Here's to the late bloomers
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
I used to be quite involved with the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne. At the time, a lot of our audience tended to be younger people (under 30) but that demographic has slowly crept up over the years. We always said that ‘emerging’ does not equate to ‘young’ (there’s the National Young Writers Festival held annually in Newcastle) so we wouldn’t discourage older writers who might think the festival wasn’t for them. You can, of course, be 'emerging' in any field at any age. Here’s some examples I found on the interwebs* about writers who found success later in life:
William Golding was 43 when he published his first book. It was called Lord of the Flies. You might have heard of it. It was kind of a big deal. Golding went on to publish 12 more novels before dying in 1993.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House books (yeah, okay, so she’s a little on the nose at the moment) was 65 when she published the first book in the series.
Annie Proulx, the brilliant author of the short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (which became a film), didn’t publish her first successful novel, The Shipping News, until she was almost 60.
Frank McCourt published his first book Angela’s Ashes (he won the Pulitzer Prize for it) at 66.
Richard Adams published Watership Down, his first novel, at 52.
Raymond Chandler published his first and most famous novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939 when he was 50. He’d only started writing fiction after losing his job as an oil company executive in his 40s.
Mark Twain first published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 49.
Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe (second only to the Bible in its number of translations) at 58.
So there are lots of examples of exceptionally successful (and enduring) works being published by first-time authors later in life. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything notable before publishing these books. Daniel Defoe published something like 300 works in his lifetime (although he died in debt). Mark Twain had published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 10 years earlier, but that had been a commercial failure (it went on to be his biggest selling novel during his lifetime).
Emerging at a young age
There are, of course, plenty of examples of creative brilliance emerging virtually fully formed at a young age. Orson Wells made Citizen Kane (always high on lists of the best films of all time) at the age of 25. Mozart was at the top of his game at 21, Picasso, the same.
American author SE Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was 16 and published it when she was 18. It still sells extremely well more than 50 years later (it’s on my son’s Year 10 reading list this year). She had a few other books – That Was Then, This Is Now, Rumble Fish, Tex — but nothing as successful as The Outsiders. I guess that doesn’t matter when she’s still selling around 300,000 copies of her debut novel every year.
There’s something very impressive (and downright envy-inducing) about people who pull off great creative feats in their youth. But I often wonder what happens to young people who hit the top of their game at a young age. Is everything after that a disappointment?
Some writers who peak early struggle to keep going at the same pace (or producing the same quality work). In some cases it could be the pressure of following up something that’s been incredibly successful. In the YA arena, I’m thinking of John Green, who published six books in seven or eight years, the last in this line being the amazingly successful The Fault In Our Stars. Then he went silent (in terms of book publishing) for five years until Turtles All the Way Down was published last year. It took Marcus Zusak 13 years to follow up The Book Thief (Bridge of Clay is due out in October). Before The Book Thief, he’d published four books in four years.
Some novelists only have one book in them. I’m constantly amazed when I read a fantastic (older) novel and then, when I go to find out more by the author, discover that they don’t have anything else. What happened? Did they make enough money that they never had to work again? Did the thought of living up to that first novel render them creatively mute? Had they exhausted their creative reserves?
Some authors struggle to get traction when they try to break out of the genre they’re well known for (think JK Rowling whose A Casual Vacancy failed to set the world on fire and then her detective series (written under a pseudonym) only took off after she was outed as the author). Unfortunately, some book publishers, book sellers and even readers pigeonhole writers and find it hard to accept them doing anything other than what they already love them for. That can be a strain on an artist who wants to branch out and try new things. Some artists achieve great success in other creative work (actors who crossover from pro-wrestling (The Rock) or modelling (Mark Wahlberg) or music (Cher), for example), but, in publishing, some fail not because they’re no good at the new venture but because people just can’t deal with the change.
Wow, I’ve just realised how far off the track I’ve wandered. Back to the late bloomers.
I’m a late bloomer
I’m in my 40s and am publishing my first novel. Sometimes I wish I had’ve started publishing when I was a lot younger, but the reality is, I wasn’t good enough. Plus, I’m a young soul. Wisdom is not something that I acquired at a young age like some people do. Not that I think I’m particularly wise now, but I know a lot more about life and how people tick and what matters than I did when I was 25. I wouldn’t have had the emotional insight (or the technical skills) to write a decent novel in my 20s (I’ve got a few manuscripts in the bottom drawer that prove that!).
Also, it’s taken me more than a decade to learn how to write a novel. Maybe I’m a slow learner. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid so I didn’t have that innate sense of how to structure a novel that avid readers seem to acquire by osmosis. So much about good writing is instinct, so having a long history of tucking into novels must help when it comes to writing one yourself. I could be wrong about that.
The point is (and I realise it’s taken me 10 or more rambling paragraphs to get there), finding success in a creative field can happen at any age. So if you’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s or beyond and want to take up acting or painting or poetry or stand-up comedy or singing or writing or any other creative pursuit, go for it! The other thing to remember is that, for fiction writers, getting published is not necessarily the mark of success. Not everyone is aiming for that. And that’s okay. Do what makes you happy!
* Some of my figures might not be 100% accurate, but you get the picture.