by Tess Gerritsen
I am no spring chicken. It doesn’t matter that I faithfully run 45 minutes on my treadmill and pop fish oil capsules every day. No matter how much I fight the inevitable, I won’t be seeing 30 again. Or 40. Or … well, stop me before I get depressed. Time marches on, and the body turns decrepit. But it’s nice to know that, as long as my brain keeps functioning, I can stay at my job until I keel over. When it comes to the writing profession, there’s no such thing as forced retirement.
I was reminded of this when I skimmed through my mom’s May issue of the AARP Bulletin. In a feature called “Power of 50,” the magazine featured eleven authors whose bestselling works were written while the authors were in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. You can take a look at them at the AARP online site. The list includes Katherine Ann Porter (who wrote Ship of Fools at age 72) and James Michener (who wrote The Covenant at age 73). Consider, too, all the authors who have written right up until their deaths. John Updike died in January, but a collection of his short stories will be published posthumously this month.
Most novelists get into the business because they love telling stories, and most of them don’t want to stop. As long as there’s a publisher willing to sign them up, writers will keep on writing until death or senility overtakes them. I can think of only one writer who retired while still healthy and at the top of her game: LaVyrle Spencer. The occasion was so unprecedented that it was announced at a press conference, where she told the audience that she had made enough money, and now she wanted to enjoy life and spend time with her grandchildren. I recall hearing one agent marveling that he’d never heard of any other writer quitting while at the peak of a career.
Granted, some writers won’t quit because they need the income right into their twilight years. But even those writers who don’t need the money seem to keep pecking away at those keyboards because they just. Can’t. Stop. They’re addicted to the act of storytelling. They’re addicted to the thrill of seeing their books on the stands. They’re addicted to hearing readers tell them how much they loved the last book. Their identity is so tied into being a writer that the thought of suddenly waking up one day as something else leaves them feeling empty and lost. So they keep on writing.
And publishers are happy to keep putting out their books. In fact, if a writer has a big enough audience, publishers will put out his books even after he’s dead. VC Andrews and Robert Ludlum are both long gone, but the franchises refuse to die.
The wonderful thing about the writing business is that your value is based on your talent and your stories, not on your youth or even your appearance. It doesn’t hurt to be young and photogenic, but you can still hit bestseller lists even if no one knows what you look like.
What’s truly amazing, though, is that you can break into this profession at any age. When I look at the list of debut authors on the International Thriller Writers site, I see a number of gray-haired first-time authors. I can also think of two women who managed to break into the writing business at astonishingly advanced ages, and with spectacular success.
A 93-year-old debut novelist has used the proceeds from her book to move her friends out of nursing homes and into her new country house.
When Lorna Page hit the jackpot with A Dangerous Weakness, a raunchy thriller set in the Alps, she traded in her flat for a five-bedroom house in picturesque Devon, south-west England, and invited her contemporaries to move in with her.
“Care homes can be such miserable places. You sit there all day staring out the window with no one to talk to,” she told The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.
“I thought it would be lovely to give a home and family life to one or two people who would otherwise be sitting around there.”
Consider, also, Helen Hooven Santmeyer. She first hit the bestseller list at age 88 (!) with her novel, And Ladies of the Club, which she wrote while in a retirement home.
It really is never too late to be a writer.