Have you ever walked into a room full of people and slowly surmised that they’re all younger than you? It’s an experience that eventually comes for everyone (if we’re lucky), and it recently befell author Susan Azim Boyer while she was hanging out in the “2022 Debut” Slack channel. In this busy digital community and on author Twitter, Boyer noticed a frustrating refrain: “Everywhere, I found writers bemoaning the fact that if you don’t get a book deal by age 30, it’s all over,” said the author of Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win (Wednesday Books, Nov. 2022), a YA novel that follows an Iranian American girl running for class president as the Iran hostage crisis explodes across the nightly news. “It gave me pause about whether I should be candid about the fact that I’m over 50—or if I should try to conceal it.”
Ultimately, Boyer divulged the details of her winding journey to acquisition, tweeting about encountering sexism and, later, ageism in her career as a screenwriter, a rejected novel, and a period in which she intentionally downshifted writing to focus on raising her son. She also started a group direct message thread on Slack for debut YA authors over 50. There are just six others in that group (out of more than 300 debut 2022 authors), but as Boyer affirms, seven people can be seven times as inspiring as just one.
“The common thread between us is that we never gave up,” Boyer said. But that’s not the only similarity.
Like many in the group, Stacy Nockowitz has wanted to write fiction since she was a child. When she went into teaching, she convinced herself she would write in her downtime. One day in her first years as a teacher, children’s book author Edward Irving Wortis, better known as Avi, visited the school in Concord, Mass., where she taught. Nockowitz summoned the courage to ask him if he would read her work, and he told her she could mail it to him. But she got cold feet and never followed through—a misstep that haunted her until recently. “After that, for a long time, I really thought, ‘I guess this isn’t going to happen. I guess I’m not going to pursue this.’ ”
But transitioning from classroom teacher to middle school librarian allowed Nockowitz to learn more about the children’s publishing industry and inspired her to register for a virtual class with the Gotham Writers Workshop. Now she has not only published The Prince of Steel Pier (KarBen, Sept.), but she’s also working toward her master’s degree in writing for children and young adults.
Author Lisa Stringfellow also found her footing as a writer while teaching middle school students. She commits to NaNoWriMo with her fifth-grade class annually; in 2013, the exercise led her to pen her first draft of A Comb of Wishes (Quill Tree, Feb. 2022). Similarly, Betty G. Yee pored over her historical YA novel, Gold Mountain (Lerner/Carolrhoda, Apr. 2022) for 15 years while teaching elementary school. “I took many breaks along the way. I kept going because I found that I was my truest self when I was writing. I kept going because of the encouragement and support of my friends and writing group. I kept going because I didn’t want to wake up one day and say, ‘I could have done that,’ ” she said.
Two authors in the over-50 group came to teen fiction from careers in copywriting. Shawn Peters focused on TV commercials and digital ads for 17 years before selling his debut, a middle grade novel called The Unforgettable Logan Foster (HarperCollins, Jan. 2022). To write his book, he committed to a “single page a night for a year,” in between working as a creative director, coaching his kids’ sports teams, and serving as the president of his congregation. All told, it was a seven-year journey from outline to store shelves.
For Erik Jon Slangerup, working as a creative director and copywriter, and parenting his six kids, required most of his creative energy. But a six-month work sabbatical enabled him to draft the manuscript for Molly and the Machine (Aladdin, June 2022). He said that writing later in life is a benefit to his readers: “Those of us who’ve been on the planet long enough for our bones to start creaking a little tend to be able to more freely access certain insights and perspectives that only come with time.”
Then there is Vanessa Torres, whose path to publication is all her own. When Torres graduated from high school, her family couldn’t afford to send her to a four-year college. Instead, she enrolled in a three-month EMT certification—and so began a 27-year-career that spanned many states and specialties, including working as a firefighter-paramedic and joining a helicopter squad. She also became a mother to a daughter, now 11. All the while, Torres devotedly worked toward her bachelor’s degree, earning credits here and there over the span of more than a decade. As she neared enough credits to earn her degree, she happened upon a class called “Writing the 20 Minute Short Film,” and it changed her life. “That was my first taste of, ‘Oh, I think I really, really want to do this,’ ” she said.
Like Boyer, Torres shopped around a few screenplays, but didn’t find a taker. Then she decided to try her hand at a novel for teens. “I’ve always felt very connected to the YA age group,” she said. “I had a lot of fun when I was that age, and it gives you more freedom to have your characters make questionable decisions without necessarily thinking about consequences.” Her first novel didn’t sell, but her second novel was sold at auction. “I never thought it could happen to me,” she said. “It still feels like winning the lottery.”
The Turning Pointe was published by Knopf this past February, and Torres is in contract for another book. She credits her mother for giving her the confidence to pursue her passion in her 50s. “My mom is 75 years old and she’s a very accomplished accordion player who plays in three different bands—and she’s always looking for something new. She’s just full of energy and a beautiful person.”
Torres’s advice to aspiring authors who think time has passed them by: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re too old to write. You have a lifetime of experience to draw from and that is priceless.”