11 Writers Who Started Late
Forget “under 30” or even “under 40” lists. Some of the world's most celebrated writers didn’t hit their literary stride until their mid-forties or later.
1. James A. Michener
The youngest person on the list, Michener is notable more for his output than his age. The Tales of the South Pacific author (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book would later be adapted into a Broadway musical) wrote a staggering 40 books after the age of 40—nearly a book a year—after spending much of his life as a teacher.
2. Sherwood Anderson
Anderson held a handful of jobs—including newsboy and racetrack helper—during his youth in Clyde, Ohio before moving to Chicago to try and make it as a copywriter. He flailed and returned to a nearby town in his home state where he worked as a manager at a paint factory until 1912, when he decided to leave his job and family to pursue a career in writing. While the act and the way he did it (disappearing for four days and then reappearing in an untidy and troubled state) are hardly admirable, the gamble did pay off. He returned to advertising and was publishing novels by 1916. His best known work, Winesburg, Ohio came out when Anderson was 43-years-old, garnering the success and acclaim the aspiring writer so boldly sought.
3. Laura Ingalls Wilder
Inspired by her daughter, Wilder began writing in her 40s, but she didn’t find great success until some 20 years later, when Little House in the Big Woods was published. The Little House books drew from Wilder’s life experiences, so maybe waiting gave her some extra time to gather material.
4. Raymond Chandler
Only Raymond Chandler would have coped with losing a job as an oil company executive three years into the Great Depression by deciding to write detective fiction. It’s a good thing he happened to be among the best the world has ever seen. His first short story was published a year later, in 1933, and his first novel, The Big Sleep, came out in 1939, when he was 44 years old. He would publish six more novels before his death in 1959, along with many more short stories and screenplays.
Despite his illustrious writing career, Chandler was never quite at ease in the publishing world. In 1949, he wrote to publisher Hamish Hamilton: “There is something about the literary life that repels me, all this desperate building of castles on cobwebs, the long-drawn acrimonious struggle to make something important which we all know will be gone forever in a few years, the miasma of failure which is to me almost as offensive as the cheap gaudiness of popular success.”
5. Helen DeWitt
Like Chandler, DeWitt was 44 years old when she published her debut novel, 2000's The Last Samurai. After years spent juggling odd jobs and working simultaneously on many writing projects, she decided: “I will write a novel with a simple structure that can be FINISHED. I will set aside a month and write with NO INTERRUPTIONS.” Sounds like she was channeling her subject.
6. Marquis de Sade
The famous libertine, philosopher, politician and aristocrat had a lot going on, so it makes sense that he didn’t get around to a writing career until age 47. Even then, he only had time to write because he was in prison at the Bastille for crimes related to sexual deviancy (though he was imprisoned under a lettre de cachet obtained by his mother-in-law). That’s one way to eliminate distractions. It was there that he wrote his first novel, Justine, which wasn’t published until four years later, when de Sade was 51.
7. Wallace Stevens
Stevens worked for most of his life as a lawyer and later vice president of an insurance company. He was first published at age 35 in Poetry Magazine, though the majority of the work he is known for today was written after the age of 50. Stevens passed away in 1955, just a few months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems at the age of 75.
8. Anna Sewell
Sewell’s only published work is the classic Black Beauty. She began writing it at age 51 while in declining health and dictated much of the novel to her mother. At 57, she sold the book. Sewell died of hepatitis in 1878, just five months after the novel was published.
9. Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt's story attracted worldwide attention when Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996, especially when the memoir—which recounted his impoverished childhood in Ireland and an adulthood teaching in New York—went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It was published when McCourt was 66 years old.
10. Harriet Doerr
Doerr spent the first four decades of her life in California before moving to Mexico, where her husband Albert was working to restore a family-owned copper mine. The years spent there ultimately helped inspire the works she penned after Albert’s death. Doerr returned to California when she was in her 60s, finished her education, and began writing. Stones of Ibarra, Doerr’s first novel, was published when the author was 74 years old. It went on to win a National Book Award.
11. Millard Kaufman
A co-creator of Mr. Magoo, Kaufman began screenwriting in his early 30s, but his first novel (Bowl of Cherries) was published when he was 90 years old—a testament that it’s never too late to try something new.
Note: This article originally stated that Joseph Heller was 52 when Catch-22 was published. He was 38.