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Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

The Art of the Obituary: An Interview with Margalit Fox

September 23, 2014 | by

Margalit Fox credit Ivan Farkas

Photo: Ivan Farkas

In nearly twenty years and twelve hundred obituaries, Margalit Fox, a senior writer at the New York Times, has chronicled the lives of such personages as the president of Estonia, an underwater cartographer, and the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing. An instrumental figure in pushing the obituary past Victorian-era formal constraints, Fox produces features-style write-ups of her subjects whether they’re ubiquitous public figures, comparatively unknown men and women whose inventions have changed the world, or suicidal poets. (More on those below.)

I caught up with Fox in the Upper West Side café where she’s written two books, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, the latter of which was published in paperback earlier this year. She was remarkably jovial and eager to clarify what it’s like to write about the dead every day. We spoke about the history of the obituary, her love of English eccentrics, and how it feels to call a living person in preparation for his or her eventual death.

Does the work you do change the way you think about death?

This work does skew your worldview a bit. We all watch old movies with an eye toward who’s getting on in age. I watch the Oscars memorial presentation and sit there going, Did him, did her, didn’t do that one. For obit writers, the whole world is necessarily divided into the dead and the pre-dead. That’s all there is.

How did you end up in the obituaries department?

I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born that comes home from school clutching a composition that says, When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer. I started as an editor at the Times Book Review. It was wonderful to be around books and people that love books, but the job itself was copyediting. I was afraid that all they’d be able to put on my tombstone was “She Changed Fifty-Thousand Commas into Semicolons.” I started contributing freelance to the obituary section and ended up getting pulled in as a full-time writer.

How is your section different from other news sections at the paper?

Ninety-five percent of our job is writing daily obits on deadline. It’s impossible to have an advance written for all the pre-dead who we hope to cover, so we usually have to phone someone up to ask about a person or a subject we don’t know much about. Recently, one of my colleagues was heard running around the office going, Does anyone know anything about exotic chickens?! It’s that sort of thing. Read More »

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Tolkien by Jansson, and Other News

June 16, 2014 | by

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  • The dirty secret of poetry is that it is loved by some, loathed by many, and bought by almost no one.” (That may be dirty, but is it a secret?)
  • Everyone can rattle off the names of alcoholic male writers—it’s time to give the women their due. “Jean Rhys was briefly in Holloway prison for assault; Elizabeth Bishop more than once drank eau de cologne, having exhausted the possibilities of the liquor cabinet. But are their reasons for drinking different? And how about society’s responses, particularly in the lubricated, tipsy twentieth century; the golden age, if one can call it that, of alcohol and the writer?”
  • Among the artists to have illustrated international editions of The Hobbit over the years: Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, and Tolkien himself.
  • No one can explain the success of “A Dark Room,” a best-selling game composed of words and not much else—harking back to the earliest computer games of the seventies. “These language games draw on a tradition of using language patterns as a form of play that precedes computers by thousands of years, something to which more recent video games remain indebted.”
  • Look to 1984—the year, not the novel—for a curious episode from the annals of bioterrorism: “In rural Oregon, a small religious sect led by an Indian mystic was busy organizing a massive voter-fraud campaign that nearly enabled it to take over an entire county … The Rajneeshees would try to depress turnout among regular voters by poisoning thousands of residents with Salmonella.”
  • Journalists reporting from more than ninety countries are collaborating on a new project called Deca: “Once a month, Deca publishes a nonfiction story about the world. Somewhere between a long article and a short book, each piece is written by one member, edited by another, and approved by the rest.”

 

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The Sound of Pure Internet, and Other News

May 6, 2014 | by

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Photo: Fleshas, via Wikimedia Commons

  • One of the finest World War II documentaries, 1945’s The Battle of San Pietro, was faked. Does this make it less true?
  • Here’s what it was like to attend a literature seminar taught by Philip Roth in the seventies: “He barely looked at us or made eye contact, but murmured a hello, then sat down in his chair, crossed one long leg over the other, and slowly unbuckled his watch. That’s as sexy as it got.”
  • Does journalism fit into capitalism? … Journalism does exist in capitalism, and capitalism is kicking journalists’ asses. The same goes for editors, and for many publications.”
  • Matt Parker, a sound artist, has been touring data hubs—those epicenters of the Internet, where all our e-stuff takes physical form—and recording the ethereal hum they give off. The result: “musical renderings of the great churn … an incredibly loud and obnoxious place filled with white noise and buzzing hard drives.”
  • Analyzing the artisanal toast trend: “Artisanal toast is hardly the first harbinger of our food obsession, or even necessarily the most egregious, but it’s become a scapegoat for a growing, broader cultural backlash; the toast that broke the camel’s back.”

 

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The Hypnotic Act

April 28, 2014 | by

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Silvana Paternostro (front row, second from right) poses for a photo with her journalism class, taught by Gabriel García Márquez (third row from front, center, in glasses).

Last week, we had the pleasure of featuring Silvana Paternostro’s “Solitude & Company,” an oral biography of Gabriel García Márquez from our Summer 2003 issue. But Silvana also wrote, for our Winter 1996 issue, “Three Days with Gabo,” an essay about the time she spent at a small journalism workshop hosted by García Márquez in Cartagena that spring. As Silvana writes: “For us, Latin American journalists in the early stages of our careers, he is a role model. We like to say that before he was a novelist he was a reporter. He says he has never stopped being one.” The essay provides a charming account of García Márquez’s professorial style—somehow both whimsical and practical—and it serves a reminder of his formidable talents as a journalist and an observer:

It has been said that Gabo is too creative to be a good journalist. After all, he is the same writer who in his novels, with a straight face, had Remedios the Beauty levitating to the skies and the smell of Santiago Nasar after his well-announced death penetrating the entire town.

As if reading my mind he says, “The strange episodes in my novels are all real, or they have a starting point, a basis in reality. Real life is always much more interesting than what we can invent.” He says that the ascension of Remedios the Beauty was inspired by a woman he saw spreading clean white sheets with her arms stretched out to the sun. He has also said that “to move between the magical and the incredible, one has to become a journalist” … He begins to read paragraphs out loud from some of our articles; he offers light copyediting. Some of the sentences are too long and Gabo pretends to be choking as he reads along. “We have to use breathing commas,” he says. “If not, the hypnotic act does not work. Remember, wherever there is a stumble, the reader wakes up and escapes. And one of the things that will make the reader wake up from hypnosis is to feel out of breath.”

We’ve made Silvana’s essay available online for free; you can read it here. It’s a fitting conclusion to our tribute to García Márquez—he will be missed.

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How to Convert a Nonbeliever

March 6, 2014 | by

Gabriel García Márquez is eighty-seven today.

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Márquez in 1984. Photo by F3rn4nd0, via Wikimedia Commons.

INTERVIEWER

You describe seemingly fantastic events in such minute detail that it gives them their own reality. Is this something you have picked up from journalism?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing. That’s exactly the technique my grandmother used. I remember particularly the story about the character who is surrounded by yellow butterflies. When I was very small there was an electrician who came to the house. I became very curious because he carried a belt with which he used to suspend himself from the electrical posts. My grandmother used to say that every time this man came around, he would leave the house full of butterflies. But when I was writing this, I discovered that if I didn’t say the butterflies were yellow, people would not believe it.

—Gabriel García Márquez, the Art of Fiction No. 69

 

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The Patron Saint of Writers and Journalists

January 24, 2014 | by

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Today is the feast day of Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and journalists. A bishop of Geneva, Francis died in 1622. He was fond of using flyers and books to convert Calvinists—hence his patronage, though one can imagine him just as easily settling into a post as patron saint of marketing, or patron saint of well-meaning finger-wagging.

Francis’s most enduring work is 1609’s Introduction to the Devout Life, which was written for laypeople—a novel idea at the time. CatholiCity, a repository of “the Finest Catholic CDs, Booklets, and Novels,” calls it “the most popular Catholic ‘self-help’ book of all time,” and when you peruse the table of contents, it’s not hard to see why. There’s plenty of practical wisdom on offer, e.g., “All Evil Inclinations Must Be Purged Away”; “One Word to Maidens”; “Dryness and Spiritual Barrenness”; “How to Exercise Real Poverty, Although Actually Rich”; and, conversely, “How to Possess a Rich Spirit Amid Real Poverty.” Then there’s the meditation on hell, which goes from yogic to despairing at the drop of a mitre:

Preparation
1. Place yourself in God’s Presence.
2. Humble yourself, and ask His Aid.
3. Picture to yourself a dark city, reeking with the flames of sulphur and brimstone, inhabited by citizens who cannot get forth.

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