Today’s post offers up a Q&A with Mary L. Tabor, who published her first book after the age of 60. I became interested in her story because of her writing success later in life, and also because she chose to blog her second book, a memoir, on sex after sixty. Read on for excellent insights!
I’m often asked by people of, let’s say, “advanced” age, whether or not there is age discrimination when it comes to writing and getting published. Thoughts on this?
The proof is in the pudding:
- Norman Maclean published A River Runs Through It when he was 73, three years after he retired. He started Young Men and Fire the following year and it was published two years after he died at age 87 and it won the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award.
- Penelope Fitzgerald, 1979 Booker Prize winner (Offshore) wrote her first novel at age 59 and The Blue Flower won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award when she was 80.
- John Bayley published Elegy for Iris about his much more famous wife, the writer Iris Murdoch who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, when he was 73 (he had written one novel and some criticism before—a movie was made based on this lovely book).
- Harriet Doerr wrote Stones for Ibarra as short pieces when she was 68 and finished the book as a novel when she was 74; it won the American Book Award and the Pen/Faulkner Award and was made into a movie for television.
- Frank McCourt published Angela’s Ashes when he was 67 after he retired from teaching high school; it won the Pulitzer and was made into a movie.
- Tillie Olsen did not publish her famous and ever-so brief collection Tell Me a Riddle until she was 44, silenced by the necessities of work and child-rearing.
I say, It ain’t over ’till it’s over.
You’ve placed numerous short pieces in renowned literary journals, going back to the 90s. Many essayists and fiction writers would be immensely envious. Any tips to share? I’m curious also how many rejections you received compared to acceptances.
Rejection is the name of the game once we’re brave enough to send our work out. The title story of my first book, The Woman Who Never Cooked, was rejected 16 times before IMAGE took it—God bless Gregory Wolfe, but he took it in 2001 and didn’t publish it until 2002 because of their “extensive backlog” and then only after I was named the finalist by Frederick Busch in the AWP Short Fiction Contest in June 2002.
Oh and get this: The book itself was named a finalist in nine well-known contests, including twice for the Iowa Short Fiction Contest before it won Mid-List’s First Series Award in 2004 and they published the book two years later.
As to tips? Love the small journal where the audience is small and payment is minimal to none. So why bother? In “little” magazines, great writing is most often given its voice, and only here does writing truly break form. Much of American literature is forged here. Large-circulation magazines take fewer risks and have less space for literature with every passing year.
Don’t despair. Stuff the envelope and cherish the paradox of the great rejection letter: When someone takes the time to tell you how good your work is while also rejecting it, take hope.
You started a memoir about your marriage and separation, Sex After Sixty, and blogged it as you wrote it. Why did you decide to take this path? What other options did you consider before deciding to blog your memoir?
Other options? None. After my husband of 21 years announced, oh so Greta Garbo, “I need to live alone,” I cratered and I stopped writing. His announcement coincided with the arrival of the galleys for The Woman Who Never Cooked. I didn’t know what had hit me, escaped to a visiting writer’s job at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and thought I was done.
When my daughter and her husband suggested that I blog the crazy life I was living—Internet dating, falling in and out of love like a Victorian ingénue—I figured, What have I got to lose? I’d hit bottom.
I didn’t really know that I was writing a memoir until about a quarter into it when the writer Marly Swick said to me, “This stuff is gorgeous, evocative and eloquent and you’re giving it away. Do you know what you’re doing?”
But by then the blog had a following and I was hooked by ordinary folk who kept reading and commenting. The blog had taken on a life of its own and I couldn’t stop.
I often don’t actually feel as if I have a choice about the writing. The process of making something other—no matter how flawed—repairs in a way that nothing else in my life does. The blog did that even more than the solitary act of writing because the feedback was immediate. I forged ahead on the sea of my readers’ belief.
How many people were following/reading your blog by the end of the process?
I began the blog in August 2008 and finished what I had realized was a book in February 2010. At the height of that journey, as I approached what I eventually saw would be the end of the memoir, my readership surged to a noticeable peak.
From December 2009 to March 2010, I had well over 2,000 hits, including nearly 100 on days when I posted. All told, I had readers from 37 countries on six continents. The numbers may not be impressive compared with well-known writers or blogs, but to me, this was paradise.
Tell me about all the unexpected things that happened as a result of this process. What did you learn?
That young people of all ages like the book, are fascinated by the questions of commitment, love, and, yes, hair length.
Your publisher is 3ones, which describes itself as “a product development company for hire.” Tell us about this company and what it means for you and your book.
Kelly Abbott, the CEO of 3ones, is under forty, loved the manuscript, and believes what he says: “As the title of her book would suggest, she’s older than we are, but challenges us in her youthful understanding of the world. And by youthful, I don’t mean naive. I mean unblemished. I mean optimistic. I mean joyful and carefree and without pretense or fear. Mary is a breath of fresh air.”
More important to me is that, despite the fact that he is not an established publisher, he is the son of the writer and literary lion Lee K. Abbott with whom I have studied and whose praise graces my first book. Kelly is a bibliophile, who grew up with a writer, who understands the writer’s frustrations and hopes.
Whether my choice to go initially with Kelly was wise, time will tell. But here lies the rub: When the work goes into the world, one wonders what will happen to it for fear that what one has done will not be understood.
Kelly understands and we are learning together how the publishing world “works.”
In as much detail as you have, what kind of success have you had in selling the book so far?
This early in the game, I haven’t a clue. But I do know this: I had an open book party, me
aning no RSVPs, announcement on Facebook and elsewhere, on June 25. I sold seventy books. That was quite a night.
Do you have a secret marketing weapon? Are there certain sites or tools that work really well for you? And/or, are there things that have not worked?
Interactions are personal, not business. Twitter, for one key example, if well understood, is personal, not business. It is about generosity and goodness. If you understand it otherwise, you misunderstand.
I met you on Twitter. And if I have a secret weapon, you define it.
The rest I am learning. But this I do know, the writer must commit herself to the marketing of her book through web page, blog, and most important, personal interaction, one person at a time. And this takes time, time away from the writing I so crave.
Any other advice for writers considering a blog-to-book path?
On this question, I turn to my wise companion W.H. Auden: “Leap before you look.”