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.