Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Q&A with Hilma Wolitzer



Photo by Meg Wolitzer


Hilma Wolitzer is the author of the new story collection Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket. Her many other books include the novel An Available Man. She lives in New York City.


Q: You wrote the stories in your new collection over several decades. Do you see any changes in your writing style over the years, or do you think it's remained fairly consistent?


A: Well, I might use more contractions now and fewer adverbs. But I think my writing style has been pretty consistent—it still reflects the way I perceive the world and how we live in it. I still see the dark side of things, but also the saving grace of humor, especially at unexpected moments.


Early readers of my newest story, “The Great Escape”—a kind of coda to the collection—have told me they recognize my (writing) voice, so I guess my style hasn’t significantly changed.    


Q: Many of the stories focus on your recurring characters Howard and Paulette, and you bring their story up to the present moment. How did you create these characters?


A: Like all of my fictional characters, they came into my head with a sentence spoken in the first person. Paulette is the narrator of their stories, so she arrived first. But her obsession is with Howard, as her lover and then her husband, so it was pretty easy to conjure him up, too.


Howard and Paulette have continued to occupy my thoughts, even when I wasn’t writing about them. They became like friends who have moved out of the neighborhood. You’ve lost touch but you wonder what might have happened to them. Bringing them into old age and the age of Covid seemed like a good way to find out.


Q: How was the collection's title--also the title of the first story--chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket” was originally the first line of the story, and I just moved it up. It’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Its meaning is both literal—a woman breaks down in the aisle of a supermarket—and metaphorical.


When the story was written, in the mid-1960s, many women were questioning their place in what felt more and more like a patriarchal society. The supermarket, with all of its domestic bounty, seemed like the perfect setting to examine those stirrings of discontent.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Enjoyment first, of course--I read fiction for pleasure and enlightenment myself. I hope that younger readers’ curiosity about the recent past is stimulated and satisfied, and that older ones experience a shock of recognition.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve been writing poems, but I’m also in the “dreaming” stage of new fiction, before the characters and their story have fully materialized.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Like everyone, I’m worried about the state of the world—racism, oppressive societies, global warming, the persistence of Covid-19 . . . But I’m incorrigibly hopeful, even if I won’t get to see things get better myself. Maybe my children and their children will.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Hilma Wolitzer.

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