(first published in 2011)
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.