By Vicraj Gill
In honor of Bloomer Ben Fountain, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award last month for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, we’re taking a look at five other Bloomers who earned major honors in literary careers that took off after they turned 40.
Thomas Flanagan was a middle-aged professor of Irish literature at the University of California, Berkeley, with a book on 19th-century Irish novelists under his belt, when the image that would inspire 1979’s The Year of the French—that of a man walking down a road—popped into his head. A dramatic account of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, French came out to rave reviews when Flanagan was 56, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction that year. It was followed by two more historical novels, PEN/Faulkner Award nominee The Tenants of Time (1988) and The End of the Hunt (1994)—a trilogy that was Flanagan’s way of paying tribute to his passions as a scholar, as well as his personal and cultural past as a writer of Irish descent.
Lily Tuck aspired to be a writer from an early age, and studied under Gordon Lish as a young adult, but she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 51. And it was 13 years later when National Book Award winner The News From Paraguay (2004) would follow. But the life Tuck led in the meantime was one many writers only dream of. Born in Paris to German parents fleeing wartime persecution (her father was Jewish), she spent her childhood in various countries, including Uruguay and Peru. This international lifestyle, which she maintained into adulthood, inspired many of her novels, including Paraguay, though she’d never been to that particular place before writing it. Its fictionalization of the romance between the dictator Francisco Solano López Carrillo and his mistress, Eliza Lynch, was lauded for the methodical research that informed it and the elegant, epic prose that gave it life.
Paul Harding’s debut novel Tinkers (2010), published when he was 42, came on the scene like a revelation. Its record of the dying thoughts of George Washington Crosby and his memories of his father, Howard—the two “tinkers,” or clock repairmen, of the novel’s title—won rapturous praise from the judges who awarded it the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was Harding’s beautiful language, they said, that gave the “slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book”—of which early rejections once led Harding to believe might be unsalable—its power. The championing by independent booksellers and publishers also helped; individuals like Bellevue Literary Press’s Erika Goldman and Michele Filgate of New Hampshire’s RiverRun Bookstore fought hard to give Tinkers the readership and recognition that brought it to the Pulitzer panel’s attention.
Military veteran and civil servant Richard Adams started telling the stories that would eventually become 1972’s Watership Down to his two young daughters to entertain them on long car rides. The tales arose from an impressive range of inspirations. They were about rabbits because Adams had been reading naturalist Richard Lockley’s studies of rabbits in the wild. And the rabbits’ epic struggles for survival against invading humans had been adapted from Adams’ own experience as a British soldier in the Netherlands in World War II. Few publishers were interested—even Rex Collings, whose one-man publishing venture finally accepted the book, was a little dubious. As he wrote to his friend Isabel Quigly, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” But audiences adored it. It won the Carnegie Medal in Literature for best children’s book in 1972, as well as the prestigious Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 1973, and has never once been out of print.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include Harriet Doerr—whom we featured as part of the Post-40 Bloomers series at The Millions—on this list; her story is one of the most memorable. Her first novel, 1985’s Stones for Ibarra, was published when she was 74, nine years after she returned to Stanford to complete the bachelor’s degree that she’d begun nearly fifty years before that. Ibarra won the National Book Award—back when it was known as the American Book Award for First Fiction—and launched an unprecedented late-in-life literary career. As our own Sonya Chung noted, the romantic stories she tells are marked by “the mirage of effortlessness—a lightness that belies depth and complexity,” something the judges of the National Book Awards knew to recognize.