Please welcome Liza Nash Taylor to Writer Unboxed today! Liza was a 2018 Hawthornden International Fellow and received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts the same year. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine; Deep South, and others. Her debut historical novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS released on August 18 from Blackstone Publishing and is listed in Parade Magazine’s 30 Best Beach Reads of 2020 and Frolic’s 20 Best Books of Summer 2020 , and is the August book of the month for 50-Plus Today. A native Virginian, she lives in Keswick with her husband and dogs, in an old farmhouse which serves as a setting for her novels.
Late to the Party: On Being a Debut Novelist at Sixty
“Had you told me when I was 20 or 30 or 40 that I would write a novel someday, I would have laughed! Only in my 50s did I realize that I had something to say and that I could use the platform of fiction to say it.” – Alka Joshi, author of NYT Bestseller The Henna Artist
I never wanted to star in the school play. At fourteen, I had the shakes before my piano recital. I was interviewed on television, once, in my early thirties, and felt ill with anxiety beforehand and for days afterward.
Now, I’m sixty. Yesterday, I did two live radio spots, a taping for a podcast, and a 45-minute, solo Facebook Live takeover. Each of these events scared the hell out of me.
This is publication week for my debut novel, ETIQUETTE FOR RUNAWAYS. My publicist, Ann-Marie Nieves of Get Red P.R., has done a fabulous job booking virtual appearances for me. I’m constantly having to explain to the Facebook page host/radio interviewer/ podcast presenter that I’ve never done a page takeover/podcast/Instagram live before.
But I’m learning.
When I was 53, my youngest went to high school and I decided to take some literature classes. In the advisors’ office at my local community college I met with a harried young woman who said to me, “Now then, Mrs. Taylor.” She smiled, in a way I interpreted as condescending, then continued, “do you want to take this course for credit? You’d have to take the tests and exams. Or would you prefer to audit?” Well, that got my back all up. Audit, my ass. There and then I decided to pursue a second degree, in English. I’d show her. And so it began. I loved English 112; never mind that I was probably older than the mothers of my fellow students. Here, have a tissue. Keep the pack, I have more. Did you forget your pen, again? Who do you think is going to throw out that McMuffin wrapper?
They got used to me.
I went on to take every Literature class I could at Piedmont Community College. I branched out and took Philosophy, then French. This was just as online learning was beginning to take off, and I went on to take a class virtually at Harvard, called Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature and Culture. Me? Harvard? It sounded good. I was in Gothic heaven. When I had a choice, in my third semester, between a dull-sounding course on Literature of the Restoration and a class on writing fiction, I took the writing class, and never looked back. A few years later, at 56, with a published essay and several short stories under my belt, I began the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was not the oldest in my cohort.
I soon came to realize that as an undergrad in my late teens I hadn’t appreciated what a gift learning something new can be. I had taken learning for granted. After all, I had been doing it for all of my cognizant life. The MFA program offered me a sense of accomplishment and creative fulfillment that translated into a new sort of bravery. Yes, I would stand before a room full of people and read my work aloud, even if I started out trembling. Yes, I would complete and deliver my graduate lecture, and learn to make a PowerPoint slide show.
Alka Joshi, another recent debut author, published her fabulous novel, THE HENNA ARTIST (Harper Collins/Mira) in March, at the age of 62, following a long and successful career in advertising. From an article in Harper’s Bazaar India I learned that, like me, Ms. Joshi got an MFA in her fifties and her thesis became the starting point for her novel. After being broadly acclaimed, THE HENNA ARTIST reached #14 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction list and was Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick for May. In mid-August it was optioned by Miramax, with Freida Pinto to star as Lakshmi. In the Harper’s Bazaar article Ms. Joshi says, of the move to virtual book promotion:
“Oh, I didn’t want to do it. I thought, all of these twentysomethings, they know how to do this. But I thought, okay, just one baby step at a time. Just like anything else in life. So I started small. Now I’m doing virtual book clubs every day, and do you know how fabulous that is?”
Delia Owens published her first novel, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, at the age of 68. She had several well-received nonfiction titles published earlier, but we all know that CRAWDADS has been on the NYT Bestseller list for over 100 weeks and Reese is making the movie. It’s been a phenomenon. I met Ms. Owens at a cocktail reception at the Savannah Book Festival in 2019, just as her novel was really exploding. She was with a publicist from her publishing house. At that time, I had a book contract, and we chatted about being debut novelists. She was gracious and soft-spoken, and she seemed ill at ease with the attention she garnered. When I left to refill her publicist’s wine, I was stopped by an enthusiastic gentleman who asked me to tell him about my novel. I gushed enthusiastically, and about two sentences in I realized that he thought he was speaking to Delia Owens. We were both disappointed.
The three of us—Delia Owens, Alka Joshi, and myself, all have silvery hair and a few wrinkles. We have all had careers that were not novel writing; Ms. Joshi in advertising, Ms. Owens as a wildlife scientist working in Africa, and myself as a fashion designer with Ralph Lauren in New York and shop owner on Nantucket. Like Alka, writing a novel was something I had never considered in my twenties, or thirties, or forties, yet, as I began to learn the craft I saw that it was a creative process not unlike creating a garment—a bit of sculptural draping, a bit of mathematical pattern-making, and then a series of tucks and lots of trimming and embellishment to—hopefully—end up with a harmonious design. As older writers, I believe we have more perspective and perhaps more benevolent detachment to mine our individual file cabinets of emotional history and be kind to ourselves as we do. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I expect that many novelist do refer back to their own emotional milestones—that first heartbreak, the most frightening/humiliating/exhilarating thing that has ever happened to us. At sixty, we have a lot more files in that cabinet. And maybe we have fewer f***s to give.
Last week, minutes before my first Facebook Live event was to begin, I decided to run outside and cut a few hydrangea blossoms to put in the background. I walked out my back door and face-first into an enormous, sticky spider’s web. Or maybe it was a giant spider commune. I was covered, frantically clawing at my hair and clothes. As I began my presentation, I kept waiting to feel little hairy legs creeping up my neck. But I persevered, staying to the script I had printed out in 18-point type and mounted to a tall cardboard triptych behind my computer screen. Ten minutes in I felt like I could breathe, and was hitting my stride when I froze. I don’t mean I froze, as if in terror, but my image on the screen froze. Chat messages popped up: She’s frozen. What just happened? And this was a popular reading group with over 15,000 members.
I managed to switch to my phone, and I continued. And you know what? The audience stayed with me. I had 1,000 views. Afterward, I thought, well, now. You’ve been through the worst, so it can only go uphill from here. Or, wait…there must be something even worse that I haven’t thought of yet…
Today is Saturday, and I have two days off. It’s nice to not have to do the full makeup or “Zoom dress” as I call it—looking presentable from the waist up while wearing my lucky blown-out-at-the-knee jeans and ancient Converse. I’ve sort of memorized my talking points. I’m trying to mix it up a bit with each event. I’m learning to meditate with an app, to get a handle on my anxiety issues. Yesterday, I did a podcast from my closet while three power lawnmowers roared away outside my house. Entering week two, I’m not feeling nauseated before I go on.
This is progress.
This is learning.
This is, at sixty, doing things that scare the hell out of me.
My second novel comes out next August, also from Blackstone. I hope I’ll be able to have a traditional book tour and a launch party and attend some of the book festivals that were canceled this year. Those things will mean more performance hurdles, and more possibilities of things going wrong.
This is publication week, and it’s all new to me. But make no mistake about it, this is something I’ve wanted as much as I’ve ever wanted anything in my entire life. This, my friends, is sixty.
What scary new thing have you tried lately?