Last year I read a heartening article in the Guardian claiming that women into their seventies and even eighties are hot property when it comes to the publishing industry. No longer the back door for us: we’re now potential money-spinners. Names were cited: Anna Fodorova, In The Blood. Joanna Quinn The Whalebone Theatre, Jo Browning Wroe A Terrible Kindness, amongst other first-novel successes.
This turn of events has apparently arisen because middle-aged women readers – who make up the majority of book-club readers – are increasingly interested to hear the voices of people closer to their own age, or older, who have a broad range of life experiences to draw on. Cherry Potts of Arachne Press is quoted as saying, there is a “very willing readership” for the work of older women “including that most elusive of reader: the white middle-aged man”. More good news. ‘Radical, edgy women aged into their 80s are particularly sought-after’, according to the article, for our ‘collective distilled wisdom’. Hear you, oh women writers of my age (I’m 81), this is a turn up for the books!
I’ve recently completed a novel. It has taken me five years to write. It is not my first, but it is my first in a long while. A second ‘first,’ you could say.
In 1980 one of America’s foremost living writers, Marilyn Robinson, published a first novel, Housekeeping, then, after a twenty-three-year gap, published her second novel Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer prize for fiction. One of her reviewers wrote that such was her ‘distilled wisdom’ that it was quite remarkable that we’d only had to wait twenty-three years!
I published two novels in the late 80s and 90s, which had been well reviewed, she is ‘a born story-teller’ in The Times, and so forth. Then, due to changes in my personal life, I slipped out of the publishing stream. I was divorced, my daughter had grown and left home, I was worn out, worn down. I left my job and used some of the advance from my books to support myself in British Columbia for a few months. I lived on a remote island at the entrance to Desolation Sound, learnt to fish from a tippy kayak, to chop wood and shuck oysters from a
reef below my cabin on an eroding cliff. I became part of an island community of resourceful people who were making life on their own terms. I gave workshops, I got seaplanes, ferries and coaches to Vancouver to teach courses at university there. I became looser, freer, intimate with the woods and the coastline, wedded to the environment.
Alongside teaching, I’d intended, in my cabin facing the ocean, with forest on three sides, to write my third novel: the big one. But the voice I’d employed in my previous novels, The Househusband and Joining the Grown-ups, ironic, North London, urban, focussing on the social issues prevalent at the time – which caused one reviewer to call me ‘the Margaret Drabble of the nineties’ – was a voice that no longer fitted. And I was having a devil of a trouble finding a new one. Eventually I wrote A Key to Lock Out Cougars, about the islanders’ fight to live in tune with their pristine environment in the face of logging, market forces, and increased tourism. But not till I returned to England over a decade later did the experiences of those years become sufficiently integrated with the earlier-formed parts of my life to produce the coherent, more textured voice of the person I’d grown into.
Back here, now teaching at the University of Sussex, I wrote reviews, articles, prose pieces, a couple of academic papers, while a longer fiction was beginning to take form behind my eyes, beneath my more immediate thoughts. Two interests propelled the novel Bye Bye Apartheid Road. Perhaps I should say passions. Because without passion, linked with the need to earn a living from your trade, you’d probably not have the stickability for this writing business through the rejections, the ups and downs, the void years.
The first was an increasing interest in my Jewish history. The second, a desire to gain a deeper understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict, by being there on the ground. Do you have to be an older writer to be even-handed in such a complex situation? Probably not definitively, but it helps to have had life experience, to have lived in other countries, to have blown the bubble of one’s own assurances. Possibly, too, my spell on the island, away from England, gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to be attached to a land, and the lengths one might go to to be able to live on it, or the grief one might suffer if exiled from it.
Now I have completed ‘the book’ that has been five years in the writing. A novel I am excited to find an agent for, and which recent events in the Middle East have added a certain twist to.
But my agent from the first books has sadly died (I took that long!) the editors of my early novels have moved on, or retired. To all extents and purposes, I am coming in as a new writer. And as an older woman. I’m a bit of a hybrid of course because those first novels go behind me like the last length of a kite: but for most purposes, a new writer. Like many of you. Now, armoured with the encouragement from that Guardian article, plus eight positive endorsements from other writers and playwrights, and with a publicist to kick-start a social media profile – I am off to knock on the doors of the publishing industry. More accurately, to send off those anonymous and terrifying submissions.
I’ll keep you posted with what happens on my Slushpile Odyssey.