Guest blogger Antoine Wilson is the author of the novel The Interloper, just out from Handsel Books/Other Press. (Check out this LA Times Book Review for more about the book.) His work has appeared in The Paris Review and Best New American Voices, and he is a contributing editor of A Public Space. He lives and surfs in Los Angeles.
Somehow I’ve become addicted to obituaries.
I don’t know when it happened, or how, but lately my writing day begins with reading about the dead. And not just the feature obits written by professional reporters, but also the little ones, the paid-for ones, the ones that look like classified ads.
In a public attempt to justify this private addiction, I’d like to make a proposal:
Obituaries are ideal breakfast reading for novelists.
1. Regular people are a novelist’s stock-and-trade, and the obits are where you’ll find them. This is especially true for those “classified ad” obits. They are treasure troves of stock language in service of real emotion (outclassed in that department only by maids-of-honor toasts and valedictorian speeches). They are fascinating in their portraits of the loves and favorite things of average punters, regular people, non-nobel-prize winners, people whose yearly schedules revolve around an annual group golf trip or who are known for their devotion to the never-completed sailboat in their backyard. And what is left out (cause of death, family feud) tends to hover there between the lines, waiting for some audacious scribbler to fill in the blanks.
2. The obits jump-start your curiosity about the world. I’m a curious person by nature. But like most people, whole areas of knowledge are completely grayed out and are unlikely to get filled in any time soon. Unless maybe some fantastic documentary comes along to call my attention to, say, the importance of a font to the history of graphic design. The point is, I’m constantly filtering information based on my interests. I don’t read the sports pages. I haven’t had a reason to research the history of radar technology. Or blues record labels. Or dogsled racing. The great thing about the obits, and here I’m talking mainly about the big ones, the ones written by reporters, is that through these people’s lives, you’re transported into a milieu other than your own. And if that milieu held no interest for you at the outset, by the time you’ve read a few hundred words about someone who dedicated their life to living in it, you’ll usually find something to remind you that people are usually more interesting than you think.
3. Um, truth is stranger than fiction? The ups and downs of people’s lives, the close-calls, the reunited loves, the mad risks, the senseless tragedies…all of them are laid bare in the obituary, with a retrospective touch that makes you almost believe in capital-F Fate. Any obit is an insane oversimplification, yet the best of them read like little Victorian novels. (The worst read like resumes without the line breaks.) I guess what I’m saying is that they’re full of material. The “news” of them is the same every time: someone died. Relieved from the burden, then, of being “news,” the obit opens the door to all kinds of crazy details, strange events, and otherwise novelistic stuff that hardly ever makes it into the paper. Steal away!
You can measure a culture by how it remembers its dead. I just happen to enjoy doing it over breakfast.