Oldest Female Debut Novelist Tells All

Guest Post by Bobbie Jean Huff

I was twelve when I wrote my first novel. It was four pages long, and in it Martha, the butt of bullying by her eighth grade classmates, graduates top of her class. Not much else happens, but with the novel’s completion I had accomplished a major life goal.

Nearly sixty years later I started another novel. For two years I basically lived in the quiet room of the Ottawa Library, and then another year in the Princeton Library, ignoring cracks from my sons about posthumous publication. That novel was published a year ago.

Writing it, I discovered, was actually the easy part of the publishing process. The next step was finding an agent.

I’d been warned by my editor. She told me that as an older author I might have trouble finding an agent. She knew a Canadian agent who prided himself on never taking on a debut novelist over the age of 45.

The reasoning behind this: first novels typically don’t sell—or so I was told. If a novelist is to succeed, it’s usually the second or third book that pushes them over that hill.

In view of all this, I thought it best to hide my age. My Twitter profile pictured an older lady, her white hair done in a braid. My name was beneath it. My Facebook profile showed that same lady holding a newborn who was clearly a grandchild—or worse.

I needed to get younger, and fast, so I called my niece and suggested lunch. A few days later, if you checked my profile pictures, you would have seen a young woman with her blond hair piled on top of her head with a purple claw clip.

And so, the younger me proceeded to search for an agent. This took time: multiple query letters, various extracts from my novel (fifty pages to this one, the first chapter to another, the full manuscript to another). Persuading an agent to even take a look at your finished manuscript is nearly impossible for a debut author, whatever her age. You might as well send it to www.themoon.com

But an agent did respond. The upside of the pandemic: she suggested a phone call instead of a meeting, and courtesy of contemporary hearing aid technology, phone calls to my phone go directly to my ears (providing I remember to charge the hearing aids each night).

People say I have a young voice. When the agent said, “Tell me about yourself,” I told her that I moved down from Canada to New Jersey a few years before, to be near my four sons. And that when I was in Ottawa, I had written and published essays and poems and short stories. Also, I said, I played church organ. Then I quickly changed the subject to the writing I was currently doing.

Here’s some of what I left out: My sons are all over forty, I have five grandchildren, and some of my organ playing has been for the funerals of close friends.

I signed with her. There then followed a month-long nerve-wracking process: submission of the novel to publishers, the offer, the negotiation of a contract, the unbelievably lengthy period of time that passed before signing, and then, yikes; a request from the publisher for a photograph!

No photo, no publication? I panicked. Then I recalled an author photo I had seen years before—was it Margaret Atwood’s? That picture featured a lone hand holding a pen. I contemplated doing that, but then decided no, I was tired of all this. I’d send the damn photo, but before that I’d do The Big Reveal. I called my agent and said, timidly, “There’s something you need to know.” And then I told her, fully expecting that as soon as those two awful words—seventy-four—were out of my mouth, she would gracefully bring the conversation to a close and I’d never hear from her or the publisher again.

That night I called my third son. “Of course they knew your age,” he said. “They only had to type your name into Google.” I tried it and discovered he was right. Google even knew my birth date. But superstitiously I waited until publication day to replace the photos of my niece with pictures of the old lady with the white braid.

British novelist Martin Amis was once quoted as saying, “Octogenarian novelists on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see [them] disintegrating before your eyes as they move past 70.” (It should be said that Amis’ most recent novel, Inside Story, was published in 2020 when he was 72.)

Then there was Simone de Beauvoir: “A novel is the least suitable form of literature for the elderly writer, because they risk simply repeating things and are past imagining new possibilities.”

When The Ones We Keep was published last year, it occurred to me that at 76 I might be the oldest traditionally published female debut novelist. I’ve spent some time searching “oldest debut female novelists” and the same names keep popping up: Laura Ingalls Wilder, 65 when she published the first book of her Little House series, Mary Wesley, 70 when she published Jumping the Queue, and Harriet Doerr, 74 when Stones for Ibarra came out. Then there is Delia Owens, whom everyone thinks is the oldest female first novelist. But Delia was only 69 when she published When the Crawdads Sing. Compared to me, Delia was just a puppy.

Now, once again, I am searching for an agent and a publisher. By the time The Ones We Keep was published, I had another novel ready to go. My agent loved it and submitted it to my publisher. Early indications were good, and I was told that the editorial staff were over the moon about it. But the sigh of relief I heaved was premature. To everyone’s shock, Sales and Marketing gave it the thumbs-down.

I was crushed.

That rejected novel has now been paused. My agent told me that, based on its rejection, another publisher would only wonder why my own publisher didn’t want it. Instead, I have a third “slim” novel (aka novella) ready to go. My job now is to find a publisher who will like it enough to take the risk of publishing an “older” author. If I succeed in finding that publisher, all well and good (and I will continue the sequel I’ve already started to The Ones We Keep).  But if I don’t? I will never know whether it’s because I am, as de Beauvoir put it, “past imagining new possibilities,” or just, according to Amis, “no bloody good.”

Regardless, I no longer try to hide my age, which is now 77. After all, anyone looking at my book jacket can figure that one out.

Bobbie Jean Huff’s essay, originally published in Bloom, has created a stir in the Author’s Guild community, whose members have set up a pair of meetings to discuss it further. Good job, Bobbie!

2 thoughts on “Oldest Female Debut Novelist Tells All

  1. Oh, I love this. Of course, I’m only a “puppy” of 72! Congratulations on your first book and good luck with the second.

  2. Good for you, Bobbie Jean! I love the idea of a seasoned-author debut.

    (Full disclosure: Although my short stories have been appearing in EQMM and elsewhere for more than half a century, my own first novel will be published this November. I’ll be 72….)

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