Back to Life, Warts and All

Elaine Woo on writing about unsavoury lives.

Elaine Woo, a native to Los Angeles and a writer for the LA Times for over 30 years, is on a mission to make men cry. Well, maybe not quite — But she says it’s certainly an effective way to gauge if an obituary is successful. Woo has covered the deaths of Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Taylor, Christopher Hitchens, amongst many, many more. We chatted to her about forming relationships with her subjects, problems encountered when writing about minorities, and the lessons she’s brought from obituary writing into her own life.

Why, in your opinion, do we need obits? Why do we, as a society, feel this compulsion to talk about people’s lives after the fact?

Personally, I think of a good obit as serving much the same purpose as a good profile — why did this life matter? What were the high points? The low points? What might that tell us about the way we want to lead our own lives?

People think obit writing is morbid, but it truly isn’t — when I write an obit, I try to bring the subject back to life, warts and all. On many days, the obit section brings more humanity to the paper as a whole than the anything else.

But at the same time, there has to be a certain level of morbidity inherent in being an obituarist — Surely, when you’re talking to grieving relatives nearly every day, that would have some impact on you?

Not really. Does that sound cold? I empathise with them, but rarely have I interviewed survivors who were too distraught to talk about their loved one. In fact, it’s very often the case that they won’t stop talking! So no, I don’t find it depressing at all.

“For me, the ultimate compliment is when a reader asks if I knew the dead person — then I know that I succeeded in drawing a full and engaging portrait.”

Of the obituaries you’ve written, are there any that did have a particularly strong personal effect upon you — positive or negative?

The first major advance I wrote was for Elizabeth Taylor. She had a long history of health problems and nearly died a number of times. I first wrote her advance around 1999. She was with us for another dozen years, and during that time I updated the story several times. When she finally died in 2011, I was quite sad — I felt I had this bond with her going back 12 years, so I was a bit sorry to see the story finally published. Usually obit writers rejoice when an obit written in advance hits Page 1, but in this case, I was sorry that our “relationship” had ended.

Another story, that drew a rather different emotion from me, involved the ex-boyfriend of actor Rock Hudson, Marc Christian. He tried to hoax us into believing he was dead so we would write his obit and, I presume, be shamed for writing a false story. I spent a couple days trying to confirm his death, ultimately coming to the conclusion that he was very much alive. When he finally died a few years later, confirming his death was again difficult, but I did get the story — That was very satisfying!

Fascinating — And do you have any favourite obits?

One of my favourites was Fred Rogers, a big public television star beloved for his long-running children’s series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. My daughter, who is now 25, grew up on Mister Rogers so I had a soft spot for him. It’s one of my favourites because it made grown men cry — a male colleague of mine told me he teared up reading the story.

Would you say that that’s the ultimate sign of success for an obituary — to make people cry?

I wouldn’t say it’s the ultimate sign of success but certainly in this case, it meant that my effort to write with humanity about this figure succeeded. For me, the ultimate compliment is when a reader asks if I knew the dead person — then I know that I succeeded in drawing a full and engaging portrait.

And just between you and me, the second gauge of success is when I’m told my story was better than the NY Times obit on the same person — I have heard this often!

Do you ever encounter any ethical dilemmas when writing obits? Do you ever find yourself thinking “Oh, maybe this approach is totally unfair to the subject/family/fans.” or “Perhaps we shouldn’t be writing this obit at all.”?

Very often, my colleagues and I are faced with questions about whether to include certain information, knowing that it may displease the family — sometimes that will have to do with multiple marriages, which can be a very touchy issue for survivors. There are no hard-and-fast rules on any of it — each time, you have to make a decision as to whether the unpleasant info is a significant part of the person’s story.

One time, I was asked to write about a convicted child molester who had violated many children — It’s the only time I can remember turning down an assignment because I found it completely repugnant. I truly didn’t feel it was a story that we needed to write.

To be clear though, I’m not against writing about notorious figures, although we often are criticised by readers for writing these sorts of obituaries. One that I did in the last few years was on a famous cop-killer from the case known as The Onion Field Killings — There was a bestselling novel by Joseph Wambaugh on the case, as well as a movie.

What complaints do your readers have about these? That having obits written on them legitimizes them in some way, even validates them? I mean, these stories are in the rest of the paper — Why not the obit section?

Many people believe that obituaries can only be tributes to saintly people. They do not understand that an obituary is a news story, written about people who have been newsmakers in their lifetime, for good or bad reasons. In general, we assess newsworthiness by checking news archives to see what sort of coverage the person may have received.

Sometimes, though, a person is worth writing about even if the archive search turns up few results. This is often the case with women and minorities of a certain age, who simply weren’t written about in earlier eras because of social biases.

And finally: In what ways has reading & writing hundreds — if not thousands — of obits, affected the way you live your own life? Are there any life lessons you’ve learned directly from delving into the lives of others?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from writing obits is simply this: one person can make a difference. ◈