The Marilyn Johnson Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Today is the day to beat the system.

I will be reading something very silly tonight at the Dollar Store. Some other very cool people will also be on stage.

I have also started doing some travel blogging over at Jaunted, if anyone is interested.

This year for my birthday my mom gave me a most interesting book called The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. I just recently got around to picking it up, but I'm glad I'm did, because it's a fascinating look at obits and the people who love them (and write them.) Instead of a dark look at death, I thought it was a more insightful, colorful look at the celebration of people as they leave the planet. Its author has written obits f or Katharine Hepburn, Princess Diana, Jackie Onassis, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, and Marlon Brando for Life and other magazines.She has been a staff writer for Life and an editor for Esquire. Her articles and poetry have appeared in many publications, and her reviews and essays about books appear every week on AARP Online.

The Marilyn Johnson Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Do you like it when students are asked to write their own obituaries or do you think that exercise is too morbid or hackneyed?
It’s a GREAT exercise. Most people can’t deal with their own deaths, and it ends up being a joke in one way or the other, but any opportunity to look across the span of your life is great, any chance to ask, how do I want to be remembered? What is the point of all this? Who will I leave behind? What will my survivors find when they go through my closet?

Who that’s died in the last year do you wish you could have written an obit for that you didn’t, that you know of?
Love those nasty dictators. I’d have to be a lot better reporter than I am to tackle any of them, but I read, for instance, the obituaries of Alfredo Stroessner, the former dictator of Paraguay, and thought, now THERE’S a reckoning.

Of the obituary writers that you know, which would you most like to write your own obit?
Almost anyone I profiled in my book would do a fine job putting me down. Jim Nicholson, the legendary obit writer from Philadelphia, would find great telling details and ultimately, he’d be kind. Andrew McKie of the Daily Telegraph would be wicked and funny. Amy Martinez Starke of the Oregonian would probably tell you bluntly that my house was a mess and my children’s underwear in shreds – the truth, by the way. And then there’s a woman who writes some of the Economist’s obituaries, Ann Wroe; she paints the big picture, and she writes like an angel. She’d get me good.

Do you think that studying and writing obituaries has changed your view towards death or made it different from others? Reading your book it made me almost feel somehow homey, or folksy on the subject.
I don’t think it’s an accident that I started writing this book when I turned 50. I hope I live to 108, but if I only live until next week, I’ve looked down the chute and found something to comfort myself on the tumble down.

Did you need to change your writing or editorial tone very much when you were working for Esquire vs. Life?
Oh yeah, every magazine is different. Esquire was a place to be witty, sophisticated, literary. Life was a place to be plainspoken, to pluck the heartstrings. I like to think it’s still the same voice, funny or poignant.

When Don Murray said that your book would be the “sleeper” book of the year, what reaction did that first elicit? I’m never sure what to do with that word.
Sleeper of the year? That is high praise. It means it’s a book no one expects to fly out of the bookstore – and honestly, who would blame you for not pegging a book about obits as a big seller? -- but a few people here, a few people there buy it, and enjoy it, and tell their friends about it…and before long, all those purchases add up. Don Murray is someone I’ve admired for decades, and his review thrilled me. I hope he’s right.

Have you received much feedback from readers who seem to miss the mark on your book and who find you morbid or disrespectful of the dead?
No, it’s surprising; most of the responses have been favorable. I got a couple reviews from people who thought I got a little carried away– but these same people wrote me warm emails. I get emails all the time from people who are delighted, a terrific range of people – professors, ministers, rock n roll producers, book club members. I try to answer every one, even if the person has quibbles.

I read a review of your book on Amazon from a dissatisfied customer who apparently thought your book would actually be a collection of obits, and not about the people who write them. For that person and those of us who are interested, are there other books on obituaries or collections of them that you’ve enjoyed?
The wonderful Daily Telegraph in London has published a dozen or more obit collections that are terribly amusing. I also recommend a marvelous book called 52 McGs, edited by Chris Calhoun, a collection of obituaries by the legendary Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. of the New York Times. The New York Times collection, The Last Word, is another good one. And there is a manual for obituary writers by Alana Baranick, Stephen Miller and Jim Sheeler, Life on the Death Beat, which includes a number of American obituaries that are both moving and entertaining.

Or you can go on the Usenet group alt.obituaries and read current ones posted by the obit obsessed.

Are obit writers ever allowed to portray certain dead people as the bastards they were or do they have to make it mostly-positive?
That’s one of the trends that I find so heartening. Read legendary reporter R. W. Apple, Jr.’s obit in the New York Times. He “was always the hero of his own life” and had a “Falstaffian” appetite. The paper quoted Timothy Crouse who said ‘There was a reason why reporters told stories about Apple… They recognized many of their own traits in him, grotesquely magnified…the insecurity, the ambitiousness, the name-dropping’ --not to mention ‘the weakness for powerful men.’ And Apple worked for the New York Times!

After the obits, which section do you most look forward to reading in the newspaper?
I read the book reviews, but I also love the little stories from around the world and across the country: frogs and toads making a comeback in Iowa, moths drinking the tears of elephants, McFalafal on the fast food menu in Cairo.

The physical design of your book is not to be overlooked: how much input did you have on that?
I was so lucky with HarperCollins. My editor Dave Hirshey included me in most of the decisions, and when the publisher, Jonathan Burnham, suggested making the book long and thin, we were delighted. Then the designer Milan Bozic got into it. Right down the line, everyone who worked on this book treated it as something special.

I can see reading obits but why do you clip them? Do you often return to them?
I carry them around with me. I have one from the Washington Post about a woman who got involved with Wicca and became a Mother Earth-worshipping witch, along with several other members of her sports car enthusiast club. That clip is almost worn through.

There’s something about newsprint, about seeing the photos, that I love. And of course I love reaching into my bag and pulling out these ripped and folded bits of flotsam, like some bag lady.

What are you working on now?
I’m writing a blog on books for AARP that appears every week. I lounge around reading tons of books, eating bonbons, thinking up something amusing to say – you’d be amazed how busy that keeps me. But I will do another book, if I live.

What have been some of the biggest errors you've ever seen or heard of printed in an obituary (other than the person was not actually dead)?
The obit world has been buzzing this week because a lot of the papers printed sendoffs to the co-writer of "Itsy, Bitsy, Teenie, Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," when actually they were sending off the guy who pretended to write it. The widow was freaked, the real writer (who was still alive) was freaked, and I guarantee you, the obit editors were freaked.

What do you think of those on-line "guest book" expressions of sympathy?  Do you think a compilation of those would ever be interesting or would it be a bunch of cliches and typos?
They're great. There isn't a thing about them that isn't great. Someday someone will grace us with a compilation, I hope, or perhaps there will be annual awards for the best guest book.

My Mom says that she would like to get one of those great big obits that the paper prints for free, with a flattering photo, of course.  Any suggestions?
Hmmm. We've already said goodbye to the man who built concrete buildings in the shape of picnic baskets, and the best blind mule diver, and the Pavarotti of the Plains. I suggest she come up with a unique talent, exploit it in an interesting way, and then die on a slow news day.

How does it feel to be the 157th  person interviewed for
I can’t tell you how honored I am. Truly, I’m so happy to be in your collection.

More interviews here!