How Hilma Wolitzer Came Back From Covid Tragedy To Publish Her First Book In 8 Years—At The Age Of 91
Restarting a significant literary career that’s 13 books long is hard at any age. Doing so after an eight-year gap, at 91, is especially inspiring. Then add your husband dying from Covid-19 while you survived, plus a famous, witty novelist daughter (author of nine books including “The Wife” and “The Female Persuasion”). And there you have a bit of the story of Hilma and Meg Wolitzer.
Oh, and one more thing: the Wolitzers just collaborated to get Hilma’s new collection of funny and poignant short stories — “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket” — published.
I emailed these prolific and acclaimed writers separately for their thoughts and recollections about their careers, their family and the new book.
Hilma, who lives in New York City, gives Meg credit for bringing “Today a Woman…” to market: “It was her idea to put these stories together in a book, shortly after my husband’s death and my own slow recovery,” she says. “I resisted at first, but finally realized I had to do something more than grieve.”
Meg Pushed for the Collection of Her Mom’s Stories
After re-reading many of her mother’s stories during her hospitalization, Meg felt they should be published as a collection. Happily, Bloomsbury’s editorial director for adult trade, Nancy Miller agreed.
“I am wild about this book!” Miller told me.
Meg and Hilma’s other daughter Nancy, an artist, were the first to see the newest story in the collection, written last year “because it has some autobiographical content and because I respect their opinions,” Hilma told me.
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Early during the dark season of Covid-19, Hilma and her husband of 68 years, psychologist Morton Wolitzer, both went to the hospital with coronavirus — two different ones, actually.
The moving story that caps off her new book, “The Great Escape,” relays an incident taken from this experience.
With characteristic wryness, Hilma writes about one moment in the same disease, separate hospital ordeal this way: “I was improving but he was getting sicker, requiring more and more oxygen. When his doctor told him on a Friday night that I’d be released on Monday, he could no longer speak, but he applauded. He died a few hours later.”
Fictionalizing Their Tragic Covid-19 Story
Meg told me her parents’ Covid-19 experience “still feels fresh, tragic and surreal. Not being able to be together — either when my father was in the hospital, or later, when my mother first came home from the hospital — was very hard.”
Adding “The Great Escape” to a collection of stories she’d previously written during her career, Wolitzer’s latest book has charmed reviewers: “Must-read fiction,” Kirkus declared, and The New York Times NYT Book Review said “Wolitzer’s vision of the world, for all its sorrow, is often hilarious and always compassionate.”
Writing in the new volume’s forward, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout (“Olive Kitteridge”) refers to Wolitzer’s style as “an empathy that rises quietly from these pages.”
Some of the book’s stories were first published at the beginning of Wolitzer’s Second Wave feminist journey from Long Island housewife to renowned writer. Often, her work reveals the intricacies and challenges of domestic life, whether in the 1970s or today.
Responding to my question of what she thinks Morty would think about “Today a Woman…,” Wolitzer said: “I think he would be very pleased to see these stories collected. [He] was an early reader of most of them, and a live-in encyclopedia whenever I needed a factual reference.”
Wolitzer added that her late husband “took great pride in my work, as I did his. He was a clinical psychologist, so we had something special in common: our interest in people’s inner lives.”
With sad irony, her first novel, “Ending, “published in 1974, was a fictional account of the quiet, long end of a husband’s life — from cancer. The New York Times’ chief book critic Anatole Broyard wrote at the time: “After finishing “Ending” I felt I was on the brink of an abyss, pulled back by a reprieve.”
I first met Hilma when I had just graduated from college and we were in Broyard’s advanced fiction workshop at the New School for Social Research. She was warm and deeply likeable; I was thrilled to be discussing writing fiction with someone of her quality, avidity and authority.
Following in Betty Friedan’s Footsteps
Although she didn’t say so at the time – but her work did — Wolitzer had followed feminist icon Betty Friedan’s playbook almost word for word and had just transitioned from housewifery to taking her writer identity seriously.
“I didn’t exactly abandon my domestic life,” she emailed me, “but I transferred much of that creative energy to my fiction. My husband and kids were probably relieved to have simpler desserts” than the ornate Jell-o molds her character is made benignly insane by in some stories in her new collection.
Meg Wolitzer, now 62 and a prolific teacher of writing, told me she was the only girl she knew in Syosett, Long Island with a mother who was a writer.
“I felt immensely proud of [my mother] for doing what she loved, even though I didn’t know anyone else who was doing it,” she said.
When her mom began publishing, Meg noted, “I recall feeling tremendously excited. It was emotionally gratifying to witness my mother finding her way as an artist.”
Meg Wolitzer’s Early Writing Prowess
By the time Hilma published her first story in The Saturday Evening Post (the title story of the new collection), Meg said she was 7 and “writing tiny little stories and doing creative assignments in school.”
In fact, Meg said, “I had a first-grade teacher, Miss Gerbe, who would invite me up to her desk to dictate stories to her, which she would write down for me. Not only was I proud and excited, but I also had an inkling of understanding from my mother of what it might be like to sit and write all day.”
Hilma remembers it all this way: “She started writing as a child and soon tired of my maternal praise. She’d say, with exasperation, `You like everything I do!’ But when I was more critical, she might burst into tears. As a parent, I had to find a happy medium between honesty and charity, a policy that carried over into the writing workshops I led years later.”
Meg agrees with that lesson in her own way. When she was a college student at Smith and Brown, writing her first novel “Sleepwalking” (about three melodramatic college girls), “we talked about the vulnerabilities of being a writer: how you have to be prepared for criticism and rejection — although I’m not sure how anyone is ever prepared for that.”
And, Meg said, “I saw that what matters most is that a writer is doing the kind of writing that she cares about most, rather than some kind that she thinks other people will like.”
Meg’s work has been roundly praised, for — like mother, like daughter — its “wisdom, compassion and insight.”
Did she pattern her writing after her mom’s?
The Mother-Daughter Writing Bond
“Not consciously patterned, no, although I am certain of her influences, particularly when it comes to humor,” Meg said. “We both find some of the same details in the world funny or absurd. But I see the influence in language, too. I think we both care so deeply about those small details that can enrich a narrative.”
Her mother said: “Writing has certainly enhanced my close bond with Meg… Meg and I not only share early drafts of our work with each other, but we also talk often about books we love.”
I asked Meg if she finds her mother a feminist heroine. “For sure,” she replied.
And her favorite passage from her mother’s book? This line from the story of her father’s death: “I used to look at Howard [the Morty figure] first thing in the morning to see if he was awake, too, and if he wanted to get something going before the kids crashed into the room and plopped down between us like an Amish bundling board.”
Of all the gifts mother and daughter writers can give one another, perhaps re-living a long-ago happier time is the best.