Mary Wesley published her first novel at the age of 71, and then a dozen more before she died in 2002 aged 90. Her brilliant coming-of-age World War Two story, The Camomile Lawn, has been adapted for British television. I hope we see it here soon.
Wesley is an inspiration, but I would not have been able to follow – if haltingly – in her footsteps were it not for the revolution in publishing that has taken place in recent years. Frankly, I don’t have a decade to spend on pitches at writing conferences and query letters to agents, and I have no wish to paper my walls with rejection slips. I published my first Sarah McKinney mystery independently in 2013 when I was 64, and the second came out in 2015. These novels now bob along on an ocean of similarly self-published works, garnering a few appreciative reviews but not enough sales to matter to the taxman.
I don’t care. At last I have realized my childhood ambition: to be a Writer!
Writing is one of the few fields in our youth-centered culture (department store Santa might be another) where age is actually an advantage. I no longer have the distractions of school, raising children or working a sixty-hour week. I have time and my pension. I also have a hideaway above the garage that I call my writing studio. More importantly, I have a lifetime of experience to draw on, as well as a lifetime of reading.
Reading books is where writers go to school. Nothing equips a writer better than deep and repeated immersion in literature. After you have read a few thousand books (I calculate I have consumed about five thousand so far) you know when a character is convincingly drawn, or the narrative arc is complete. That is not to say I always get it right in my own work, but when a member of my critique group points out a flaw, I recognize it; it just didn’t feel right when I wrote it.
So what do I like to read? Mysteries, of course, and I find it encouraging that two of my favorite authors, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, continued to produce first-rate stuff well into their eighties. It’s also comforting that characters I fell in love with years ago – Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick come to mind – mature, get promoted and even retire from the force without losing their appeal. In contrast, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone has survived twenty-four adventures without aging out of her thirties.
Age does have its problems. Have you ever picked up a book with relish only to find (maybe several chapters in) that you’ve already read it? Nancy Pearl, everyone’s favorite librarian, says you never read the same book twice. The second time around, the reader brings an increment of experience and understanding which – if the book was worth reading in the first place – enriches the story. I certainly find this true with classics like Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. When I first read this novel, I was living in Atlanta and new to the States. I admired the construction of parallel narratives, but I didn’t really get it. Now, living in the West and thirty years older, I weep for the narrator confined to his wheelchair, regrets piling up around him. After forty-five years of marriage, I understand the resonance of the title.
My reading feeds my writing, and my writing informs my reading. I have become a more critical reader over the years, less willing to plow on with a book I’m having a hard time with, even if I spent good money for it. Another Nancy Pearl ‘pearl’: you owe it to the writer to read the first fifty pages; subtract a page for every year you are older than fifty! I’m looking forward to the day I can toss a tome aside (probably the large print edition) after a mere ten pages.
I’ll finish with another book recommendation from an older writer. Our Souls At Night was published in 2015 after the author Kent Haruf’s death. It is set, like his earlier novels on the plains of eastern Colorado, and in spare, eloquent prose tells the story of a couple in advanced age who come together to talk about their lives and assuage their loneliness. A young person could not have written this book; a young reader might find it depressing. I found it full of tenderness and hope.
After a career as an employment lawyer, MARIAN EXALL now writes what she loves to read: mysteries! Like her heroine Sarah McKinney, Marian was born and raised in England. She lived in Atlanta for thirty years before moving to Bellingham where she hikes, gardens and does grandparent duty.