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Books Canada’s literary scene reaches maturity: How older first-time authors are achieving critical – and commercial – success

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Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s path to literary success has been more of a roller-coaster ride. To begin with, the Alberta-born writer was never going to send her manuscript to a publisher. It took cajoling from a friend to persuade her even to put it in an envelope and mail it. The former translator could hardly believe it when she secured a book deal for The Erratics, her piercing, honest and oddly hilarious memoir about returning to the Prairies to deal with the deteriorating health of her estranged, manipulative mother.

Vicki Laveau-Harvie.

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But the excitement was short-lived. Laveau-Harvie’s publisher went out of business six months after the book was released. Soon it was on the verge of going out of print, with only 150 copies left on shelves. The Erratics seemed destined for obscurity.

Then, to Laveau-Harvie’s surprise as much as anyone’s, it was listed for, then won the Stella Prize for women’s writing, one of the richest and most respected literary prizes in her adopted homeland of Australia. The judges compared her precise prose and attention to the Alberta landscape to the work of Alice Munro. The book is now back in print, and will be available in Canada and the United States in early 2020.

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It would be a fairy-tale story for any author, but it seems especially so for Laveau-Harvie, who is in her 70s.

If that seems too old to be publishing a debut title, she’s in good company. In recent years, several older first-time authors have achieved critical and commercial success, including Salt Spring Islander Patrick Taylor, who wrote his bestselling Irish Country novels after a successful career as a doctor and medical researcher, and Vancouver cellist Ian Hampton, whose RBC Taylor Prize-shortlisted memoir Jan in 35 Pieces was published last year, when Hampton was 83.

Courtesy of RBC Taylor Prize.

Looking further back, the Booker Prize-winning author Penelope Fitzgerald was perhaps the most famous literary late bloomer of all; she published her first work of non-fiction at 58 and her first novel at 60. She went on to write eight more novels, along with essays, short stories and biographies.

Long apprenticeships

While it took Fitzgerald the best part of six decades to bring out a book, she had spent most of that time writing, both as a journalist and teacher. This seems to be a common theme among authors who find success later in life. Taylor, for example, wrote or contributed to 170 scientific papers and six textbooks while practising medicine.

Author Patrick Taylor contributed to 170 scientific papers and six textbooks while practising medicine.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

In Laveau-Harvie’s case, writing has been a passion for 25 years, but only for the joy of “figuring out how to do it, figuring out how to put it on the page the best way.” Until last year, few outside her tight-knit writers’ group had seen her work.

“The ideas of trying to publish what I had written or writing for publication were totally foreign to me,” she said. “It’s not that I looked down on it. It's just that time is limited and I didn’t get to that point.

“Perhaps over the years, I found my voice without the interruption of trying to make things public, without having comments or people talking about my style.”

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For his part, Hampton says the years he spent explaining pieces of classical music to uninitiated audiences helped him write Jan in 35 Pieces, which is a magpie’s nest of shiny observations and witty anecdotes from his long career. It didn’t happen overnight.

Ian Hampton.

RBC Taylor Prize

“It began about 15 years ago,” he said to The Globe and Mail. “It’s been percolating in my mind for a long time. It took that long from writing it in cursive, to getting it typed, to getting it edited and then getting it accepted by a publisher.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that older first-time authors are making their mark. Like the population at large, readers are getting older. According to Bookscan, the age of the average book buyer has been steadily climbing for years, hitting 46 in 2015 and 47 last year. Over all, readers aged 55 and older make up more than a third of the market.

And it’s hard not to notice that literary talks and workshops often attract a more mature crowd. A “good portion” of the people who attend Canadian Authors Association events are seniors, estimates Margaret Hume, the organization’s national chair.

Older aspiring writers bring a lot to the table, she says. Not only have many been practising, knowingly or not, for years, they have an entire lifetime of experience to draw on and plenty of spare time.

“One of the things that is an advantage for older writers is that often after they retire they have a lot more quiet time, time to be inspired,” says Hume, who published her own first book, a biography of the children’s writer and CBC personality Mary Grannan, when she was 57.

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Obstacles to success

There are challenges, though. Hume says publishers increasingly expect authors to do their own marketing on social media. Not everyone is comfortable with the technology, so the association runs workshops to help get writers up to speed. And while there are many fellowship and prize opportunities for younger writers, Hume is not aware of any geared to older scribes.

“I think we often assume emerging writers are younger,” she says. “I think it would be helpful if there were more of those opportunities that were open to people of all ages.”

On the other hand, as baby boomers age there is likely to be even more appetite for books that reflect their experiences. Lynn Henry, publishing director at Knopf Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House, says the audience is already there: “We have a population that’s aging, and a lot of people of a certain generation are caring for elderly parents and really coming to terms with longer lives.

“There are a number of women, especially, who are writing in very compelling ways about these issues, because I think a lot of women have ended up being caretakers.”

But for the most part, Henry says the age of an author doesn’t matter to her as a publisher: “I am very interested in the stories of people of all ages and all experiences. Being older it is not in any way a mark against you in the publishing world. It’s all in the writing itself.”

Plans for the future

While Hampton says he doesn’t “have enough life left” to start another writing project, Laveau-Harvie plans to use her $50,000 prize money to research a book about her maternal grandfather, a Métis man who lived a double life passing as a French immigrant.

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When she was confronted by a patron at a recent book signing who suggested she might not have long left to write, she was puzzled. “I see some of my friends and it's almost as though they shut down in advance. I think, man, you want to go out doing the samba; you don't want to sit down and crochet. Not that I have anything against crocheting, I'm sure it's wonderful.”

Hampton, Hume and Henry all gave similar advice to aspiring first-timers: if you have a story to tell and a way to tell it, you should sit down and start writing, no matter how old you are.

“It’s important if you can to continue doing the things that you love to do,” Laveau-Harvie says. “It’s important that you live as long as you’re alive, though I do realize that sounds like Bon Jovi.”

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