June 26, 2007 1:00 PM
Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Sheeler on his new book Obit
Mark_Wolf(C) Welcome to Rocky reporter Jim Sheeler, who won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for Final Salute, the story that chronicled a year with Marine casualty notification officers. His new book, Obit: the Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives, is a collection of obituaries he wrote for the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and Boulder Planet. Jim will read from Obit, talk about his craft and sign copies of the book during a presentation at 7 p.m. tonight at the Rocky Mountain News auditorium, 101 W. Colfax Ave.
Mark_Wolf(Q) You grew up in Houston and came to CSU intending to become a veterinarian. How did you wind up in journalism?
Jim_Sheeler(A) Though I grew up reading all the James Herriott books and was set on being a vet since I was about 6, I always played around with Super 8 and video, and was on the high school yearbook staff. When I came to CSU, I took some broadcast journalism classes as electives, and while I struggled through the pre-vet science courses, telling stories seemed to come naturally.
Mark_Wolf(Q) What drew you to obituary writing?
Jim_Sheeler(A) When I worked at a small community weekly called the Boulder Planet, it was my job to type in the obituaries as they came over the fax machine from the mortuary. As I typed them in, I realized how many stories we were missing - stories that could be told for the last time. I made it a point to pick at least one person a week - preferably someone whose name had never appearded in the newspaper - and write an extended life story.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Metropolitan newspapers contain a couple of dozen obituary notices every day. How do you pick the ones that seem promising candidates for longer pieces?
Jim_Sheeler(A) Sometimes the stories leap at you - a woman who was a butcher and a florist, for instance. But, honestly, you can choose any person and find their story. Sometimes I would challenge myself, such as the story of Johnny Richardson, who I picked simply because his was the shortest obituary on the page. It ended up being the longest obit I've ever written.
Mark_Wolf(Q) The stereotype of obituary writing is that it is the province of the inexperienced or the over-the-hill. Yet you call it "journalism's best-kept secret." Many newspapers seem to be putting more emphasis on both the way obituaries are written and the way they're displayed. Do you find that's true and, if so, why do you think it's happening?
Jim_Sheeler(A) With the advent of 24 hour a day news, I think the obituary page remains one place where people can slow down and find real stories that they can't get anywhere else. I am a firm believer that if newspapers are to survive, we must get back to the roots of storytelling, and there are few better places in the paper to find and tell these stories - stories that teach, stories filled with wisdom and philosophy - than the obituary page.
lb(Q) Where did you find the strength to talk to families who lost their loved ones, especially of those who died a tragic death?
Jim_Sheeler(A) In many cases, the interviews are incredibly emotional, but, in a way, they need to be. I find that just being human is the only way to approach the families - to treat them the same way I would want my mother treated. The thing is - even with tragic deaths - many people don't know what to say or act awkward around the family. As a reporter, I'm there to talk about the one thing they ARE comfortable talking about - their loved one's life - and many times it's very cathartic. This is one of the very few jobs in journalism where many interviews end with hugs.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Obituaries are often solemn but you frequently find the humor in folks' lives.
Jim_Sheeler(A) The key in writing the stories is to find everything about their lives - and it's wonderful when someone can still make you laugh out loud even after they've died.
Mark_Wolf(Q) You quote a buddy of a soldier killed in Iraq saying his dead friend could be a "mean ordinary little %%%%." It led into the most revelatory section of his life, but it's unusual territory for an obituary. How do you deal - how should newspapers deal - with the dark side of their subjects.
Jim_Sheeler(A) I always try to include the foibles of people - we all have them - and when speaking to families, I make it clear that the story isn't a eulogy, but a well-rounded story of someone's life. It's important to include the good and bad - often there are lessons to be learned from the way someone overcame (or didn't overcome) the struggles that each of us face.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Every person's story is distinct, but as you went over these stories to prepare the book, did you find anything resembling a common theme among them?
Jim_Sheeler(A) In a way, I think the common thread is the overall realization that everyone's life has a story, even when they're gone, and we can still learn from them, and make those lessons part of our own lives.
Mark_Wolf(Q) To my eyes, the most affecting piece in the book is Daniel Seltzer's obituary, "Life's Lessons Learned Too Soon." How did that story come about?
Jim_Sheeler(A) Daniel's mother e-mailed me asking that I write her son's story. She said in the e-mail that her son wasn't a star football player and had never been in the paper before, but that he was a special boy, and he deserved a story. Shortly after meeting her in their home, she showed me Daniel's "Code of Morals," and I realized he was smarter than I would ever be.
Mark_Wolf(Q) What did you see in Johnny Richardson's death notice, the shortest obituary on the page, that made you think he was worth a story that turned out to be one of the longest you've ever written?
Jim_Sheeler(A) I picked Johnny's story simply because it was the shortest one. I had no idea that it would turn out the way it did - but it's probably the obituary I'm most proud of. His story was about to be lost. To be able to take a man who shined shoes of plenty of famous people but was never recognized, and give him a story...that's just about the best thing, as journalists, that we can do.
Mark_Wolf(Q) You believe obituaries can be good history lessons.
Jim_Sheeler(A) Absolutely. Often they serve as a history of a place or time, personalized by the life - and not only what's gone, but what remains.
Mark_Wolf(Q) A few weeks ago you participated in the 9th Great Obituary Writers International Conference in Alfred, N.Y. Is that the Cooperstown of obit writing?
Jim_Sheeler(A) It was the sixth conference I've attended - some years it's held in New Mexico, and was once held in Bath, U.K. Attendees arrive from all over the world to talk about obit writing, how to breathe life into it, and to make plenty of bad puns like that one.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Not to get you to reveal trade secrets, but do you bring anything with you for the initial visit with survivors?
Jim_Sheeler(A) If it's a family in the media spotlight, I'll often bring a condolence card with a hand-written message telling them they can talk to me if they want, but I completely understand if they're not ready. Eventually, the story acts as another kind of condolence card. While traditional breaking news stories are often fishwrap by the end of the week, obituaries are often clipped, pasted into scrapbooks, and read for generations.
Mark_Wolf(Q) You wove three people together in one obituary, the story of three men who died in a plane crash. Why that approach and how difficult was it to weave three lives into one narrative?
Jim_Sheeler(A) It deinitely took a while to figure out the structure, but in a sense it wasn't that different than the other stories - there were amazing love stories embedded in the tragedy.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Do you have a favorite story in the book?
Jim_Sheeler(A) I think I'm most proud of Johnny Richardson's story - mainly for the reasons stated above.
Mark_Wolf(Q) How long do you typically spend reporting/writing one of these stories?
Jim_Sheeler(A) It depends. There are a couple of deadline obituaries in the book written and reported within a few hours. Most of them, however, took about a day of reporting and a day of writing.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Thanks for your time, Jim. We're looking forward to seeing you tonight at 7 p.m. at the Rocky Mountain News auditorium.