I am not embarrassed to admit that the obituaries on the back page of The Economist make my week. They’re thought-provoking and written with energy. Each column is a window onto another world, where genocidal SS captains escape to Argentina and open a deli with best cold cuts in town, and where British men create Tibet’s communications network and end up imbibing Maoist propaganda in order to escape life in Chinese prison.
The woman who writes these obituaries is Ann Wroe, a stalwart of The Economist since 1976 and the author of nonfiction books on topics as diverse as the Iran-Contra affair and Pontius Pilate. She is softly-spoken and sharp, her willowy English demeanor masking a razor-sharp analytical mind. After working as Arts and Books editor and US editor, she took on obituaries in 2003. She told me that the job “gives you a chance to write, really to write.” Her secret? Chronology doesn’t matter. “You just have to try and get the essence of who they are, and it has to boil down to what was most important to them.” Her role is to meld the mind of a journalist with the creativity of a novelist.
One memorable example of this free-wheeling writing was Wroe’s obituary of Benson, a 25-year-old carp that lived in a pond in Peterborough; Wroe wrote that “in her glory days she reminded some of Marilyn Monroe, others of Raquel Welch. She was lither than either as she cruised through the water-weed, a lazy twist of gold.” Benson tragically lost her mate and spent her remaining days comfort eating until her ultimate demise.
Wroe recalls that “it was a summer evening, I remember, and I went and wrote it in my garden. And I just felt that feeling of lazing around at the bottom of a river. I just imagined myself in the world of being a carp.”
The subject of the week’s obituary is decided on Monday, and it must be written and polished by Tuesday. This 36-hour window is a marathon attempt to consume as much information as possible. “I just sort of feed it all in. Make a huge great collage in my mind. And then it compresses down terribly: there must be millions of words in there and it just comes down to a thousand.”
Often, Wroe is stepping inside the mind of someone who was utterly obsessive about something, and briefly, their passion must become of great importance to her as well. “There was one man I wrote about who was a carpenter, and he specialized in making drawers. It’s quite difficult to get drawers to go in and out smoothly, and you can understand how that could become an obsession. So I had to learn how to make them as well, and find out which woods were best. I had to be just as enthusiastic about how to do it as he was.”
“I think the hardest one was when I did Ingmar Bergman,” she says. “I had to spend the whole night watching the movies, and by the end I was suicidal. They were so dark, and they were getting darker and darker.” She compares it to an Oxford tutorial essay, a kind of fast-paced cramming. “The writers are horrifying; I absolutely dread it when the writers die. There’s such a lot to read!”
Wroe insists on only reading source material by her subject. “I never go to any books written by anybody else. I go to the words on the paper, their diaries. I think it’s the only way to do it, because that’s the voice that has disappeared.”
YouTube videos are helpful for bringing to life crucial little details, such as their voice and physical presence, “what it’s like when they enter a room.” Blogs and tweets are increasingly useful, and provide a (rather morbid) real-time ticker of their thoughts or actions. “They are keeping a record of the last things they are thinking about which is rather extraordinary.” Her obituary of Tim Samaras, a scientist who was killed by a tornado he was chasing, quotes his enthusiastic tweets; ironically, on the day he died, he warned people to ‘stay weather savvy’.
While writing the obituary of Aaron Swartz, the hacker who committed suicide amid federal charges, Wroe read his blog to “see the world as only one unique person saw the world.” She remembers that “he did seem to be an incredibly obsessive character. You could see danger signs.”
But even this approach can be affected by distortion or propaganda, people attempting to rewrite their own history, or even a simple lack of information. She recalls her obituary of JD Salinger with regret: “When he died there was a general perception of him as a really crusty, miserable, not very neighbourly chap. And then later there was a piece in the New Yorker which showed a totally different man: much more sociable and happier and kinder. I wish I had read that before I wrote the piece.”
Have there been any real missteps or bad calls? Almost. Wroe describes taking Jimmy Savile’s autobiography out of the library, and preparing to write. “But there was something about it that I really didn’t like. I could tell that he was hiding too much. I thought: I don’t think I can do it, and someone else came up that was equally famous so I did them instead. And then everything broke about the scandal [regarding the TV presenter's widespread sexual abuse of minors]. But if I’d done it and not mentioned any of that, can you imagine? It does make you think how easy it would be to call it wrong for any of these candidates.”
Readers often write in to complain, “especially when it’s an evil man. They hate that. They do think, the Americans especially, that it’s a sign of honouring someone, a sign of respect.” Wroe says that when she receives such letters, “I write back and say that all human life is interesting.”
Those characters who make for the best tales are usually people who are totally unknown; often they are suggested by readers. One such person was Marie Smith, the last person to speak Eyak, an Alaskan language. “She was the only person left who remembered all the different words for all the parts of a spruce tree. And nobody is ever going to see a spruce tree in that way again. I love it when there is an end of a whole tradition or culture: it is the last glimpse we are going to get first-hand of something that’s gone.”
Wroe’s attitude about death is refreshing, allowing her to face it every week, albeit from a certain distance. “I don’t think of dead as dead, that’s the thing, and therefore it doesn’t trouble me. It’s an absence, if you like. It’s not the end.” She notes how “I never mention how people die, because I don’t think that’s important at all. I think an obituary is a celebration of a life.”
Isabelle is a freelance journalist and massive history nerd from London, UK. She tweets @izzyfraser.