Authors can die with their boots on

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.   

Consider Lorna Page,:

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.

41 thoughts on “Authors can die with their boots on

  1. Margay

    This is great encouragement for people who feel like they might have missed the boat because they didn’t publish in their twenties as they dreamed of (who, me?). Thanks for posting this!

  2. MaureenHay

    Sorry to disappoint. The Lorna Page story is not true, in the finest tradition of the British tabloid press. Her novel was self-published, and she "plans" to use the money to get her friends out of nursing homes.

    It was discussed at Making Light at the time.

    However, the fact of his early retirement is used as proof that "William Shakespeare" did not write Shakespeare’s plays.

  3. Bobbie

    My father kept writing even after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In fact, his writing should receive more credit for keeping him alive those last few months than the chemo and radiation should. It’s what got him out of bed in the morning and into his writing chair. His last two books were published posthumously. One was written when he was in his 30s and unearthed by my mother after he died. The other he started and completed after the diagnosis. And he had plans for yet another that he never got to. The will to live comes in all sorts of forms.

  4. tess gerritsen

    thanks so much for correcting me on the Lorna Page story! I came across it doing a news search and didn’t see a correction. What a disappointment!


  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Wow, what an encouraging post! It makes me feel like I’ve got fifty years left in me! You mentioned two of my very favorite writers, Tess – Katherine Anne Porter and John Updike. I was grumpy and unapproachable for weeks after Updike passed, because I really wanted to meet him.
    Not only can one write until the pen drops from one’s hand, but one becomes a better writer as the years go on. I look forward to seeing more, hearing more and learning more in the process.
    Thank you so much for the perspective.

  6. Pari

    I feel so much better now, Tess. Thank you.

    Also, my cousin’s mother in law published her first book when she was 80. She lives in St. Paul. She wrote about her time as a nurse during WWII and, for a time, her sales beat out Garrison Keillor’s new book in MN.

    Pretty cool.

  7. Louise Ure

    As a "late to the field" author, I too am delighted that this is a career that can go on and on as we age.

    A couple of years ago, Lee Child said that when he was done with his Jack Reacher series (and he had a date in mind for that end time) he would quit writing entirely and spend all that time reading, a task he enjoys as much as writing. I don’t know if he still feels that way but we may soon find out.

  8. Judy Wirzberger

    Your post reminds me of the words from a song ….you give me hope to carry on
    and on and on and on – now if I can just find a publisher who wants to publish me!

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am going to pretend that the story was never debunked because I love it.

    Yeah, I can’t imagine myself or any author I know ever stopping except for reasons of death. Funny about that.

  10. Jill James

    Seems like someone is always saying Stephen King is retiring and then another King book comes out. Nice to know we can be writers forever. I can’t imagine having lived enough of life at 20-something to write a book I can write now with 40-something years of experience.

  11. Robert Gregory Browne

    I broke into the publishing world at the ripe old age of fifty. What surprised me when I looked around at many of the other authors who broke in when I did was that many of them were close to my age, if not older.

    There are always exceptions out there. Youngsters who break in and have long, lucrative careers. But for the most part, I think it takes a certain amount of seasoning to break in. Most of us have been busy living life, now it’s time to reflect on it.

  12. Wally Bock

    One of the great things about the craft of writing is that there is no age limit. It’s a great basket in which to collect the pieces of your life.

  13. Carey Baldwin

    Thanks for such an encouraging blog!
    Re Lorna Page story. If she wrote a raunchy thriller and self-published at 93 this is no less inspirational to me than if the book hit the Times list. It is her act of writing the book, her faith in herself, and her care for her friends that inspires.

  14. Keri Stevens

    I’m willing to bet that LaVyrle Spencer has a boatload of stories tucked away on data sticks. We may never see them, but I know they have to be there.

  15. Becke Martin

    I love this post! My first non-fiction book was published when I was forty-five, and ten years later I decided to follow my dream and write fiction. I seem to start everything late — didn’t have my first child until I was in my thirties — and the writing is following this trend. I will definitely be one of those people who keeps writing until my mind or my body gives up the ghost. I can’t imagine stopping by choice.

  16. Allison Brennan

    I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I wasn’t writing. It drives me crazy, but it makes me happy at the same time. Sort of like my kids.

    The few years I wasn’t writing–when my first two kids were young and I was building a career in the legislature and trying to figure out the whole being married and having a career and raising kids thing–I wasn’t happy. I had happy times, but deep down something was missing and I didn’t know what it was until I started writing again.

  17. Kathleen Calarco

    Timely commentary. At a tender age of forty-eight I wrote my first novel. Three under my belt, at fifty-three I began college. All that taken into consideration, I’ve wondered what agent/editor would be willing to take on a fifty-five year old as a debut author. (I’m not much of a debutant these days.)

    Thanks so much for reinforcing my belief that it ain’t about age, but a damn good story. (I’ve been told the opposite, but thanks to you, now realize those naysayers were full of poopy.)

  18. Richard S. Wheeler

    I published a couple in my forties, and got rolling in my fifties, and now at age 74 have seventy titles in print or about to be. But I’ve also lost a billion or so brain cells, so it’s slower and harder now. My goal is to make each one better than the previous, regardless of old-age decline.

    What a delightful post, Mr. Gerritsen.

  19. Agy Wilson

    Thank you Tess! One of my favorite quotes:

    It’s never too late to be what you might have been.
    -George Eliot

  20. Richard S. Wheeler

    Oops, sorry about the typo. It should be Mrs. instead of Mr. My generation avoids addressing strangers familiarly, so I prefer the more formal approach until such a time as strangers become acquainted.

  21. ec

    "My generation avoids addressing strangers familiarly, so I prefer the more formal approach until such a time as strangers become acquainted."

    I wish my generation felt the same, to say nothing of my son’s generation. When I started teaching, I was only two or three years older than some of my high school students, and they started calling me by my initials since first-name familiarity wasn’t permitted. It stuck, and I vastly prefer it to seeing readers who are still in middle school–people I’ve never met–breezily using my first name in emails and message boards.

    And while we’re at it, let’s start a petition for the addition of formal and informal second person pronouns in English, such as the German language has. I could get behind that in a big way. Think of the ramifications for social networks! Your facebook account would have separate listings for "Sie" friends and "du" friends. 🙂

  22. Joan Hall Hovey

    I sold my first novel to Zebra Books when I was 50. Now working on the fourth suspense novel. I’m now in my 7th decade. Hurts me to admit that, but I’m feeling good and my need to be creative has never left me. I have a friend of similar age who is in a nursing home unable to speak. So I consider myself very blessed.

    Tess, you mention on your site that you may not blog any more because some ignorant comments inhibit you now from just writing what you feel and think. Well, I’m a fan of everything you write, your books and your blogs, Tess Gerretsen ,and I resent those people who get their kicks posting unhelpful, mean comments. But I know it’s very hard to ignore those words that stab the heart. And I also know how time-consuming blogging can be when you really want to be working on that next book. Just come back swinging, whatever you decide. Looking forward to reading your next novel. I always make time for that. -:)

    Best, Joan

  23. grow taller magic

    One was written when he was in his 30s and unearthed by my mother after he died. The other he started and completed after the diagnosis. And he had plans for yet another that he never got to. The will to live comes in all sorts of forms.

  24. markbenson

    There are always exceptions out there. Youngsters who break in and have long, lucrative careers. But for the most part, I think it takes a certain amount of seasoning to break in and most of us have been busy living life, now it’s time to reflect on it.
    sony dsc w330


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