Cover courtesy of Bloomsbury

When The Washington Post asked me to interview my mother, Hilma Wolitzer, to coincide with the publication of her short story collection “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” I was very pleased, because I love hearing what my mother has to say about her work. Yet I was also aware that it might be slightly awkward to interview someone I’ve known my entire life. Certain questions would not get asked. (“So, do you have any children? And are they interested in writing, too?”) But as we sat together, talking in her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan late on a summer afternoon, I realized that I really didn’t know how she would answer my questions. All writers seem to be in a process of thinking and rethinking, constantly reserving the right to revise their own perceptions and views, much the way they revise when they’re writing. Here’s what my mother, now a youthful 91, had to say about it all.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Meg: I don’t think I have ever interviewed you before, have I?

Hilma: It’s a first.

Meg: We waited long enough. Tell me your take on how this collection came to be.

Hilma: Actually, you came up with the idea of putting the stories into a collection – and I am very grateful to you for that.

Meg: Well, the circumstances were difficult because Dad was in the hospital with COVID, and you were in the hospital with COVID too. He died, and we were all so sad. But you recovered, and when you were getting out of the hospital, I was thinking about what a really wonderful writer you are, and I started looking at your stories, and they knocked me out all over again.

Hilma: I also think you were trying to cheer me up and give me something to look forward to. At first I was resistant. But then I realized I did need something to do other than grieve. And I needed something to look forward to. I was even able to write a new story, when I hadn’t written any fiction for quite a while.

Meg: Let’s talk about that story, the last one in the book – it’s called “The Great Escape.”

Hilma: There are several stories about those particular characters. I always wondered what happened to them since I first wrote about them, decades ago. They were sort of like neighbors who had moved away, and I thought of them often. And then when COVID came and Dad died, I realized I needed to write about that. Even though I usually don’t write directly about my own experience, I put more of what happened to us into this story than I’d ever done – but I assigned that experience to fictional characters.

Meg: What do you mean you needed to write about it – it was cathartic?

Hilma: It was heartbreaking and cathartic at once. I felt compelled to write about it, and better for having done so. And after not writing fiction for so long, I was surprised about how quickly the story came. It was 28 typed pages, and I wrote it in about a week. I didn’t think I could type that fast.

Meg: What is it like writing at 91 versus when you began? You began at an age that was considered late.

Hilma: I was 44 when my first novel was published, so I’m a late bloomer. I was prolific for a while. Then there was a 12-year hiatus during which life interfered with work, but I came back to it and wrote three novels in a row. I was in my 70s and 80s by then, and the process wasn’t very different. It still isn’t. I sit at my desk and wait for the characters to arrive and tell me their stories.

Meg: What a different time it is to be writing now – certainly a different time for women in some ways.

Hilma: The headline of the first newspaper interview after I published my first novel read “Housewife Turns into Writer,” and I was both amused and appalled by it. It was as if I had gone into a telephone booth and pulled off my apron and came out a superwoman – and it wasn’t that way. In fact, I’m so happy that I had all that domestic experience. Not only did I enjoy it, but it became useful fodder for my writing.

Meg: The title of the book, which is the title story, “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” is one of my favorite titles ever. It’s very evocative – of your work and also of the era when the story came out, the mid-60s, 1966, to be exact.

Hilma: When I wrote it, I was imagining other women’s lives and examining my own life at the same time. We seemed to share a restlessness. I was raised by a housewife to be a housewife. That was really my goal in life. I married at 22 and had children, and I made fancy Jell-O molds and homemade Halloween costumes. I was putting all that creative energy into my domestic life, and I think you were all relieved when I finally began writing stories.

Meg: Do you remember the physical act of writing that story, the first one you would ever publish?

Hilma: Yes, it was on a standard typewriter at the kitchen table. I didn’t have what would be considered an office until your sister went off to college, and even then I kept her room as sort of a shrine to her for a while. Then suddenly it occurred to me that while she was away, I could use it as a place to write. Dad got an old door and made a desk out of it by bolting it to the wall. Before that, he and I sat typing at opposite ends of the kitchen table. (We were a two-typewriter family.) He was a psychologist writing up patient reports, and I was writing stories, while the dog barked and you kids ran around yelling, but it didn’t matter.

Meg: Because when you’re writing, the real world falls away.

Hilma: For me it does.

Meg: Rereading the stories in this collection, were you surprised by any of them?

Hilma: I’m always surprised. I still can’t believe that I gave birth to you. And I feel the same way about the stories.

Meg: Talk to me about your background before you became a writer.

Hilma: Well, I didn’t go to college. I was unhappy in high school and couldn’t wait to get out into the world. I graduated when I was 16 and got a job as a file clerk. I was making peanuts, but it was exhilarating to have some independence. I went to high school with Maurice Sendak – we even sat side by side in art class. It was a rough high school in a rough neighborhood, and I think he was glad to be out of there, too. Years later, when we shared an editor, I told him that he and I graduated and everyone else was sent up the river.

Meg: So where did it come from, your writing?

Hilma: Who knows? I wrote really bad poetry as a child. And even though my household wasn’t literary, I think my parents respected my creative bent. They played cards several times a week, and I was invited to read my poems to their friends, who couldn’t be less interested – they just wanted to get to the next hand – but they politely applauded my poems. Later, when I was lying in bed, those shuffling cards sounded like an echo of that applause.

Meg: What was the very first writing of yours that was published?

Hilma: It was one of those dreadful poems. I was 9 years old and belonged to the Junior Inspectors Club, an after-school program sponsored by the Department of Sanitation. They had a mimeographed publication, and my first poem was published there.

Meg: Was it about sanitation?

Hilma: (laughing) No! It was about winter. My mother took me down to the Department of Sanitation to get a certificate and to shake the hand of some man behind a desk, and when we left, the garbage trucks were lining the street, and it was like something military, something important.

Meg: I love that. When I was growing up, you were becoming a writer. Did you consciously wish or not wish a writer’s life for me? Did you worry about it?

Hilma: What you wish for your child – and I know that you know this as a mother – is fulfillment of her own dreams and desires. You displayed an early talent for writing, and I watched it develop with admiration and pride. I’d already experienced some of the disappointments of the writing life: lack of inspiration, rejection, negative reviews … but the very process, the intense gratification of the work itself, made it all worthwhile. I think you felt that joy in the work from the beginning, and you were resilient. So, no, I didn’t worry about you.

Meg: I learned so much from you as a writer, and in high school I recall trading work back and forth – your stories appeared in places like Esquire, and mine appeared in Ken, Syosset High School’s literary magazine. It was certainly helpful and inspiring for me to have a working writer in the house. But I’m curious how it felt to you.

Hilma: Ken seems like a much more auspicious place to debut than the Junior Inspector! I did enjoy reading your fledgling work, and I was pleased that you read mine, and that we, gradually and cautiously, became constructively critical of each other’s writing. As a parent, this was hard at first. I learned my lesson after overpraising one of your stories and having you protest that I always loved everything you did. Like all writers, you wanted honesty – tempered by mercy – and you deserved that respect.

Meg: Looking back on your lengthy career, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Hilma: I’m very aware that you can’t change what you’ve done and that you can only hope for the kindness of strangers. I hope a new generation of readers responds to the stories, even the old ones, and especially to the new one. That’s all you can wish for, beside the desire and ability to keep working.

Meg: So are you going to write another story or novel soon?

Hilma: You’ll find out.

– – –

Hilma Wolitzer’s novels include “An Available Man,” “The Doctor’s Daughter” and “Hearts.” She has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, NYU, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

Meg Wolitzer is the author of “The Female Persuasion,” “The Interestings” and “The Wife,” which was made into the film starring Glenn Close. A member of the MFA faculty at SUNY Stony Brook, she co-directs BookEnds, a year-long, noncredit intensive course in the novel.

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