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?
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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.
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