On Obits and Writing

Good news first — Nick Mamatas, who is currently my Favorite Person in the World, nominated my story “Late Night on Rt 17” for The Million Writers Award from storySouth!

But the kind of bummer news is that John Scarzafava, who was one of my favorite interviews in this last year, died this afternoon of lung cancer.  Scarzafava was a huge deal not just because he was the badass attorney who took on GM in the 70s, but because he was a philanthropist and an all-around nice guy.

When my editor, Jim, assigned me the interview ahead of the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce awards, he said that if I got in over my head or if John wouldn’t talk to me, to turn the interview back over to him and he’d take care of it.  This made me extremely nervous.  But when I got on the phone with John, from his winter home in California Wine Country, we talked for well over an hour.  He told me stories of standing up against corporations.  We talked about wine.   And at the end of all of it, I wrote what I felt was one of the best stories of my career.

He thought so too.  I got a call from Theo Basdekis a few days later, saying that John was trying to get in touch with me.  He loved the story and wanted to tell me himself, but his phone wasn’t working. I sent him an email to thank him and said I’d come over to the office when he was in town.  And at the chamber awards dinner, he found Ian, our photographer, and asked about me.  Gushed about me.  Said he couldn’t wait to meet me, and that if we needed anything, to just call the office.

I never went by.  Never got a chance to meet him.  And now he’s gone.

*

When you’re a reporter, you always live in this weird place between distance and empathy.  If you let things affect you too much, you’ll be constantly overwhelmed with anxiety and stress.  Too distant and you can’t connect with the story in a way that’s interesting to the reader.  You have to keep your head together when there’s a shooting downtown on the day before Christmas Eve, but you have to be able to sound sympathetic when you are, say, calling someone who has yet to hear from a loved one at the end of the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

And, like all jobs, you can’t cry.  I become an expert on quietly getting up, walking calmly to the upstairs bathroom, and sobbing hysterically.  This has been termed a “Wagenbach Sob” after Dutch Wagenbach in the Shield episode “Dragonchasers

 

I have elevated the Wagenbach sob to an art form.  But I waited until I got home to have a little cry over John’s passing — not because I knew him so well, but because I didn’t.  Because I was foolish to keep putting off a chance to say hello to someone, introduce myself, and now, well, it’s too late.

Guess all there is to do now is write the obit and go to the funeral.

 

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