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Hilma Wolitzer On Writing The Short Story That Helped Her Process Her Husband's Death

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What men must learn is that there are some women in this world who are never satisfied. So begins the short story "Nights." It's about a woman, a wife, a mother who wanders the apartment unable to sleep, jealous of her husband's easy snoring. She listens to the night sounds of other apartments - the creaking beds, the distant telephones, letters whispering down mail slots on every floor. Who writes letters at this hour, she wonders, who is calling? Well, it's a tiny moment, the smallest window into domestic life. And like every story in the new collection by Hilma Wolitzer, it is a tiny moment that illuminates the full complexity of motherhood and marriage. The collection is titled "Today A Woman Went Mad In The Supermarket." And Hilma Wolitzer is here.

Welcome.

HILMA WOLITZER: Thank you.

KELLY: May I began by asking, does your character ever get to sleep? (Laughter).

WOLITZER: Yes, eventually. But she reflects my own insomnia.

KELLY: Oh, really? So this is - you've laid awake listening to the night sounds from the apartments all around?

WOLITZER: Yeah, and sometimes work keeps me awake. Sometimes stories come to me at inconvenient times, so that if I'm too lazy to get out of bed, I'll just reach for anything that's on the night table and scribble on the margin of newspaper. But of course, in the morning, I can't read it. It's illegible.

KELLY: But a moment of brilliance there in the illegible smudge. And is that the key, you have to get it down onto a piece of paper so you can go back to sleep?

WOLITZER: Well, more now that I'm 91 than when I was a younger writer, when ideas came to me and I could remember them for a long time. I could keep whole passages, even pages in my head.

KELLY: You mentioned being younger, and I will note that particular story, "Nights," it was first published in 1974. A lot of the stories in this collection were ones that you wrote in the '60s and '70s. What is it like to go back and reread them now?

WOLITZER: Well, it's very interesting because they are of their time because there are no computers, there are no cellphones. And to my horror, the women don't seem to have any work beside their domestic lives. But I also see things that are still relevant. There's a kind of restlessness that I think women have within their domestic lives, even when they enjoy them as much as I did mine. And I got extra mileage out of my domestic life because I was able to write about it. But I think - I'm hoping that they're still relevant. And younger readers have told me they do relate to them. So that makes me very happy.

KELLY: Yeah. I suppose you don't need a cell phone or the internet or Twitter to feel frustrated or feel desire or feel all the other things that one feels in a marriage.

WOLITZER: But you also feel some happy things. I mean, I was content for a very long time to just be creative in my domestic life. I would make birthday cakes from scratch, and I would decorate them until they collapsed. I would make my kids homemade Halloween costumes that won them the first prize at the Halloween party. And I think that finally, when I began writing in my mid-30s, everybody was relieved of my household that I was putting that creative energy somewhere else.

KELLY: Well, let's talk about the stories. Many of them are about a couple named Howard and Paulette. We meet them when they are very young. And then we see these glimpses of them childbirth further out, house hunting. What made you keep coming back and writing these two, Howard and Paulette?

WOLITZER: I just kept thinking about them, and when I wasn't writing about them, I was wondering what happened to them. And then I didn't write about them for a number of years. And when I wrote the final story, "The Great Escape," last year, the only new story in the book, I suddenly realized that I had to write about our own experience with COVID. I was hospitalized, and my husband was as well in separate hospitals, of all things. And he died of COVID two days before I was released from the hospital.

And when I came home, I realized that I needed to write about it, but I didn't think of having a collection of stories. My daughter, Meg Wolitzer, came up with the idea. I was still feeling too ill and in grief to really be interested in it, but she even petitioned my agent about it. And finally, I just realized that I needed to have something to do besides grieve and also something to look forward to. And when I began to write that story, it was cathartic. It was sad. It was very hard for me to write. It was painful. But I also fictionalized it. Not all the details are the same. And I also assigned the experience to these characters.

KELLY: Let me say, first off, I'm so sorry for the loss of your husband last year.

WOLITZER: Thank you.

KELLY: You dedicate the book to him, to Morty, which is lovely.

WOLITZER: Yes. Yes.

KELLY: It sounds like you're saying this is fiction, I needed to write it. But as fiction often is, it is also true. And I don't mean that literally, every detail. But, I mean, it felt true to you to write it this way.

WOLITZER: Exactly. It's a combination of general truths and personal truths. It's telling the truth, but telling its slant. And I remember that Grace Pelly (ph) used to tell her students, don't make your stories better, make them truer.

KELLY: In the story - in the early pages, when they are both still alive - they're lying in bed, Howard and Paulette. And Paulette is - she's trying to figure out code words, how she's going to communicate with Howard if one of them dies first, how he will know it's her. Does she figure it out?

WOLITZER: I don't think so. I mean, she tries all those code words after his death and they don't work. And I think she's figured out that there is no connection except through memory and photographs and conversation with the rest of the family. And I've discovered this as a newly widowed person, too.

KELLY: You end the story - it's written in first person, as all the stories narrated by Paulette are - in the last pages, you say, I often speak to him. I was hesitant and self-conscious at first, trying out a few possible code words. But over time, I've become my usual garrulous self again.

WOLITZER: That's me. That's Paulette. And that's me. Yes. I have to say I sometimes inadvertently turn in the bed when I'm watching a Mets game, which my husband and I used to watch all the time. And if there's a homerun or a missed ball, if there's an error, I turn to him. I turn to where he would be and say, did you see that - before I can catch myself.

KELLY: That's wrenching, and it's beautiful.

WOLITZER: Thank you.

KELLY: Is there another story? Does Paulette continue on her own?

WOLITZER: I haven't done that, but I suddenly thought of that today while I was taking a shower. Why not write about Paulette again? Why not see what happens to her in this new part of her life as I'm living a parallel life to the one she would have? And I am interested in writing about it now.

KELLY: Well, Hilma Wolitzer, thank you.

WOLITZER: Thank you.

KELLY: Her new collection of stories is titled "Today A Woman Went Mad In The Supermarket." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.