NYT obit writer makes her exit

Posted by on Jul 1, 2021 in Books, Brian's Blog, Canadian history, Irish history, Irish poetry, Journalism | Comments Off on NYT obit writer makes her exit

Come on in, Margalit Fox, the water’s fine.

Fox, the respected obit writer for The New York Times, announced in the paper this past week that she is leaving her job to write books for a living.

I did the same at her age, hence this invitation. At fifty-six, I left my obit writing job at the Calgary Herald to add to the two books I had already published.

I had enjoyed writing obits. As Fox says, it’s the best beat in journalism. Long seen as an assignment for untried juniors or jaded seniors with attitude, it’s now recognized as a place where a journalist can tell the most satisfying news stories, the ones that demand no sequel. Every other news story in the paper deals with unfinished business. An obit chronicles a life complete.

Margalit Fox

That said, I was happy to leave the beat – as Fox is doing now –when the time seemed opportune. Writing books also brings great satisfaction.

I have now published twelve titles. Readers ask me which one I like best. Asking an author to choose his favourite book is like asking a father to choose his favourite child. But there are three that stand out for me because, if I hadn’t written them, the stories might never have been told.

All three are full-length biographies, expanded obits if you will. The first is the life story of my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire, a nationalist and celebrated folk poet in Ireland during the first part of the nineteenth century. The second is the story of James H. Gray, the great social historian of Western Canada who wrote books about settlers who drank illicit booze and had sex with itinerant hookers. The third is my biography of Ernest C. Manning, the Alberta politician who served as premier for twenty-five years, longer than anyone else who ever held this job.

My poetry-writing ancestor, Máire Bhuí, was a patriot who spoke only Gaelic and never committed her poems to paper. Had they ended up in the wrong hands her writings would have invited charges of sedition and possible deportation or execution. The only source I could find for her biography was a short book a priest in her parish wrote about her poetry more than eighty years after her death. While it didn’t provide me with sufficient information for a detailed profile, this little book gave me enough to acknowledge the remarkable literary contribution of this farm woman from West Cork who raised nine children while actively supporting the struggles of the agrarian insurgents in her rural community.

Gray ventured where no historian had gone before. If the other historians were to be believed, he once quipped, only “monks, eunuchs and vestal virgins” settled Canada’s West. Professional historians dismissed him as nothing more than a pop historian who trafficked in gossip, rumour and melodrama. But eventually they came to accept that his exploration of social history topics was just as valid as their analyses of political and economic movements. While he pushed the professionals in the same direction, they were slow to recognize him as an important influence.

As for Manning, he seemed destined to be remembered by some historians as little more than a faithful acolyte serving in the shadow of the flamboyant William Aberhart while this former school principal brought Alberta its first Social Credit government in 1935 and created a political dynasty that stayed in power for thirty-six years. But Aberhart was gone after eight years, the only Alberta premier ever to die in office. As I say in my book, it was left to Manning to pick up the pieces. He turned what had started out as an odd political movement with some bizarrre fiscal policies into the kind of mainstream conservative government that could appeal to urban as well as rural voters.

I don’t know what books Fox has in her future. She has just published her third, Conan Doyle for the Defence, a true-crime book about the famous detective writer’s successful quest to win freedom for a man wrongly convicted of murder. I expect it to do well. It has already been favourably reviewed in major newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. After that the possibilities for Fox are endless. That’s the delicious unknown about book writing. One day you’re just another scribe toiling away at the keyboard hoping your manuscript will find a publisher and make the bestseller lists. The next day you’re either Rowling or Bulwer-Lytton.

Fox is a lovely writer. In her farewell column for the Times, she mused on what she hoped would appear in her own obit when the day comes: “At times she wrote obits with tears in her eyes, but far more often she wrote them from joy. It was the joy that sprang from the extraordinary privilege of tracing the arc — in sweet-smelling newsprint, damp with ink — of lives well lived.” Her fans will be pleased to know that before she left she banked eighty advance obits for future publication in the paper. I look forward to reading many of them with great pleasure. The first of them, published on July 14, 2018, is an obit of Frank Sinatra’s first wife, Nancy Barbato. You can read it by clicking HERE.

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