Excerpted from Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 2007 by Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Hilma Wolitzer
ELINOR LIPMAN is the author of eight wry (her own understated adjective) novels, including Then She Found Me, The Inn at Lake Devine, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, and, most recently, the award-winning My Latest Grievance.
Elinor Lipman: Where were you born and brought up?
Hilma Wolitzer: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and I’ve never lost my Brooklyn accent, or my interest in neighborhood life.
E.L. What were you like as a little girl?
H.W. A daydreamer, and the kind of kid who was always reading, from the back of the cereal box at breakfast to the label on the shampoo bottle in the bathtub at night. I was also a natural listener (or snoop) who liked to lie under the kitchen table and eavesdrop on the grown-ups (probably before I’d learned to read).
E.L. Were you a sullen or cheerful teen?
H.W. Like most teenagers, I was a monster of shifting moods. There were three of us, all girls, and my mother once said she would have been happy to have been somewhere else during our adolescence. When I had daughters myself, I understood what she meant.
E.L. Did you and your husband meet in a way that has worked its way into your fiction?
H.W. Not yet, perhaps because it doesn’t seem that interesting, at least from a fictional point of view. We were both invited to the same party and I forgot to go (still daydreaming, probably), and the hostess gave him my telephone number.
E.L. Your first published story was titled “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.” I’m trying to work that into a question just because I love it so much. Okay, how about: Take me back to that first acceptance letter.
H.W. It wasn’t a letter, actually. It was a phone call from my agent, saying that The Saturday Evening Post was going to buy a story. I think I went deaf for a moment, or maybe I was just screaming too much to properly hear her, because I had to call her right back and make her repeat the whole thing. It was especially thrilling because I was a late bloomer, already the mother of two, and sort of committed to a life of domesticity (hence that first title, maybe?).
E.L. Another favorite work-related phone call or letter?
H.W. It’s a toss-up between a fan letter from the novelist Richard Yates, and one from a child whose school I’d visited, who wrote to say that I’d “really expired” her.
E.L. In the last sentence of Summer Reading’s first chapter, you write (about Lissy): “But then she was ambushed by another stray thought—would she ever do anything that would require the forgiveness of strangers?—and felt a shivery thrill of prescience.” As you wrote that, did you yet know what Lissy was referring to? Which, of course, is my teasing you into telling “how much is outline and how much is intuition?”
H.W. I didn’t know what Lissy was going to do, because I write the way I read—to find out what happens to the characters. It’s that element of suspense that keeps me going through a long manuscript. It’s risky to write that way, because sometimes the story just peters out, but preparing an outline seems too rigid, too unexciting.
E.L. I read that during the long hiatus between Tunnel of Love and The Doctor’s Daughter, you’d go to the computer, “peck out a page or two,” hate what you’d written, and escape by falling asleep at the keyboard. That’s not writer’s block, is it?
H.W. It sounds more like narcolepsy, doesn’t it? But I do think falling asleep was just another way of avoiding the blankness during a very long—practically terminal—writer’s block. By definition, a writer is someone who writes, and squeezing out “a page or two” doesn’t really count if nothing ever follows.
E.L. Do you have any pet hates in a book you are reading (. . . or putting down)?
H.W. Well, I don’t like being told by the writer how to feel. The characters themselves have to raise my emotions. It’s a case of that old, but honorable, writing workshop saw: “Show, don’t tell.” To get lost in a book, the reader has to first lose awareness of the author, the wizard behind the curtain.
E.L. Guilty pleasure? (You can cop out with a fast-food item or a cheesy novel, but I’m hoping there’s an American Idol or All My Children to report.)
H.W. Quiz shows and New York Mets games (the entire season).
E.L. Can you tell us anything about the book (we hope) you are working on?
H.W. I’m writing about late love, and trying to do it from a male point of view. Men have been writing brilliantly about women for a long time, but I don’t think that women writers have been as successful with male protagonists. I think it has something to do with the fact that although men wear their genitalia on the outside of their bodies, they tend to keep their feelings hidden, and that women are precisely the opposite. It’s a real challenge to imagine the inner life of such a true “other.”
E.L. If you had to sum up the relationship between your novels and Hollywood in under ten words, what would you say?
H.W. Always an option, never a bride.
E.L. You’ve taught writing (famously, don’t be modest) and began writing in a fiction workshop taught by Anatole Broyard. Can you throw out some words that describe what good workshop leading takes?
H.W. A balance of honesty and charity pretty much sums it up. It’s scary to put your work out there for criticism, so there has to be some respect and compassion for the writer, but false praise doesn’t really help. I always tell a new group that the goal of a writing workshop is revision, not suicide.
E.L. The question you most hate to answer when hands go up at a bookstore reading?
H.W. “Where do you get your ideas?” If I knew, I’d run right out and get a fresh batch.
E.L. Who reads your works-in-progress?
H.W. My poor family. But I do lots of stuff for them, too.
E.L. Is there a book you’ve read more than twice?
H.W. Yes, there are a few of them, including To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West. I do it partly for renewed pleasure and partly to try to see how they’re made.
E.L. What mementos/photos/quotes/cartoons/awards/doodads are on display around your workspace?
H.W. Family photos, of course, and one of me and the Mets’ first baseman, Keith Hernandez (don’t ask!); a photo of Virginia Woolf and another of Colette; grandchildren’s artwork (inspiring!); a Maurice Sendak salute to Bill Clinton’s inauguration; and a few plaques.
E.L. Plaques? Discuss, please.
H.W. They’re awards for writing, and I’m proud of them or they wouldn’t be hanging up. But if you live long enough, you’re bound to gather a few laurels.
E.L. If you could have any famous people, living or dead, around your table for dinner next week, who would they be?
H.W. John and Abigail Adams, Jackie Robinson, Groucho Marx, and Julia Child.
E.L. What makes you feel satisfied at the end of the day?
H.W. Everyone I love home safe and sound, and a few good pages under my belt.
1. Consider the epigraph of Summer Reading:
“Emma sought to learn what was really meant in life by the words ‘happiness,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘intoxication’—words that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.”
—Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Are happiness, passion, and intoxication more beautiful in real life than in books? Why or why not?
2. Why does Angela’s comment about rooms, gardens, and gowns being the wallpaper of the story’s soul resonate with Lissy (page 28)? If the wallpaper of Lissy’s soul was stripped away, what would be left? What would be left of Angela? Later in the novel, Lissy wonders, “Wasn’t it possible to keep the wallpaper without giving up the soul?” (page 239). What do you think?
3. The Page Turners read Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? Is there anyone in Summer Reading who needs forgiveness? As the reader, can you forgive these characters?
4. Sleeping Beauty asks “Where am I?” upon waking from her century-long slumber. Why does Lissy repeat the same question? Why does Angela repeat the line from the Brothers Grimm book of fairy tales: “My business is with your father and not with you”? What is the significance of these quotations?
5. Why is it so important to Angela to be in touch with Charlotte? What does she hope to gain? What does Charlotte want from the friendship?
6. Why does Lissy’s mother tell her that Evie died? Why, later, does she imply that it was Lissy’s fault? What kind of effect does Evie and Lissy’s reunion have on the two women?
7. Was it only jealous spite, as Angela assumes, that makes Jenna hang the nude pen-and-ink drawing?
8. How would you explain the difference in Jo Ann and Michelle’s attitudes toward the “summer people”?
9. Lissy wonders whether the life lesson came at the end of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, but decides that “you didn’t have to read it all the way through if you didn’t want to” (page 105). What does this say about Lissy?
10. Why are Lissy and Michelle so uncomfortable when they lock eyes in the kitchen during Lissy and Jeffrey’s brunch (pages 80–81)?
11. On page 145, Hank suggests that Kayla write about Michelle for her essay on an American heroine of her choice. Why? How do you explain Michelle’s reaction?
12. Is the ending of Summer Reading realistic? Could the events of this novel have happened in “real life”? How could the
13. Do you believe Angela’s thesis that literature teaches one to live? Or are “the answers only to be found in the living itself,” as she wonders on page 183? What does she believe at the end of the novel? What about Lissy? Michelle? If you agree that reading can change your life, which books have had the greatest effect on you and why?
14. Do any of the three women whose lives intersect that summer succeed in living an authentic life? Why or why not? What is authentic about your life?