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December 28, 2011

Hilma Wolitzer on Being Recognized as a Writer

Posted by Katherine


Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels, including HEARTS, ENDING, and TUNNEL OF LOVE, as well as the nonfiction book THE COMPANY OF WRITERS. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia University. Hilma Wolitzer lives in New York City. Here she talks about her struggle to convince her friends and family to take her work seriously.


When I began writing as a young mother living in the suburbs, I didn’t know any writers, or anyone who thought of me as one, either.  If I tried to tell my parents that I’d just finished a short story, they’d ask after my husband and children, and what I was making for supper that night --- the real business of my life. I was caught up in domesticity myself, as were most of my friends.  We read books and talked about them, but nobody took my efforts to write fiction seriously.

My husband wasn’t a lot better in those days.  While I was knocking out another story on his Royal portable, he’d want to know how long I was going to be “typing;” he needed the machine to finish up some reports on the patients he saw in his practice as a therapist.  I couldn’t help remembering bitterly that the very first Hanukkah gift he’d given me was a cheese grater, and that I’d burst into tears.  In retrospect, a box of Ticonderoga # 2 pencils or a bottle of Wite-Out seems a lot more romantic. 

Gradually, my husband caught on.  In addition to perfume and flowers and pencils, one year he gave me my own Royal portable, and we began to sit at opposite ends of the kitchen table, pounding away, like Ferrante and Teicher at their twin pianos.  His real gift, though, was his affirmation of me as a writer, even before I’d had anything accepted for publication.  He became my first official reader, offering encouragement and criticism and the bonus of psychological insight into my characters. 

  After one of my stories was finally accepted for publication, everyone else came around.  My mother bought a scrapbook in which she pasted the cut-out magazine pages, with room for reviews in case I ever wrote a book.  And a friend gave me soap crayons that could write on tile because I’d mentioned that some of my best ideas came to me in the shower. 

When the first book came out, a neighbor I hardly knew left a blown-up, laminated copy of a New York Times review of it on my doorstep.  He did this after every subsequent book, including negative reviews, and we all referred to him affectionately as the “mad laminator.”

The most glorious gift, though, came from a Hollywood producer who’d optioned my second novel and hired me to write the screenplay, which he wanted done in a couple of weeks.  The holiday season was upon us, and I was busy baking, shopping for presents for my family, and hurriedly writing the script.  The typed pages were full of erasures, cross-outs and penned-in inserts.  When I sent them off, I apologized for the messy job, citing the deadline and my own lousy typing skills.

A few days later, a UPS truck pulled up to the house.  “Oh good,” I recall saying.  “There’s the bathmat from Macy’s.”  But it wasn’t.  It was a brand-new IBM self-correcting Selectric typewriter, a gift from my producer.  His note read, “Only because I can’t stand sloppy typing.  Love and merry Christmas.”   

“Hey,” my husband said, “write and tell him you’re a sloppy driver, too.”  Unfortunately, that didn’t work.