Q & A With Hilma Wolitzer: A 30-Year Love Affair With Writing

"Learn what you know by writing." - Hilma Wolitzer

Posted Feb 22, 2012

Hilma Wolitzer, author of fourteen books, published her first poem at age nine, and then her first novel at 44. Here's more from this prolific author, whose newest novel, An Available Man, is a comic novel about late-in-life dating.

Jennifer Haupt: Had you been writing all along, or was writing a passion you rediscovered?

Hilma Wolitzer: There were some published short stories in between, but that's still a pretty long hiatus, isn't it? I could say I was busy raising my kids, teaching, and caring for my ailing parents—all true!—but that's no excuse. One of my favorite writers, Grace Paley, never blamed her political activism for her small (but glorious) literary output. She was right; you can't really blame anyone or anything else for your own lack of productivity.

I like to think that I was writing in my head during my fallow years, but just not able to get it down on paper. That's what I still tell myself, anyway, whenever I'm blocked. And it may be a valid conclusion, because sometimes long passages of prose arrive in a flash while I'm preparing dinner, crossing the street, or taking a shower. I've jotted sentences down in my checkbook, the margin of a newspaper, and even on the back of my hand. A sympathetic friend once gave me crayons that write on wet tile. Despite my dry spells, the work fairly flows once I get started. My entire first novel, Ending, was written in only a few months, but it was probably simmering for a while on an unconscious level, waiting to rise to the surface.

JH: An Available Man is your fourteenth published novel. Are there themes that run through all of your work? A question you're trying to answer for yourself?

HW: An Available Man is actually my ninth published novel (but it is my fourteenth book). There are a few repeated themes in my work—like love and loss and redemption—although I often need readers to point them out, because I'm immersed in my characters and their lives. These are pretty universal themes. Everyone who's ever loved someone knows from experience or intuition about loss—I'm certainly no exception—and we all hope for the solace of redemption. The latter can take many shapes.

In my novel Hearts, a shared loss eventually leads to a strong bond between a woman and the teenaged stepdaughter who hates her at the beginning of the book. It's a road novel, so there was a preordained geographical destination for the characters-their emotional destination was something that took them (and me) by surprise. Edward Schuyler, the hero of An Available Man, loses his beloved wife Bee and is consumed by grief. Others try to pull him out of that darkness into the light and joy of a new love, but he resists, at least for a while. He's torn between a lingering loyalty to Bee and a growing desire to start over again with somebody else. I guess that, like Edward, I'm always trying to figure out how best to live.

JH: What has kept you writing novels for more than 30 years? And how do you keep your writing fresh?

HW: I try to practice what I tell my workshop students: don't write about what you know; find out what you know by writing. I often think, after I've finished a manuscript, that I've written myself out, that I couldn't possibly know anything else, and I feel bereft when I have to leave my characters on the final page. Maybe that's why I've written a couple of sequels. But writing fiction is an ongoing act of discovery, and new characters inspire new ways of telling a story. My characters always arrive first, before even the inkling of a plot.

At the risk of sounding like Joan of Arc, I have to say I hear their voices in my head. I begin to wonder who these people are and what they want, and then all the rest—their inner lives and the action—eventually follows. I've never done a formal outline, although I know that works for others. I tend to write the way I read, to find out what happens. Reading other writers helps the writing process, too. They refresh my vocabulary and excite my imagination.

JH: What other books would you recommend to someone who's lost faith in love?

HW: Any novel by Jane Austen in which love trumps financial necessity. A few others are The biblical story of Jacob and Rachel, The Little Disturbances of Man, by Grace Paley, Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott, and A Home at the End of the World, by Michael Cunningham.

JH: An Available Man is about finding love in later life. Have you drawn on your own experiences?

HW: Not directly. I never do, in my fiction; it's much more fun to make things up. And I've been married for a very long time to my (one and only) husband. But I've observed divorced and widowed friends trying to connect with someone a second time around. It's not easy—especially for older women, who tend to outlive their mates and are far less in demand than younger women.

I've heard several horror stories (and a couple of hilarious ones) about online dating from people for whom the word "dating" itself seems like an anachronism. A few of my female friends have become dispirited by the situation and simply given up. Somehow, though, I decided to tell the story from a male point of view. Loneliness is not a gender-specific condition.

JH: What is the One True Thing you learned from Edward about love?

HW: May I say Two True Things? One: that there are different kinds of gratifying love—for family and friends for instance, as well as amorous attachments. Two: that it's never too late to find a soul mate.

Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels, including Summer Reading, The Doctor’s Daughter, Hearts, Ending, and Tunnel of Love, as well as a nonfiction book, The Company of Writers. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award.  She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia University.