The View From Over The Hill

By Antonia Honeywell 22 November 2014

I was twelve in 1983, when Granta published their first 20 under 40 list. I already knew I wanted to be a writer; I read about Maggie Gee, Pat Barker, Rose Tremain, Ian McEwan, and William Boyd long before I understood anything they’d written. During the next few years, as my reading developed, I learned that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at nineteen and that the Brontës had crammed juvenilia, early work and mature masterpieces into lifespans that didn’t reach forty. Writing was a clearly a young person’s territory and I decided then and there that if I hadn’t published my first novel by the time I was twenty-six, I’d never be a writer.

I didn’t feature in the 1993 list, largely because I hadn’t written a novel; I’d remedied this by 2003, only to learn that writing a novel is not the same as having a novel published. That year, the last Granta 20 under 40 list I’d be eligible for came and went without me. I was left reading Sarah Waters and Rachel Cusk and wondering when, exactly, I’d missed the boat.

I didn’t have much time for wondering, though. I went into teaching, because I had to do something to support myself, and it seemed a good way to keep in touch with books and reading. Unfortunately for my writing, I loved it. I was promoted quickly; soon, I was running an English department. I wrote. I always wrote. But getting published isn’t just about writing, and what I didn’t do was read The Bookseller, or go on courses, or try and meet other people with similar aspirations. I didn’t know any writers, or anyone in publishing; I worked hard to be the best teacher I could be and I wrote, wrote, wrote, thinking that if my writing was good enough, the fairy godmother of publication might just come and wave her wand over it. I fell in love; I married; I had children, writing all the while. And if it’s hard writing in your twenties, juggling full-time work with your writing ambitions, it’s harder still when your career develops, and harder again when children come on the scene, and harder yet again when you finally realise that books don’t publish themselves. To write, you’ve got to really want to write.

I’ll be forty-three when The Ship is published in February next year. There is no sleight of hand, no manipulation of statistics that will ever be able to put me on a Debut Authors Under 40 list. (They’re all at it; it’s not just Granta. The Telegraph, the New Yorker, the New York Times, even Buzzfeed.) And as my twelve year old self hangs her head with embarrassment at my failure and my advanced age, I’m left wondering exactly which parts of the past forty-three years I’d sacrifice to have made one of those lists.

As EM Delafield (whose Diary of a Provincial Lady, although not her first novel, was published when she was forty) might have said, answer comes there none. And so I looked for one on Twitter. Who else, I asked, is making their debut at forty plus? The response was vast. I’m not alone. I’ll be even less alone in January, when a large group of us will meet to raise a glass to each other. Some were held back by the need to earn a living; some discovered the passion for writing later than others; some were dogged by bad luck; whatever the reason, something that’s markedly absent from our conversations is regret. The inaugural meeting of the 40+ Debut Authors Club will be celebrating not just our debut novels, but the lives we lived in order to write them.

Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel, THE SHIP, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in February. You can pre-order it here.

Antonia was also a student on the first ever Faber Academy writing course, a fact of which we’re extremely proud. You can listen to her discussing the creation of other worlds with Maggie Gee right here.


Originally published at www.faberacademy.co.uk.

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