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‘Nearing Ninety,’ Viorst still writing with the same sass

Judith Viorst (Photo: Debbie wagner)

As a mother of three active boys, bestselling author Judith Viorst never had the luxury of waiting for the muse to strike.

“I just put my tushy on the chair and wrote” when the kids were napping or at preschool, she told the AJP recently. “If every once in a while I got inspired, it was like a gift from the gods.”

And Viorst could write anywhere — waiting in line in the supermarket or even in the car at a red light — as long as she had a pencil and paper.

That’s how she managed to pen some 40-odd books in an astonishing array of genres. There are almost two dozen children’s books, most famously “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”; adult fiction and nonfiction works, including the New York Times best-seller,  “Necessary Losses”;  and books of funny, clever poetry, starting with “The Village Square” in 1966  and “It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life” two years later.  The newest book in Viorst’s “decades” series, “Nearing Ninety and Other Comedies of Late Life,” was published earlier this week, in celebration of national poetry month.

Viorst doesn’t even count the first books she wrote in her 30s, for a science organization.  Although she didn’t study science, she was great at research — at one time, she says, could have told you the difference between a liquid and a solid propellant engine, because she wrote a book about the NASA space program.

But the big thrill of her life came when she started writing funny poems and the fledgling New York magazine published them.

“It gave me a whole new life as a writer,” she says. A publisher asked her to write a book of poems, and “The Village Square” was the result. “It was about being a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey living in Greenwich Village with plans to live a wicked, wild life, except my mother kept calling each day to say, ‘Don’t. Whatever it is you’re planning on doing, don’t.”

In “Nearing Ninety,” Viorst tackles the joys and tribulations of growing older with her trademark cheeky humor.  She struggles to make it to midnight on New Year’s Eve, lately hears more eulogies than symphonies, and will be forever disheartened by what she weighs (and forever unable to stop weighing herself). But she still finds plenty to cherish: hanging out with family and friends, playing relentless games of Scrabble, sleeping tush-to-tush with the man she married 60 years ago.

Simon & Schuster has re-issued the whole “decades” series, with charming illustrations by Laura Gibson.

And you don’t have to have as many decades under your belt as Viorst to relate to the combination of love, worry and wisdom she pours into “Nearing Ninety.” Consider “What We Still Argue About,” which begins, “He thinks he can read The New York Times and still give me his undivided attention.”

Or “A Warning (Or Maybe a Love Song) For My Husband,” which starts, “Each morning I get up before you/And stand by your side of the bed./I’m checking your chest to make sure you/Are breathing. Still breathing. Not dead.” It ends, “My words aren’t meant to disparage/Those ladies who live on their own./But after six decades of marriage,/I’d rather not go it alone./The sentiment here may not thrill you,/But listen, my love, carefully:/Keep staying alive, or I’ll kill you./Don’t you dare die before me.”

Although she makes it seem easy, writing, Viorst will tell you, is hard work. But here’s one of her secrets — it’s easier to write poems that rhyme.

Viorst starting writing poetry when she was 7. She grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers University, and has lived in Washington, D.C., since 1960, when she married Milton Viorst, a political writer. They have three sons and seven grandchildren. She is a 1981 graduate of the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. Along with her many books, she has also written four musicals.

Her Jewish roots pop up occasionally in her poems — “My Legacy,” the last poem in “Nearing Ninety,” lists “making a truly transcendent matzoh ball.”

“I think there is such a thing as a Jewish sense of humor,” she says. “It tilts toward irony, it tilts toward a shrug, ‘It could be better, it might’ve been worse.’”

But she’s certainly heard from a lot of non-Jewish readers who identify with her work.

“I think my favorite fan letter of my lifetime was a woman who wrote to me, ‘I’m a short, blonde, farm woman from Iowa, and I think you’re a tall, thin Jewish woman from New York, and we live the same life.’”

Many of her friends have made the move to assisted living, something she explores in a couple of “Nearing Ninety” poems.  “We have put a deposit down a place that is very, very nice and we hope we’ll never move into,” she says, explaining she hopes to stay in her big, more than 100-year-old house.

“I’m still very energetic. When I feel droopy, I think that I must have a fatal disease,” she jokes. She credits luck and inheritance, as well as having a smart and interesting husband. “We still have plenty to talk about ­­— if you live in Washington, there’s a lot to talk about!” She also gives a nod to her “smart, interesting, vigorous friends.”

“And besides, I’m just a girl of 88,” she says. Given the opportunity to turn back the clock, she wouldn’t take it — although she would “push the hold button for right now.”

Viorst is not working on her next book of poems, yet. But that’s because there’s an idea for a new children’s book she’s wrestling with. If she’s around for the next couple of years, she says, she’ll probably write another volume of poems. “There must be something to laugh about.”

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