I feel as though I’m always late. And I don’t mean on the little day-to-day stuff, though I’ll be the first to admit I feel my personal clock runs perpetually about five minutes behind everyone else’s. No, I’m talking about a more existential kind of lateness, like that the moment I finally decided to start writing my novel was the moment the Washington Post stopped printing “Book World” as a stand-alone weekly feature. (And has Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Post done anything to hint at its resurrection? No. He just buys Goodreads instead. That’s fine, Jeff. We were pretty sure you weren’t serious about the paper anyway.) And then, with just a few months to go before publication of my novel—oh, so close—here is Jonathan Yardley clocking out after “thirty-three years and four months—a third of a century almost to the minute” and three thousand book reviews. Yup, I’m late again.
Arguably, I’ve been late for a long time: my own almost-third of a century since I was propelled out into the world clutching my diploma, the one that trumpeted my degree of limited practical application. Perhaps the stark relief of securing a job ahead of graduation stunned me into forgetting my love of writing. And I forgot for a long time.
As I approached thirty, my mother gave me the excellent advice to choose what I did with my life, and to guard against allowing my life to simply happen to me. “Because before you know it, you’ll wake up one day, look in the mirror and say, ‘When did I get old?’ And you’ll realize you didn’t do what you wanted to do.” Roger Waters of Pink Floyd grasped this unhappy phenomenon early on, when at the advanced age of 29 he wrote the lyrics to “Time”:
And then one day you find / Ten years have got behind you. / No one told you when to run. / You missed the starting gun.
The time is gone, the song is over. / Thought I’d something more to say.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t heed Mom’s (or Roger’s) advice as completely as I might have. If I had, perhaps my first novel would not have waited until the year I turn 53 to make its debut.
On the other hand, this puts me in the same class with Richard Adams, who was my age the year that his first novel was published. With its tale of imperiled talking rabbits, Watership Down was an unlikely runaway bestseller in 1972. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes came out when he was 66, and the great granddaddy of all late-to-the-party writers is perhaps Norman Maclean, whose transcendent A River Runs through It and Other Stories was published when he was 73.
It’s probably a little silly to be ticking these examples off as though they prove something—perhaps nothing better than that there are not so many examples to be ticked off. But I’m not the only one who’s taking a bit of heart from the concept. Electric Literature recently posted an interactive graphic put out by Blinkbox Books showing the age at which well-known authors published their breakout books, to prove that many great authors flower later in life. It’s perhaps telling, though, that Adams is the oldest debut author listed.
There are, however, other examples besides McCourt and Maclean who didn’t make Blinkbox’s cut, and I came across one of these recently as I struggled to catch up with the newspapers that constantly pile up in my house. (As I said, I am late with everything. We can debate the time-investment-to-value-realized calculus of reading three-week-old newspapers some other time.) The item in question was a review by Michael Dirda of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. Dirda caught me right away when he said, “But few of us will ever manage such dramatic rebirths as Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), who never published a book until she was just shy of 60—yet became one of Britain’s most admired novelists.”
Reviews like this make me wonder what the heck I’ve been reading for the last thirty years. Why am I not already familiar with Fitzgerald’s work? It seems that in the time I haven’t been writing, I’ve been doing precious little reading also, which is a far, far more dire waste of time. More than anything, realizing how much good reading I haven’t been doing is what makes me want to find the giant rewind button.
I understand, of course, that I could just as easily have reached my 53rd year without getting a book published. It’s simply painful to acknowledge that it’s been longer than a generation since I could have made anyone’s list of young writers to watch. As we all discover eventually, you cannot unwaste time; you can only resolve not to waste any more of it. I hope I’ve learned that lesson in enough time.