Starting Later: Novelists Debuting Over 40
Written by
Randy Susan Meyers
September 2010
Written by
Randy Susan Meyers
September 2010

I tried to resist writing this—especially after my plea against categorizing authors. Plus, so many of us hide our age in this world of never-get-old, unearthing this information, even in our Googlized world, was difficult. But, recently, along with the plethora of lists of writers under 40, I was faced with the declaration that, as headlined in a Guardian UK article about writers, ‘Let’s Face It, After 40 You’re Past It.” Then I read Sam Tanenhaus opine in the New York Times that there was “an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking.” Thus, in the interest not of division, but of keeping up the flagging spirits of those who don’t want to be pushed out on the ice floe until after publishing all those words jangling in their head, I present 41 0ver 40: Paul Harding, author of Tinkers, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize with his debut novel, published when he was 42. Robin Black, author of If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, was 48 when she debuted this year. Holly LeCraw published her debut novel The Swimming Pool at 43. Julia Glass was in her early 40s when she published Three Junes. Charles Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office, was published at 49. James Michner’s first book, Tales of the South Pacific was published when he was forty—he went on to publish over 40 titles. Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio published his first novel at the age of 40. Amy Mackinnon debuted Tethered in her 4o’s. Henry Miller’s first published book, Tropic of Capricorn, was released when he was over forty. Tillie Olsen published Tell Me A Riddle just shy of 50. Edward P Jones was 41 when his first book Lost In The City came out. Claire Cook published her first novel at age 45. Chris Abouzied published his first novel Anatopsis at 46. Kyle Ladd was 41 when her debut, After The Fall, was published. Lynne Griffin published her first novel, Life Without Summer at 49. Elizabeth Strout’s first novel Amy & Isabel debuted when she was 42. MJ Rose first novel came out when she was in her mid forties. Melanie Benjamin was 42 when she debuted. Therese Fowler was forty exactly when Souvenir debuted. Margaret Walker wrote Jubilee, her only novel at 51. Raymond Chandler debuted at 51 with The Big Sleep. Belva Plain published her first novel, Evergreen, at 50. Alex Haley published his debut novel Roots when he was 55. (His first book, the nonfiction The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published when he was in his mid-forties.) Jon Clinch debuted with Finn at age 52. In 2010 his wife Wendy Clinch published Double Black in her fifties. Also in 2010 Iris Gomez published Try To Remember in her fifties, as did Joseph Wallace with Diamond Ruby, and I published The Murderer’s Daughters at 57. Sue Monk Kidd was 54 when she debuted The Secret Life of Bees. Annie Proulx’s first novel, Postcards, was published when she was 57. Jeanne Ray published her debut, Julie and Romeo in her fifties. George Elliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, debuted when Elliot turned 50. Isak Dineson’s first, Seven Gothic Tales came out when she turned 50. Hallie Ephron author of Never Tell A Lie began publishing fiction after fifty. Jackie Mitchard was past 50 when The Deep End of the Ocean debuted. Richard Adams debuted with Watership Down at 52. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first novel (beginning the Little House series) at 65. Harriet Doerr won the National Book Award, for Stones for Ibarra, written when she was 74. Katherine Anne Porter published her only novel, Ship of Fools, at age 72. EJ Knapp just debuted Stealing The Marbles, saying “I'm so far past forty I can't remember it anymore." Norman McLean wrote A River Runs Through It at age 74. When compiling this list, Ellen Meeropol asked: "Do I count? My first novel, House Arrest, will come out in February, two months before my 65th birthday." Karen LaFreya Simpson will be 55 when her first novel Act of Grace debuts next year and Nichole Bernier will be over 44 when The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D is published in 2012. Yes, that’s my answer, Ellen. We all count. This is only a list of first novels. Compiling lists of bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning, Orange Prize winning, etc. books written after the age of 40—that will take several essays.

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  • Maybe the young don't mind starving or they are still under someone else's roof. Don't know but it seems age should not be a deciding factor in writing a good story.

  • Renee M. Payne

    Thank you for welcoming me to this group. I don't know how I got to be over 40 but somehow the years just piled on ,one after another. I have always wanted to write and I found that if an event in my life was particularly affecting, I had no trouble writing about it. Sitting down and trying to write a novel that I have wanted to write for decades is obviously the hard part. I have begun numerous times but then I think I have to go and do more research and then I realize that that's a great use to procrastinate. So..I am  trying to get beyond that stage.

  • Love Babz

    Those of Us happily out of the nubile years of 20s & 30s knew this... like fine wine....

    This is really quite inspiring!  I remain hopeful!

  • Terry Lynn Johnson

    Yay! I'm in a debut group The Elevensies, and most are under 40 - but still, some of us are over. this is a great post!

  • I agree with Ann Douglas. I was an English major in college (on the creative writing track), and even then, I knew the fiction I produced seemed self-indulgent. I did not feel ready to tackle Fiction (with a capital F) until I had more experience living life. Now, it took much longer to return to it than I expected, but I found myself coming back to it after my second son was born and years of magazine editing that started to bore me. I think 40 feels just right.

  • Randy Susan Meyers

    It's so heartening to read everyone's experience--so much shame heaped on folks over 40 these days--an insane notion, losing heart for living, right?

  • Ann Douglas

    Love this post! I only felt ready to start writing fiction a few years ago. I felt the need to accumulate life experience first so I'd have something to say. (I remember crossing the same bridge when I started writing non-fiction. The desire to write was there first - and then I found my material via life-experience -- motherhood.)

  • Phoebe Wilcox

    Oh, and the way I finally finished the dang this was by writing on my lunch breaks for the past three years or so. I call myself "the lunch-break novelist."

  • Phoebe Wilcox

    Wow, I am certainly not alone in debuting over forty then! My first novel, Angels Carry the Sun (Lilly Press, 2010) just came out. I had been working on it on and off since I was nineteen and then finally a real crush sort of feeling started a few years ago, the realization that I wasn't getting any younger and that I'd better get on with it. My publisher just nominated it for a PEN/Faulkner award so I'll keep my fingers crossed. It's perhaps possible that a no-name person with a small publisher could win something like that. I'm pretty cynical but . . . . maybe.

  • Zoe Zolbrod

    Great rebuttal to a faulty notion. My first novel came out a month before I turned 42.

  • Deborah Siegel Writing

    I am so loving this thread. Keep it coming (says novel-less Deborah, at 41)...!

  • Lisa Davis

    Thank you so much for compiling this list. As an unpublished writer over 40, I feel more inspired than ever.

  • sunipa basu

    Of all professions, writing is the one in which older persons have the advantage of experience, wisdom accumulated over the years, perspective, and plenty of time, unhampered by the hassles of household and social pressures. Even some of the best authors have improved with age. This is what I tell myself, being a older woman. But sometimes when a word escapes me, I wonder. With age, emotional quotient increases, but I am afraid IQ does decrease after a while!

  • Amalia Pistilli Conrad

    As a woman of 51 who (apart from a couple of minor things) hasn't really been published yet, I cannot but concur. Such lists should not even exist, because writing is one of the few artistic media (photography and film-making perhaps being the others) where age doesn't matter, shouldn't matter—as long as our brains are alive and constantly curious, who cares if our bodies are decaying? No particular physical prowess or early technical apprenticeship is required of a writer in the same way as it is required, say, of a musician, or actor, or dancer.
    Also, as many other women were saying here, with age come a certain kind of knowledge (call it wisdom, or simply experience) that can help shape our narratives, whether fictional or not, in a different and deeper direction. I, for example, am writing a memoir of my mother, but I could not have written it a decade ago—and it's not just because of the fact that I had to wait for my mother's death and then for a few years to elapse in order to "digest" the events. I also needed the 12 years I spent immersed in academic theory, because although I have no interest in using that theory for the purpose it was intended for, I am now writing not only about a microcosm of one woman's life but also framing it within a particular country's social, political, cultural macrocosm. This impulse came to me through my life experience and my academic knowledge—all things I did not have much of in my twenties or even thirties.
    I am always suspicious of the mythology of the "precocious genius": the kind of contemporary books I tend to like, or art I admire, are rarely made by the very young. There is something preposterous in making claims for the necessary youth of writers in an era when we are all living much longer lives, and there are lower natality rates. If it continues like this, there will not be many young writers left!
    Likewise, I am always disturbed when I read or hear comments about Mozart's early genius and the like, as they are based on a faulty premise: the author of the Guardian piece for example, says that "The mid-thirties seem to be the age at which the majority of the classics are completed"; well, of course these artists HAD to emerge and do all their important work in their twenties or thirties—most people died before they were 50 back then!
    Lastly, allow me to add one name to this great and ever-growing list: the wonderful novelist Ellen Gilchrist, who raised three sons before publishing her first short story collection at 46. Since then, she has put out eight novels, 11 collections of short stories, two books of poetry and two non-fiction books. At age 75 she is still going strong, stronger...
    We should all wish we were like her, including the petty and perhaps envious hacks who wrote these stupid ageist pieces in what are otherwise serious newspapers...

  • Marcia Meier

    Thank you for allowing all of us a little broader view on this subject. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting piece in the New Yorker several years ago about early-success authors vs. those of us who find publishing success later in life. Wish I could remember exactly when it appeared, but it was fascinating.

  • Randy Susan Meyers

    It's a far longer list than what I posted (could have gone on and on and on.) I'm not sure what possessed Tannenhaus or the gentleman from the Guardian to claim their off-the-wall claims. Youth and age each produce wisdom. joy, and stories--sometimes (often?) you need to wait a bit to tell the stories, right?

  • Patricia Valdata

    Thank you, Randy. I think it is nonsense for anyone to say that writers peak at a young age. My first novel, Crosswind, was published when I was 45. My first book of poetry, Inherent Vice, will be coming out from Pecan Grove Press next year when I'll be pushing 60. Have you heard of Passager magazine? It is for writers age 50 and over. The editors are also publishing a book series called "Six Over Sixty." Some of their authors are in their 90s!

  • Deborah Swift

    Thanks so much for this! My first novel came out this year and I'm 55 (don't tell anyone!) I think one of the joys of fiction is that when you send that manuscript off nobody knows anything about you except the words on the page. Writing is one of the few industries where people judge the words first and the appearance second.

  • Linda Chavis

    I was almost afraid to read this being that Im about to turn 61 and working on my first novel that has been trying to get out of me for YEARS. Thanks ! I felt better when I saw 74 LOL

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I love love love this post. At 38, I am dreaming of writing a novel someday (as soon as I stop spending every waking hour on She Writes), and frankly I feel that it's only in the last few years that my understanding has deepened in such a way that I could write the kind of fiction I admire most--George Eliot being foremost in my mind. There is also sexism in the Sam Tanenhaus quote--the notion of "peaking" makes me think of the kind of writing that is more about showing off than it is about wisdom and depth.

  • Kam Oi Lee

    I really don't know what is the point of those folks who write those articles trying to prove that nobody over 40 has anything to offer. The world is full of creative and talented people of all ages, human beings can live 100+ years, and yet we're supposed to believe that 30 is the peak for everybody? Phooey! Thank you so much for this list, and for saying we all count!