I emailed Alice Mattison (author of the wonderful story collection In Case We’re Separated) and asked her to share some thoughts on the life and work of Tillie Olsen.
This is what she wrote back:
From: Alice Mattison
To: Daniel Septimus
Date: Jan 3, 2007
Subejct: Re: Tillie Olsen
Happy New Year to you too. I’d love to say something about Tillie Olsen, who mattered a lot to me. Here’s what I jotted down and I hope you can use it. All best, Alice
I never met Tillie Olsen, but I’ve loved her small body of work since the nineteen seventies, when I came across Tell Me A Riddle — a collection of just four stories — and was so struck by the matter-of-fact clarity with which she described the complexities of ordinary life and ordinary love that I recognized an entire new way to write stories, and began to think that even I, a young urban Jewish mother, could write them. I still suggest to new writers that they read Tillie Olsen and she still inspires them. One story is about a mother reflecting (while ironing) on the ways her daughter’s life might have been better, another concerns young best friends, black and white girls, as they try to grow up together. The third is about an alcoholic sailor and the family that continues to love him, and the fourth, the title story, concerns an old immigrant couple who’ve been loving and enduring each other — and driving each other crazy — since their young political days in Europe. The stories aren’t exactly political, but theyâ€™re infused with a strong old lefty belief in the significance of ordinary working lives, and the one time I heard Tillie Olsen speak — lecturing at Yale about the Great Depression — she interrupted herself to sing “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” As a young woman, she had children and difficult jobs, and little time for writing. When her stories were finally discovered and published, it was somehow too late, and though a partially completed novel, Yonnondio, was also printed (and though she wrote a nonfiction book, Silences, about why women donâ€™t write and publish as easily as men), there is no more fiction.