Fresh out of MFA graduate programs, new writers typically publish a book of short stories first, but it’s never until their novel hits the shelves that they receive any real recognition. Most of the bestsellers we see these days seem to come from either young authors of this sort or older authors who have long been established in the world of literature. Rarely, though, does the media spotlight shine on the authors who didn’t get their start until much later in life. You’ve already read our article on authors who published successful books very early in life. Let’s shift our focus to some writers who did exactly the opposite.
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America fell in love with frontier life after reading a book series that began with a volume titled Little House in the Big Woods. Laura Ingalls Wilder rose to fame chronicling her childhood on the prairie, but she didn’t actually start to write until she was well into adulthood. While in her 40’s, she took a job as a columnist, which allowed her to develop a love of writing and realize her skills at it. She wouldn’t publish her first work, though, until she was 51 years old. Clearly, she had a lot of living to do before she could write about the adventures of her youth.
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Contrary to its name, the Great Depression wasn’t a great time for most Americans. It did, however, produce some great literature. The year 1932 saw a businessman named Raymond Chandler be removed from his job at an oil company. It was then that he took to writing. In 1939, when he was 51 years old, his highly regarded novel The Big Sleep was published. It was a very popular book and was adapted for the silver screen not once but twice. Fifty-one seems to be a good age for new writers.
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Another author who didn’t step into the literary spotlight until age 51 was Charles Bukowski. Although he published a short story at age 24, he quit writing shortly thereafter, seemingly disillusioned with the creative process. Decades later, he received an author from a friend he had in publishing and in 1971, his first novel was published. Titled Post Office, it was written about the very job that Bukowski had quit in order to write full-time. He would go to write to publish many other books and become known for his poetry and short stories as well.
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One of the best-loved horror classics to this day was published by an author who missed the age 51 mark by exactly one year. Bram Stoker spent many years working as an assistant and later a manager in the London theater scene after earning a degree in mathematics. Although he wrote for most of his adult life, nothing earned him any recognition until Dracula was published. Building off of the book’s success, Stoker published seven more novels before he passed away at age 64. None of them achieved the same critical success, but to be fair, it’s hard to follow the classic that defined an entire genre.
Frank McCourt didn’t write anything until he was 66 years old. McCourt was forced to leave school as a young teenager to help support his economically disadvantaged family. After serving in the Korean War, he attended New York University, where he earned multiple degrees. For decades afterward, he worked as a teacher, ultimately becoming known for sharing his stories at a local pub. His wife told him that he should write down these stories and it’s a good thing she did. His memoir, Angela’s Ashes would earn him multiple awards including the Pulitzer Prize in literature.
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