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‘Today A Woman Went Mad In The Supermarket’: Hilma Wolitzer Is Writing Stories Again

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Hilma Wolitzer

At 91, the beloved author is back to writing stories after the death of her husband to COVID-19. Her new collection is called “Today A Woman Went Mad In The Supermarket.”

Hilma Woltizer has been a beloved writer of stories and novels for decades. After she lost her husband to COVID-19 in 2020, she didn’t think she would write again. But then the words and a new story about a long-married couple who fall ill to COVID-19 came quickly. The new story closes her latest collection, “Today A Woman Went Mad In The Supermarket.”

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Highlights from the interview 

On the new collection of stories 
It's a combination of very old stories and one very new story. And some of the stories follow the same characters through their falling in love and marrying and having children and the final story in the collection. It takes them to the age of coda and their old age, which actually reflects my own life more than any of the other stories do. I usually don't write autobiographically, but I did for that final story because both my husband and I contracted COVID very early on in the pandemic, and he died of it. So I did find myself writing about it. It was both painful and cathartic, but there were other stories in it, too. And I hope that they capture the time that most of them were written. The oldest one is 55 years old, and I hope that this is still relevant today.

On what makes the stories timeless 
I think that women's inner lives haven't really changed that much throughout the centuries, really, and certainly not in 55 years, I think they began to be aware of more things, but I felt that they were troubled by certain circumstances in their lives. I, for one, loved being a wife and mother. I love my domestic years. I like especially that I could make use of them as fictional material, but I really think that even then, back when I was enjoying making all those Halloween costumes and birthday cakes, I was thinking that I wanted something else, but I didn't know what it was until I began writing.

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On what the final story, "The Great Escape," might reveal to future readers about what we experienced during the pandemic
I hope it will make people aware of how it was sort of sprung on us and how we were foolishly living our ordinary lives and how long it took us to really understand how serious it was and how it altered one's daily existence. When my husband came down with COVID first, he was so disabled. He couldn't even stand up and I had to call 911. And somebody came in, as in the story. They took him off, and I never even had a chance to say goodbye to him. And a few days later I began to cough and was home. So I was home for about eight days when my fever spiked and I had to call an ambulance for myself. And then he died two days before I came home.

So this was such an unusual time in my own experience. I'm 91 years old. And I don't remember, and I lived through the Depression and World War II, and a lot of major issues in the country, but I don't remember feeling so altered personally by any experience as I do by this. It changed the way we deal with friends and relatives. My children couldn't visit my husband in the hospital. Nobody saw him off. Nobody was able to come to see me. And even though I never really believed that the rituals of mourning really mattered, they do. And being deprived of them was very, very difficult.

Not being able to sit with the people you love and hold one another and comfort one another was really quite wrenching. And it took me a whole year, a year to the day of my husband's death to do a memorial service for him. And of course it was a Zoom memorial service, and I was able to get it right this time. And many, many friends and relatives came. And oddly enough, even though I was skeptical, I felt very consoled by this. And I felt writing the story somewhat consoling at the same time that it was heartbreaking to write.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi