JULIET WITTMAN

FICTION. MEMOIR. CRITICISM. JOURNALISM

I’m a fiction writer, journalist, memoirist, and critic. I have won several journalism awards; my theatre reviews appear regularly in Westword, a Denver Weekly; I have published essays and short stories in literary magazines. A memoir, Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals, won the Colorado Book Award and was named a finalist for the National Book Award.

My parents fled Czechoslovakia for England during the second world war, and I was born while the bombs were dropping. Postwar London has been described as a dreary city of grimy buildings, pea-soup fogs and blackened bomb sites, of scarcity, hardship and tight rationing, but that’s not how I perceived it. For a child growing up there, London was full of wonders. The government was moving toward socialism, which meant that despite our refugee status, my widowed mother and I felt reasonably secure. Sugar was rationed, and food choices narrow and unappealing, but healthcare was free, and public education first-rate. Transportation was ubiquitous and cheap, which meant you could go wherever you wanted almost whenever you wanted. The arts were subsidized. It cost nothing to wander the National Gallery taking in works that ranged from Medieval portrayals of the Madonna and Child through Boticelli’s Birth of Venus to the Impressionists. Blue and white Penguin books cost half a crown, and for only a few pennies more, you could go to the theatre and watch the extraordinary Siobhan McKenna in Shaw’s St. Joan or Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer. The Royal Festival Hall opened in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, and ten years later, visiting, you might see Rudolf Nureyev, newly defected from the Soviet Union, listening to speakers placed in the lobby to bring the music to people who couldn’t afford a ticket.

 

Home was Willesden Green. a lovely, cheap, messy suburb. In Zadie Smith’s writing assures me is still a hub for immigrants—though now they come from all over the world, while our neighbors then were from central Europe. My mother’s reading had been in Czech, so no one really guided mine. I read everything I could lay my hands on, not differentiating much between the literary and the trivial: Tennyson, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, Graham Greene (every single book), Aldous Huxley (same), Charles Dickens—and his funny, chatty granddaughter Monica too. Also Beano, Dandy, and those terrifying horror comics that came over from America. Like almost all English kids, I loved Enid Blyton, and tore through the entireJust William series. When I found Evadne Price’s Just Jane, I spent many happy afternoons thinking up ways for those two little hellions to get together and amplify their mischief. I’d get lost in books; words dizzied me.

 

But it was a long time before I thought of myself as a writer, even though I majored in literature both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. Even after years in journalism, I was still waiting for permission to be what I thought of as a real writer. Finally, I had the great good luck to attend a workshop taught by Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson in Aspen. “Go forth and write,” they said. They really did. I wrote the words down. And so I have.