by Lisa Peet
Although everyone who discovers their muse later in life does so in their own time, over years of tracking authors and artists for this site I’ve noticed certain eras that seem to have particularly encouraged blooming: post–World War II, for instance, and the early 2000s when everyone was writing on the internet, and—possibly my favorite—that period in the mid-1960s and ’70s when American women everywhere were realizing that their private writings, paintings, and myriad other creative pursuits were legitimate and important art forms, and stepping up accordingly. I’m the child of one such artist, and I always have my radar attuned to others.
Hilma Wolitzer published her first short story in 1966, in her mid-30s, and her first novel, Ending, in 1974. She has since written nine adult novels, four works of YA fiction, and a nonfiction book on writers and craft. A collection of her short fiction, Today A Woman Went Mad In The Supermarket (Bloomsbury), came out in 2021, when she was 91, offering a sampler of her work from that first published piece to a series of stories tracking the lives of Paulie and Howard, who come of age along with Wolitzer, to “The Great Escape,” written in 2020 after her husband Morty died of COVID. The stories are all muscle and heart: funny, sad, unsentimental, kind, domestic but not in the least fussy. I had the great privilege to catch up with Wolitzer at the end of 2022, as we waited for news of the runoff elections in Georgia, to hear more about her long and wonderful blooming.
Lisa Peet: Your emergence as a writer happened during a period when a whole generation of women were coming into their own. Did you feel like you were in step with the times?
Hilma Wolitzer: I was kind of isolated in an artistic or a literary sense. I lived in a town on Long Island that had no bookstore. I knew no other writers at all. I had never met a writer, I hadn’t gone to college, I married young and had children. And I just started writing short stories.
I published the first short story when I was 36. It was in the Saturday Evening Post, which was such a big deal. I actually bought my first car with the proceeds. And it made a tremendous difference in my life. My generation, if someone asked us to do something, we did it. An editor wrote to me after my stories appeared asking if I had a novel. So I wrote one. I don’t think I would have done it without that impetus. I remember that I really needed permission, in a way, to become a writer, because I had contracted to be a housewife and a mother—which I enjoyed very much—and which gave me a lot of fodder for my writing, finally, because I wrote very domestic fiction.
LP: You’ve said that you originally considered yourself a visual artist, rather than a writer.
HW: Right—I went to the Brooklyn Museum Art School. When I started I was doing sculpture, and I did portraits of people, which is interesting in terms of character and visualizing what characters look like. It’s a parallel to the kind of writer I am. When they gave us a small piece of soapstone and they told us chisel away, I expected the form would come out of the soapstone like Michelangelo’s figures came out of the marble. And the next thing I knew, I had nothing but a pile of dust. I had whittled it all the way down. Yet when I was given clay and could build it up, I was able to get a form out of it. And I find I’m that kind of writer, I’m a builder. I write too little and I have to add, rather than take away. Other writers overwrite and then have to whittle it down.
LP: That’s interesting, because I found the characters in Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket emerged that way—as if I got to know them over the course of the book. There are clues in the stories as to when they’re set, and each one is dated, but mostly they feel timeless to me—they speak to the human condition really well, the ills and joys of life—motherhood and insomnia and the effects depression has on a marriage. Do you set out to write about certain subjects that you want to engage with?
HW: No. I never think in terms of topics, and I never think in terms of readers. What happens is that, at the risk of sounding like Joan of Arc, I hear a voice in my head that just says the first sentence of the story. It’s very much the way poets write too—they start with a line. I start with a line too, and if another line follows, and another line follows that, I may not even be sitting at—in those days at the typewriter, or with a pencil, and now with a computer, I might be walking in the street—and if the lines keep coming, then I know that I’m about to write a story. But I never set out with a topic, certainly not a moral or anything like that. I just want to tell the story that’s starting in my head. I’m not sure where it’s going, and sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere. Sometimes it would just die. But like most writers, I’m thrifty, and I will use little pieces of the discarded story elsewhere.
LP: Do you ever completely give up on something?
HW: I’ve given up on 150 pages of a novel and realized that it just wasn’t going anywhere. The risk of writing, the way I do is that that can happen. John Gardner, I remember, talked about putting butcher paper around his studio and laying out the entire plot—subject to changes as it went along—but he knew what was going to happen. I write for the same reason I read: to find out what happens. And it is risky, because sometimes you just run out of steam, and you don’t know where you’re going. Sometimes I will actually write the end, and then sort of drive toward it. But I’m not married to it—it could change.
LP: As the stories in the collection progress, they seem to engage more and more with changing expectations—of partners, of children, of life. It felt like perspective that grew with age and experience on your side.
HW: The main character in the short stories tends to tell the reader, and tell herself, that she’s very happy, that she’s very optimistic. In some ways this is true of me as well. I’m going to be 93 in January, and I’m still interested in how things turn out. I have children and grandchildren and a great grandson now, and I worry terribly about the world they’re going to inherit, and how awful things have been for quite a while now. But I want to see what happens next. Part of me is not happy about being old, and having lost my husband and living through COVID times, which I think are not going to be over in my lifetime. That’s troubling. But on the other hand, I am still somewhat hopeful.
LP: There was a long gap between the next-to-last story about Paulie and Howard, dated 1975, and “The Great Escape.” Why did you want to return to them?
HW: I never forgot about them. They were like neighbors who moved away, and you wonder what happened to them. And the only way you find out is by writing about them. I used to say that they lived in my head so long, they should have been paying rent. I felt like I knew them.
LP: How much did you bring your own marriage into the Paulie and Howard stories?
HW: It’s a great compliment to a writer when a reader thinks [their work] is factual. I remember when my first novel came out, it was about the death of a young husband. I gave a reading somewhere and a woman came up and she said, “I’m so sorry about your loss.” I was thrilled that she really believed it was true. My husband was less than thrilled, I have to say. He was standing right there.
They were not my husband and myself, and they’re not based on our lives. I do use little tidbits of experience in them, but they’re completely fictional. And yet they paralleled our lives in terms of time. They grew up when we did, they got married when we did. And Howard died. That was the most autobiographical story of all, “The Great Escape,” because my husband did die of COVID.
LP: I’m so sorry, and I felt that keenly with you and the characters while I was reading. The grief comes through along with the humor and the tenor of the times, all together.
HW: We were married for 68 years. I really can’t complain—that’s a that’s a long run—but it was the circumstances that were so difficult, and that I felt I needed to talk about. I was in the hospital with COVID too, but we were in different hospitals. And he died two days before I came home. So when I came home, he was just missing. His eyeglasses were still on the bed. His slippers were next to the bed. It was a very, very strange experience. That, I think, made it much harder than ordinary death. I mean, we were both 90 when he died. Most people don’t even reach 90.
LP: That separation, because of COVID, made so many people’s experiences even more painful.
HW: The circumstances were just so terrible. We never really had a chance to—not just say goodbye. Every time I read an obituary, people are surrounded by loved ones. I don’t know who my husband was surrounded by. I was out of it at that point, too. And afterward, there were none of the rituals that I thought I would want—a funeral, people coming over afterwards, comforting each other, seeing my children. I didn’t share a meal with anybody for 18 months. It was very, very strange.
LP: Was writing the story was a form of mourning?
HW: Exactly. I felt I had to write it. And I also had to do something besides grieve. Writing was something else to do, putting the book together was something else to do, that was greatly encouraged by my younger daughter [Meg Wolitzer]. It was her idea in the first place to put the collection together. Writing this story was both difficult and cathartic, if that makes sense. I found that I wasn’t just writing about death. I was writing about life. The story is really about a long marriage in which a death takes place, a long marriage that’s ended by a death.
I don’t know that the book would have happened if it were not for COVID, and our separation at the end. I don’t think I had any plans to put the stories together. or to write another story. I think my daughter was trying to comfort me and distract me, and she did a good job. When my agent placed the story, he called her before he called me. That’s how involved she was.
LP: That was a kindness.
HW: I have a good relationship with my children. They’ve been very loving and supportive through all of this. My grandsons came over after my husband died, because I still had all his belongings, all his clothing. The two young men came over—the younger one cried when he saw his shoes. But they put everything into plastic bags, and took them to Goodwill, and brought back pizza. It was just perfect.
I have a photograph that I took the first time we all saw each other. It was outside, and we were keeping that social distance—all of them standing around in their masks, far apart from one another, and apart from me, and waving.
LP: The cover of the collection is wonderful.
HW: The first story I ever published was the title story, and the illustration was done by a very well-known illustrator named Austin Briggs. When this collection was accepted, my daughter looked at the original illustration and said it would make a great cover. It was a woman in a brown coat, wheeling a cart in a supermarket. The art department at the publisher was not too thrilled with it, but they ended up getting an illustration by Austin Briggs, who is long dead—his son is now 90, and he gave us permission. He said as long as I sent him two copies of the book—which I did, of course—he gave us permission to use the artwork. And that’s that cover. It’s really good, isn’t it?
LP: It is! Are you working on anything now?
HW: I’ve written a few poems, and essays for Lit Hub and the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian, a few pieces here and there. And nonfiction really isn’t my forte, so that was surprising.
I want to continue Paulie’s story—what happens? Fortunately, I’m still completely independent. I’m still living in the same apartment; I don’t have any assistance. But what if her kids worry about her living alone? My kids don’t, and they’ve been very supportive of my independence. But what if she can’t live alone? Or what if she’s threatened with having to go into assisted living? That seems to me something that’s happened to so many people I know. So I’m trying to write about that. But again, that’s a topic. I have to get into it in a different way. I have to let her into my head, what she’s thinking about, what she’s feeling.
LP: How do you invite your characters’ voices in? Do you have a method, or do they just arrive?
HW: They just come unbidden, and it’s really surprising. I wrote a book on writing [The Company of Writers: Fiction Workshops and Thoughts on the Writing Life] and I asked several writers for quotes about their own practice. Amy Tan said she wakes up and goes right to the typewriter or the computer, and I do the same thing. She called it going from dream to dream. And it’s true, sometimes, the voice of the character will be in my head when I wake up and I have to run inside and start [writing]. And the next thing I know it’s dark out. Anne Tyler said that she gets to live two lives—simultaneously, unfortunately, not consecutively. But it’s really true. I am completely in the fictional universe. When I stop for the day, I’m surprised. I go past a mirror, I’m surprised by how old I am. When I was writing that final story I had so much energy, I wasn’t the least bit tired. I didn’t feel stiff sitting in that chair all day. I wrote the story very quickly.
The characters sort of take over. I can’t say I’m just taking dictation—I am involved. But I feel that I need that invasion of the characters to get going. And so far that hasn’t happened to this new story.
LP: What have you read lately that you like?
HW: I just read Elizabeth McCracken’s The Hero of This Book. We’re represented by the same agent and I sent him a note saying, “Just tell her I love it.” It’s a marvelous book.
I like to keep my apartment in order and I have to exercise and walk a certain amount every day, so I’m not reading as much as I should. But there’s always something on my iPad. I do subscribe to the New Yorker, to Granta, to Ploughshares, to the New York Review of Books, and since I have dinner by myself every night, I have a stack of New Yorkers and New York Review of Books where my husband used to sit, where we used to have conversation. I now have a kind of literary conversation with the writers I’m reading. They’re really good company.
Lisa Peet is the Executive Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features
I just cannot believe that no one has clearly explained the deaths and subsequent grief of continuing separation in Covid as well as Hilma does here. It’s honestly the first time I’ve thought about it, that all our rituals were upended, and everything you and she unearthed here, all gone, because of the isolation. Also, I was vain enough when you interviewed me to think that I was so compelling a subject that you had just connected beautifully with all my material and with me, but you were even more connected with her and her material. It’s not that you are professional, because of course you are, but that you are such an engaged reader and thinker and writer, sort of the best person for another writer to talk to. And she comes off as if she talks to a person like you all the time, but honestly, she doesn’t. Your give and take with her is really warm, amazing, and genuine, and together you cover decades effortlessly, and characters and books just as effortlessly, and I just loved reading this. Maybe I loved it even more knowing that you had a bit of a case of nerves going in, but that is invisible. This is such a “giving” piece. Of course I have read other pieces about Hilma Wolitzer but this one had new things, almost all of it was new. And the conversations with the literary material she has at night, in the chair where her husband once sat, well, you’ve both dissolved me. Not recovering soon from that image. Thank you. Kim.