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Hilma Wolitzer: "An Available Man" Tackles Love After Loss In Midlife

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"The great secret that all old people share," Doris Lessing once told O Magazine, "is that you really haven't changed in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all." These words aptly describe not only novelist Hilma Wolitizer, 82, but also the social landscape evoked in her superb, recently published novel "An Available Man."

Edward Schuyler, its main character, is a quirky 62-year-old science teacher whose wife and great love, Bee, falls to cancer after a long, happy marriage. After Edward's stepdaughters place a personal ad for him in The New York Review of Books, he finds himself besieged by available older, single women. The intangible presence of Bee accompanies Edward as he grapples with renewed life, loss, love, and sex.

A brilliant writer of social comedies that often play out in the domestic sphere, Wolitzer is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Wolitzer is also an accomplished teacher who counts among her students many illustrious writers, including Jane Smiley and Michael Cunningham. Cunningham will join Wolitzer in conversation at The Center for Fiction in New York on February 21st.

I recently spoke with Wolitzer about "An Available Man," the social backdrop in which it unfolds, and love after loss.

What was the impetus for tackling this particular subject of love and loss in mid-life?

A lot of my friends have been widowed or divorced and I knew that that they were lonely and wanted to be in a relationship. But then I began to wonder what it was like for the men. Loneliness isn't gender-specific. So it seemed a little more interesting to me to consider the true other -- a man. I liked the challenge.

There's a scene in the book where Edward goes to bed with a woman named Sylvia who's had a fair amount of plastic surgery, which is off-putting to him. Afterward, Sylvia touches a nerve when she refers to a widower friend of hers. "All she requires," Sylvia says, "is a penis and a pulse." Do you think this a reality for older women?

I think numbers have something to do with this. There are more single women than single men out there, and especially at an older age. Women just outlive the men. I've heard from some readers and from people who live in senior communities that this is how it is. They say that I got it right. Men are in demand far more than women. Also I don't think that society places the same physical demands on mens' appearance the way it does on women. They can be bald and still be sexy.

And they can have big bellies and still be sexy.

Yes -- without having had children to create those big bellies! At least women have an excuse for it.

Edward is not seduced by Sylvia with her 'pulled-face,' as you put it. He's still haunted by the memory of his wife. In that regard, he speaks for many people who've experienced the loss of a great love.

Yes, and she accompanies him on his dates as a sort of extra conscience. It wasn't so much that he disparages this woman Sylvia for having had plastic surgery, but that he wondered what her real face would have looked like. He loved his wife's real face. He loved the changes in her. And so he was put-off by this. But he actually likes her and wishes he were attracted to her. He's still sexually active and interested. He needs to find a soul mate and a bed mate.

One of the messages in your book is that love after loss is possible.

Yes. In fact my original title for the book was "Dating After Death" but I was quickly talked out of that by people who said it sounded like a ghost story. So I saved it for a chapter title.

To jumpstart Edward's foray into dating, his step-daughters place an ad in the New York Review of Books without his knowing. Most people would have pushed him to go online. The personals in the New York Review of Books are so extraordinarily elaborate that they're almost humorous.

Yes, I know. Everybody seems glorious. Nobody seems to have any flaws. And Edward finds that suspect. In the book, he wonders: 'If they're so great, why do they have to advertise?' And his dead wife's voice comes into his head and says, 'because they're lonely.' And he recognizes this, and this is true of him as well.

You've been a writer for many decades. To what do you attribute your longevity and prolific creativity?

Yes, I just turned 82. This is my ninth novel and my fourteenth book. But I was actually a late bloomer. My first book wasn't published until I was in my mid-40s. I was not a member of any brat pack.

Your career gives credence to the fact that one can continue pursuing one's dream and passion at any age. There's no such thing as retiring when you're an artist, is there?

No, and that's the great thing. And you don't even have to have great legs. No one sees you when you're typing in your pajamas in the morning. You don't have to leave the house. It's wonderful.

And no one necessarily needs to know how old you are.

I don't feel any age when I'm writing. That's another thing that happens. While I'm sitting there, I'm so into the story and into my characters' lives that when I get up to go to the kitchen and I pass a mirror, I'm shocked by who I am and how old I've become -- as if I were much younger when I started out that morning.

I think many people have a different internal age. When my grandfather was in his 90s, he said his internal age was 40. It is possible that when we write, we tap into this ageless, transcendent, intemporal place that we all have inside ourselves?

That's very well-stated. That's exactly true.

What's one thing you know now that you wish you knew growing up -- as a writer or human being?

One of the things I wish I'd known is that I'd have this much energy at my age into my 50s and 60s and 70s, and now into my 80s. I wish I'd known that I wouldn't feel so pressured. When I began writing novels in my 40s, I thought I had very little time and I had to hurry and do it fast because I had started so late. I used to refer to myself as the "Great Middle-Aged Hope." I wish I'd known that I'd have so much energy and inspiration. And wish I'd read more. Reading replenishes. I used to tell my students, don't write what you know. Find out what you know by writing. And this is really true.

I also would have lived more adventurously, perhaps. But then again, most of my books have a domestic basis. I'm beholden to Jane Austin for saying that it's alright to write on a small domestic canvas. And therefore all the years that I've put in in the kitchen, the bedroom, in the household and with the kids and my husband have turned out to not only be wonderful personally, but useful in terms of my fiction.

Your work speaks to many people who have the same experiences but not the skills to write and put them into words. Also most writers' lives aren't full of swashbuckling adventure. Most writers actually have pretty ordinary and predictable lives. The wild live-it-up boozer writer is more of a myth and not really what a working writer's life is all about.

Yes, that went out with Fitzgerald. A lot of us just sit in our pajamas and come out every once in awhile to see what the weather's like or what's in the refrigerator.

What is the best advice that anyone ever gave you?

Something really marvelous happened to me when I was a child. I was writing really bad poetry like a lot of children do who later turn out to be serious writers. And I had a fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Fredericks who, in a parent-teacher conference with my mother, told her that I had great promise. After that, my mother and my father started looking at me differently. They paid more attention to the little poems I was scribbling. They made me recite them to friends while they were playing cards. And it gave me the feeling of promise that I could be a writer.

Many years later, I was giving a talk somewhere in New Jersey and an elderly woman came up to me after the talk and introduced herself as my fourth grade teacher. And I told her, "oh my god, this is so amazing that you're here." And I reminded her what she had said to my mother and what an impact it had had on my life -- that I had great promise, which was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy for my parents. And she said to me, "oh honey, I told that to all the parents."

It was humbling indeed, but it was a good thing to do. I'm not dishonest with a writer who's just starting out with his or her work, but I try to be encouraging. So the best advice I ever got has to do with the importance of having some combination of honesty and charity.

If you could say one thing to the next generation, what would it be?

Two things: Read and care about one another.