I’m Ann Wroe, a journalist at The Economist, and I’ve been writing the paper’s obituaries for over 15 years. Each week I try to capture the essence of a person (or sometimes an animal, or an object) and tell their life story.

Sometimes my subject will be a well-known figure, such as John McCain or Aretha Franklin. Other times they are more obscure, but no less extraordinary. In the last two weeks I've written about Atta Elayyan, a victim in the Christchurch attack, and Mags Portman, an HIV campaigner. I've even written an obituary for England’s most famous fish, a 25-year-old carp called Benson.

Previously I was Books and arts editor and US editor for The Economist, and I also write non-fiction books, most recently telling the life of St Francis through verse.

What would you like to know?

Proof: https://twitter.com/TheEconomist/status/1110223851961679872

Comments: 365 • Responses: 56  • Date: 

tuesdayyodeler527 karma

I still remember the Andre Cassagnes (French kite maker) obit from a couple years back, not because I had known about him before, but because the obit made me feel the loss and celebration of a creative, lovely person.

What are your most memorable pieces? And whose obituaries did you find the most challenging to write, and why? Edit: Typo.

theeconomist421 karma

Thankyou! I think I've answered the memorable pieces question elsewhere. The most challenging obits to write are always the suicides; I usually have to write them too soon after the death to know quite why it happened, yet that knowledge will obviously colour the whole life. Very difficult.

igabeup277 karma

is there an obituary that you've always wanted to write, but never had the chance?

theeconomist566 karma

One I particularly remember would have been of a skydiver in the Alps who liked to fly with eagles; sadly, by the time I realised he was dead, the story was too old (we have a timeframe of a month from the date of death).

The one I most regret not writing would have been for Cicely Saunders, a most remarkable woman who founded the hospice movement in Britain. Sometimes the page simply gets too crowded with candidates, but I should have made room for her.

OrangeDoctor238 karma

Hi, long time reader here who finds the obits some of the most educational content every week.

How are the obituary subjects decided upon?

theeconomist331 karma

Thankyou!

Sometimes the news dictates the subject: Ronald Reagan or Tom Wolfe, for example. When there is a terrorist attack, I may well try to cover one of the victims, as I did last week.

Generally I have free rein to decide them myself. Colleagues (and readers) sometimes lobby me hard, and sometimes they succeed, but usually I do.

stickman950187 karma

if you could choose the life of a person, maybe famous or not famous at all, you've written about to be made into a movie, what one would you choose?

theeconomist350 karma

Probably Bill Mittin, the bagpiper who played during the D-Day landings. (But maybe he's featured in a film already?!)

milly86177 karma

I’m holding my mums eulogy on Friday. Got any tips? I know you write obituaries and not eulogies but I’ve got writers block and I don’t know where or how to start.

theeconomist487 karma

Please accept my sympathy. I'd start with the incident or anecdote about her that you most keenly remember. And then go on with the little curious or funny details. People love those. Save the serious reflections for the end, and don't make them too long; those are the hardest to speak aloud.

ErosEroticos141 karma

Have you ever written an obituary for someone you actually knew personally? If so, could you tell us a little more about your writing process.

theeconomist355 karma

Yes, I've done that twice. In the first case, where the subject was old and distinguished, it was a pleasure to add my own little details and anecdotes to the parts of the life I hadn't known about before. And I could feel confident that I could "catch" him. The second case was the poet Seamus Heaney, who died much too young, and I was grieving all through writing it. That was hard.

MickTheHammer113 karma

Do you have one that is prewritten for the queen, for instance, or would you write that on the fly?

theeconomist260 karma

Yes indeed (and for Prince Philip). If either died on press day, we would have to have a piece ready then and there. For the Queen we also plan to have a 3-page piece about the state of Britain since her accession, again pre-written.

Spinnakerr115 karma

I laughed at the idea of a 3-page, pre-written summary on the current state of affairs in GB written years ago (considering the rapidly changing political climate) but I understand what you mean in general. That will be interesting, and an issue I'll purchase and keep for future generations. The Economist stands up well even 10-15 years later.

theeconomist263 karma

No, the 3-pager isn't written yet---thank God! The state of Britain now is indescribable.

hollowpoints499 karma

You've been my favorite writer for quite some time and the Economist Book of Obituaries sits on my bedside table. Are there any plans for another book of obituaries? It seems like you've written enough content since 2008 to justify another...

theeconomist106 karma

Thankyou. Re the Book of Obituaries, I agree, and every so often there's talk of another; but the first, which was rather oddly produced, simply didn't sell. Perhaps one day....

watermeloncream91 karma

What was the most memorable obit you ever wrote?

theeconomist292 karma

A hard question! The one I most enjoyed doing (almost the same thing) was about a woman who was an expert on Anglo-Saxon place-names, so that she could see how any modern landscape had looked, and the flora and fauna in it, in Anglo-Saxon times.

The one that most moved me was for a victim of the Bataclan massacre in Paris---an ordinary civil servant who, though he was a bit too old, still decided to go to a rock concert.

theeconomist20 karma

I've answered this somewhere!

tdomer8088 karma

Have you ever researched a person and then found that there was an especially dark side to them, and then had to deal with the quandary of how much of this newfound information to reveal?

theeconomist259 karma

Yes, though only once, when I was going to write an obituary of Jimmy Savile, a British entertainer on Children's TV. I read his autobiography, and something about it repelled me; I can't say quite what. And I didn't do him. But a month or so later he was uncovered as a serial child abuser.

original_greaser_bob87 karma

What do you want as the first line of your obituary?

theeconomist160 karma

Something more interesting than the usual start: "Ann Wroe, who was Obituaries Editor of the Economist"...Dull stuff!

PicaRuler27 karma

Do you plan to write your own or do you have someone you would like to write it?

theeconomist73 karma

I won't do my own. I would trust one of my sons to write it, I think.....

B0w5h74 karma

How did you come to work at such a prestigious publication and do you have any advice for an aspiring journalist? Thanks in advance!

theeconomist141 karma

Sheer luck; I applied in easier times, with a letter that just said I wanted a job, with no CV attached. I must have caught a gap. But I think persistence is the key, and being prepared to write any sort of copy, however lowly, at the start. These things grow.

theeconomist71 karma

Time to sign off! Thanks for all of your questions everyone. You can find our obituary section on The Economist website here https://econ.st/2FwXR9O

Lifestylewaster64 karma

Have you ever gone into writing an obituary expecting to write about one aspect of a person's life, only to discover another was of more interest?

theeconomist109 karma

Oh yes, often. The first that springs to mind is my obituary of Arthur Miller; I was entranced by finding out that his hobby was carpentry (more skilful construction, like the plays), and that discovery shaped the piece.

Basil_956 karma

What’s the one cause of death that you remember the most and why?

theeconomist134 karma

I think the most memorable causes of death are those that mirror the subject's obsession: so the crocodile hunter killed by a crocodile, and the tornado chaser killed by a tornado.

drummer105952 karma

Thank you very much for the great work, every week I flip to the back and read the obituary first. Do you have a personal favorite? Does it bother you writing anonymously?

theeconomist93 karma

I've answered the "favourite" question higher up (or lower down!)

No, I love writing anonymously. It means I can change my voice to suit the subject, as I need to do.

evandijk7045 karma

Feel free to ignore if this question is too personal.

Given that you spend so much of your time thinking about death, do you experience deaths in your personal life differently? For example, are you desensitised to the emotions surrounding a loss of a close relative? Is it easy for you to give a eulogy?

theeconomist108 karma

I've explained my feelings about death higher up; I view it as just a new stage of life, and have discovered also that lost loved ones (my mother, my husband) stay very close. Therefore I find it fairly easy to give a eulogy and don't feel sadness at the fact of their deaths, although I miss their tangible physical presence and their conversation as much as anyone else would.

CharlieExpress40 karma

How often do you pre-write them for famous people? Also have you won amy Grimmys?

theeconomist85 karma

We have about 20 famous people at present "in stock". Some of the broadsheets in the UK have 800! But because I am a one-woman band here, they get written only when I have enough spare time. And truly, it's difficult to know where to start or stop with advance obits, because of course even people in the prime of life can suddenly die.

I've been highly commended for the National Magazine Awards in the US; I think that was last year.

Fisher21212116 karma

How often do you update these? If ever?

theeconomist40 karma

Not enough. And they do need it. The answer is that they don't really get comprehensively updated until just before we run them, which is a bit of a scramble.

DarlingBri40 karma

How do you find your subjects? What is the editorial process like?

theeconomist103 karma

Unless the news makes someone inescapable, I usually scan the London Daily Telegraph and the New York Times for subjects. Colleagues working abroad sometimes send me e-mail alerts. Some of my best subjects (for example, the last Polynesian who could sail across the Pacific without a compass or charts), have come from readers.

The subject is chosen by 12 on a Monday, when we have our editorial meeting; I then do research all afternoon and much of the night; on Tuesday morning-afternoon I write it, and then it goes to a fact-checker and the Editor.

Tattycakes20 karma

I want to know more about this Polynesian!

theeconomist64 karma

Google "Mau Pialug" and you should find the obituary.

ThisIsntGoldWorthy17 karma

Wait... so you only work Mondays and Tuesdays? I wanna write about dead people!

theeconomist43 karma

No, I work every day except Friday! There's plenty else to keep me busy here---editing, and such. But thanks for the offer...

okcafe37 karma

In your opinion, what is the most meaningful object you have ever written an obituary for?

theeconomist109 karma

We've only done one Obit for an object in the paper, the Mars Rover (written by one of our science writers a month or so back). That was meaningful enough. In the World In (a sister publication) I once wrote an obituary for the incandescent light bulb, because they were being withdrawn from sale in Britain.

shelbys_foot31 karma

What would you be writing about if you weren't writing obituaries?

theeconomist91 karma

My books have been on the Iran Contra affair, medieval France, Pontius Pilate, Perkin Warbeck, Shelley, Orpheus, Light, and St Francis. So almost anything, really! My column in 1843, our sister magazine, is just about "Things"---as broad as you like.

ShackThompson31 karma

Is it true that journalists often hold a 'deadpool' sweepstake to bet on famous people that would pass away in the next 12 months?... and have you ever won!?

theeconomist51 karma

Not at The Economist!

in_casino_0ut24 karma

Have you ever had to write an obituary for someone you didn't like personally?

theeconomist113 karma

Well, I did Osama bin Laden....and General Videla in Argentina---and the racist sheriff of Selma, Alabama. I wrote those as I write them all, from their point of view, and didn't judge them; once their views were in cold print, they could hang themselves with their own rope.

NatheDeer23 karma

Is it hard to keep a positive mindset when constantly writing about the recently deceased?

theeconomist74 karma

Not usually, because I am writing about lives that have been long and filled with interest. And I also personally believe that death is simply a part of life, a movement on to the next phase.

But writing about the young (like two of my most recent candidates) is always hard. It's the sense of waste and unfulfilled potential.

BUNKBUSTER21 karma

Is there any sort of professional network for obituary writers? Off the record discussions about the merits and flaws of how someone - beloved or controversial - should be recognized?

theeconomist42 karma

There is an Association of Obituarists in the US---they last met in Santa Fe, I think, but the office wouldn;t pay for me to go (surprise!). They don't mingle very much otherwise.

Apt_518 karma

Have you ever been bummed out by learning of someone or something only after their/its death? I’ve had that happen and it feels like an indicator that I’ve taken things for granted even though I try not to.

theeconomist26 karma

Yes. I very often wish I'd known my subjects personally.

solarsuplex18 karma

Where do you find you write and focus best? Public office, coffee shop, home couch, etc.

theeconomist43 karma

The Obits, for time reasons, have to be done in the office, so not much choice! For other writing, buses and trains are great. And my writing desk in Brighton, looking out on the sea, is pretty good.

hessineer17 karma

Since most of your human subjects were somewhat impactful in their life, what did you find as a common trend between their characteristics?

theeconomist48 karma

Most often, self-belief. That's why I like to find at least some who are shy and uncertain.

nephos30312 karma

If you could write an obituary for anyone ever, who would you go for?

theeconomist38 karma

Almost impossible to say! But preferably someone very little known who was somehow caught up in a great event. A soldier at Antietam, for example.

eelaxela11 karma

How did you decide to shift into writing obits? I imagine this is not the career you thought you would be doing when you were growing up.

Thanks in advance! -Alexa

theeconomist21 karma

Well, I always wanted to write, and I didn;t care much what! But I got into Obituaries when I had to deputise for the Obits Editor years ago, and realised that it was probably the nicest job on the paper (California correspondent being a close second). So I just went to the Editor and asked to do it as soon as the job came free. That was 15 years ago.

Noshamina11 karma

Did you ever write an obit for reagan? In retrospect today would you consider his economics good for america?

theeconomist29 karma

I did do a Reagan Obit, but it said very little about his economics---I'm sure he didn't understand the Laffer curve any better than I did.

frost00910 karma

What was the most powerful piece you feel you’ve ever written and why?

theeconomist18 karma

I can't really assess them that way.....though I often feel that the endings of pieces about victims of massacres are quite strong. I think they should hurt.

Cyclismotron10 karma

I've previously heard you talking about how you try to write the obituaries in the voice of the subject of the article. Do you ever feel a tension between the voice of the subject, and how the world perceived them?

theeconomist30 karma

Yes, I do. But I feel they should get a last chance to tell us how they saw the world, as they are the voice that's disappearing.

chocolaty_rage10 karma

Do you ever worry you won’t have a job when scientists figure out immortality? I figure it must keep you up at night.

J/k. Love your work!

theeconomist30 karma

Thankyou!

I somehow think none of us would want to live for ever---at least, not here, in this shape. Elsewhere and otherwise is a whole other question.

obscurrity9 karma

When researching for writing the obituaries, how densely must you compress the knowledge and how long does it usually take to prepare the research to allow it to begin composition upon the obituary?

theeconomist30 karma

I only have about 10 hours to do the research, in almost all cases. (When writers die, I do try to get a bit ahead by reading their work over a weekend). Research has to be totally immersive. And I take far more notes than I can possible compress into 1,000 words. That's why they are more like essays; just attempts to catch the essence of the subject.

nephos3039 karma

If you could write an obituary for any fictional character, who would it be?

theeconomist33 karma

Perhaps Stephen Daedalus or Raskolnikov, two important figures in my youthful reading!

froggie-style-meme6 karma

When you die, are you going to write your own obituary?

theeconomist22 karma

Well, before it...!!

No, though people do try that now. But I do worry about obituaries of me by people who don't really know me. And how presumptuous of me, when I don't really know 99% of my own subjects!

Apt_55 karma

Do you tend to choose someone whose story you feel connected to, or would someone who you maybe can’t relate to but whose story is otherwise important or may be interesting to the public take precedence?

theeconomist13 karma

I go for the story I most like. When I find one, I will almost literally hear a bell going off in my head, and that's the one. My pieces are very story-led. But I hope that if I find them so interesting myself, the public will too.

sackshow5 karma

Do you ever struggle working at the Economist given it's editorial commitments to controversial ideologies?

I remember they once wrote a book review, anonymously as always, that accused a historian of "villainizing slave owners", and ever since then I can't take the Economist seriously.

theeconomist26 karma

The obituaries are always written---as far as I can manage it---from the point of view of the subject. So we can accommodate every shade of opinion on that page, from Rosa Parks to Osama bin Laden (both of whom I've done). No one will ever try to change them, as they're the views of the subject, not the paper. The paper's views are immaterial here.

mothkin5 karma

Was it hard to transition from books editor to doing obits? What's the most challenging piece of this particular writing genre?

theeconomist8 karma

Well, I edited the US section in between....which was great. No problems of transitioning. And I just adore feeling that I can write as I like. It's a liberation rather than a challenge.

sbzp4 karma

How much of your obituaries bend toward The Economist's editorial line? I remember the Tony Benn obit, and I couldn't tell if the obit was struggling to be nice to someone the publication resented, or if it was looking for any way to dismiss him without going over the line of "speaking ill of the dead."

theeconomist11 karma

I've answered this above; I'm totally free of the "editorial line" (which anyway isn't as firm as some folk seen to believe!). I try to let the subjects tell the story.

djweidman3 karma

I commented elsewhere re: my appreciation for your writing. I'm a great fan. Questions: Do you have an obituary writer who you particularly admire/ take inspiration from? Do you have opinions on William F Buckley's collection in "A Torch Kept Lit?"

I liked David Bowie, Simone veil, the Swiss mountaineer last year.

theeconomist5 karma

I haven't seen Buckley's collection; I'll look it up!

I like Margalit Fox of the New York Times, but our approaches are pretty different. I often like obituaries in Britain, but they're strictly anonymous here.

Mantisbog2 karma

Have you given thought to approaching Donald Trump's obituary?

Also how do you feel about Ass Dan claiming that he'll never die?

theeconomist6 karma

I'll just do Trump from his point of view as well. But no, I haven't thought about getting him in stock....Maybe I should.

heygoatholdit2 karma

Hello, thanks for sharing.
It's common practice for major news outlets to have obits prepared in advance of well known peoples demise, Do you do prep work on living people that you find fascinating so you'll be able to get it to press earlier?

theeconomist4 karma

No, I only do the famous people in advance, because readers would expect to see those in the paper even if they die on press day. The ones who simply fascinate me I just have to wait for...no time to do otherwise.

jfisch6661 karma

Who's an obscure but highly interesting individual still alive that you'd love to write about?

theeconomist2 karma

There are probably dozens.....hundreds...

sf5851 karma

You mentioned the Mars rover.. did you mean Opportunity? I'm a computer engineer and I've got a question about "my battery is low and it's getting dark."

Obviously, that never happened. The actual message would have been two simple numbers, probably expanded out to lots of bytes for error-correcting reasons, but certainly not translated into English before relay back to Earth. Did you know this, and/or did you find it odd that a machine would say something like this? Do you feel that journalists may have romanticized this story a bit to make it interesting to people who don't othewise care about technology, and if so was that responsible reporting? Or was it just a fun way to present the news?

You do important work, making a final public statement for people who have passed on and lost their voice in this world, and I thank you for that!

theeconomist1 karma

Thankyou---but that was a rare one I didn't write, so I don't know!

Vx443380 karma

Have you analyzed many Australian treasures? Because I'm pretty keen to see you do so.

theeconomist1 karma

Gough Whitlam...??? Yes, there should be more. It's hard to do justice to the whole globe.

NaziGazpacho0 karma

Do you avoid covering stories that Roman Mars has already told?

theeconomist3 karma

You'll have to tell me who Roman Mars is, or else put the question a bit more obviously. Sorry to be dense!

IronCalves-3 karma

Hi, I’ve never heard of you but this ama does have me interested in checking out your work. I’m sorry I haven’t had time to go through every question in the thread. Have you given any thought to your next subject? May I suggest J.K. Rowling’s career, because it’s dead. Thanks for the AMA!

theeconomist2 karma

More people just now are suggesting Brexit, or British democracy! But seriously I never decide definitely until Monday morning (Wednesday being press day).