Do you ever wonder if it’s too late to fulfill your author dreams? I know I have pondered that thought dozens (OK, hundreds) of times over the years. I realize it’s an excuse, but the fear is still real! For a helpful injection of inspiration, check out the list of authors below who found literary success after the age of forty…some of them well into their golden years. I saved the best for last, because let’s face it, if someone Bertha Wood’s age can publish a novel, I feel like we could too!
Elizabeth Strout grew up in Maine, the daughter of a teacher who encouraged her to write about everything she saw and experienced from a young age. But despite all of her efforts, along with her passion for the craft, Strout wasn’t published until the age of 42. My favorite of her works is Olive Kitteridge, which not only won the Pulitzer Prize, but was also adapted into a wonderful series on HBO. Check it out (after you read the book, of course)!
Frank McCourt, the Irish-American teacher who spent his youth in poverty and later became a teacher in New York did not become a published author until he was 66. His autobiographical book, Angela’s Ashes, became a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, didn’t publish his first book until he was 41. When Twain’s father died, he was forced to drop out of school. This didn’t stop him from self-educating at the local library, which paid off since Twain is one of the most revered writers of all time!
Annie Proulx, author of the beloved Brokeback Mountain (if you haven’t read it yet, I advise you do so immediately) didn’t actually get her first big break as an author until the age of 57. Although she had other published works, her first novel was Postcards, published in 1992.
Richard Adams has a “Dad of the Year” vibe. He wrote fiction in his spare time and told tales of a rabbit to his children on long car rides. The stories grew and became so complicated that he had to write them down. Eventually, when Adams was 54, a publisher picked up the now-beloved and best-selling Watership Down.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born to shine. She was raised in a pioneer family in the late 19th century, but went on to work as a teacher, as a journalist, and for the local Farm Loan Association before becoming a first-time author at the age of 65. Now, there isn’t a reader alive who isn’t at least somewhat acquainted with her works.
James R. R. Tolkien (think he went by Jim? Just curious) is a household name, mostly because of The Lord of the Rings books. Still, nothing about the fantastical worlds in these books was easy to get in print. Tolkien was a fanatical perfectionist, looking for a kind of lyrical quality and worldview precision that few have been able to emulate. Thus, his first book, The Hobbit, wasn’t published until Tolkien was 45.
Helen DeWitt has an interesting story and one that is inspiring to anyone beating their head against their laptop. DeWitt’s 50th manuscript, written after attempting many other novels, is the one that finally got published! Before seeing The Last Samurai in print, DeWitt had worked menial service jobs to support herself while trying to complete it. But let’s go back to that “50th manuscript” part, right? I’m thinking if you look up “badass” in the dictionary, you’ll see DeWitt’s picture there…maybe one of her winking or giving a thumb’s up to us wannabe authors!
Anna Sewell only published one book, but what a book it was! Originally intended for adult readers, Black Beauty, is considered one of the top 10 best-selling children’s books. Sewell died of hepatitis five months after the novel was published, but at least she got to see her author dreams come true!
Sue Monk Kidd started out as a Christian writer and editor for Guideposts magazine, but didn’t get her first book published until age 43. The Secret Life of Bees was later made into a film, which for most dreamy-eyed writers would be the accomplishment of a lifetime!
Raymond Chandler was compared in this article to Mad Men’s Don Draper. Yikes! Sounds like he wasn’t necessarily a stand-up guy. However, the point is, that just like everyone else on this list, Chandler became a published author later in life. In his case, at age 51, with the novel, The Big Sleep, which has an interesting premise now that we know Chandler was kind of slimy. Here’s Amazon’s book description: A dying millionaire hires private eye Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, and Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.
Lorna Page…first, is that her real name? Because it sounds so luxurious, so perfectly author-like, so “too good to be true!” Well, it turns out that I’m not the only one thinking something smells fishy. I’ll tell you what, though, even if it’s a hoax, it’s one heck of a story! Check it out here: 93 Year Old Gets Raunchy Novel Published!
Bram Stoker, what a haunting name! Although he published his first novel at 43, we all know him best for Dracula, which didn’t come out for another 7 years. When you get tired of researching for your novel, suck it up and remember that Stoker had never been to Eastern Europe and thus, spent 7 years researching it for Dracula.
Katherine Heiny has a really interesting writer story. “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” was rejected 31 times before she submitted it to The New Yorker – who published it! But then she went a long, long (long, long, long) time before getting a novel (a book of short stories, actually) published at the age of 47! Interestingly, one of the short stories in Single, Carefree, Mellow (the first published book) was the New Yorker piece from all those years earlier! Goes to show you, it’s all about timing and perseverance, right?
Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing wants all of us would-be writers to exchange our mountain of self-doubt for a pencil. She says it best with this sage advice: “But those things that you’re doing in your room alone on weekends when you could be out being social or at least not worrying if you’re actually a writer, those things actually can amount to something. You’re not the next wunderkind, you’re just yourself. It takes a while, and that’s OK.”
Bertha Wood, oh how you inspire us lowly unpublished novelists! We saved the most exciting author for last. How could anyone help but be inspired to keep pushing forward toward their author goals when they hear that sweet little Bertha Wood got her first crack at being a published novelist on her 100th birthday in 2005? Bertha even earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest first-time novelist! The book took her 10 years to write…so, what was your excuse again? Bertha even earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest first-time novelist!