London book fair, which concluded earlier this month, always brings with it a flurry of headlines about debut authors signing six-figure publishing deals. Most of these have at least one thing in common – their youth.
As a result, anyone with an ambition to be a novelist might think that the ship has sailed once they leave their 30s. But fear not: there’s an increasing drive to encourage those who come to writing past the first flush of youth that it’s never too late.
At this year’s fair, literary agency Jenny Brown Associates launched an award for debut novelists in the UK aged 50 and above..
“The bestseller lists are full of debut novelists who are older, but the perception is that you have to be young when your first book comes out,” says literary agent Lisa Highton of Jenny Brown Associates.
“But being a debut is not just about being a shiny, sparkly, young person. The reason we launched the award was to say to people over 50 yes, you too can be a shiny, sparkly, new writer– just older.”
Richard Osman was a couple of months shy of 50 when his bestselling The Thursday Murder Club was published in 2020, and one of the biggest selling debuts of last year was Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, who was 65.
The award joins another, The RSL Christopher Bland prize, which was launched by the Royal Society of Literature in 2018 to encourage the work of older writers. It is awarded annually to an author of a fiction or nonfiction book who was first published when aged 50 or over. Its first recipient was Raynor Winn, who, after being made homeless, wrote her first book at age 55, The Salt Path, about what happened to her next.
“By the age of 50, people have had lives, they have had experience,” says Highton. “Perhaps they’ve never had the time or luxury to write before, or maybe they’ve always considered publishing to be mysterious and opaque, like an old castle that they just don’t know how to get inside.”
The new award is inviting unpublished writers without an agent to submit the first 5,000 words of their novel up until the closing date of 31 May, after which they will be sifted through and read.
The winner will get £1,000 and a week at Scottish writing retreat Moniack Mhor, near Inverness, along with mentoring and advice from authors, agents and editors.
It isn’t just the big names such as Osman and Garmus who start later in life. Flic Everett’s debut novel Murder in the Blitz – writing as FL Everett – is published by Bookouture in September. She was 52 when she signed on the dotted line.
“I’d always wanted to have novels published, but in my 20s and early 30s I had a young son and stepchildren and an enormous house – I had no time to write anything speculative as I was working full-time as a freelance journalist and had a giant mortgage,” says Everett.
She started her forthcoming novel about eight years ago. “I never thought I’d stop writing novels, because I love it more than anything else – I just absorbed the rejections and ploughed on. As I got older, though, I did begin to wonder if it would ever happen.”
Moniack Mhor, the partner with Jenny Brown Associates on the award, has seen a noticeable upswing in the number of older writers signing on to courses. Director Rachel Humphries says that around one third of their visiting unpublished writers are over 65.
“We meet many people who have dedicated their lives to supporting others through their work, who have had caring responsibilities, or a career that’s all-encompassing, or something else, and it’s not until circumstances change later in life that all of this galvanises in their writing. So many people carry stories with them everywhere they go, which can be the case for many years, and it’s crucial that these stories are nurtured to publication.”
Attending a crimewriting course next week at Moniack Mhor is Jim Feggans, a resident of a care home in Fort William, and in the early stages of dementia
Humphries says: “We feel that we have a key role to play in supporting these writers and honing the skills of new voices who are committed to their craft at this stage of life.”
Everett thinks she’s a much better writer at 52 than she was at 22. “I think young people can write excellent books but I do believe that life experience feeds into your work. I’m much better equipped to understand psychology, motivation, guilt and other difficult emotions than I was in my 20s.
“A lot of novels by twentysomethings are autobiographical because that reflects their main experience to date. Older writers tend to look outwards.”
Highton says the agency was stunned at the response to the award announcement last week. “People are talking about it, and about the value of older writers, which is what we wanted,” she says.
“Publishing is getting more diverse in terms of the sorts of authors who are getting published, but diversity is also about age and class.”
The agency has already been inundated with inquiries ahead of submissions opening on 1 May, and has been offered assistance with reading and judging from other literary agencies, authors and editors at publishing houses.
“It looks like it’s going to be very popular,” says Highton. “We’re bracing ourselves…”
Celebrated late starters – and ages when they published
Raymond Chandler, 51, The Big Sleep (1939)
Richard Adams, 52, Watership Down (1972)
Kit de Waal, 56, My Name Is Leon (2016)
Annie Proulx, 57, Postcards (1992)
Anna Sewell, 57, Black Beauty (1877)
Laura Ingalls Wilder, 65, The Little House in the Big Woods (1932)
Frank McCourt, 66, Angela’s Ashes (1996