Marion Winik moved to Baltimore in 2009 and has been making friends around this city ever since. The opposite of a snob, Marion is interested in people: who they are, how they live and, as evidenced in her latest book, “The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” how they die. This lovely little book is a collection of two-page chapters with titles like “The Mensch” and “The Old Rake.” Each poignantly and elegantly captures a life that has ended.
Marion’s first book, “Telling,” burst onto the scene in 1994 as a result of her popularity as an NPR commentator. Before long, Marion was on “Oprah” talking about her memoir, “First Comes Love,” an experience she mentions in this book. Six more books have followed, among them my favorite, “Highs in the Low Fifties,” in which Marion chronicles her hilariously disastrous dating life in Baltimore.
I caught up with Marion in her cozy Evergreen home, where we talked about “The Baltimore Book of the Dead.”
What do you call these pieces? Odes? Essays?
You could call them prose poems, because they are so compressed and there’s a lot of attention to language. Or teeny, little lyric essays. I love to work with a predefined structure, as poets do when they write a sonnet. Here, it’s the 400-word limit I imposed on myself.
You mention that the city has been nicknamed Bodymore, Murderland. Do you think people here see death differently than those from other parts of the country?
We live in a city that is famous for murder, particularly of young black people. Even those of us who don’t personally live with the danger and the threat feel the pain of the losses and the injustice. A couple pieces in the book touch on that.
The book opens with your mother. Was this harder to write than the others?
This book is a kind of sequel to “The Glen Rock Book of the Dead,” a book which was mostly written during my mother’s final illness. The whole time I was writing it — and consulting with her on many of the pieces — I felt that no matter what, I was not putting her in the book. Ten years later, when I started “The Baltimore Book of the Dead,” I knew exactly where to begin. I wanted to
capture both my mother’s uniqueness — her athleticism, her sharp mind, her thwarted possibilities — and the universality of the loss.
And I like that the mother essay isn’t some gushing love poem.
Long ago I read Philip Roth’s review of Michael Chabon’s first book, in which he said that Chabon had to learn not to try so hard to be nice. I know I have that tendency and I fight it. But in this case, what’s not to love. My mother was used to being ribbed about her martinis and such.
How did you decide whom to include? I loved running into Prince, David Bowie and Lou Reed, by the way.
After I finished “Glen Rock” in 2007, I started keeping a list of people who died. Not because I had any idea I was going to write a sequel, but I had started paying a different kind of attention to death as a result of my process with the first book. After 10 years, the list was long, and I thought — wait, I can do it again! I called the publisher and he said to give it a try.
There are only a few people I had on the list who I didn’t end up using, usually because my connection was too weak. One was a man who worked in the financial aid office at the University of Baltimore who died in the Ellicott City flood a few years back. I never met him, but I had a few students whom he had helped. But in the end, the piece felt exploitative, like I didn’t really have the right to tell his story and I was just using it to jazz up my book.
As for the celebrities, the criterion for including one is feeling they are ‘my’ celebrity. They may not have had a personal relationship with me, but I sure did with them. Prince, Lou Reed and David Bowie were formational to my whole sense of self, and that’s what the pieces are trying to get at.
In the introduction you explain why you don’t use people’s names. Can you expand on that a little?
Although I research and fact-check the pieces carefully, I prefer not to write about people without giving them the option to read and comment on what I have written before it is published. And in this case, that’s not possible.
My favorite chapters in this book are the one about the dog and the one about the fish. I should disclose to readers that the dog was mine and my husband’s and the fish belonged to my daughter, Ella. Do you think that the death of pets can be as profoundly felt as the death of people?
Absolutely. For those of us who love animals, the bond is so intense. The new project I’m working on is called ‘Cats and Dogs of Evergreen’ and it’s all about that. I think I started it because my beloved dachshund is 14, and talking to other people about the pets they have loved and lost is the beginning of my spiritual preparation for what is both inevitable and unimaginable.
The story in the introduction about reading one of your essays at a dinner party, which sent one woman running from the table crying, was interesting. Should death be moved into the category of appropriate dinner talk?
Well it’s a hell of a lot more interesting and less disgusting than many other things people talk about. For example, this past summer, everyone’s been talking about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Those sad, searching conversations are important and no more appetite killing than the daily insanity in Washington.