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It’s never too late: 82-year old first-time writer gets 3-book deal

June 28, 2010

Giving the lie to the truism that fiction is a young person’s game, an 82-year-old teacher and theater director has secured a three-book contract with U.K. publisher Honno Press. Myrrha Stanford-Smith declared herself “gobsmacked.”

She’s not the only one. Imagine how Sam Tanenhaus must feel. The editor of The New York Times Book Review, Tanenhaus is the latest scribe to argue “an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young.”

Actually, Stanford-Smith’s late-late-blooming triumph is the exception that proves (i.e., “tests”) the rule, rather than a contradiction to Tanenhaus, who mentions several exceptions of his own, including Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Ann Porter and Norman Rush. He might also have included the recently deceased Portuguese Nobelist, Jose Saramago, a journalist who didn’t really get started as a novelist until he passed the age of 50.

So while it is probably true that most writers peak by 40, Stanford-Smith gives hope to all who have not yet written that masterpiece. Her first novel, The Great Lie, reached U.K. bookstores last week. I can find no word of its publication in the United States, but if it sells well at home, it will come here, too.

Stanford-Smith’s trilogy features a “swashbuckling” Elizabethan hero named Nick Talbot, reports the Daily Mail, and centers on the rivalry between playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Talbot, a 16-year-old nobleman’s son, runs away with a group of traveling players to London, where he meets Marlowe.

“I had to put the phone down and ring them back as I was so taken aback by the whole thing,” says Stanford-Smith.

A trained actress who worked in London’s West End,  Stanford-Smith retired to Wales in the 1990s, but instead of taking it easy founded the Ucheldre Repertory Company, where she still works as a director and teacher. The Guardian reports she will direct a production of Richard III this Fall.

Stanford-Smith says she always “held a passion for creative writing.” After receiving positive feedback for a children’s story she sent to BBC Radio last summer, she decided to try writing a novel.

When the publisher called with news her manuscript was being accepted, Stanford-Smith was so overcome she had to put down the phone and call back later.

“It was out of the blue. I’d been waiting for the manuscript to be sent back really, rejected. It was such a wonderful surprise.”

So if you think you have a novel in you, get busy. Obviously, it’s never too late. Just don’t send it to Honno Press. A Welsh company specializing in women authors, it has been “overwhelmed” since news of Stanford-Smith’s success broke in the U.K., and isn’t accepting any new manuscripts Oct. 1.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Diana permalink
    June 28, 2010 11:47 am

    Sheesh, Chauncey! Read your headline and thought this would be so inspiring….and then I read your comment “most writers peak by 40”–have mercy on us!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 28, 2010 2:39 pm

      I think Tanenhaus does a good job of marshaling the evidence suggesting that writers — like theoretical physicists, by the way — do most of their best work as youngsters. But the woods are full of exceptions. Ms. Stanhope-Smith (ummm…how would we deduce she is British if we had not been told?) is only the most recent. Patrick offers excellent advice below.

  2. June 28, 2010 12:10 pm

    There are no rules. If you love to write, keep at it … at any age.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 28, 2010 2:41 pm

      Well, uh, yes, there ARE rules. There are always rules. But the very best in any discipline are willing to go against them for cause. Or without cause. I know this advice is stereotypical Baby-boom propaganda (follow your bliss, goddammit!), but I don’t care.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 28, 2010 2:40 pm

    Kudos to Sanford-Smith and all the other late bloomers in the literary world! I hope to join your ranks some day….

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 29, 2010 12:21 am

      Yeah, us Boomers are going to crowd center stage until the very last possible minute.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        June 29, 2010 12:54 pm

        Actually, I am officially a Gen Xer. Though I’m right at the edge of where one stops and the other begins…

  4. rachel permalink
    June 28, 2010 3:24 pm

    Yes, good for her. I think it is just great.

  5. March 16, 2011 10:18 pm

    Good for her. Often older people who have more experience of life have more to say that’s worth reading.

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