Author Q&A:
Hilma Wolitzer

Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket

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At 91 years old, Hilma Wolitzer invites British readers into the dark interiors of American homes with a collection of short stories. From hasty weddings to meddlesome neighbours and stubborn ex-wives, the stories, mostly written for magazines in the 1960s and 1970s, offer a snapshot of womanhood and family life on the precipice of social change – but they are brimming with modern concerns. 

Most of the stories in your collection were written in the 1960s and 1970s. What was it like to revisit them and why are they only being brought together in a book now? 
I usually don’t read my published work, mostly out of fear that I’ll belatedly want to revise it. But I had to review the stories for this collection, and I was surprised by the way my characters (and all of us) lived then – without cell phones or the internet. It was dismaying to realise that the women in the older stories have no careers outside of their domestic lives. Yet their inner lives – the restlessness they feel and their ambivalence toward their families – felt contemporary and, happily, some younger early readers agreed. I never planned to collect these stories. My daughter, the novelist Meg Wolitzer, was looking through them while my husband and I were both hospitalised with Covid. After he died, Meg suggested that I gather them for a book. I resisted at first – I was too sad and dispirited – but after a while I realised that I needed something to do and something to look forward to.

The stories were first published in newspapers and magazines including Esquire. Was that a route into publishing that is missing now and could we be missing out on important literary voices as a result? 
We’ve lost a number of important outlets for short fiction – many of them here in the US that published serious work were considered “women’s” magazines. But there are several really good literary magazines in print and online now – I subscribe to a few – so I hope (and believe) that talented new writers will still be widely read and appreciated.

Tell us about the characters of Howard and Paulie and why you continued returning to them. Did you never want to develop their story into a novel?
I don’t usually write about my own family or friends – out of respect for everyone’s privacy, and because it’s more fun to invent characters like Howard and Paulie. The trajectory of their lives often paralleled my husband’s and my own. They’re like old friends who’ve moved from the neighbourhood. Although we’ve lost touch, I often wonder what’s happened to them. That curiosity has led to the recurring stories in which they appear.

Your stories focus on the domestic everyday lives of your characters, an area that’s often been dismissed as unliterary. Have attitudes become less snobbish in publishing since you began your career? 
You’re told, as a neophyte writer, to write what you know, and domestic life was what I knew best. At first, there was some condescension toward what was deemed “mad housewife” stories and novels. But fiction reflects how we live, and we all start out in families. I believe the industry and the public have grown to respect domestic experience as a valid and interesting literary subject.

You said in a recent interview that you were raised by a housewife to be a housewife. Your own daughter is a bestselling author. How did the women’s movement change your personal and your family’s trajectory? 
The women’s movement, the second wave of feminism, gave me the impulse and the courage to start writing in midlife. So did reading writers like Jane Austen and Grace Paley. I was 44 when my first novel came out. Meg’s first novel was published when she was 22. So, progress! We are both grateful for the feminists who came before us, who led the way.

With your husband having passed away from Covid it must have been extraordinarily difficult for you to write the last story in the book. Could we ask how you’re bearing up?
It took a while, but I’m feeling very well now, thank you. It was quite wrenching to write that final story, which has more personal details than I usually include, although they’re given to fictional characters. It was also cathartic. My husband and I were fortunate enough to be together for 68 years. But the circumstances of his death – with no one he loved or who loved him at his bedside, and with none of the usual rituals of mourning, like a funeral or a family gathering – were particularly difficult. It was as if he’d just vanished – fallen through some magician’s trapdoor. Writing about what happened helped me to come to terms with it. On the first anniversary of Morty’s death, we held a Zoom memorial to celebrate his life. We had a slide show of photographs and played some of the jazz numbers he loved. Friends and relatives spoke with affection and eloquence about his presence and his absence. That gave my children and me further consolation.

Are you still writing?
Paulie, like me, is elderly and widowed. This is a strange new time of life, when one’s independence seems particularly essential and threatened. How is Paulie’s body holding up in her nineties? Her mind? Can she continue living on her own? How does she deal with loneliness? What do her children think, and how much influence do they wield? I hope my own body and mind hold up, so that I can keep imagining and writing about her.

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