The Truth is/ If I had it all to do over/ I still wouldn't study Swahili,/ Learn to fly a plane,/ Or take 92 lovers,/ Some of them simultaneously...." So wrote Judith Viorst in "The Truth," a poem from her 1976 collection, How Did I Get to Be Forty and Other Atrocities.
"Everything I have ever written about has been about what's going on inside of us," Viorst tells PW in her comfortable, white-columned Victorian home on a woodsy cul-de-sac in the Cleveland Park section of Washington, D.C. Trim and attractive at 66, wearing a chic charcoal sweater and black-framed glasses, Viorst looks like a grown-up, prosperous version of the bohemian intellectual she aspired to be when she moved to Manhattan after graduating from Rutgers University in 1952.
The Truth is that, in the 1960s and '70s, few of the fans who delighted in Viorst's irreverent poems about the trials of aging and middle-class conformity could have predicted that she would one day decide to spend five years in psychoanalytic training. Yet, Viorst, bestselling author of humorous verse, children's books, a novel and nonfiction, took to heart Freud's advice to "be entirely honest with oneself." The woman who had once lamented that she would never know "a self-effacing wine from a presumptuous one," won permission to attend the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute as a special (nonmedical or Ph.D.) candidate. Graduating in 1981, Viorst acquired a tool that allowed her to vastly expand her quirky, appealing gift for portraying the contradictions of domestic life.
In her children's books, including the much loved Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (1972), Viorst demonstrates her sensitivity to the sometimes hard truths of childhood. Killing Mr. Monti, her witty 1994 novel about a gossip columnist, confirmed her flair for zeroing in on the defining conflicts of marriage and family. Yet, it was Necessary Losses (1986), her phenomenally successful nonfiction discussion of the losses we must learn to accept in order to grow, that first demonstrated Viorst's ability to delve deeper. Now, Imperfect Control: Our Lifelong Struggles with Power and Surrender (Simon &Schuster), confirms Viorst's ability to move from the skin of life to the pith.
Weaving together the work of biologists, social scientists, psychoanalysts and philosophers, Viorst portrays the issues of control that humans face in civilized society. From the start, she contends that we should live as if we have free choice, regardless of the hand dealt to us by genes or environment. Distinct from current gurus of healing like Deepak Chopra, who presents himself as a translator of cosmic truth, Viorst relates to the reader as an ordinary striving mortal. As in Necessary Losses, which Viorst calls a "companion" book, she suffuses her work with the juice of her own questions and experience. And although she confesses that she is "rather controlling," she refuses in the book to make easy judgments or prescriptions. In the spirit of psychoanalysis she offers her material as a lens that can help readers see the way issues of control pervade their lives.
Our conversation is peppered with comments about the Thanksgiving dinner she is planning to host for 19 people, including her three grown sons, their significant others and her sole, adored grandchild, the two-and-a-half-year old Miranda. The busy author has come a long way from being "a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey trying to live a wicked life in Greenwich Village."
"All along I've been writing about our fears, our longings, our fantasies, our ambivalences," Viorst says. "When I decided to study psychoanalysis, I did it because I wanted to understand the psychodynamics of it all. Though far from perfect, psychoanalysis offered me a huge, wonderful window on all that."
In print and in person, there is an appealing contrast in Viorst between serious ideals and emotional reality. In conversation with PW, as in her latest book, she punctuates her exposition with flashes of disarming candor. In Imperfect Control, she sometimes bursts into verse. In person, she knocks on wood. Comment on her thriving career or her inquire about her three sons, Anthony, Nicholas and Alexander, whom she has memorialized in her children's books, and Viorst offers that, yes, her career has exceeded all the expectations she had as a seven-year-old fledgling poet. She reaches out and raps the desk standing next to her chair. Yes, she adds, her sons all seem to be doing well. Knock, knock. It is an interesting gesture coming from a woman who just spent three years writing a book about control.
"It's a way of saying I'm not taking anything for granted," Viorst explains, raising her hands in a don't-shoot pose.
She emphasizes that the key to understanding our personal power is learning to recognize when we need to surrender. She freely admits, however, that she finds letting go very difficult, especially when it comes to her loved ones. "The main conversation that I've been having with women friends over the past 10 years concerns how, now that our children have grown up, we can tell them what to do without their noticing. Is it a good thing or a bad thing to offer help and advice? What does it mean to let go?"
Marriage and motherhood turned out to be Viorst's true stomping ground and source of inspiration. In 1960, after a brief marriage to a law professor, Viorst wed political writer Milton Viorst, whom she had dated casually years earlier. As a freshman at Rutgers, Viorst, who grew up in a comfortable middle-class family in Maplewood, N.J., took a job at a hotel on the Jersey shore. Milton, who was a sophomore at Rutgers, worked in the hotel next door. Today, the couple has been married 37 years and write at home in adjacent upstairs offices. Milton, who pads about the house during PW's Saturday morning visit, allows us to peruse bookcases filled with history and political books. His next book , an exploration of Islam called In the Shadow of the Prophet, is due out in the spring.
"We work such different sides of the street," says Viorst. She maintains, however, that the pair are "very serious, concentrated readers of each other's work."
Viorst credits her husband with kick-starting her career. "There's this extraordinary linkage between events," she says. "You could never plan your life in a million years." Transplanted from New York to Washington, newly married but still unpublished, Viorst took an editing job for Science Service, a publisher and newspaper syndicate service. Unexpectedly, the person who was supposed to write a children's book on the NASA space program backed out of the project, and Viorst was offered the job.
"Milton said, 'Just say yes and we'll figure out where space is later,' " she remembers. In 1962, Projects: Space was published by Washington Square Press. A few science books later, the New York Herald Tribune hired her as a stringer to cover social events in Washington.
At this point, too, Milton's input was crucial. "I had to cover all these social events and I could never recognize anybody, so Milton used to go with me. He'd have to say, 'Look, there's the secretary of state, and that person you're brushing aside to your right at the buffet is your president, dear.' "
Sometime during this period in the 1960s, Viorst began writing verse that didn't resemble the "death-and-desire-crumpled-in-a-corner" poetry she wrote when she was young.
Her work now capitalized on her skills as a social observer, capturing the ironies and tribulations faced by upper-middle-class women.
She sent her work to the Herald Tribune, where they landed on the desk of Clay Felker, the editor of the newspaper's new Sunday magazine, New York magazine. "From the '60s well into the '70s, everything I sent them they published," Viorst says of the magazine. "I still get goosebumps when I think about it. I was incredibly uncool about it. If somebody stopped me on the street and asked me the time, I could work into the conversation that I was the writer whose poems had just been published in New York magazine.In 1965, hugely pregnant with her youngest son, Alexander, she appeared on the Today Show to promote her first poetry collection, The Village Square. Legendary children's book editor Charlotte Zolotow, at Harper &Row, saw the show and invited Viorst to fulfill another of her unrequited dreams: writing fiction for children.
In 1968, Viorst published her first children's story, "Sunday Morning." She also published her second collection of poems, It's Hard to Be Hip over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life, which won her the fame she had dreamed of growing up in New Jersey. That same year, she started writing a regular column for Redbook, which she continued until 1996. Juggling her various roles, Viorst developed a work ethic that depended on her world-class ability to be organized.
Once engaged in a project, Viorst writes a page a day, although she admits that she often, as in the case of her new book, mulls over an idea for years before she is ready to write the proposal. She reads and listens and envisions the shape of a project. She contends that Imperfect Control was her most challenging project to date.
"I had to struggle to make readers understand that this book was about them," she says. "Everyone has had losses and can admit to loss, but control, that's always the other person. I had to work very hard to convince people that I was talking about them, and that control was sometimes a good thing."
Viorst, who has been represented by the agent Bob Lescher throughout her career, admits that she appreciates consistency in both her personal and professional lives. Since How Did I Get to Be Forty and Other Atrocities was published in 1976, Viorst's adult writings have been published by Simon &Schuster, where her work is edited by Fred Hills. (Since 1971, Atheneum has published her children's fiction.) She credits Hills with "wonderful" support, especially his "very clear suggestions, many of which I take. It's never 'this chapter gives me a vague pain in my left shoulder. What can you do about that?' He's very concrete."
For "In Control of Our Death," perhaps the most powerful chapter in her new book, Viorst drew on her experiences as a volunteer at the Hospice of Washington. Of her work at the Hospice, she says, after a pause and repeating lines from her own book: "It reminds me of the limits and possibilities of control."
Viorst writes about the need to prepare living wills. She also supports the right of terminally ill people to commit suicide, but "only under certain stringent conditions" (e.g., in the devastating stages of an illness) and if the patient is competent to make a rational decision. Her understated urgency about the subject gains bittersweet resonance when the reader connects it with fragments Viorst provides from her own life. She watched her mother die in excruciating pain. Her younger sister died of breast cancer. The friend to whom she dedicates Imperfect Control, Kitty Gilman, is tersely described in the chapter on death as having taken her life at 70 rather than live through the last devastating stages of cancer."She was the smartest woman I ever knew," Viorst tells PW.
How would Viorst herself like to be remembered? "I really pride myself on being reliable," she answers. "Someday maybe I'll come up with a more glamorous word for it, but that's what I am. You can count on me. I make my deadlines, I keep my promises, I do what I say I'm going to do.
"I always credited my mother with inspiring me to be a writer because she was such a passionate reader. She read poetry to me as a child. But rather late in life, I've come to appreciate my father, the accountant. He was a solid, organized, get-the-job-done kind of person-and you need that piece of it to be a writer, too. You need both a poet and an accountant in your soul."