Author Picks

 

Sometimes a writer has to live a little before that first novel. Sometimes she has to live a little longer. Here are five debut books by authors who first published when they were over fiftyand then kept going. They prove that it is worth the wait. 

 


 

Watership Down
by Richard Adams 
(1972)

 

Adams’s now-classic tale of escape, adventure, and survival was sold as a children’s book, but is one that a reader of any age can lose herself in more than once. At least this one can. My copy is yellowed with age. The pages are fragile, but they still turn as if by themselves when I dip in for another look. We follow a band of young male rabbits who flee the destruction of their warren by men planning to build there. Death is a fellow traveler on their search for a new home and then their equally dangerous hunt for mates to sustain their new warren. We absorb lessons about the natural world and the ways in which humans disturb the increasingly precarious balance but there is no preaching in Watership Down. And, I am sad to say, females are not presented as strong characters, an issue Adams is said to have addressed in subsequent stories. Allegory, epic, fantasyall these apply, but none of them matter once one is immersed in the world Adams has created in a small patch of British countryside. We just want to know what happens next. Adams was fifty-four when his debut was published. He has written eight novels since.

 


 

Stones for Ibarra

by Harriet Doerr (1983)

 

I’ve read this novel four times and each time have fallen a little more in love with it. Doerr renders the most ordinary moments extraordinary, simply by choosing them the way she would one stone among many, and lifting it to the light so we can really see it. The novel follows Richard and Sara Everton who leave all they know in San Francisco to reopen a mine in rural Mexico fifty years after it was  abandoned by Richard’s grandfather. We learn in the opening paragraph that their time in the village of Ibarra will be cut short by Richard’s death. The knowledge sends a pang through the heart as we watch the Evertons, a year away from Richard’s diagnosis, push on, full of expectations based on a relative’s accounts of the place. “They have not considered that memories are like corks left out of bottles. They swell. They no longer fit.” And at first, they do not fit in this place either, but this is where each confronts death, and learns something from the inhabitants about how to live. Doerr was seventy-three when her debut novel was published. She wrote one more novel and a collection of essays before she died in 2002. She was ninety-two. 

 


 

Heart Songs

by Annie Proulx (1988)

 

I came to Proulx’s debut collection after reading the Pulitzer-prize winning Shipping News and Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Proulx’s prose peels back the layers of a place and exposes its beating heart. She paints her characters with swift, sure strokesnever shying from the dark sides of the people, or the rural landscape that gave rise to them. Heart Songs, her debut collection, is no exception. These stories show us a northern Vermont losing itself to a faltering economy, developers and dreamers from the city. They show insiders and outsiders grappling with themselves, with the lives they’ve inherited, escaped, or chosen. They pull you in with opening lines like, “Hawkheel’s face was as finely wrinkled as grass-dried linen, his thin back bent like a branch weighted with snow.” Read this book slowly, feel the twists and turns in your gut, the way you’d feel them bumping along an unmarked dirt road through what’s left of the Vermont woods. Proulx was fifty-three when Heart Songs was published. Since then, she has written four novels (including Barkskins to be released on June 14th), three collections of short stories and one memoir. 

 


 

The Nest

by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (2016)

 

Sibling relationships fascinate me. Siblings share genetic material, they survive the same parents, they know things about each other that they don’t even know they know. They can hate or love each other with equal passion, often at the same time. The Nest introduces us to the four mostly-estranged adult Plumb siblings after the trust fund set up by their late father is wiped out to pay for eldest brother Leo’s rehab and subsequent divorce settlement. At first, the plundering of “The Nest” pits them all against each other but ultimately leads to a kind of reconnection. It’s funny. It’s real. Satire balances beautifully with compassion. Sweeney’s writing instantly engages and even though her characters might be tough to like in a lesser writer’s hands, she has us rooting for each of them. This is Sweeney’s first novel. 

 


 

Getting Over Tom

by Abigail Thomas (1994)

 

In “Modern Love,” one of the stories from this collection, the narrator Connie says, “I have lived long enough not to interrupt a silence.” It is one of many deceptively simple sentences that made me stop reading for a breath or two. The writing and voices are remarkable in these accounts of early adolescence, premature marriage, and the moment when one is “pushing down the tall grasses near the land of menopause.” The twelve stories are divided into three sections. Each marks the threshold of a pivotal stage in a woman’s life and each is full of sharp, funny, often uncomfortably real characters. Thomas plumbs these beginnings for all they are worth. In “Sisters” she dives into the murk of sibling rivalry and a restless mother’s sexuality from the vantage point of a thirteen-year-old who senses danger she can’t articulate. In “Man and Wife,” Virginia, the nineteen-year-old pregnant wife of a boy she’s only known for months, confronts anger which is “a brand new emotion now. It is like a kitchen appliance that arrived without instructions. I know it does something, but I don’t know how to work it yet.” Coming upon these stories is like coming upon a forgotten mirror in the attic: after the shock of recognition one appreciates the hard-won grace reflected there. Adams was fifty-four when Getting Over Tom was published. Since then, she has written one novel, another collection of stories, three memoirs, and a book about writing. 

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Elizabeth Marro is the author of the novel, Casualties, the story of a defense executive who loses her son just when she thought he was safely home from war. Now, she must face the painful truth about her past, her choices, the war, and her son. Casualties, Marro's debut novel, was published in February 2016 by Berkley. Marro was fifty-nine and a half. You’ll find more at her website: elizabethmarro.com 

 

 


 

 

BUY THE BOOKS

 

 

Casualties

 

 

Watership Down

 

 

Stones for Ibarra

 

 

Heart Songs

 

 

The Nest

 

 

Getting Over Tom