Late to the Party: On Being a Debut Novelist at Sixty

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From Writer Unboxed:

“Had you told me when I was 20 or 30 or 40 that I would write a novel someday, I would have laughed! Only in my 50s did I realize that I had something to say and that I could use the platform of fiction to say it.”  – Alka Joshi, author of NYT Bestseller The Henna Artist

I never wanted to star in the school play. At fourteen, I had the shakes before my piano recital. I was interviewed on television, once, in my early thirties, and felt ill with anxiety beforehand and for days afterward.

Now, I’m sixty. Yesterday, I did two live radio spots, a taping for a podcast, and a 45-minute, solo Facebook Live takeover. Each of these events scared the hell out of me.

This is publication week for my debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS. My publicist, Ann-Marie Nieves of Get Red P.R., has done a fabulous job booking virtual appearances for me. I’m constantly having to explain to the Facebook page host/radio interviewer/ podcast presenter that I’ve never done a page takeover/podcast/Instagram live before.

But I’m learning.

When I was 53, my youngest went to high school and I decided to take some literature classes. In the advisors’ office at my local community college I met with a harried young woman who said to me, “Now then, Mrs. Taylor.” She smiled, in a way I interpreted as condescending, then continued, “do you want to take this course for credit? You’d have to take the tests and exams. Or would you prefer to audit?” Well, that got my back all up. Audit, my ass. There and then I decided to pursue a second degree, in English. I’d show her. And so it began. I loved English 112; never mind that I was probably older than the mothers of my fellow students. Here, have a tissue. Keep the pack, I have more. Did you forget your pen, again? Who do you think is going to throw out that McMuffin wrapper?

They got used to me.

I went on to take every Literature class I could at Piedmont Community College. I branched out and took Philosophy, then French. This was just as online learning was beginning to take off, and I went on to take a class virtually at Harvard, called Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature and Culture. Me? Harvard? It sounded good. I was in Gothic heaven. When I had a choice, in my third semester, between a dull-sounding course on Literature of the Restoration and a class on writing fiction, I took the writing class, and never looked back. A few years later, at 56, with a published essay and several short stories under my belt, I began the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was not the oldest in my cohort.

I soon came to realize that as an undergrad in my late teens I hadn’t appreciated what a gift learning something new can be. I had taken learning for granted. After all, I had been doing it for all of my cognizant life. The MFA program offered me a sense of accomplishment and creative fulfillment that translated into a new sort of bravery. Yes, I would stand before a room full of people and read my work aloud, even if I started out trembling. Yes, I would complete and deliver my graduate lecture, and learn to make a PowerPoint slide show.

. . . .

Delia Owens published her first novel, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, at the age of 68. She had several well-received nonfiction titles published earlier, but we all know that CRAWDADS has been on the NYT Bestseller list for over 100 weeks and Reese is making the movie. It’s been a phenomenon. I met Ms. Owens at a cocktail reception at the Savannah Book Festival in 2019, just as her novel was really exploding. She was with a publicist from her publishing house. At that time, I had a book contract, and we chatted about being debut novelists. She was gracious and soft-spoken, and she seemed ill at ease with the attention she garnered. When I left to refill her publicist’s wine, I was stopped by an enthusiastic gentleman who asked me to tell him about my novel. I gushed enthusiastically, and about two sentences in I realized that he thought he was speaking to Delia Owens. We were both disappointed.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

3 thoughts on “Late to the Party: On Being a Debut Novelist at Sixty”

  1. I love these stories. I debuted at 68; am older now. But I’d had a hit nonfiction How-To book 15 years before that first novella. And a whole career of being a “creative” in various jobs and businesses. All of it leading up to the point where I said: “Why the hell not?” + having decades of life experience behind me. All those years of high and lows, of successes and disappointments . . . they’re all fodder for my Indie-focused fiction now. Four novellas and three novels later, I’m loving every minute of it.

    P.S. I lied. That third novel isn’t releasing until November. But I’m taking the long view.

    P.P.S. Oddly, I live very close to the OP.

  2. Ah, youth. Published my first at 72. 32 books later I’m publishing a cold war spy yarn at 79. Just getting warmed up. I’ve hit the USA Today bestseller list, I’m an Amazon all-star every month (free money, just for writing? you’re sure you want to do this for me?) and never worry about how the electric bill’s gonna be paid. Please, too late to start over? Tell it to someone else.

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