(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: It really had been a long time. Your last novel, “An Available Man,” came out in 2012.
Hilma: My goodness, how time flies.
Meg: Yes. But what are you going to fill it with if not writing fiction?
Meg: Reading, yes.
Meg: That too. Let’s talk about the last story in the book — it’s called “The Great Escape.”
Hilma: It’s a coda. 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 covid came, and then Dad died, and 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: So you pick up with these characters after a long time. I often think that the fiction I love to read is about time, the passage of time. That’s not true in these individual stories, but it is if you look at the whole collection.
Hilma: Right. Time goes by — the characters get married, they have children, and suddenly they’re almost 90 years old. A little younger than me.
Meg: Yes, so you’re 91 now. Did you think you would have a new book at 91?
Hilma: I didn’t think I’d ever be 91, much less have a book at that age.
Meg: What is it like writing at 91 versus when you began — and you began at what 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: There’s really no understanding of it, is there?
Hilma: I think if I knew where these characters came from, I’d get a new bunch.
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: That’s 55 years ago. Everyone says it’s a good title. I was a little worried it wouldn’t fit on a dust jacket, along with my mouthful of a name. 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’m sure you would rather have had the scratchy, store-bought princess costume than the headless horseman outfit I devised. But 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 sometimes when you’re writing, the real world falls away.
Hilma: For me it does. It does it so thoroughly that I forget who I am, how old I am — it’s all gone. I’m living in the fictional universe. I’m sure you have the same experience.
Meg: Yes. And you had that with this new story, “The Great Escape”?
Hilma: I did, and it was very satisfying to have that feeling again, even though the story also broke my heart because it was about a death, the end of a long marriage due to covid. But it was still fiction. It was about us, but it wasn’t about us. I think you tell some general truths in fiction and you tell some personal truths; it’s sort of a combination.
Meg: Right, and you don’t have to explain to anybody what’s real in some deeper, universal way, and what’s real in your own life. Do readers often assume your work is autobiographical?
Hilma: Sometimes. I remember when my first novel came out, which happened to be about the death of a young husband, and Dad and I were standing there after a reading I’d given, and someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry — how long have you been widowed?’ And I was thrilled by that willing suspension of disbelief, and Dad was less than thrilled.
Meg: When you were assembling this collection, we had to go searching for some of these stories, which were hard to find.
Hilma: Yes, I didn’t have copies of them all, and had to take photos of magazine pages for someone to transcribe.
Meg: Some of them were in Esquire — they published three of your stories in one issue.
Hilma: Yes, “Sundays,” “Nights” and “Overtime.” It was a tremendous coup, and Gordon Lish is responsible for that.
Meg: They are such great stories — they’re so funny, and there’s a frankness about sex in them.
Hilma: Does that shock you about your mother?
Meg: No, it doesn’t. And what I appreciate in them is the freedom. Does writing make you feel free?
Hilma: Yes. You can write anything you want. There’s no feeling of a censor sitting on your shoulder. There may be an offended editor at a publishing house or magazine. But generally, when I began to publish, I found that people were very accepting.
Meg: How much do you change in revision?
Hilma: Oh, I am always revising. And if you revise one sentence, you have to revise others in that new context.
Meg: Because if you pull a thread …
Meg: Have you ever had the experience of giving a reading and you see a line in it that you don’t love, and you change it in front of people and then it doesn’t make any sense and you ruin the whole thing?
Hilma: I even cross things out as I read. I’d love to go into bookstores with a red pencil.
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: When you were writing them, did you know what was coming up, what would happen in them? Did you have a vague sense?
Hilma: Only a vague sense. I wrote them sentence by sentence. I didn’t have a master plan for them, an inevitable trajectory. John Gardner used to put butcher paper on the walls and map out his novels. But I always start with just a sentence and then wait to see where it’s going.
Meg: So you really didn’t have an idea about the finish line. I didn’t know that until now.
Hilma: Yes, and there are a lot of stories that are unfinished because of that.
Meg: Are there some in your files?
Hilma: No, they’re gone, so don’t go snooping after I’m dead.
Meg: In addition to being very smart and very free, these stories are very funny. Talk to me about humor.
Hilma: My humor probably has something to do with my Brooklyn-Jewish background. I grew up during the Depression, which wasn’t funny, but there was a great deal of laughter in our house. And there was a wonderful oral tradition; people were always telling stories. Sometimes they laughed about the darkest events: escaping from czarist Russia, coming to a strange country, being poor, not speaking the language. When I was a child they spoke in three languages: broken English, Yiddish, and pig Latin so I wouldn’t understand them, but I quickly picked it up.
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 it wasn’t a literary household, 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: Were you aware of imagery, metaphor?
Hilma: I’d never heard of those terms.
Meg: But did you see the world that way?
Hilma: I must have, or I wouldn’t have tried to write about it.
Meg: What was the 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. I was easily hooked on becoming a writer.
Meg: I love that. When did you get serious about it?
Hilma: In my 20s and 30s, I began to write short stories, and eventually I signed up for a beginners’ writing workshop at the New School. Anatole Broyard led the workshop, and he was very helpful to the development of my stories and of me as a writer.
Meg: Sometimes I think that a significant part of a writer’s task is being able to understand when something works and when it doesn’t. It’s a hard thing to explain. How do you know when something you’ve written is any good?
Hilma: You don’t know. It’s either horrible or it’s decent. I revise endlessly, as you do, I’m sure, and then it’s finished. I do read my work aloud, and that helps me hear anything that sounds false or show-offy. But sometimes you need someone else’s opinion. In workshops the opinions often vary, and some of them aren’t valid.
That first night in Anatole Broyard’s workshop, the room was crowded with other neophytes, and Anatole called on me to read my story aloud. He asked me to spit out my gum first and come to the front of the room. I felt incredibly embarrassed, and I read the story like a laundry list, hyperventilating as I went along. When I finished reading and crawled back to my seat, Anatole said, “Who would like to comment on this story?” A man raised his hand and said, “That was the most boring thing I’ve ever heard.” I was ready to pack it in and just make Jell-O molds for the rest of my life, but Anatole passed me a note that said the story was fine, and he told that guy, “You may not like her story, but you have an obligation to tell her why, and how she might make it better.” This not only taught me about revision but also about teaching writing, the honesty and charity it required.
Meg: And you have taught all over, at Iowa, NYU, Columbia, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. How do you make somebody grow as a writer?
Hilma: Have them read something good.
Meg: When you’re writing, are you reading?
Hilma: I am. There’s always the fear of unintentionally incorporating what I’m reading into my own writing, but I think that reading replenishes my vocabulary and deepens my perception of the world.
Meg: 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 think we share a sensibility, to some degree. Certainly humor, which I mentioned, is an area that we both take seriously. In what way do you think our work is different?
Hilma: I agree that we share a sensibility, to some degree, and certainly a sense of humor and the recognition of humor’s importance as a balm against the dark aspects of life. I also believe we both care about characters more than plot but that neither of us gives short shrift to plot. Everyone wants a good story, with both narrative and emotional suspense. But we are not, as we are occasionally described, a “mother-daughter writing team.” We do our work separately and independently of each other and only share it with each other after finishing a strong draft. I think that your writing is denser and sometimes more analytical than mine, and that you have more patience in seeing it to fruition. I depend more on what’s unspoken or simply intuitive, and I’m usually in a bigger hurry to find out what happens. What do you think?
Meg: Well, I think there are different kinds of density, and I know you always carefully think through the “why” in your work. But I definitely agree about how intuitive you are. I was reminded of it all over again reading these stories, in which you frequently reach for (and find) an insight or an image that is unexpected and thrilling. Now here’s a fairly predictable question, but I know you’ll give a useful answer: Do you have advice for anyone just starting out?
Hilma: Instead of writing what you know, find out what you know by writing.
Meg: And what did you find out that you knew? The stories are so wise about men, women, marriage.
Hilma: I began to understand something more about the dynamics of family and that all politics begins at home.
Meg: What a different time it is to be writing now — certainly a different time for women in some ways.
Hilma: The headline of my first newspaper interview 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 happy that I had all that domestic experience. Not only did I enjoy it, but it became fodder for my writing.
Meg: Is your fiction political?
Hilma: All fiction is political, even if it’s not deliberately so. I don’t write about elections and their consequences, but my characters make choices in their lives, and every choice is a kind of political act.
Meg: Tell me about the day you sold your first short story — the title story of this book.
Hilma: My agent called to tell me. I thought I had gone deaf. I made her say it again. The Saturday Evening Post had taken the story. When I told my father later, he said, “My God, I read that at the dentist’s!” which gave it real authority. Dad and I had a very modest income then, and we had no savings. I got $1,250 for that story, and I went right across the street to the Rambler dealer and put a down payment on my first car — a white station wagon with a roof rack. It felt terrific. I’d written that story in just a couple of days, and I thought, “Gee, I’ll write a story a week, a few a month,” and a witty friend of Dad’s said, “You’ll have a fleet of Ramblers before too long.” But I didn’t publish another story for three years, and it was to a wonderful small literary magazine called New American Review. I got 125 bucks, and knew I wasn’t in it for the money, which is just as well.
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. I know you’ve told me you enjoyed reading my work.
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.