Zibby Owens: I had the privilege of interviewing the legendary author Judith Viorst as part of the Women on the Move three-part series from the Streicker Center at Temple Emanu-El, which I just finished. This was the third. Taffy Brodesser-Akner was the second. Laura Zigman was the first, both of whom, you should go listen to their podcasts as well. Judith Viorst is basically who I want to be when I grow up. She has been writing for decades and just doesn’t stop and is amazing. She wrote Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day in 1972, which has sold over two million copies and of course has become a movie from Disney. Recently, she has also written many books for adults about each decade, books from your thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, up until now. She wrote Nearing Ninety, which is a fantastic book of poems. She’s written a bazillion books for kids. She’s written a best-selling book for grownups called Necessary Losses and many other nonfiction psychology books like Grown-Up Marriage, Imperfect Control, nine books of poetry like When Did I Stop Being Twenty? She was a former newspaper columnist and even wrote a musical called Love & Shrimp.

She’s hilarious and amazing. I have to say, I did this interview, it was more of conversation. Towards the end of it, I actually choked up when we were talking about the legacy that she wanted to leave. There were 540 people at the webinar when I did this. When I hung up, my mother was one of the people at the webinar, and she called me right after. We both were on the phone, and we cried because it was so moving and just so poignant. It wasn’t sad. It was just really, really special. I hope that you’ll find it as special as I did. I think this is one of my favorite interviews/conversations that I’ve ever done. Please enjoy.

Judith Viorst: Hello.

Zibby: Hi, Judith. It’s so nice to be connected with you.

Judith: Hi, Zibby. Nice to meet you.

Zibby: Not only am I, like I’m sure so many other people, a fan of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and all of your amazing children’s books, but having read Nearing Ninety, you are now one of my favorite people I think anywhere. This is the best book of poems, thoughts, reflections. I’m serious. If you could make a book to fall in love with another person as a friend, this is the book.

Judith: That’s so sweet of you. Thank you. You’re much too young to even understand the book, but I’m happy that you like it.

Zibby: You know what? That’s one of the things that I think is great, is that it’s so universal. The things that you talk about in the book are things that anybody at any age can relate to. Would you mind if I read a snippet or two just to highlight what I mean? Is that okay?

Judith: Please. Sure.

Zibby: This was one of my favorites. It’s called Not Especially Spiritual. For people who haven’t seen Nearing Ninety yet, the whole book is illustrations and poem-like little thoughts as if Alexander and co. had grown up. This one is called Not Especially Spiritual. By the way, Judy, you deal with things like death, aging, illness, friendship, marital strife. Everything you deal with on the page is in a refreshing, fun, sense of humor way that just makes you look at things better. Anyway, here’s one of my favorites. “When my oldest friend Phyllis was dying, I went to visit her. Holding her hand as I sat by her hospice bed, is there anything final, I asked, that we should be talking about? Probably not, she answered, shaking her head. Why don’t we just forget about final anythings and count the number of guys we’ve slept with instead? So we laughed, sighed, cringed, and counted our way up to — how many? None of your business — until we were done. Not especially spiritual, but such fun.” That’s so great.

Judith: True story. I went to visit my friend Phyllis when she was dying. Actually, I sort of got into bed with her so I could give her a final hug. Then we decided that we didn’t have any cosmic issues to discuss, so we went right for the deeply personal and a few laughs.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Here’s one more at the Japanese restaurant. Then I want to ask you — actually, this one’s pretty funny too and little shorter. Let me read this one called Man Mowing the Grass. “Maybe you haven’t noticed that bare-chested fellow, that flat-bellied, slim-waisted fellow mowing the grass, the one with the black curly hair and the tattooed shoulder and the low-slung blue jeans lovingly molding his ass. He’s bobbing his head to the music that streams through his earbuds. He’s mouthing the words to some seethingly sensual song. You think I’m out here on the porch just reading my novel? You are so wrong.” That’s just so funny. These are great. They’re all so great.

Judith: It was addressed to a very specific idea. When I think about some of the skills that come in handy as you get older or old, it is that old business of paying attention to the world that you’re in right here and right now, looking at what is in your life, noticing. Then I wanted to add that even if you’re pushing ninety, your interested viewings are not limited to pussycats and rainbows and cute little babies. They could also be, still at my age, very interested in a guy mowing the grass.

Zibby: I think that there are all these preconceptions in our society, and tell me what you think about this, that once you hit a certain age, you’re not interested in all those things like cute guys mowing the lawn or even sex, which you talk about here with regard to your husband, and all these things like weight, worrying about your weight. I want to talk about this passage too. Yet why does anyone think that just because a few years have passed that these issues have gone away or that they’re not highly relevant? What do you think about this almost marginalization of women’s needs and feelings and everything as we all get older?

Judith: I think there is a tendency to put people in categories. You’re a young mommy, and you have certain qualities. You’re a middle-aged person, you’ve got a middle-aged crisis. When you’re old, forget about it. I think it just simplifies viewing for people to categorize others and say, okay, got that one, understood and nailed.

Zibby: Can we talk about eating? This is a topic I love to talk about because eating and weight and all of that is something that really never ends. You wrote this one last one. I won’t read any more, so I won’t give away any more of the book. This poem, or I don’t even know if you would call it a poem, but I’ll call it a poem, I Should Be Over This by Now. “Though the state of the world, the well-being of my children, and whether my husband and I are doing okay determine how contented I’m feeling on a given day, so, I’m ashamed to admit, does how much I weigh. I surely should be over this by now considering that I’m a woman who holds decent values on matters like peace and justice and human rights, and therefore should not be obsessing over the utterly trivial fact that my thighs are straining against the seams of my tights, which they wouldn’t if I weighed what I wanted to weigh. I certainly should be over this by now considering that I’m a woman of some substance, acquainted with symphonies, sonnets, and Socrates, and therefore shouldn’t be trouble by the inconsequential fact that my stomach tends to obscure a clear view of my knees, which it wouldn’t if I weighed what I wanted to weigh. I definitely should be over this by now, but I’m still denying myself the pleasures of eating. I’m still pureeing potions of yogurt and kale. I’m still abjuring chocolate except when I’m cheating. I’m still buying every damn diet book that’s for sale. And I’m still getting up, pulse racing, every morning to read the day’s verdicts on my bathroom scale when I really should be over this by now.” Talk to me about this.

Judith: The sad fact is that I think I have had a poem about weight starting with my first book of poetry and going right on. It seemed to me that at a certain point — I’ve talked about this with women friends. I’m not the only one. We say, when are we going to throw in the towel? When are we just going to stop worrying about our weight and whether we’re dressed in a chic fashion? Then I was told about a friend of mine’s aunt, 103. This aunt, every morning she got on the scale. If she weighed more than 118, she went on a diet. She’s 103. I realized it never will end. It’s not going to end.

Zibby: How do you deal with it? Do you do things like that? Do you feel like, should it come to an end? Should women give up at some point and say whatever?

Judith: Well, I don’t want it to. I enjoy not being overweight. I enjoy buying pretty clothes. I put on eyeliner even in this COVID quarantine that I’m living in. Even if I didn’t have a cute husband living with me, I’d still put on eyeliner. It’s for myself, my sense of myself, the fun of dressing up. As long as I’m interested in a few other things about the world that are a little larger in spirit than how much I weigh and what’s a good eyeliner, I think I’m allowed that indulgence.

Zibby: I think eyeliner’s a great thing. Sometimes just dressing better and taking a shower and getting all ready, they can really affect your mood. To think that a whole class of people, a whole group of women, would give up, that would affect their mood. It would affect an entire generation, I think.

Judith: I agree. Absolutely.

Zibby: I have a ninety-six-year-old grandmother who every time we’re at dinner says, “I shouldn’t eat that cake.” I’m like, “Gadgee, just go for the cake. What are you waiting for? Why not?” I ended up doing this little survey of all of the women in her nursing home to find, does this end? You know what? To your point, it doesn’t. Most of the women were still weighing themselves every day, worrying about what they were eating. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know what bigger message this is other than maybe if you can’t get over your issues when you’re younger, time alone will not solve them.

Judith: I think that’s probably a wise conclusion for some of them. There is still some room for improvement. I still have these fantasies that someday I’ll still speak French and play the piano. It’s getting a little late for that, but I’m holding onto my fantasies.

Zibby: You have been a prolific author for decades. You’ve documented in detail of how you feel about yourself and the world all the way through. You’ve written so many things that are in the cannon of children’s books and everything else. How do you do it? How do you stay relevant? What is it about you that makes you see the world in this way and write about it in such a universal, funny, bright way? How do you do it? What’s the secret?

Judith: We start out with the fact that I always, always wanted to be a writer. Other people wanted to be Shirley Temple or maybe Amelia Earhart. I only always wanted to be a writer. I started writing and sending out stuff when I was seven years old to my mother’s women’s magazines. Every poem had a dead body in it. My first poem was an ode to my mother and father, alive and well and quite irritated. Then I went on to dead soldiers, dead dogs. I killed off an entire family. It took me a while to realize that my belief that a poem wasn’t a poem unless it had a corpse in it came from my mother’s favorite poem often recited at a ballet. You probably know it. In the sepulcher down by the sea, the beautiful Annabel Lee, dead at a very early age. I always maintain, and really not kidding when I say this, that I developed my sense of humor about how I looked at the world after I got married because there are so many options in marriage where the two choices are homicide or laughter. You might as well laugh.

Zibby: You said this in one of your poems from the 1930s, that you know that you’re in your thirties because when someone doesn’t call you back and you think, maybe they’re dead. Or maybe they didn’t call you back, you hope that they’re dead.

Judith: That was specifically my husband I was referring to. I thought that if he was either having an affair or lying dead in the middle of the street, I would always hope he was dead. Wouldn’t anybody?

Zibby: Wait, go back. You started writing when you were seven and sending things out. When did it become a career for you? How fast?

Judith: Very slowly. I was quite a late bloomer. I came to New York hoping to get a job in publishing. Then immediately afterwards, they would discover, oh, my god, they have this brilliant writer right on the premises. I didn’t know shorthand. I didn’t really type very well. My first job wound up being a model in the garment district. We’re not talking high fashion. We’re talking the garment district where I modeled waterproof silk shantung dresses, their waterproofness demonstrated by people throwing water on me. See, it doesn’t stain. I found it very humiliating to be a garment district model. I used to show up with those hat boxes that models carried. In my hat box was a copy of The Brothers Karamazov which I read between showings to demonstrate to the world that I was a far, far finer person. Then I got sick of having water thrown at me. I learned shorthand and typing and went to work in the publishing business as a secretary. After a while, I got a job editing children’s books. A friend of mine at one of the publishing houses I worked at shoved me into a phonebook and said, “There’s a job available. Now call.” Thank you, Priscilla Tucker. You changed my life.

After the phone call and after the children’s book editing for three years, I got married and moved to Washington DC where my husband worked for The Washington Post. Got a job editing science books because I was an editor. These things have a certain inevitability about them when you look forward, not when — one day, somebody who was supposed to write a book about the NASA space program couldn’t do it, and they asked me to do it. I went home sobbing to my husband and said, “I’ve wanted to write all my life. They’re giving me a chance to write a book. It’s about space. I don’t even know where space is.” Spoken like a true journalist, he said, “Honey, say yes. We’ll figure out where space is.” And I did. It was, again, this inexorable story. I started writing science books with a lot of hard work and determination. I had no skills in science at all, or knowledge. I’m the only person I think in the history of my college — in my zoology class, I had to be issued a second frog for dissection because I had such badly mutilated the first one. I was not your best science person.

Because I was writing science books, the New York Herald Tribune, then a very good paper in New York, was looking for a stringer to cover Washington society. They said, “She writes.” So they gave me that job. Because I had that job, I was in contact with people from the newspaper, one of whom was putting out a sample copy of New York magazine. They were putting out a sample copy of it. I had started writing these little funny poems. I sent them to this editor. He read them. All of a sudden, I had a new life. They published ten of my poems in New York magazine. For the next decade or so, they made me their house poet. All of a sudden, all my dreams had come true like a miracle. I was beside myself. If I walked down the street and somebody said what time it is, I said my columns had just gotten published in New York magazine. It was a life changer.

Zibby: Wow. Were your poems on a whole range of topics? Did they address the funniness of day-to-day life? What were those like?

Judith: It was the funniness of day-to-day life. The poems were about a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs of New Jersey who had moved to Greenwich Village to live a life of wicked wild abandon with her mother calling her once a day to say, “Don’t. Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, darling, don’t.” I wrote about this pull between this wish to be this swinging girl and a very strong connection to my Jewish mother and father and my Jewish roots. I didn’t get into as much trouble as I had hoped to.

Zibby: Then at what point in your career did you write Alexander?

Judith: I was still single. Milton came into my life by calling me at one o’clock in the morning as he was passing through New York saying, “Do you happen to be awake?” Only Milton would say, do you happen to be awake, at one o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, it worked. I married him, moved to Washington DC where he was working for The Post and had three children. Alexander was the youngest of my three children. Alexander had more bad days than most people. He’s a very graceful, athletic guy now. As a little boy, I have to say, he was something of a klutz. He’s the only person I knew who came limping home from school. “I killed my knee. I killed my knee.” I said, “Poor baby. Soccer?” He said, “No, story time.” He wriggled so much during story time, he fell off his chair and got a knee injury. He had more than his share of bad days. I wrote this book to cheer him up. He was very annoyed. He thought I should’ve given it to Anthony, his bigger brother, or Nick, his middle brother, and that I was giving him the bad day. I offered to change the name to Stanley and the Terrible, Horrible. In one of my major mommy-manipulation moves, I said, “It won’t be in great big letters. The name Alexander won’t be in great big letters on the cover of the book.” So he said keep it Alexander.

Zibby: Wow. How does he feel about that now?

Judith: I think he’s quite pleased with it now, yes. It took a while.

Zibby: Then how did it feel so many years later having it made into a movie?

Judith: I was thrilled. Lots and lots of people for decades tried to make it into a movie. I think Disney did a quite decent job. It’s very different from my book in some ways, but it does have the spirit of the Terrible, Horrible. Our kids went to a viewing of it. They gave it an eight out of ten, which I thought was pretty good for three very critical kids.

Zibby: Now do your grandchildren just read all of your books all the time? Do they recognize how special it is that you’re their grandmother? I don’t know if that’s ever really possible.

Judith: Grandmothers are of interests for, what are we having for dinner tonight? Let’s go play with the dolls. Let’s build card houses. It’s very hard to impress children and grandchildren. I think they’re pleased, but that’s not who I am to them. I’m JuJu, is what they call me. That’s who I am to them.

Zibby: When Alexander came out, I know it has this long history, was it an instant best seller? What did it feel like then to have such a successful book? Then how did it affect all the other books that you ended up writing for kids?

Judith: Actually, Alexander was initially turned out. The publisher I had had for my first two children’s books turned it down. Then somebody else took it. Then over time, it turned into this very, very major success of a book. My quite mature response to the publishers who turned it down was something like, na-na na-na na.

Zibby: I’m sure many authors can relate to that feeling of wanting to show the ones who rejected them their forthcoming success. How did you start writing these collections of poems? I know you have one for the last sixty years or so. Tell me about that series.

Judith: While I was writing my science books, I was also looking around and writing about my life and thinking about how I had gotten from Maplewood, New Jersey, to Greenwich Village to marriage and was sitting amidst piles of unfolded laundry thinking about my life. I started talking about the girl I had been before I’d gotten married and then the woman I became as a result of marriage. I started out, It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty was really about the collisions between expectation and reality. You think you’re going to wear a filmy peignoir at the breakfast table and talk about the major issues of the day. You’ve got a screaming baby, spit up on your filmy peignoir, which is probably a plaid dirty bathrobe. Your conversations are more like, what’s a comfortable room temperature? What’s a safe speed on the New Jersey turnpike? It’s not these lofty issues. After sighing over the dreariness of dailiness, you start moving slowly by slowly into the preciousness of dailiness while still reserving your right to bitch and moan about anything.

Zibby: Having chronicled all the different decades, what is the core of each one? I’m in my forties. I’m forty-three. Do you remember in that decade, what is the thing that distinguishes it? I read the snippets from each of your books. Or what is the thing that changes the most over time or changes the least?

Judith: I think there are different issues. I think the thirties one, married and children, is dealing with the collision between expectation and reality. I found my forties, I’m sorry to say this to you, my very hardest decade. The forties, I realized that there were doors that were going to be closed to me forever. It wasn’t an open-ended, well, I’m never going to be a ballerina, a tennis star, a TV star, the woman for whom Paul Newman finally left Joanne, and that even if I never got on a plane for the rest of my life, I was going to die someday. These were tough truths to absorb. The interesting thing was I used to go around giving talks. I would talk about the forties. I would say what I just said to you. Every single time, somebody from the audience would come up to me afterwards. She says, “Honey, wait until you get to your fifties. It gets so much better.” So I pass that on to you.

Zibby: Interesting. Were the fifties better?

Judith: Absolutely. The fifties are when you’ve done a certain amount of grieving for the things you’re never going to be and never going to do. You start focusing more on what you’re good at, what your abilities are, what makes you happy and feel competent and give something to the larger world. You’re not as self-centered as you used to be. You’re not as self-pitying as you used to be. You’re not as dumb as you used to be. It’s a decade of really feeling your powers and taking note of what’s gained instead of what’s lost.

Zibby: Let’s keep going. How about sixties?

Judith: In the fifties, just when you think you’ve got it all nailed down, okay, I’m together, I’m this whole wonderful person, new stuff comes up. All of a sudden, you’re a senior citizen. You’re a grandmother. You start thinking, is this it? Medicare payments, early bird special, certain discounts because of your old age. You start feeling as if the world is trying to make you an old person. That’s your struggle to say, no, I’m still going to be me. I’m still going to find things that I care about and do. Senior citizen is what you get to be when you’re sixty-five. You may not like that phrase. You may feel yourself being defined by it more than you feel that’s who you are. The sixties, there’s a little wrestling match. I have a poem in there. I’ve reached the stage where all my doctors are older than I am. I’ve reached the stage when I’m discussing wills more than I’m discussing Proust. The conversations alter, but your soul doesn’t have to alter. You can strive to overcome the trap of senior citizen all over.

Zibby: How about seventies? We’ll do seventies and eighties.

Judith: By that time, I think you start sorting out who you specifically are and probably are going to be. One of the things that I noticed, the women I knew were very, very busy women juggling children and careers. Those later decades, everybody, every single woman I knew — first of all, they were all doing exercise. The other thing that they were doing, everybody was doing some kind of volunteer work. The rush and racing around slowing down enough, they were able to give themselves the time to find work that engaged the larger world. To live an insular world uninvested in the larger community cheats not just the community, but yourself. It’s a broken world. It’s a difficult world. It’s a suffering world. Every single woman I know is trying to do something to make it a little better. That is one of the sweet and quite admirable qualities of later life.

Zibby: In your nineties, you talk about so many things. One of the things you touch on is your feelings about mortality and how in this decade, you’re still not thrilled about it, you said, but you’re confronting it far more regularly. What are your thoughts about — not to sound morbid, but you’ve documented life. You’re like the Sherpa of the decades here. You’re leading all of us Jewish girls through our lives and what’s important. Now I can’t believe, first of all, that you’re at this age. You look so young. I’ll just take you on your word that you are this old.

Judith: I’m eighty-nine. I’d like to answer that, if I may, by reading the last poem in the book. Is that okay?

Zibby: Please. That’s okay with me.

Judith: It’s called My Legacy. It deals with these thoughts. “Since it’s looking as if my legacy isn’t shaping up to be peace on Earth and universal healthcare, here is what I’m hoping to be remembered for. Showing up when I say I’m showing up. Sticking with what I started until it’s done. Sending Valentines to all the children in our family until they reach the age of twenty-one. And never ever leaving the house without eyeliner. Playing a relentless game of Scrabble. Keeping the secrets I promised I would keep. Being able to laugh about the bad things that happened to me, though not before I first whine and weep and rail against my faith and blame my husband. Doing work I’m able to be proud of. Making a truly transcendent matza ball. Coming to terms with mortality, though to be perfectly honest, I’m still not feeling all that thrilled about dying. Coming to terms with not feeling thrilled about dying. Watching over the people that I love, grateful they’re watching over me as well. Enjoying whatever there is to enjoy until that final time’s up closing bell. And hoping, just a reminder, that I’ll be remembered.” Those are my thoughts on mortality.

Zibby: So beautiful. I love that. You’re so gifted. It’s really nice to be able to hear you say it. One other question I had was I want to hear a little more, you write so much about your husband and your love for him still and how sometimes sitting at an Asian restaurant for dinner is just about the peace of being able to sit there and enjoy each other instead of the drama of younger romance and all of that. You write about how you really don’t want to be a widow. You write about how your relationship has changed over time. As someone on the earlier side of marriage, can you give any advice about how you two have weathered the decades together?

Judith: How long have you been married?

Zibby: Well, I’ve already gotten divorced. I’m divorced and remarried. I’m three years into my second marriage. I guess I could use all the help I can get here since I’ve already failed once.

Judith: Good luck with it. Milton and I were both married before. We’ve had sixty years together and three children together and made every mistake and foolish choice and inability to resolve fights in a mature and intelligent way. It’s a work in progress. You’ll always be a work in progress. We’ve gotten better and better at it. Actually, COVID-19 is kind of an interesting test. Here we are in the house together. We don’t go anywhere except for a walk around the neighborhood. We find that the conversation we started enjoying with each other sixty years ago is still continuing, that we still enjoy reading the papers in companionable silence, and that a glass of his well-selected wine and a nice dinner by me is a lovely way to end the afternoon. We have many, many points of connection. We treasure and protect the marriage. We know that this is something of value. It’s what I’ve called in some writings that I’ve done, the third thing. It’s not about him. It’s not about me. It’s about this marriage that we are creating together. Sometimes when we’re losing a fight or giving in on some issues, it’s not, I lost that or I’m compromising. We’re feeding the marriage. I think that the marriage as a creation, as something you make together is a very, very valuable way to think about what life is all about.

Zibby: Beautiful. Do you have advice also to aspiring authors? Having a career like yours that has not waned at all, in fact just gotten richer and deeper over the years, is a dream come true for many authors out there. What’s your advice on that? How often are you writing? Do you still write all the time? What does your writing life look like now? What advice can you give?

Judith: Somebody once asked me a long time ago, she said, “I want to be a writer so badly, but I hate rejection. What should I do?” I said, “Find another career.” You’re going to get a lot of rejection at every stage of writing. You’ve got to be able to tolerate it. When my first book of poems came out, I submitted a second book of poems, and it was turned down. When my children’s book came out and then Alexander was rejected, Necessary Losses was rejected. It was a best seller for two years, but it was initially rejected. Right now, I just sent in something I thought was pretty cute about COVID and kids, and that was rejected. You have to always be able to stand the rejection. When people said, how did you keep writing, how’d you keep doing this? for me, it was simply a matter of I did not know how not to write. I didn’t know how not to write. What I’m writing now is nothing for publication, but I am writing the world’s largest collection of emails. Having large email exchanges seems to be the way good friends are communicating these days as we cover politics, the meaning of life, and eyeliner, everything. I’m still writing. I think it’s gotten much, much harder to be a published writer. I think you have to want to write. You better find some other means of financial support while you’re trying to write. If you need to write, you won’t stop writing.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s excellent advice. By the way, if it’s a poem about kids and COVID, I started this new online magazine called We Found Time only with authors who have been on my podcast, which now after this you will have been, as this will come out soon. I’ll publish it for you if you want. I’d love to.

Judith: Great.

Zibby: Thank you so much for this conversation. I know that there are so many questions that have already come in. I don’t want to monopolize you. Maybe Marjorie can help.

Judith: You asked wonderful, warm questions in such a generous spirit. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you.