The art world is always obsessed with writer wunderkinder who bedazzle us with their early life talent. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zadie Smith, Dylan Thomas, Jonathan Safran Foer, Helen Oyeyemi, John Keats: The list goes on, and the list is filled with the names of hyper-talented writers who were published and celebrated well before they hit 30.
If you are still waiting for your novel to find a buyer or for your short story to appear in the New Yorker, worry not. There is no time limit on achieving your writerly dreams. After all, dozens of famous writers didn’t “make it” until their 30s, 40s, 50s and, in some cases, even later than that.
These superlative authors don’t fall into the 20-something prodigy category. So take your time, revise that draft and write, write, write. These names should inspire.
1. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel at 39.
Toni Morrison may be a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, but she was also a late bloomer. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, wasn’t published until she was 40, while she was working at Random House as an editor. The Bluest Eye marked the beginning of a remarkable literary career that has included iconic titles like Beloved and Song of Solomon, all happening in tandem with an academic career as a Princeton professor.
2. Millard Kaufman published his first novel at the age of 90.
Sure, he wrote his first screenplay at 32 (Ragtime Bear, which featured the first appearance of a character named Mr. Magoo), but his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, was published when Kaufman was 90 years old. He also wrote a second novel, Misadventure, which was released posthumously in 2010. Kaufman is proof that it’s never too late to get a publishing deal.
3. Helen DeWitt published ‘The Last Sumarai’ at 41.
DeWitt was 41 when she finally published her first novel, The Last Samurai. In a fascinating interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, DeWitt discusses her path to publication which includes a suicide attempt, years in academia at Oxford and then a turn toward the literary world. At one point with hundreds of fragments of abandoned and half-begun books on her computer, she quit her job and spent a month writing a new book, which would become The Last Samurai. After finding early interest, she felt pulled in too many directions and took time off from it before finally finishing and publishing the beloved story.
4. Bram Stoker didn’t write ‘Dracula’ until he was 50.
Bram Stoker, famous for Dracula, didn’t pen his opus until he was 50 years old. He left the civil service after many years to help run London’s famous Lyceum Theatre, writing reviews for free on the side. Though Dracula wasn’t his first novel, it is proof that you can write game-changing novels on the side.
5. Richard Adams wasn’t published until his 50s.
Adams served in World War II during his younger years and, like Stoker, became a civil servant, in what would later become the UK Department of the Environment. He wrote fiction in his spare time and told tales of a rabbit to his children on long car rides. The stories grew and became so complicated that he had to write them down. Eventually, when Adams was 54, a publisher picked up the now-beloved and best-selling Watership Down.
6. Anthony Burgess published his first novel at 39.
The man responsible for the controversial A Clockwork Orange came to writing very late. He served in the military, worked as a teacher, organized amateur theater productions of T.S. Eliot and later joined the British Colonial Service to teach in Malaya. It was there, while ill, that he began to write, and at the age of 39, he published his first novel, Time for a Tiger. Burgess went on to write a great deal more, also composing hundreds of musical works, and even wrote a translation of the opera Carmen.
7. Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her mid-60s when she published ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’
If you read the Little House on the Prairie books as a child, then you likely know the story of Wilder’s life. The daughter of a pioneer family in late 19th-century America, she was a teacher, a housewife and a journalist, and worked for the local Farm Loan Association. What you might not know is that Wilder didn’t publish the first book in her series until 1932, when she was 65. She began writing her childhood memoirs at the encouragement of her daughter. Her original biography, Pioneer Girl, which was rejected by publishers, will be released later this year.
8. William S. Burroughs published his first novel at 39.
A tragic incident led to the late-blooming literary career of William S. Burroughs, beat icon and addict novelist. In 1951, while drunk, he shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a game of “William Tell” in Mexico City. Witnesses claimed it was an accident, but while awaiting trial, Burroughs began writing his novel, Queer, which he eventually published in 1985.
His first published novel, Junky, was published when he was 39. In the introduction of Queer, Burroughs mentions how Vollmer’s death was pivotal to his writing: “So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
9. Raymond Chandler published ‘The Big Sleep’ at 51.
Chandler was inspired to write by the Great Depression: After losing his job in the oil industry, he decided to become a detective novelist and is now remembered as one of the greats. The Big Sleep, his first and one of his best-loved novels, was published at the age of 51, earning admiration from writers as diverse as W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh and Ian Fleming of James Bond fame.
10. George Eliot didn’t publish ‘Middlemarch’ until she was 52.
Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name George Eliot, is one of Victorian England’s most acclaimed novelists. Her first book, Adam Bede, was published when she was 40, and her seminal Middlemarch didn’t come out for another 12 years. She chose the male pen name so that her novels and words would be taken seriously at a time when female writers were associated with romance.
11. Charles Bukowski published his first novel at 51.
Bukowski released a few short stories in his 20s, but he quickly grew disillusioned with publishing and his lack of success, and so went on what can best be described as a 10-year bender. It wasn’t until publisher John Martin persuaded Bukowski, who had spent most of his life working in a post office, to write his first novel. Post Office came out to widespread acclaim in 1971, when Bukowski was 51.
12. Anna Sewell published ‘Black Beauty’ during the last months of her life.
Sewell’s mother was a children’s author, whom she helped edit many books over the years. Sewell began writing Black Beauty during the last decade of her life to bring attention to the need for kindness to animals, while she was struggling with illness. The novel was published in 1877, when she was 57. She died the next year, but lived long enough to see her book’s huge success.
13. Rev. Wilbert Awdry developed ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ from bedtime stories for his children.
The Rev. Wilbert Awdry was a lifelong railway enthusiast who made up stories about trains for his son Christopher when he came down with measles. After making Christopher a model of the engine Edward from his stories, Christopher asked for a model of the story’s large blue train Gordon. Unable to mock one up from his usual materials, Awdry made a small tank engine called Thomas, thus inspiring one of the most beloved children’s book series of the 20th century. The first story, The Railway Engines, was published in 1945, when Awdry was 34.
14. The Marquis De Sade wrote his first book in prison, at the age of 42.
When you’re the famous libertine and hedonist Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, many other things must seem more interesting than literature. However, his bacchanalian lifestyle landed him 32 years in prison. His first book, Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, was written in 1782 while imprisoned in the Chateau de Vincennes. De Sade was 42 at the time of writing, but it wouldn’t be published until 1926. He continued to write salacious and sexual texts all through his prison sentences, including The 120 Days of Sodom and, perhaps his magnum opus, Justine.