Debut Books by Writers Over 40

Time for a 2013 update!

Originally, I tried to resist writing this—especially after my plea against categorizing authors.  Plus, so many of us hide our age in this world of never-get-old, unearthing this information, even in our Googlized world, was difficult.

But when , along with the plethora of lists of writers under 40, I was faced with the declaration that, as headlined in a Guardian UK article about writers, ‘Let’s Face It, After 40 You’re Past It.”

Then I read Sam Tanenhaus opine in the New York Times that there was “an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking.” 

Thus, in the interest not of division, but of keeping up the flagging spirits of those who don’t want to be pushed out on the ice floe until after publishing all those words jangling in their head, I present 40+++ 0ver 40, updated once again.

Charlotte Rogan was 57 when she published Lifeboat to great acclaim. Erika Dreifus launched the outstanding short story collection Quiet Americans at the age of 41. Judy Merrill Larsen’s first well-received novel All The Numbers came out when Judy was 46.

Donald Ray Pollock was 55 when his short stories debuted, his novel The Devil All The Time launched three years later.

Laura Harrington launched her debut novel, Alice Bliss, when she was 58, after years as a playwright, lyricist and librettist. Shelter Me, Juliette Fay’s award-winning first novel came out when she was 45 years old. The Marquis de Sade wrote his first novel, Justine, at the age of 47.

Paul Harding, author of Tinkers, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize with his debut novel, published when he was 42. Robin Black, author of If I Loved You I Would Tell you this, was 48 when she debuted this year. Holly LeCraw published her debut novel The Swimming Pool at 43. Julia Glass was in her early 40s when she published Three Junes. Charles Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office, was published at 49.  James Michner’s first book, Tales of the South Pacific was published when he was forty—he went on to publish over 40 titles. Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio published his first novel at the age of 40. Amy Mackinnon debuted Tethered in her 4o’s.

Henry Miller’s first published book, Tropic of Capricorn, was released when he was over forty. Tillie Olsen published Tell Me A Riddle just shy of 50. Edward P Jones was 41 when his first book Lost In The City came out. Claire Cook published her first novel at age 45. Chris Abouzied published his first novel Anatopsis at 46. Kylie Ladd was 41 when her debut, After The Fall, was published.

Lynne Griffin published her first novel, Life Without Summer at 49. Elizabeth Strout’s first novel Amy & Isabel debuted when she was 42.  MJ Rose first novel came out when she was in her mid forties. Melanie Benjamin was 42 when she debuted. Therese Fowler was forty exactly when Souvenir debuted. Julie Wu’s about-to-debut novel The Third Son will launch when she is 46.

Margaret Walker wrote Jubilee, her only novel at 51. Raymond Chandler debuted at 51 with The Big Sleep. Belva Plain published her first novel, Evergreen, at 50. Alex Haley published his debut novel Roots when he was 55. (His first book, the nonfiction The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published when he was in his mid-forties.) Jon Clinch debuted with Finn at age 52. In 2010 his wife Wendy Clinch published Double Black.

Also in 2010 Iris Gomez published Try To Remember in her fifties, as did Joseph Wallace with Diamond Ruby, and I published The Murderer’s Daughters at 57. Sue Monk Kidd was 54 when she debuted The Secret Life of Bees. Annie Proulx’s first novel, Postcards, was published when she was 57. Jeanne Ray published debut, Julie and Romeo in her fifties.

George Elliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, debuted when Elliot turned 50.  Isak Dineson’s first, Seven Gothic Tales came out when she turned 50.  Hallie Ephron author of Never Tell A Lie began publishing fiction after fifty. Richard Adams debuted with Watership Down at 52.

Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first novel (beginning the Little House series) at 65. Harriet Doerr won the National Book Award, for Stones for Ibarra, written when she was 74. Katherine Anne Porter published her only novel, Ship of Fools, at age 72. EJ Knapp just debuted Stealing The Marbles, saying “I’m so far past forty I can’t remember it anymore.” Norman McLean wrote A River Runs Through It at age 74. Amy Sue Nathan will be 49 when The Glass Wives releases in May.

Lise Saffran released Juno’s Daughters when she was 46. Astrid and Veronika was published when Linda Olsson was 56. Joan Medlicott published The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love when she was 65. And she published 6 books after that. Sally Koslow’s first novel Little Pink Slips was written when she was over 50.

Ellen Meeropol‘s first novel  House Arrest, came out two months before her 65th birthday.” Karen LaFreya Simpson will be 55 when her first novel Act of Grace debuts next year and Nichole Bernier was  44 when The Unfinished Live of Elizabeth D published in 2012. Yes, that’s my answer, Ellen. We all count.

This is only a list of first novels. Compiling lists of bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning, Orange Prize winning, etc. books written after the age of 40—that will take several essays.

Kathy Handley’s debut collection of short stories, A World of Love and Envy launched when she was 71.

Dyan deNapoli’s story of rescuing penguins (nonfiction) The Great Penguin Rescue came out when she was 49.

James Arruda Henry learned to read and write when he was in his mid-nineties. He published his autobiography In A Fisherman’s Language at the age of 98–going on to have it be a bestseller in his town and being featured in People.

Lydia Netzer’s novel Shine Shine Shine is being launched tomorrow. She is forty years old.

Sarah Pinneo launched her novel Julia’s Child when she was forty (ten years later than she’d planned.)

C.W. Gortner was 44 at the publication of his first novel, The Last Queen in 2008–he has gone on to publish 3 more as of June 2012.

Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel The Golden Child in 1977, at the age of 60. She went on to win the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore.

I was told today by the incredibly talented Elizabeth McCracken that Bruce Holbert, author of the just launched (and much lauded) Lonesome Animals deserves a place here–though I am not sure of his exact age.

Kerry Schafer‘s Between, came out from Ace in January 2013. Jessica Keener’s novel, Night Swim, launched when she was 57. Becalmed will debut when Normandie Fischer is “so far past 40 that she can’t remember it.”

In the UK,  Dorothea Tanning published her first novel, Chasm: A Weekend (also surrealist)  by Virago when Tanning was 93 years old Harriet Doerr published her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, at age 73. She was awarded a National Book Award for this work and Helen Hoover Santmyer published the bestselling  And Ladies of the Club at age 88.

 

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52 Comments

  1. Wendy Clinch
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Great list, Randy!

    I’d like to add:

    Jon Clinch: Debuted with his award winning novel, FINN, at age 52; published second novel, KINGS OF THE EARTH, at age 55.

    Wendy Clinch: Debuted with her first Ski Diva Mystery, DOUBLE BLACK, at age 55.

  2. Posted September 3, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Add me to the list: my debut, I was forty exactly when my debut novel, SOUVENIR, was published by Random House/Ballantine Books. Until I read your list of notables here, I’d felt I was getting a late start. Now I see that if I make sure to have enough wheat bran and prune juice, I could possibly end up as prolific as Michener.

  3. Posted September 3, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    (and I hope to eventually learn to proof-read before hitting “Submit.”)

  4. Posted September 3, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Forty? Ha! Some of us were over fifty when our first novels came out. Mine, DIAMOND RUBY, was published this May by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), and I haven’t heard one reviewer, blogger, or reader say, “Wow, this book would have been better if Joe had written it thirty years ago.” It should go without saying–but obviously doesn’t–that writers can bring the perspective, knowledge, thoughtfulness, and care that comes with greater life experience to their books.

    I think it says a lot about our culture, and our “old” media, that we even have to have this conversation.

  5. Posted September 3, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Add me to the list with Stealing The Marbles. I’m so far past
    forty I can’t remember it anymore.

  6. Posted September 3, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mind sharing my age and accomplishments in the least. (Esp since I’m peeved with the Tanenhaus comments) I was forty-nine when my first novel LIFE WITHOUT SUMMER debuted. My contribution to the list: Elizabeth Strout, whose first novel AMY & ISABEL pubbed when she was 42. At age 53, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her third novel in stories, OLIVE KITTERIDGE.

  7. Posted September 3, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Here, here, Randy!

    Jackie Mitchard. Me (my first came out when I was past 50.)

  8. Posted September 3, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Do I count? My first novel will come out in February, two months
    before my 65th birthday…

  9. Karen L. Simpson (lafreya)
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Add me I will be 55 when my first novel Act of Grace debuts next year.

  10. Posted September 8, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I’m late to this, but I’d like to add that at 48 I had a career change from
    working in PR to working as writer/editor at a Magazine. I’m hoping that
    my first novel gets representation next year and published the following year.
    And I’ll be 51 by that time.

    Thanks for this post!

  11. Posted September 9, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I’d be interested to know how many years most of the writers listed above spent writing before their ‘overnight’ successes. I’m just 63 and have been writing stories since I was a teenager. The first was taken by a magazine and this was followed by several others. I started writing novels in my forties, and the one I’m working on now is my sixth. I have only ever sent my novels out a couple of times before embarking on a new one. What I’m saying is that I’ve served a long apprenticeship and wonder if those late-debut writers in your list have followed similar paths.

  12. Judy Schreckenbach
    Posted October 3, 2010 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank goodness there is hope for us literary wannabe’s who are 50+. I’ve written technical for the past two decades. After I left a job that was destined to be scrapped as part of a down-sizing measure, and then fell deep into the ugly world of age descrimination and high unemployment in my pursuit for another job, I took up writing fiction to keep myself sane. At the youthful age of 53 I have found something that I truly admit I’m addicted to, and hope that I can some day make it a full-time career. I’ve finished my first novel, and I’m getting ready to find out first hand just how fun it is to get published. I wish I could say it will be released in the next few months, or even the next year, but how ever long it takes, I have hope now that even a 50+ wannabe can get a debut novel published. Thanks for a big ray of sunshine!

  13. Posted July 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I was 51 when my first novel was published. In fact I didn’t seriously start to believe I could write a novel until I was past 40.

  14. Posted July 16, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this – and you can add me to the list! My debut novel, BETWEEN, will be coming out in February 2012. I’m 49. I think. I’ve honestly lost count.

  15. Posted July 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU for writing this post. I am so grateful to read it. We all need to examine this tendency in our country to discount the wisdom that only comes with decades of experience. As my years accumulate I understand things in a completely different way than I did in my thirties. It will take these columists decades to realize their error. Here’s a related reflection I wrote recently.
    http://daunaeasley.com/2012/07/02/im-not-oprah/
    Dauna Easley

  16. Posted July 16, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone remember how old Helen Hooven Santmyer was when she wrote “. . . And Ladies of the Club”? I can’t find the information right now, but I seem to remember she was in her 70s or 80s.

  17. Posted July 16, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Well, my first novel will be published this December by a small UK press. I’m 43.

    I agree with Joe Wallace above that it says something–nothing good–about our culture that this conversation has to happen. What are we supposed to do on our 40th birthday? Have ourselves put down?

    I like the Guardian usually, but what were they thinking? Do they give jobs to people over 40? Do they think people need to have all their children by 22 so they can be out of the house by the time 40 hits? This will do wonders for social security here in America–everyone retire at 40 because you are so past it. Wait. Maybe they’re right. If by it they mean putting up with stupid crap. Because I’m way past that.

    Excellent list. Thank you!

    Maybe I’ll send a copy to the Guardian…although it will probably be hard to read stuffed down their throats.

  18. Posted July 17, 2012 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Randy, your essay makes me proud to admit that I was 57 when my debut novel, Night Swim, came out this year. Thanks!

  19. Posted July 17, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I published my first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, the year I turned 40.

    Let’s not overlook the late, great Mary Wesley!

    Kate Maloy published her debut novel, Evry Last Cuckoo, in her 60′s.

  20. Posted July 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Very encouraging, thank you! And I must say I gulped a little reading what the Guardian had to say — I thought we were past that kind of judgment.

  21. Posted July 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I love seeing all these success stories! As for me, I sold my first book Me Again at 50 – it took me that long to find something to say and to learn how to say it.

  22. Posted July 17, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    You left me out, Randy! I was 43 when “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” was published. James Michener was over 40 when “Tales of the South Pacific” was published and he created an award at the University of Texas-Austin, creative writing center, to be awarded yearly to a first novelist over 40.

  23. Posted July 17, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I loved this post! There is power in perseverance – and a special type of appreciation that comes with seeing a life-long dream come true later in life. At least, that’s what I tell myself! When I held HERE, HOME, HOPE in my hand for the first time, on my 48th birthday, it made all of the process – rejections, disappointments, almosts – worthwhile.
    Thanks again for the post!

  24. Posted July 17, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s important to know that there are writers age 40++ finding success in the publishing world. They continue to be my role models and inspiration. I published my first novel in my mid ’50s, SEARCHING FOR TINA TURNER and my second, PASSING LOVE, released earlier this year. It’s never too late!!!

  25. Posted July 17, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m not as well known as many on your list, but I am in your “club.” The first novel Donna Grant and I co-wrote was published over 20 years ago…just before I turned 41.

  26. Posted July 18, 2012 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    My first mystery novel, Capable of Murder was published when I was 67. Now, ten years later I have four published books in the Belinda Lawrence series and a fifth about to be. Murder keeps you young!

  27. Posted July 18, 2012 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    Wallace Stegner was 62 years old when Angle of Repose (1971) won the Pulitzer, 67 years old when The Spectator Bird (1976) won the National Book Award, and 78 years old when Crossing to Safety (1987) was published. Yup, washed up after forty.

  28. Ruth Rousseau
    Posted September 25, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    What about children’s novels? One of my favorites is by Jeanne Birdsall, who debuted at age 44 with The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and A Very Interesting Boy (winner of the 2005 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature). Another award-winning and popular children’s author is Mary Downing Hahn, who debuted with The Sara Summer when she was age 41.

  29. Posted February 1, 2013 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  30. Posted April 4, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Add me to the list — later this year! I’ll be fully 54 when “The Other Room” comes out this fall! My first and second poetry collections — at 49 and 53! Proud to be a late bloomer!

  31. Posted April 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you thank you thank you. You’ve given me hope. I’m almost finished with my book and hopefully will have self-published it before my next birthday. I’m 66.

  32. Posted April 5, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    I love this list! And I love being part of it–my debut ALL THE NUMBERS was published when I was 45.

  33. Posted April 5, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Great list… I will put some of these books on my TBR list as I want to read books from the viewpoint of older writers. My first novel is RIVER GIRL, published when I was 59.

  34. Jo Anne Burgh
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this encouraging list! I’m 53 and still working on my first novel. It’s marvelous to be reminded that not everybody debuts by the time they’re 26!

  35. Posted April 6, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    This is so excellent! Thank you, Randy.

  36. Posted April 6, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    I am a club member, too.

  37. Posted April 7, 2013 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    I wrote several novels when I was in my thirties but had no luck getting anything published until I was 47 when my novel, THIS IS WHAT IT SMELLS LIKE finally attracted a publisher, New Libri Press. What’s interesting is that I am now getting some attention for work that I actually completed when I was under 40, specifically my short stories. I don’t know what has changed, certainly not any vast uptick in readership. Perhaps I have a more defined “voice” than when I was a young thing in my 30′s.

  38. Cristina F. connors
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful post, I needed this!!!

  39. Deborah Henry
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this! My debut, The Whipping Club, is being adapted for the screen, Named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2012 and selected for O Magazine July Summer Reading Issue. The trailer was selected for the New Media Film Festival in LA. I am over fifty. Creativity is timeless. When celebs announce they are having a baby in their mid-forties, we applaud them, as we should. Creativity is timeless. Great post!

  40. Jodee Stanley
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Ted Sanders (my husband) won the Bakeless Prize in Fiction for his first book, a collection of stories titled NO ANIMALS WE COULD NAME, which was published in 2011 when he was 41. He’ll be 44 when his middle-grade novel series launches in 2014 from HarperChildren’s in the US and Hot Key in the UK. Whoever says over 40 is past it for writers clearly doesn’t know much about writing and/or publishing.

  41. Posted April 9, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Just noticed that you’ve listed “Kyle Ladd” when it’s actually Kylie Ladd! She’s a friend of mine, and I can verify that she is, in fact, a woman. :-) Also, um, me too? My debut novel, The Whole of My World (Woolshed Press, Random House Australia) comes out in June and, um, well, yes. I too have seen the back side of 40. :-)

  42. Posted July 18, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. It’s great to be encouraged at this moment. I self-published a coming of age story this year.
    “A Brown Paper Bag and A Fine Tooth Comb” is the first book of a four-book series. I’m 78. The writing isn’t the difficult part. As a new writer getting your name and book recognized is the hard part. I’m hanging in there – Book Two is almost finished.

  43. Posted October 20, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Hi Randy
    Great article, gives us older writers some hope. I’ve earned my living from writing for nearly 40 years, but it’s only in the last three years (living in semi-retirement in Lanzarote) that I’ve been brave enough to write a novel. It’s called ‘They Win. You Lose’. It’s a funny thriller where one of the main characters has a philosophy that you should always assume everything is going to go wrong, then you can stay cool, at all times. And when things go right, you can have a ‘bloody good binge and hangover combo’. Not a bad philosophy for writers!

  44. Juan Elede
    Posted January 22, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks a lot for this. I’m 42, and I have not yet captured the attention of any *important* editor,
    my road to success has been tremendously hard and steep, however, the first story I ever wrote, hard SF, Twilight Zone style, was published in an anthology, I was 21 then.
    Then, I won a second place in a contest of crime fiction, I was 28 by the time. But after that, no matter how hard I tried writing for publication, perhaps for 5 years, nothing has happened.
    Thanks for the article, not yet lost hope. Unfortunately, I live in a country with a ridiculously low reading rate. My chances of being published and read are very low, the culture is dominated by a lobby of intellectuals who have to kiss them the back, and I am uniquely able to bad social relations.

  45. Shelley Evans
    Posted May 20, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. It will go on my wall. Never too late. :)

  46. Posted June 15, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Following a long career enforcing immigration laws, I published my first novel, Jumping The Line, last November at age 75. I couldn’t have written it without a lifetime of experience working with immigrants legal and illegal, and arriving at a maturity that allowed me to see that the novel is the most effective way of telling their story. Thanks for your article. I think older authors are frequently overlooked because we are deemed to lack commercial promise. But that doesn’t mean what we produce is without value.

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