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Writing a Debut Novel as a Woman of a Certain Age

Debut novelist Barbara Graham discusses the experience of publishing her debut novel in her 70s and how life experience made her story more powerful.

It is a remarkable thing that What Jonah Knew, my debut novel, will soon be published. It is especially remarkable considering that it’s a book I worked on for such a long time and as recently as a year ago, I wasn’t sure any publisher would want it. In large part, I believed that because I’m a woman of a certain age.

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The majority of “debut” novelists I read about are in their 30s, with many in their 40s, a smattering in their 50s, and legions, god help me, in their 20s. Would there be a place in the unpredictable world of publishing for me? I wondered. I was 73 when my agent started shopping Jonah around. Had I blown my chances by taking so long to finish the book? Should I try to keep my age a secret?

Then I remembered Harriet Doerr, who published her debut novel and won the National Book Award at 73. I was half her age when Stones for Ibarra hit bookstore shelves. I loved that novel, which tells the story of an American expat couple who divest themselves of everything familiar and move to a small village in central Mexico. The quintessential strangers in a strange land, they must go far away in order to discover who they really are.

My friend Steven Winn was in the Stegner fellowship program with Harriet Doerr at Stanford. “There she was in a roomful of writers, most of us in our 30s and 40s, and her writing had our jaws dropping, it was so good,” he recalls. “And because she was writing about a married couple in their 40s, we didn’t think about her age.”

Writing a Debut Novel as a Woman of a Certain Age

But everyone else seemed to, including Anatole Broyard, reviewing Stones for Ibarra for The New York Times. His first sentence reads: “Let everyone take heart from Harriet Doerr of Pasadena, Calif., who at the age of 73 has published her first novel.” Many others referred to Doerr “a late bloomer.”

Like the characters in her novel, the main characters in What Jonah Knew aren’t old either; their ages range from four to 50ish. In fact, when I conceived the novel I was in my late 40s, but worked on it only sporadically for the next two decades while I was busy churning out other books, as well as a multitude of essays and articles. But the pandemic, devastating for so many, allowed me the gift of time without distraction to take a deep dive into writing my novel.

Writing a Debut Novel as a Woman of a Certain Age

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Yet, I realize: It wasn’t just the cocoon of uninterrupted time that enabled me to finish the book, it was also my age and all that I’ve learned—the really hard stuff, as well as the wondrous—that got me here and has made me a virgin novelist at 74. Looking back, I don’t think I had either the life experience or the courage to finish What Jonah Knew any sooner, nor am I convinced any publisher would have gone for it.

And now with the novel on the cusp of reaching readers and Harriet Doerr as my role model, I couldn’t feel luckier or in finer company. I hope, too, that I may prove to be a late-blooming inspiration for other women novelists of a certain age. As the sculptor Louise Nevelson said, “I never feel age. If you have creative work, you don’t have age or time.”

On to the next book!

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