Bloomers At Large / Features

BLOOMERS AT LARGE: Asking Smart Questions

by Vicraj Gill

Food writer Ruth Reichl debuted with a cookbook she published at 24—1972’s Mmmmm: A Feastiary—and has enjoyed a long and celebrated career as a food writer and editor at various newspapers and magazines. She made the jump to memoirist at age 50 with Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (1998), and has published other memoirs since. At 66, she’s finally tried her hand at fiction. Her first novel, Delicious!, is now out from Random House. She talks to NYT‘s Marnie Hanel about the book and the experience of writing it.

The Los Angeles Times surveyed contemporary writers participating in the LA Festival of Books to determine what led them to become writers, and shared the results in the form of an interactive game readers can play. The number of post-40 Bloomers is rather small—6 percent of respondents reported making the decision to write full time between the ages of 30 and 40, and only 2 percent said they’d decided after 40. But a writer can also bloom by finding deserved success or recognition later in life—see the 20 percent of survey-takers who first hit the best-seller list between 40 and 45, the highest percentage of the lot.

See also the story of the recently deceased Allan Folsom, who for over 30 years wrote scripts for film and TV that failed to sell—until, at 51, he drafted The Day After Tomorrow, a thriller novel about an American doctor drawn into an elaborate neo-Nazi plot. Rights to the book, as Folsom’s obituary at The New York Times notes, were sold for $2 million—and this at a time when “an acceptable advance for a first-time novelist was $5,000 to $7,500.” Even more importantly, the book lived up to its pre-publication hype.

At The New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen writes about Sergei Dovlatov, recently featured here at Bloom. Gessen seems to agree with our own Sonya Chung that Dovlatov is criminally underrated in America, though his Russian readership has grown over the last decade. She also writes about Dovlatov’s family, including the unflappable nature of his wife, Lena—a frequent subject of discussion in Dovlatov’s works, also noted by Chung—and the efforts of Dovlatov’s daughter Katherine, translator of Pushkin Hills.

At The New Yorker, another Russian Bloomer, Lyudmila Ulitskaya—who published her first collection, Sonechka, at 51—chats with Willing Davidson about her short story “The Fugitive.” She talks about the story’s dissident protagonist, explaining that the Soviet era did and did not affect rural regions like that to which he flees. She also talks about her published correspondence with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose 2003 arrest for fraud and sentence to a nine-year prison term drew widespread criticism for a perceived lack of due process.

If you enjoyed our recent feature on post-40 writers with pseudonyms, you might like “What’s In a Pen Name?” by novelist John Wray—who published the novel for which he’s best known, Lowboy, at 38. Not long afterward, Wray was confronted by another John Wray, also an author, who was outraged that Wray had adopted such an “alias.” The experience led Wray to examine the rationales behind famous pen names in history—including those of Bloomers George Eliot and Isak Dinesen; Wray concluded that he’d “recommend a pseudonym to everyone, if only temporarily, as a kind of exercise in self-escape.”

When Tim Parks of The New York Review of Books met French novelists and Bloomers Frédéric Verger and Caroline Lamarche at a recent literary festival, Verger complained about the “dumb questions” readers often asked—like why Verger, 54, had written only one novel. Lamarche explained that this reveals readers’ preoccupations with writers’ lives, when they should be asking questions about the books. It’s an issue we also consider here at Bloom, though we ultimately side with Parks, who concludes that thinking about writers’ lives is an honest attempt to fill the space that inevitably exists between a book and the person who wrote it.

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Homepage photo credit: =Cas= via photopin cc

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