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Elizabeth Renzetti is a columnist and feature writer for The Globe and Mail
I published my first book when I was 47 years old. It was not something I ever thought I could do, and the hope grew fainter as the years passed. Writing a novel seemed like alchemy, the work of a sorceress, something that other people did. Something that young people did.
A few things changed my mind, and helped me realize that I had not, in fact, reached my best-before date. For one thing, I found myself interviewing authors I admired who were well into their later years. I met Diana Athill, who had just written a wildly popular memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, when she was 91. I was fortunate enough to talk to P.D. James three times, the last when she was also 91 and preparing to release her final novel, Death Comes to Pemberley.
Who was I to bleat about the ship having sailed when I was 50 years younger than these brilliant women? I began, almost obsessively, to look for successful late bloomers and found them everywhere. James herself hadn’t published her first novel till she was 42. The great Penelope Fitzgerald’s debut novel, the first in a string of firecrackers, was released when she was 60.
It’s never too late, I told myself and everyone else who would listen. It was true then, and it seems even more true now as I find myself surrounded by inspiration, on the page and on the screen. Just this year, two of my journalistic mentors, Katherine Ashenburg and Cathrin Bradbury, released wonderful books.
Cathrin’s first book, The Bright Side, is a moving and very funny memoir of the upheaval that her 60th birthday brought. Katherine’s second novel, Her Turn, is a hilarious Nora Ephron-esque tale of one woman’s journey through love, infidelity and the fading embers of newspaper journalism. Though she has a successful career as a non-fiction author, Katherine released her first novel, Sofie & Cecilia, when she was 72.
I asked Katherine about the benefits and challenges of becoming a novelist in her seventies: “As someone who’s lived this long I have a motherlode of stories, perceptions, funny overheard conversations and maybe even some perspective,” she said. “All of them come in handy when writing a novel. And maybe as a woman in my generation, those of us lower on the hierarchy of power had to learn to take in the whole context, to be super-observant and good listeners. That’s also good novel-training.”
Some people are train-spotters; I’ve become an age-spotter. I’m drawn to people who embark on their creative lives, or hit their stride, in defiance of ageist stereotypes. Did you know that the sculptor Louise Bourgeois created her masterwork, Maman, in her late eighties? In her nineties, she continued to work six days a week. On the seventh, she hosted salons for young artists.
I used to despair over seeing realistic older women’s faces on screen. Once they hit 50, it seemed like every actress entered the same surgically enhanced wind tunnel. But perhaps that’s changing. Jean Smart is having a justly celebrated moment in the spotlight at the age of 70, thanks to her Emmy-winning role in Hacks, and her poignant supporting role in Mare of Easttown. Helen Mirren continues to dazzle on screen and on the red carpet.
But my favourite duo appear in the black comedy Killing Eve. No, not the one-two punch of Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh (though they’re terrific too). To me, the best thing about the show are the gorgeous, jaded professionals played by 63-year-old Fiona Shaw (a spy boss) and 71-year-old Harriet Walter (an assassin). I’d watch a show just about the two of them playing cat-and-mouse.
Dame Harriet, who also plays the distinctly unmaternal matriarch in Succession, has long been an outspoken promoter of beauty at all ages, and has released a book of photographs called Facing It: Reflections on Images of Older Women. “There are so many ways we can look beautiful and attractive without looking young,” she said. “Trying to freeze our looks in the past is deadening. Continuing life is what is inspirational.”
What else we’re thinking about:
Given that time is a finite resource, you don’t want to waste too much of it mindlessly staring at the same social media feeds. I found writer Clive Thompson’s list of ways to “rewild your attention” hugely helpful. To keep your imagination fresh, he recommends everything from rifling through obscure books to using weird search engines. Along the same lines, one of my favourite books of the past few years is Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing, a completely lovely and inspiring treatise on the radical act of reclaiming the empty spaces in your mind.
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