntax and how much is conceptual stuff? I imagine it might vary with writers …

IS: It does. But it is much more conceptual editing — a lot of talking to writers, a lot of talking before they’ve started reporting, a lot after they’ve reported. There definitely would be some line editing. But as an editor, I’m not a rewrite editor. I’m not particularly comfortable in that role. For the most part, I feel that any writer who’s writing for this magazine, unless they are a first time writer in some unusual circumstance, this is what they do, they are going to write way better sentences than I’m going to write. I can help them write the best sentences they can. I can help them think through a piece. I can suggest that we need a sentence here that says X. But their actual sentence is going to be better than my sentence.

But I definitely like paying a lot of attention. I read sentence by sentence and I will ask, is this the exact word you want here? And one of the fun things about this issue is the pieces are so short that you can really bear down on every single one. And you can really make sure that every sentence is right and you are really getting something out of every single sentence. So I think we are fortunate that the kind of editing we’re doing is not rewriting.

A lot of it is just wanting the articles I edit to answer all the questions I think a reader might wonder about. So I am often saying to someone, talk about this a little more. For me, it’s often fleshing out parts of a piece I think are really interesting and helping writers to [know] what parts of the story we can lose and what is the real core of the story. I’m working with a writer on a story now and he’s got two drafts and he has a great story, but he hasn’t completely figured out how to tell it. I don’t know exactly how to, either. But a lot of it is trying to figure out together where do we start it, where do we give this information, how long do we hold back this information so we can keep the tension of the story going.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.