WILY: Are You Among the Living or the Pre-Dead

While walking the dog yesterday, I caught up with an old episode of The Book Review podcast from The New York Times.  The episode was from July 20 and titled True Crime Starring the Creator of Sherlock Holmes.

I chose the episode because it promised a discussion of summer thrillers by Tina Jordan and I'm looking for a new summer read.  However, I was quickly drawn into the first segment, an interview with Margalit Fox about her new book Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer.  The book is a true-crime account about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intervening in the case of a man imprisoned for nearly twenty years for a crime he did not commit.  The Sherlock Holmes author was successful in overturning the conviction and freeing the man from prison.

As fascinating as that story was, the next segment with Fox made me feel like The Times buried the podcast lede.  Ms. Fox talked about her work in the obituary department at the paper, where she penned approximately 1,400 "flash biographies" as her poet sister called obituaries.

Fox discussed the concept of advance-obits, or "an obituary that is written..on a pre-need basis - while it's subject is still alive."  The Times has approximately 1,900 advance-obits written at any given time.  These are obituaries where the subject is too substantial to be written on a normal 3-4 hour deadline.  Obituary writers will often interview friends, colleagues, and even the subject of the obituary, while the subject is still alive.  Pre-dead as they call it.

The idea of beginning with the end in mind is somewhat cliche now, but the idea of pre-need obituaries did get me thinking.  If The Times were going to write my flash biography, do I want them to be able to do it the day I'm gone?  Or while I am pre-dead?  Hopefully the goal for all of us is to pack enough into our stories that they cannot be written on deadline.  

I finally did get to Tina Jordan's segment on thrillers.  Turns out it was a preview for an author round-table that I'd listened to a couple of weeks before.