After her 68-year-old husband died from COVID-19, writer Hilma Wolitzer says it took her months before she could face a blank page in the silence of her apartment.
But when the first words of a short story finally arrived, they flowed quickly and true.
âYou know, I didn’t think I could type that fast anymore – I’m 91,â Wolitzer said on a recent call from his New York apartment. âI have never stopped writing and writing. It was, I think, a 28 page handwritten story, and it took me about a week or two to get a good draft, which was pretty quick.
As his fingers worked on the keyboard, his mind also felt more nimble.
âAt this age you start to lose your tongue,â Wolitzer says. âNothing to do with dementia, it’s just with age. I feel like I’m all there, but I lose a name a day.
“I’m saying it’s kind of like buttons rolling on your dress, and they rolled under the bed and you can’t find them.” You also can’t bend down to look for them.
âAnd writing makes you reconnect with the language,â says Wolitzer. “Reading too, sure, but the writing reminded me of all the language I had stored in my head, and it was there for me, which was very encouraging.”
The story she wrote in September 2020, which concludes the new âToday a Woman Gone Mad at the Supermarketâ collection, is more autobiographical than any fiction she had written before, Wolitzer says.
In it, she revived two characters, Paulette and Howard, from her first published stories, and updated their story to reflect her own experience in those horrific days of life and loss in April when her husband Morton passed away. .
âThe circumstances were so strange,â Wolitzer says. âNo one was with him while he died. No one was with me. After his death, no one saw him go.
âAnd when I got home, I was alone. It was as if he had disappeared, and that led to the title of this latest story, “The Great Escape.” It was as if he had just vanished from life, and had not died with all the rituals.
âI don’t think I’ve ever given much weight to all mourning rituals, but now I do,â Wolitzer says. âI see they are important. They help you get out of it.
âAnd I think writing this story was a way to help me get through it. It was cathartic.
Arise from grief
The new book was not planned.
âOf course, it was a very dark time,â Wolitzer says of the grief she felt for months after coming home from the hospital without a husband. âI was in mourning. I always felt pretty sick from COVID myself, and nothing really interested me. “
Her daughter Meg Wolitzer, a novelist herself, pushed her mother to put together the short stories she published in the late ’60s and’ 70s into a book, hoping the project would help her mourn.
âI had reread them and loved them again,â Meg Wolitzer said in an email. âIt was certainly an emotional and difficult time in our family, and I wanted her to have something to think about and be involved that was interesting and not sad.
âBut beyond that, I was so impressed with her work and felt the stories really deserved to find new readers,â she says.
At first, Hilma Wolitizer, who is a recipient of a Guggenheim and National Endowment of the Arts scholarship, had no interest in collecting her older stories, let alone writing a new one.
âBut then, after a while, I started to realize that if you want to live, you need something to do, and you need something to look forward to,â she says.
âToday A Woman Gone Mad at the Supermarket,â which arrives in stores on August 31, contains 12 stories written early in her career, including the headline story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1966 and was the first coin she ever sold. .
âAnd I got busy, and it was a good thing for me at this time in my life,â Wolitzer says of the new job. “I think it saved me.”
How it starts
Wolitzer married young and started a family that included daughters, Meg Wolitzer, the novelist, and Nancy Wolitzer, a visual artist.
While Wolitzer enjoyed her home life, the girl who had read poems to her parents and their friends and rejoiced in their applause remained serious about having a life as a writer too, though it sometimes seemed fanciful to his parents.
âMy mom would say something like, ‘What’s up?’ and I would say, ‘I wrote a short story,’ âWolitzer says. “And she was like, ‘Have you ever got the sheets from Macy’s?’ He didn’t really register.
That first story from the Saturday Evening Post changed things, however, she says. âI still remember my dad saying, ‘Well, I read that at the dentist.’ The publication gave him that authority.
This play, and others that followed, looked at the ordinary lives of women, men and families like those around it for the moments that made them extraordinary. And while the surface details may have changed in the 50 or so years since many of these stories first surfaced, the emotions still ring true.
âI was raised by a housewife to be a housewife,â Wolitzer says. âThere weren’t any big career plans for me, and yet I enjoyed my domestic life very much. I loved being a wife and a mother. I loved making all of these Jell-O molds.
âBut I also suspected that there was something else I wanted to do,â she said. âI felt extremely lucky to find this out, and I think the women in the stories have a similar restlessness or desire for something else.
“Not instead of their domestic life, but in addition to their domestic life.”
What happens next
When Wolitzer published her first novel, “Ending”, in 1974, she did her very first interview, which was published in the newspaper as “Housewife Turns Into Writer”.
âI was both amused and outraged,â she laughs. “As a newly developed feminist and writer, it felt like I had walked into a phone booth like Superman, pulled off my apron, and emerged a super-writer.”
This first story had been written in what seemed like only a few hours.
âAnd I got a lot of money for that,â Wolitzer says. âI was able to make a down payment on my first car, which was a Rambler station wagon with a red interior and a roof rack.
âI was delighted,â she says. âI was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to write a story a week or a story a month. I’m going to be rich.
âThen I didn’t publish another story for three years, and that was for a small but very prestigious literary magazine called New American Review, and I got exactly 10% of what I got from Saturday Evening Post.
“And I was just as happy, and realized that I wasn’t there for the money, which was just as good.”
A few years later, an editor of the New American Review sent her a note, asking if she had a novel, and if so could he read it.
âStill being a good girl around that time, if someone asked me for a novel I felt like I had to write it, so I did,â Wolitzer says.
âEnding,â was told from the perspective of a young wife whose husband is dying of cancer, has been released to acclaim. Director and choreographer Bob Fosse, who had originally planned to adapt it to the cinema, was loosely inspired by the novel when he finally directed “All That Jazz”.
In the decades that followed, Wolitzer wrote eight more novels, one non-fiction book, and several books for young readers. The short story she wrote last year was her first in years, creative work, says Meg Wolitzer, a joy to see.
âBeing able to really get lost in the writing is the best feeling, and when times are particularly tough it can be a real tonic,â says Meg Wolitzer. âI was delighted to see her work with such intensity, because I know from my own experience how important it is to work on something that is close to your heart.
“It doesn’t take away the hardships in life, but it can create focus and meaning.”
For Hilma Wolitzer, the book restored a sense of wonder.
âI’m still looking to the future, even at 91, which is probably crazy,â Wolitzer says. âBut I’m still looking forward to things now. I also still have a lot of fun in the world. I’m on the 18th floor of the building I live in right now, and I’m looking out the window and there are people and traffic and there is the weather.
“And windows where other serious, ordinary and extraordinary lives unfold,” she says. âAnd everything interests me. I’m just curious about it.
âI think I write for the same reason I read, and the same reason I want to go on living. Because I want to know what happens next.