“To me, there’s always humor at the edge of the darkness.” Zibby is joined by Hilma Wolitzer to talk about her new collection of short stories, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, which follows one woman throughout her life. The two discuss how Hilma wrote these stories in the large window between 1966 all the way through the pandemic, as well as how they both reflect and stray from her real life experiences. Hilma also shares what it was like to lose her husband to Covid-19 while recovering from it herself in a different hospital, the best lesson about editing (which she learned through a humiliating but impactful experience), and how her relationship with her daughter Meg has been strengthened through their writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hilma. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories.

Hilma Wolitzer: Thank you so much, Zibby, for having me here.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. This is an amazing collection of stories spanning all of a woman’s life, her relationship. Some stories all interweave. Others don’t. It’s so amazing to watch through the years. Your first story came out, in this book, in 1966. 1966 all the way through the coronavirus pandemic, what a ride. Some of the ones you wrote so early on could’ve been written yesterday. It’s amazing.

Hilma: That really gratifies me. I looked back at them after I had to put them together into the collection. I realized there were no cell phones. There were no computers. Yet the women’s inner lives were very similar to the way they are now. They felt a certain restlessness in their domesticity. They enjoyed it, as I did. I love being a wife and mother. At the same time, I wanted something else. I didn’t know what it was. Then I discovered writing.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I think that that restlessness, that feeling plagues a lot of people. Whether you’re at home or your career has been shifted by kids, having kids automatically just shifts something major in your life. That sounded so silly to say. The way you capture it is so just on the nose. I was hoping I could read this one passage, if that’s okay, from Nights. You wrote, “What men learn is that there are some women in this world who are never satisfied, who move through their homes with the restlessness of day workers. Even their blood seems restless, rising and falling so that they are alternately pale or flushed and suffer from dizzy spells and capricious moods. I am one of these women.”

Hilma: Indeed, I was. I am.

Zibby: You still are.

Hilma: Still am.

Zibby: I looked like twenty times at the front to make sure it said stories and not essays. I’m like, is this about her life? It’s not about her life? Is Howard actually her husband or not her husband or just a character that you’ve been following for decades?

Hilma: I do feel very protective of my own privacy and my family’s privacies. Also, I think it’s more fun to invent people, but I have to use some experiences from my own life. I call it truth wrapped in a lie. The most autobiographical story in the collection is the final story, The Great Escape, the only really brand-new story. My husband and I contracted COVID-19. He died of it. We were in separate hospitals. It was a very traumatic experience. After I came home, he wasn’t there. I hadn’t seen him. I hadn’t really experienced his death, in a way. We were separated before it happened. When I came home, I was grieving, but it also didn’t seem real. It seemed so real, in a way. Writing about it, several months later I must say, it made it real. It also was a form of grieving. It gave me an opportunity to deal with it and accept it and go on. It made a really big difference. It was painful to write, but it was also cathartic.

Zibby: I am so sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry.

Hilma: Thank you. On the other hand, we were married for sixty-eight years. We were both past the age of ninety. That is a great gift that not many people get.

Zibby: It’s true, very true, but still. This weekend would have been my grandmother’s ninety-eighth birthday. She passed away when she was ninety-seven. Just because she lived that long doesn’t mean I miss her any less. It’s still from one moment to the next. I know you expect it logically, that someone you love is getting older. You should be prepared. Whether it’s my dog or my grandmother or whatever, it doesn’t make it any better just because you know.

Hilma: No. You’ve known her longer, which makes it, in a way, harder in some ways. My husband and I were so used to each other and so companionable. I didn’t think I was going to write any more fiction at that point. We had a really nice old age, I have to say. We had some illnesses and stuff that we could deal with. Coronavirus just blindsided us. It was just so shocking. The day he went off to the hospital, I had to call 911 because he suddenly couldn’t stand up and was running a very high fever. As I say in the story, the EMTs kept yelling at me to get his phone, get his charger, get his pajamas. I was racing around doing everything and then running after the gurney down the hall to elevator. We live in a high-rise in Manhattan. I never said goodbye to him. I never said I love you. I never said anything. We did talk to each other on the phone because a few days later, I came down with it and was in a different hospital. We did talk every night on the phone until almost the end. The final night, I was told — this really broke my heart. He was told on Friday night that I was coming home on Monday. He died a few hours after he was told that. He couldn’t speak anymore, but he clapped. He applauded. That was too much for me to even put into the story. I changed details. I also assigned the events of the story to those fictional characters who are not us. They were not my husband and me, but they lived parallel lives. They were sort of like friends who had moved away. I always wondered what happened to them. By writing about them was the way I found out. I’m still going to write about her again now, I think, I hope.

Zibby: I hope you do too. That was so moving. I’m so sorry you went through that. That scene in your story, too, when she chases after him and yells down the elevator or whatever, “I love you,” oh, my gosh. So many people who didn’t get to say the proper goodbyes. It’s just terrible.

Hilma: I know. You know, I felt isolated, but I didn’t feel alone because the whole world was going through this. I felt as if I were part of something very large. Though each person’s loss is tragic to them, the whole world was going through a kind of mass tragedy with this terrible virus.

Zibby: I’m not sure that made it any better, though. My husband’s mother passed away from COVID. She was in the hospital for six weeks. Her mother passed away before her, which is how she got it. She was eighty-seven. They lived together. She had it. Then she went to the hospital. My mother-in-law got it. It was this whole thing. They had her put on a hazmat suit in the hospital to say goodbye. She had to stuff it with all these ice cubes because she already had a fever herself.

Hilma: I’m so sorry. That’s just awful. Then the aftermath of it was that you couldn’t have any of the rituals that you usually have. There was no funeral. We didn’t get together afterwards. I didn’t see my children. They didn’t see me. Not only that, all of my husband’s things were still in the apartment, his clothing. His shoes were next to the bed. His toothbrush was in the holder. That made it less real, in a way. Finally, more than a year later when my grandsons were finally vaccinated, they came over and helped both emotionally and physically. My husband never threw out a belt or a pair of socks, obviously. His closet was jammed with stuff. The boys came over, the men I should say, my young men grandsons. They stuffed everything into trash bags and took it to a charitable organization. It felt good to have them there to begin with. My husband was a psychologist, but he moonlighted as a jazz musician sometimes. In his youth, he played sax and clarinet. He played bar mitzvahs and weddings and stuff like that. I had his sax in this big case under my computer desk. I would rest my feet on it. I was really happy to give it to my younger grandson who is a musician. My husband would’ve wanted him to have it. That actually felt good. That’s not what the whole book is about.

Zibby: No, no, no, I’m sorry.

Hilma: Or even that story. That story is really about a long marriage. It has some funny aspects of what marriage is like as well. To me, there’s always humor at the edge of the darkness.

Zibby: That’s a beautiful way to say that. You must be a writer. I didn’t mean to suggest — I know we started talking about this. No, the stories cover so many different things. The funniest part in the whole collection is when you were talking about Howard’s first wife. You’re trying to figure out the alimony and all of that. You said it would be cheaper if you just adopted her.

Hilma: I had so much fun writing that story.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that cracked me up.

Hilma: That was Elizabeth Strout’s favorite story in the collection, she said. She wrote that wonderful forward to the collection.

Zibby: She did. That was also amazing. That story was called Overtime, about how Howard’s first wife wouldn’t let him go. You said, “Her hold on him wasn’t even sexual. I could’ve dealt with that. It would’ve been an all-out war, and of course, I would have won. There was something final about me, and steadying. I wondered why he was attracted to her in the first place.” Then she said, “We gave Reenie plenty of money. Although, she denied all legal rights to alimony. They were only married seven months, and she decided she didn’t deserve alimony after such a short relationship, that you can’t even collect unemployment insurance unless you’ve been on the job for a while. But we were always giving her money anyway. Ten here. Five there. Ostensibly, they were loans, but Reenie was hard-pressed to repay them. I suggested to Howard that we adopt her, and it would be cheaper tax-wise and all, but Howard seemed to really consider the idea, getting that contemplative look in his eye chewing his dinner in a slow, even rhythm. I imagined Reenie living with us, another bed in the converted dinette where the children sleep.”

Hilma: That was fun to think of that. I don’t even know where it came from, actually.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, too funny. Oh, and I also loved this in Trophies, when you wrote, “Howard’s father died, moving Howard up one generation and c forever his coming attractions of life.” That was such a nice way to say that. When you lose somebody, you’re also losing all those things that you had planned on happening. I love how it’s deleting the coming attractions, if you will, as a concept. What is it like to follow a character for so long? I get very invested in characters from fiction as well. I feel like they’re real people. I want them to meet. Characters from different books I’m sure would be friends. I want to have a universe where that happens.

Hilma: That’s a really good idea for a book, by the way.

Zibby: I know. That’s what I really want to do. I actually asked two authors, I was just like, “Your characters have to meet.” I always am connecting people in real life. I was like, “Your two characters have to meet. Why don’t you guys get together and write a story where those two characters interact?” One of them was too busy. Maybe I’ll come back to it. Then I’m wondering, should it be the original authors who have to cowrite this book? Could there be a book with lots of characters drawn from all the different books? I don’t know.

Hilma: It’s a terrific idea for a novel. Actually, E.L. Doctorow, when he wrote Ragtime, he had real people meet in the book like J.P. Morgan and Houdini and people like that. His editor asked him if they had actually ever met. He said, “Now they have.” That’s the power of fiction.

Zibby: It’s so true. Who’s to say — this sounds ridiculous. Once you create these characters, don’t they have some sort of space in the world in some way, shape, or form? They become so real. I know they’re not ghosts. I don’t know what to call them. There’s just something with staying power. Then your characters, this man Howard sort of bopping around through his life, as you live, he follows your path. Where does Howard go?

Hilma: It’s a mystery. It’s a wonderful mystery. They do seem real to me while I’m writing them. After I’m finished with a book, with a novel or even a short story, I feel bereft. I miss the characters. They’re good company. I always said writing is a solitary occupation, but it’s not a lonely one because you have all these characters living inside your head so long they should be paying rent at this point.

Zibby: Maybe rent-controlled rates or something. I actually interviewed your daughter, Meg, maybe two years, three years ago. What is it like having writing so running in the family at this point? How has that affected your relationship?

Hilma: It’s even made it better. It’s terrific to begin with because she’s so much fun. We’re really friends as well as mother and daughter, but we have this other thing in common, language, stories. We share work with one another. We share first drafts. Meg started writing very early. I was a late bloomer. She was a very early bloomer. When she was a child, she was writing these terrific little stories. She would show them to me. I would say they were terrific, which they were. After a while, she became angry. She said, “You just love everything I do.” I realized that she wanted to be treated with more respect. She wanted to be a peer, so I was more critical. Then of course, she burst into tears. I had to find some happy medium, some balance between honesty and charity, which actually worked and I carried over into workshops when I was teaching. You had to be honest with the student whose work was up for criticism. Otherwise, you weren’t constructive. You also had to be aware of the person behind the story, of somebody sitting there with a fast-beating heart hoping you won’t say something disastrous, which is what happened to me, actually, a bad experience.

In my mid-thirties when I began to write short stories, I took a writing workshop with Anatole Broyard at The New School. It was a beginning’s workshop. We all had to submit stories. The very first night, the classroom was packed. There must have been fifty people there. He called on me first to come to the front of the room and read my story aloud. First of all, I had stage fright. I felt very embarrassed. He also told me spit out my gum, which was even more humiliating. I got to the front of the room. I read the story very quickly without any affect and collapsed into a chair. Anatole asked if anybody would like to comment on it. A man raised his hand and said, “That was the most boring thing I ever heard.” I wanted to cry as much as Meg did as a child. Anatole passed me a note which said, “The story is fine. See me later.” Then he said to my critic, “You have every right to dislike the story and to find it boring, but you’re obligated to tell the writer why you think it’s boring and how she might make it better.” In that moment, I understood about revision and also about teaching. After class, I spoke to him. He moved me into an advanced class where I read the same story aloud again. They didn’t like it either, but they gave me constructive criticism, which was much easier to take. I felt I was launched as a writer then.

Zibby: Wow, what a great story. See, whatever happened to that guy? The critic. Whatever happened to the critic?

Hilma: Everybody asks that. I have no idea. I don’t remember his name. I do remember his face. He looked quite smug. I don’t know.

Zibby: Probably, nothing good happened to that guy. There’s karma in the world, after all. What types of books do you read? Do you love to read? I’m assuming. I shouldn’t assume. Do you love to read? If so, what do you like to read?

Hilma: I like to read fiction, of course. I like to read essays. I love to read biographies. I’m interested in people’s real lives and their imagined lives. Right now, I have Oh William! on my bedside table. I’ve also had to be doing some reading for essays that I was assigned to write. I did one for The Wall Street Journal. I just did one for The Guardian in Manchester. I had to choose books to talk about. I was rereading those books: Stanley Elkin’s wonderful The Living End; one of my favorite writers, the British writer Jane Gardam, her book God on the Rocks, which is a terrific book. I’m rereading Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. My shelves are bulging. I just have to reach my hand out, and I have company for the night.

Zibby: Part of why I even started this whole podcast and all of this was, after I got divorced, I had every other weekend. It was so quiet. My kids weren’t here. I have four kids of my own. It was just so sad and quiet. This therapist I went to said, “You know, Zibby, you love to read so much. With a good book, you’ll never be lonely.” That’s it. I just read all the time. I’m not lonely. I’m remarried. Everything’s fine.

Hilma: That’s where the title of your whole program came from.

Zibby: Yes, pretty much.

Hilma: I would think that moms don’t have time to write either. When I began to write, I was doing it at the kitchen table. No one was really taking me seriously. First of all, I hadn’t published anything yet. My husband and I, we were a two-typewriter family. We had two standard typewriters. He was at one end of the kitchen table typing up — as I said, he was a psychologist. He was typing up his patients’ reports. I was at the other end typing my stories. The kids were running around. The dog was barking. My children actually came home for lunch from school. Their school was a block away. I only had those couple of hours in the morning to be totally alone, and a couple of hours in the afternoon. No one really took it seriously. My parents would call up. They would talk to me in stereo on two phones. My mother might say, “What are you doing today?” I would say, “I’m writing a short story.” She would say, “Did the sheets arrive from Macy’s?” as if I hadn’t said it.

Then when I sold the first story of The Saturday Evening Post for enough money to put a down payment on my first car, which really made a very big difference in terms of my independence because we lived in the suburbs — I had no car. I had to walk my children everywhere and wait until my husband came home to go to the supermarket to get groceries. This was a miracle. It was The Saturday Evening Post. When I told my father, he said, “Wow, I read that at the dentist.” It gave it such authority. It did make a difference. I felt, okay, now I’m really a writer. I’m going to write a story a week or a month. A friend of my husband’s said, “You’ll have a fleet of Ramblers,” which is what I bought. Unfortunately, I didn’t publish a story for three years. Then it was to a very small, prestigious literary magazine, but I only got a hundred bucks or something like that, enough to put some gas in that . I realized I wasn’t in this for the money, which was just as well.

Zibby: Just out of curiosity, where is your family from originally?

Hilma: You mean my parents?

Zibby: Yeah.

Hilma: My mother was born in the United States. My father was born in what was Russia, , Romania, Moldavia. The borders just kept changing. It was not a literary household, but it was a real oral tradition. First of all, we were a three-generation household. My grandmother, an aunt lived with us. Aunts and uncles were in the neighborhood. Everybody came over on Saturday. I remember lying under the kitchen table among the shoes just listening to these great stories. This was during the Great Depression and during World War II. Yet there was so much laughter. My family really had a collective great sense of humor. That was so uplifting during that period. I remember my father was out of work. Things were really tough. Yet there was a feeling of optimism and joy, which I think eventually permeated my own stories.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. That’s so beautiful. I love that image of you underneath the table. Oh, my gosh, I feel like it should be a little illustration or something somewhere.

Hilma: They spoke in broken English, Yiddish, and Pig Latin. I learned every language so that I could understand what they were talking about. If they didn’t want me to know something, I desperately wanted to know it. It’s that curiosity that I think most writers have. What happens next? What are other people thinking? How are their inner lives? I happen to believe that everyone has an interesting inner life. A psychiatrist friend of mine said, “No, they don’t.” He heard too many boring stories, but I still believe it. Going to work when I was young and going to work on the subway, I remember sitting opposite a whole bunch of other people and making up stories about their lives. It was a way of getting through the boring subway ride too. It was interesting. I just feel that you have to consider the other with sympathy, empathy, and curiosity.

Zibby: I completely agree. I love that. What advice would you give to aspiring authors or aspiring writers?

Hilma: Keep doing it no matter what, even if your mother asks you if you got the sheets from Macy’s. Just keep writing. Ignore that. Also, read your work aloud. If you read your work aloud, not for an audience, but for yourself, you can hear the clunkers. You can hear if there’s any musicality to it. Also, read a lot of other people. It’s like eating language. You then have it within you. To me, reading improves my vocabulary. Suddenly, I’m just filled with language. When my characters come to tell me their stories — I feel they do. I don’t get stories, I get characters. Then my characters tell me their stories. It usually starts with a sentence. I would tell writers to revise, to read, and just not to give up. You’re writing first for yourself. Publication is very pleasing and also harrowing. You have to deal with reviews and rejections, rejections first and then reviews and then maybe bad sales. I remember my agent once saying, “Most writers, on their pub day, say, when is something going to happen?” He hates to tell them, “Never.” I feel very lucky, though. I’ve had a really good writing life. I’ve had a good personal life as well. I feel fortunate. This is a very strange time of life. I’m ninety-one. I’ll be ninety-two in January if I make it. I’m alone. I’m independent. I want to maintain that independence, but I’m worried about it. This is the next story I want to write, about this character Paulette who was widowed in that final story. She might worry about the same thing. I wonder how she would deal with it, how her children would behave, what they would do. I feel I’m going to write that story.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read that story. I can’t wait. Hilma, this has been so nice. I love you. I feel such affection even though I just met you. Thank you for everything. I’m just a huge fan.

Hilma: Zibby, thank you for that and for doing this for other writers and readers and moms. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Hilma: Bye.



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