As someone who took up writing over forty, I am often impressed by much younger writers who possess a maturity and ability to see beyond themselves that I didn’t have at the same stage. But I also believe that an author’s age isn’t – and never should be – a consideration one way or the other. Surely all that matters to the reader is whether they can write and have a great story to tell. How many of us could make more than a guess at the author’s age from reading a book, if we didn’t know? I wouldn’t have had a clue from reading Carol Lovekin’s debut novel Ghostbird, which has many interesting angles she could have discussed today. But since youth is so often valued over experience, I’m delighted that Carol was willing to share her own valuable perspective on this (my review follows):
There is a misconception about age being no more than a number. It isn’t – it’s an accumulation of numbers counted in optimism, mistakes, disappointment and liberation. Being the age I am has never been the issue for me – I’ve always been comfortable in my skin. The fact remains, the older one is the more catching up there is to do. Realistically, in a publishing world largely dominated by the cult of youth, fewer opportunities exist for the ‘older’ fledgling author.
The gulf separating me from even the forty or fifty-year-old first time published writer is a chasm which, now I am one, I hope to bridge with my newly discovered, albeit fragile confidence.
Several years ago I picked up – and shamelessly plagiarised – a phrase from Mary Wesley who had her first novel published at the age of seventy. She told a journalist she suffered from ‘arrested development’ and the words struck a chord with me. There had been too many years entangled with chaos, and too few devoted to taking my writing seriously. In terms of being published, I was further into my prime than I cared to admit. Having recognised time was playing cat and mouse with me, the itch in my fingers had become a full-blown rash. I donned my big boots and with my laces firmly tied, began treating my writing with more respect.
The seeds of the book that was to become Ghostbird had been germinating for a long time. It took me over two years to write and because I knew of the press and admired their ethos, I submitted the first fifty pages of the manuscript to a ‘Meet the Editor’ event run by Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. My slot was with Janet Thomas, who asked to see the rest and who was to become my editor.
I had tried my luck elsewhere: submitted to agents and a few big publishers willing to read un-agented manuscripts. Looking back, it wasn’t that my age (which in fact I never disclosed) was against me; it was rather that I was ‘against’ myself. Convinced no one would touch me once they knew how old I was, I now believe this diluted my determination. When Honno finally made me the offer, I’d almost give up and I was genuinely stunned. The rest so to speak is history, albeit recent history.
Honno’s ethos is rooted in its commitment to giving women writers a voice and the opportunity to be published. Other than a strong connection to Wales – either through the story or the author’s relationship to Wales – there are no other criteria. Lacking the budgets enjoyed by bigger houses Honno nevertheless takes chances on the unusual and because the team is small the writer enters into an intimate and mutually collaborative relationship.
Not classically educated I was never brought up to analyse too much and in terms of writing influences I try not to preferring to follow my instinct. It was less ‘write what I knew’ and more ‘write what intrigued me.’ And Cadi intrigued me. I wrote a book with, ironically perhaps, a young central character. Although I relish the company of my peers, I’m often drawn to friendships with young people. They charm me, the young – the women in particular. I see my younger self in the fascinating, feisty ones. Perhaps it is they who feed my imagination and where Cadi came from.
Contrarily, books with older main protagonists delight me. I recently read the wonderful A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman and last year was captivated by Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. We need more of these kinds of books in mainstream literature and although my current work in progress concerns teenage sisters, I have my own ‘older woman protagonist’ on the back burner. She’s a character who came from somewhere although I have only a vague idea where. (I never ask a writer where she gets her ideas from; I’m simply delighted she does.) My own imagination is a hall of mirrors – often distorted – and I have to concentrate, and wait for the edges to un-blur. Ideas are a little bit like ghosts.
In the aftermath of the publication of Ghostbird, I’m not hungry for fame; I’m satisfied with validation. That moment of affirmation cannot be adequately measured. And there is a level of contentment in not being interested or overwhelmed by the trappings of ‘being an author.’ I’m a writer and thus far the reviews of my book are encouraging. Like society’s view of age, they are a viewpoint, an impression and ultimately fleeting. Understanding that criticism is a word – like old or older – and as meaningless, I have no concerns about what happens next.
What matters is I’m writing to catch up; getting on with the next book.
Thank you so much to Carol for this piece which I’m certain many of you will find inspiring and uplifting. The danger of erecting barriers to success in our own heads is really something to watch out for!
Author photo © Janey Stevens.
IN BRIEF: My View of Ghostbird
Folklore and the supernatural, both of which play an important role in this novel, are not elements that regularly appeal to me, so the fact that I was won over by Ghostbird is a very good sign! The elegant and poetic quality of the writing was evident from the start, especially when describing the natural world: there is an immersive and atmospheric sense of place which I can still visualise months later. The bonds between three women (daughter, mother and aunt) make for an unusual dynamic rich with potential. The characters and relationships are complex and engaging but most importantly, believable, the realistic and energetic dialogue contributing to this. Teenager Cadi is a lovable and memorable creation. Driven more by character than plot, this is a poignant illustration of the effects of loss, full of warmth and emotional intelligence.
Tomorrow I will be revealing details of a Paris related competition here and on Twitter as the release of my debut Paris Mon Amour draws closer…
And next week I am delighted to say that Joanna Walsh, founder of the #readwomen initiative, will be joining me on the Literary Sofa to talk about her new collection Vertigo, amongst other topics.