When Debut Novelists Aren’t Young

Back in November 2014, I posted a piece about authors who wrote their first published novels in their 20s. Now that I’ve aged more than two years, I’m going to turn that topic upside down and talk about authors who wrote their first published novels when much older — in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or even 70s.

Some of those older authors wrote earlier novels that didn’t get published. Others wrote nonfiction books, or perhaps short stories or poetry, in their younger years before turning to novels. Still others worked in non-literary professions before trying their hand at fiction.

Writing a debut novel later in life has its advantages — the book might be more mature than a younger author’s debut novel for the simple reason that the older writer is (usually) more mature, and has more life experience. But there are downsides, too — debut novels by older authors might lack a bit of youthful energy, and readers might lament about all the potentially great books not written by those novelists when they were in their 20s or 30s.

One of the oldest writers to have a debut novel was Harriet Doerr, who joined the ranks of published authors at the age of 74 with her absorbing Stones for Ibarra — a semi-autobiographical 1984 book about an American couple living in a remote section of Mexico.

Moving down to a somewhat younger older age, we have Laura Ingalls Wilder being 65 when the first of her eight renowned Little House books was published.

Billie Letts, who spent much of her life as a college educator, was 57 the year (1995) her debut novel Where the Heart Is came out. It did quite well with the help of being an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 1998 and getting turned into a movie starring Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, and Stockard Channing in 2000.

Alex Haley was 55 the year (1976) that saw publication of his blockbuster novel Roots, which inspired the 1977 TV miniseries that became even more of a blockbuster. Haley of course previously wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which was based on many interviews with its subject. Before becoming an author, Haley served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 20 years (even ghostwriting shipmates’ letters to their girlfriends) and then became a prominent magazine interviewer.

Detective-fiction author extraordinaire Raymond Chandler was 51 when The Big Sleep became his first novel in 1939. Chandler was actually an oil company executive when he lost that job during the Depression, after which he turned to writing — initially with short stories.

And James Michener was 40 when his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, was published in 1947 — and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Michener, who had penned one nonfiction book before that, subsequently made up for lost time by writing a whopping 25 more novels and 30-plus more nonfiction books — many very long and heavily researched — after Tales.

A few other older debut novelists and the ages their first books were published: Belva Plain (63), Charles Bukowski (51), Sir Walter Scott and Bram Stoker (each 43), and P.D. James and Elizabeth Strout (each 42). Scott was a renowned poet before turning to books, and Bukowski also had his verse published before becoming novelistic.

Then there was the 1896-born Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose extraordinary first (and only) novel The Leopard wasn’t published until 1958 — a year after he died.

And several people I know from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists wrote their first novels when well beyond 40. They include Kathy Eliscu, Robert Haught, and Susan Moore Jordan, among others.

In the nonfiction area, Frank McCourt was 66 the year (1996) his mega-best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes came out. That book certainly contains literary flourishes.

Who are some of your favorite late-starting novelists (either ones I’ve named or not named)? What are the pros and cons of having a debut novel come out when the author is older?

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for Baristanet.com. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

Real People in Fictional Realms

Today is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 1809-born 16th president who would have been 208 if he were alive in 2017 — meaning 143 years of Social Security payments.

But, seriously, I’m reminded that many fictional works — and not just historical novels — feature actual famous people.

That can of course be very attractive to readers who want to “get in the heads” of often-long-dead notables, see the times they lived in, see the way authors depict those luminaries, and see how real personages interact with fictional characters. Many readers find this a more palatable way than nonfiction history books to learn about high-profile people of the past — whether those people were heroes, villains, or something in between.

“Honest Abe” himself has appeared in everything from Gore Vidal’s Lincoln to Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Another president — Ulysses Grant, commander of the Union army during the American Civil War that marked Lincoln’s presidency — shows up in Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back, along with various real players from the legendary 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings baseball team. Brock’s sequel, Two in the Field, includes a deservedly scathing depiction of General Custer.

Also set in the 1800s is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which of course includes Napoleon among its large cast of mostly fictional characters; and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which features a real-life person (Grace Marks) accused of murder. Not the best way to become famous, or infamous, but Marks is a known name — especially in Canada.

Moving to literature set in more recent years, there’s the novel containing more real people than most fiction: E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — in which we see Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and other well-known figures.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna devotes quite a few pages and conversations to artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Fannie Flagg’s Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! includes a memorable scene with playwright Tennessee Williams as he discusses the downside of fame.

And moving to fiction set many centuries ago, we have such novels as Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequels (which feature King Louis XIII, etc.), and Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked (which includes Jesus Christ. One can argue about whether he was “the son of God,” but he may have existed as a person).

Which real people have you noticed in fictional works? Bonus question: Who’s the better president — Lincoln or Donald Trump? (Hint: The Electoral College can’t help Trump this time!  🙂 )

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for Baristanet.com. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

Loving Literature From Other Countries

With Trump spouting his “America First” nonsense, I’ve thought about how much I love numerous fictional works written by authors from countries other than the United States.

Many of those books — in addition to being compelling and entertaining — open our minds, teach us about the differences between various cultures, and also teach us how people everywhere share similarities: love of family, the desire to be happy, dealing with life’s difficulties, etc.

So, while I usually avoid lists, I’m going to list some (but by no means all) of my favorite novels and short stories by writers from non-American countries. (Novels in italics, stories in quotes.) Then I’ll ask for some of your favorites. The countries are listed alphabetically, and the writers listed next to them were either born there and/or spent much of their lives there and/or are often associated with that nation.

Argentina: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges.

Australia: Shogun (James Clavell). On the Beach (Nevil Shute). Grand Days (Frank Moorhouse).

Canada: The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood). Anne of Green Gables, The Blue Castle, and the Emily trilogy (L.M. Montgomery).

Chile: The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende).

Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

England: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë). Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch, Silas Marner, and The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot). Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen). The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield (Charles Dickens). The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins). The Last Man (Mary Shelley). Possession (A.S. Byatt). White Teeth (Zadie Smith). The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling). The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien). (What can I say — I majored in English.  🙂 )

France: Germinal and The Drinking Den (Emile Zola), Old Goriot and Eugene Grandet (Honoré de Balzac). The Vagabond and Claudine at School (Colette). The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas). The Plague (Albert Camus). Candide (Voltaire). (What can I say — my wife is a French professor.  🙂 )

Germany: The Night in Lisbon, Arch of Triumph, All Quiet on the Western Front, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Erich Maria Remarque).

India: The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy).

Ireland: “The Dead” (James Joyce). “The Canterville Ghost” (Oscar Wilde). Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift). Dracula (Bram Stoker).

Italy: History (Elsa Morante). The Leopard (Giuseppe di Lampedusa). The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco).

New Zealand: The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton). Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room (Janet Frame).

Nigeria: The Interpreters (Wole Soyinka).

Russia: Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky). The Kreutzer Sonata (Leo Tolstoy). (Heck, Trump adores Russia’s authoritarian leader — wonder if the U.S. prez ever read any lit from that country? Probably not…)

Scotland: The Heart of Midlothian and Old Mortality (Sir Walter Scott). Weir of Hermiston (Robert Louis Stevenson).

Spain: Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes).

Sweden: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the other two Millennium Trilogy books (Stieg Larsson).

What are some of your favorite fictional works from other countries? (You can of course also name nations I didn’t list.) And if you’re a commenter from outside the U.S., please feel free to include favorite works by American authors among your mentions.

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.