Success After Sixty
Don't give up. You have decades ahead to make your literary mark.
My bubble just popped.
It was a loud, head-banging, explosion that blew me into pieces.
You see, I started doing research about writers who are successful late in life. My idea of “late in life” was past 60 or 70. I thought there’d be lots of authors who struggled in the first five or six decades, but then got it together and reached the pinnacles of publishing success that had eluded them earlier.
I believe that writers get better as we get older. That experience and understanding and empathy combine to give authors in their 60s the advantage of wisdom. You know. . . the “older-but-wiser” theory.
My theory is, of course, that all that accumulated wisdom would translate to success later in life.
And you know what I found?
Most articles talk about writers who found success after the ancient age of FORTY. Apparently, achieving success after forty is unusual.
Do you hear the sigh of envy at the thought of all those YOUNG authors in their 20s and 30s who hit it big? Can you sense my dismay at the idea of 40 being “later in life?”
Does everyone else find publishing success early in life while I’m scrabbling for it — apparently — — much, much later than most?
What is the average age writers to publish their first novel?
One survey that suggested that — at least for many science fiction writers — the average age of selling their first professional novel was 36.2 years old. Other lists provide data showing that most writers publish in their 20s and 30s.
Ouch. That hurts. Writers who get their first big commercial success early in life predominate the industry. And publishing after 40 is seen as remarkable.
Success stories of authors in their forties was not at all what I had in mind. I mean, forty was two decades ago.
Stubborn, persistent, bull-headed soul that I am, I dug in my heels, researching and compiling a list that proved my point.
Late bloomers, (like me) take note. Success CAN come after sixty!
And here’s a list that will prove it.
J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit when he was 45, but his fame and commercial success came with the publication of his Middle-Earth Trilogy. The Lord of the Rings was published when he was 62. Tolkien’s trilogy is listed as one of the best-selling books of all time, selling 150 million copies worldwide.
Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing at age 44, but her success came 20 years later with the publication of Little House in the Big Woods. She was 65. The television series, Little House on the Prairie, based on her books premiered in 1974 and aired more than two hundred episodes.
Frank McCourt was a school teacher turned writer. His memoir focused on being a child in abject poverty in Ireland. Angela’s Ashes was published when he was 66. Selling over 4 million copies in hardback, Angela’s Ashes won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996.
Wallace Stevens, “the best and most representative American poet of our time”, published the majority of his work after the age of 50, but it was the accumulation of his body of work that led to his greatest success. Stevens was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Collected Poems at the age of 75. He died shortly after.
Harriet Doerr didn’t start writing until she was in her 60’s. She went back to school, got a degree from Stanford when she was 67, and then published her first book, Stones of Ibarra, when she was 73. Her book about a couple who opens an abandoned copper mine won the National Book Award for First Work of Fiction in 1984.
Jane Brody joined the New York Times in 1965. Sometimes called the “High Priestess of Health” because she has been authoring the personal health column since 1976. She has written twelve books, written thousands of articles on health, won honorary degrees, and is a sought-after speaker around the world. She’s still writing, and whenever I see one of her articles in the NYT, I smile. Jane Brody is 78.
Sam Savage wrote from the time he was a teenager until he was 55. At that late stage of his life, he was discouraged by his inability to find a publisher. (I feel you, Sam.) He quit writing and decided to go sailing, much like Ishmael of Moby Dick who left whenever he felt himself “ growing grim about the mouth.” Savage suffered from a genetic lung disease and could not survive the rigors of the sea, so he came back to writing. He was 65 when his first book, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife was published in 2006. It sold one million copies. He went on to publish 4 more books, dying at the age of 78, just days after his 5th book was published.
Mary Wesley, left broke and broken-hearted after the death of her beloved husband, Eric Siepmann, started writing. Instead of throwing her work away like she usually did, she submitted her novel to a publisher. Her first book, Jumping the Queue, was published when she was 70. The ten books she wrote in the last twenty years of her life sold 3 million copies and earned her a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an award given for her contribution to the arts.
Helen Hooven Santmyer began writing her epic Ladies of the Club when she was 69 years old. It was published in 1982, staying at the top — #1 — of the NYT Bestseller list for seven weeks and on the list in some position for 37 weeks. She was 87 when her best-selling book came out.
Millard Kaufman was co-creator of Mr. Magoo. (And yes, I know that you youngsters out there will have no idea of who Mr. Magoo was.) But those of us at a certain age remember the silly cartoon figure who couldn’t see ANYTHING but wouldn’t admit it. Millard Kaufman was a screenwriter in his 30s. Bowl of Cherries was his first novel. He started writing it when he was 86 and published it at the age of 90.
A dream has no age limit.
Neither does creativity. Or thought. Or determination.
With any luck, I’ve got a couple of decades to get where I want to be. I just have to work hard to beat the ever-ticking clock.
Melissa Gouty freelancer-for-hire who is happy to be alive. She celebrates each birthday with joy and longs to be added to this list of writers who find success after the age of 60.