LATE BLOOMERS: WRITING ON INTO THE SUNSET

In fifth grade I picked up a novel my mother was reading called Life Begins at Forty. At that time the age of 40 was too far in the misty future to even contemplate, and I discarded the book and went back to my beloved Anne of Green Gables. Now, of course, I look  back at the age of 40 with nostalgia. My first novel had just been published by Ace Books: I called it an autobiographical feminist novel, while Ace labelled it a romance and hoped we might have a future together. Our paths soon diverged, and I started writing and publishing mystery novels; Ace moved to science fiction, and our relationship  ended.

But not my writing. A late bloomer to the publishing world, I became a perennial writer as time went on. I’m winging along through Medicare now, with 18 published books, and two more coming to fruition this spring–one, a small collection of poems, using, in part, the voice of 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft, who looms large in my Perseverance Press mysteries.

How long, I ask myself, can I keep going? Who will want to publish me? How long does a flowering weed like blue vetch keep blooming?

Well, I answer myself: consider that hot pink bleeding heart in my garden. It has been coming up spring after spring, and it still looks robust.

A romp through Google brings up dozens of brave hearts still writing and publishing past 65. Wallace Stegner, 62, when his prize-winning Angle of Repose appeared, was 78 when his beautiful novel, Crossing to Safety came out. The British novelist Mary Wesley wrote her first novel, The Camomile Lawn at age 70, and went on until she died at age 90 to publish three million copies of her books, including ten bestsellers. Her popular work has been described as “arsenic without the old lace,” and “Jane Austen with Sex.” And speaking of arsenic and Austen, we now have P.D. James’s latest mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, published when Dame James was 91!

The list goes on. James Michener wrote forty novels after the age of 40 when Tales of the South Pacific wowed the world. I met his editor once, who claimed she had to do a good amount of editing in his latter years, but he was still publishing when he died at 90. And we can’t forget late blooming debut novels like Harriet Doerr’s Stones of Ibarra, which she wrote at age 74–a national Book Award winner. Or Katherine Ann Porter’s award-winning Ship of Fools, which debuted when she was 72. And then there is Helen Hoover Santmeyer, who published her first book, And Ladies of the Club, at age 88.

Ah, but then I read a N.Y.Times essay, “Writer of a Certain Age,” in which the famous Fay Weldon, novelist and playwright,  laments the continuing prejudice against older women writers. Write two mature women into a conversation on stage, she complains, “and audience members would cough and shift in their seats.” A fiftyish female writer trying to describe “the sexual and social predicaments of a woman her age,” Weldon says, would “find it hard to get a publisher.” Her agent, she allows, would invariably suggest that the protagonist’s age “be taken down 20, even 30 years.”

Do I  want to do that? Don’t older women make up the larger part of fiction readers? Don’t I myself prefer to read about a character, male or female, who  is closer to my age? Yes, I do! Chick lit isn’t for me. Is there no solution here?

Well, sort of. Old age, Weldon thinks, is “a salable proposition” for publishers, in that one is considered “remarkable” for having produced such a work. Indeed, a writer acquaintance of mine who has just published her first book of stories at the age of 80, throws her age out to the reading public like bits of confetti. “I’m proud of it!” she exclaims, and reminds me that she had a “long gestation period” before the book came out.   Well, of course she has a point. A book published in a certain year may have been conceived a decade earlier. As for e-books, Weldon goes on, without an author photo one can be “as old or young as she likes.” The quality of the writing will prevail, and we’ll be judged “by our words and ideas, not by our looks.”

I’ll close on that optimistic note. How long would you as reader want to write on?

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14 Responses

  1. Hi, Nancy,

    I hope you keep writing for a long time to come! Speaking for myself, the challenge of writing in a variety of genres keeps my brain active and alive.

    • Writing is one thing, Jacquie, but publishing is another. Unless one self-publishes, of course, which is happening more and more, and often with good results. And yes, you’re right: writing does keep the mind churning–just as much, I think, as all this new software purporting to “exercise” the brain.

  2. Writing mysteries is my reward for reaching retirement age – well, almost. I like to think that I will also supplement my pension well enough with my book sales, to pay for a winter vacation in Southern California every year and to afford a new car when my ’97 Subaru finally bites the dust. So far, so good. My sales are more than doubling with each new book, and using the doubling every year formula, I should make over a billion dollars the year I turn 82!

    • A billion dollars? Is it possible, Ruth? Tell us how! But it’s lovely to consider writing mysteries as a reward for reaching retirement age–I wholly agree with you there. My Subaru isn’t quite as old as yours, but it’s on its way. As I am–but still writing. Thanks so much for joining the conversation here!

      • I thought I had put a wink under that comment! You know about the magic of compounding, don’t you? How much money would you have at the end of a month if you started with one penny and doubled the amount every day? Here’s a video that illustrates it:

  3. You always seem to choose a topic that resonates with writers and readers and gets to the heart of the book business. I think my readers are of a certain age, but either they really do care more about the comings and goings of characters their children’s age, OR the publishers are wrong. Me — I love having friends of all ages, but when it comes to reading or movies, I want to see people who are over the phase of “it’s Saturday night and I don’t have a date.”

    • Ha ha. I agree absolutely, Camille. It’s Judy Dench for me, or at least Meryl Streep. (Did I misspell her name? That must mean something.) I really do wonder about the publishers, though. What data do they use to figure the age of their readers? And how about that agent who told Weldon she must take up to 30 years off her female protagonist’s age? Weldon never told us how old that agent was! Probably a teeny bopper. Ah, well.

  4. Nancy, they’ll have to pry this keyboard….well, you know the rest.

    • Great, terse response, Anita! We think alike. I think it’s a disease, this compulsion to go to the keyboard. Even if it will one day take a walker to get there!

      • Nancy, there’s a wonderful memoir called The Invisible Wall that the author, Harry Bernstein, wrote when he was in his early nineties. When he was asked in an interview why he’d waited so long, he said that’s when he was ready to write it.

        My personal inspiration is William Trevor, the great short story writer and novelist, who’s still productive in his nineties.

  5. Excellent comment from Harry Bernstein, Anita, and so true! What did I know in my twenties? Not much. I wrote my first novel then, but it wasn’t published until I was almost forty, and knew a lot more about life in order to revise it. I admire William Trevor, too–didn’t realize he’s in his nineties!

    • I saw you wink, Ruth! And that’s some video. I’m going to try compounding my pennies and see what happens, I like the “truth” bank better than my own. Or should I say the Ruthe bank. Thanks for sharing this! Maybe I can take that trip around the world in my retirement years. Along with my laptop, of course.

  6. My first book came out a week after my fortieth birthday, just about the right time in my life to launch a new endeavor. I had to to collect a certain number of years’ worth of experience before I had anything worth writing about.

    • Exactly my experience, Wendy. My first published novel came at age forty-three when I had something to say–unlike the one I wrote in my twenties that died on the pen–and a good thing, too!

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