Today a Woman Went
Mad in the Supermarket
by Hilma Wolitzer
"Another day! And then another and another and another. It seemed as if it would all go on forever in that exquisitely boring and beautiful way. But of course it wouldn't; everyone knows that"
Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer is a poignant collection of thirteen stories; domestic, every-day, yet magically compassionate and generous Most were first published in magazines in the 1960s and 1970s, with one new story written last year as 91 year-old Wolitzer faced her own heartbreak during the pandemic. Especially for Foyles Wolitzer has generously written a very personal blog, giving background to the collection and explaining how the process of writing really is eternal.
Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket
By Hilma Wolitzer
I never thought I would have a collection of my stories published at 91. I didn’t truly believe I’d ever be 91. But early last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, my husband and I both contracted Covid-19, and he succumbed to it. Our younger daughter was trying to comfort me and help me recover. She had been reading some of my old short stories and began urging me to gather them into a volume.
It didn’t interest me at first—I was too sad—but after a while I realized that I had to do something besides grieve, and that I needed something to look forward to. “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” the first story I ever published, 56 years ago, became the title story of the collection, a title I didn’t think could even fit on the cover of a book, along with my mouthful of a name.
I was a late bloomer, raised by a housewife to be a housewife, and I loved being a wife and mother—making all those birthday cakes from scratch, and those fancy Jell-O molds and Hallowe’en costumes. Yet I also felt restless, like so many other women of my generation—wanting to do something else, something more. I think my family was relieved when I began to write, because I put some of my creative energy elsewhere.
But all that domesticity came in handy as literary fodder. And so did imagining the secret, chaotic and ecstatic lives of men and women in other households. A sex maniac appears in a housing complex. An ex-wife comes to live with a married couple. A woman suspects her husband of infidelity. A man is arrested on the way home from his mother’s funeral. Childbirth ends in joy and in sorrow.
Several of the stories feature the same characters, a couple named Paulette and Howard, who aren’t based on my husband and me—I was always protective of our privacy—although their lives, both the dark and the funny aspects, often parallel ours. They fall in love, get married, and start a family (not exactly in that order). I hadn’t written about them in decades. They were like friends who had moved away and with whom I’d lost touch, but I’d often wondered what had happened to them. Writing about them again seemed like a good way to find out.
The final story in the collection, “The Great Escape,” was written in the autumn of last year. It came to me almost faster than I could type it, and is more autobiographical than anything I’ve ever done. It’s about a long marriage that ends with the pandemic, and includes details from my own experience. But they’re combined with invented details and assigned to fictional characters. I think of the result as the truth wrapped in a lie. It was both heartbreaking and cathartic to write that story. The virus had denied me the usual rituals of mourning, but writing about it, and its aftermath, became another way of dealing with and accepting loss.
What amazes me is that the writing process itself hasn’t changed over all these years. I start as soon as I wake up, which the novelist Amy Tan refers to as “going from dream to dream,” and the next thing I know it’s dark out and time to go back to bed—(Quite convenient, since I’m still in my pajamas). During those working hours, I’m lost in a fictional universe. I forget myself in the seemingly more tangible and lively presence of my characters. I even forgot how old I am—at least until I finally get up from my desk and pass a mirror.
Hilma Wolitzer is a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. She has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, New York University, Columbia University, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her first published story appeared when she was thirty-six, and her first novel eight years later. Her many stories and novels have drawn critical praise for illuminating the dark interiors of the American home. She lives in New York City.
Author Photo © Meg Wolitzer