Are you too old to be a successful author?


There are days when I feel utterly ancient.

Now, some of the scarily young folk reading will absolutely agree with this image of me. I am, after all, 45. I’m not particularly fit – I spend way too much time tapping at the keys of my old friend Dominic Silverstreak* to be in good enough shape to run for the bus, let alone a marathon, a half-marathon or even a 10K.

Mind, being blobby and bookish from a young age I was never going to be a Nadia Comaneci or an Olga Korbut. Let’s face it, I was never gonna make it to the heady heights of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards.**

I’ve got flat feet and a mild case of sciatica which means I have to do a fair old range of physiotherapy exercises just to keep trucking. My hair’s greying and my sagging face makes it look like I’m gradually melting in front of a three bar fire.

All of this is okay.

I’m vain enough to feel a faint wistfulness at the loss of taut, glowing skin, at the black shadows that will just NEVER vanish no matter how much sleep I get or how much concealer I smear on them. But I’m not vain enough to worry about being an invisible middle-aged lady too much.

Give me a few million quid and I wouldn’t have plastic surgery – no, seriously, I wouldn’t. Like tattoos, having your face cut up and stretched is addictive and I don’t want to look like certain people in the public eye – you know, that caught-in-a-wind-tunnel-eternally-surprised-mannequin look.

I’m happy for my life to be written across my face, even if that face is starting to resemble my Nan’s.

What is disappointing is how late I’ve come to something I love, something which is now so deeply entrenched in my life I don’t think I’ll ever be able to dig myself out of it. No, it’s not the ferret juggling, naked spelunking or my collection of plastic coffee stirrers.

It’s writing.

Sometimes I become down-hearted. I’ll read an interview of a young writer – a published, successful young writer – who claims to have known from the second they emerged as a mucus-smeared whelp from their mother’s womb that they were going to be an author.

You must’ve read these yourself.

‘I’ve always known I wanted to write,’ they burble, going on to explain how their first novel was published before they were potty trained and that sales have now passed the five million mark. Caitlin Moran is one such person. Don’t get me wrong, I love her – she’s clever, sharp, witty. She also published her first book and became a rock journalist at the age of sixteen – this girl was an early bloomer.

It’s not that I resent her for that – much.

But I spent years convincing myself that no-one who worked in an off-licence or as an apprentice hairdresser or as a florist wrote books. Writers have parents who are writers or at least lecturers. Writers are from families who eat at the dinner table, not huddled round the TV. Writers eat proper vegetables with their Shepherd’s Pie, not baked beans. All rubbish, of course, but it’s easy to convince yourself that some jobs are special, out of the ordinary and done by ‘other people’.

For all the amazing, confident young people who start pre-school with a publishing contract tucked in their training pants, there are the rare others, from whom I take heart and courage. These are the ones I think of when another birthday comes round and I still don’t have a published novel to my name. These are the ones that make me think I’m not too late.

Celebrate with me, the writers who came to writing success later in life.

Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish her first Little House on the Prairie book until the age of 64.

William S. Burroughs published his first book at the age of 39, motivated to write ‒ he claimed ‒ after shooting his wife dead.

Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes wasn’t published until he’d turned 66.

Charles Bukowski quit his job at a post office to write full time at the age of 49. He’d previously only had a couple of short stories published.

The queen of all late developers, Mary Wesley, published her first novel at the age of 70 and went on to become one of this nation’s most popular authors, selling three million books.

Finally, and by no means leastly, Catherine Cookson published her first book at the age of 44. Taking up writing as therapy to help her recover from a devastating illness, she wrote historical novels set in the North East of England and was hugely popular – for years she was the most borrowed author in British libraries.

Her writing – often dramatic, always female-ccentric and read mainly by women – has been critically much-maligned, but she had a grit and social conscience to her characters and settings that raised her stories way above the slushy Mills and Boon/ Barbara Cartland fare. Maybe it was her popularity and productivity which went against her – she wrote nearly 100 books before she died aged 91, selling 123million copies.

She would have been 109 last Saturday.

Ms Cookson, I salute you. And along with all the other successful late-bloomers, thanks for giving this old girl something to aspire to.

*My love – my laptop.

**For those of you not old enough or British enough to know who I mean, Eddie represented us at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics – at the ski jump. Not an event we’re known for – and after Eddie’s performance, still not an event we’re known for!

For a short reappraisal of Cookson’s work see this article, claiming she’s the missing link between Dickens and Irvine Welsh!