by Mollie Weisenfeld
In the six years since we launched Bloom, we’ve featured close to 200 writers who were first published at age 40 or older. But just because an author has reached the pinnacle of success (i.e. getting featured here!), it doesn’t mean they stop writing and publishing. Far from it. In this edition of FIVE IN BLOOM, we reintroduce you to some of our earliest spotlighted authors, whose works continue to inspire.
In our first piece on Mary Costello, reviewing her first major publication—a story collection titled The China Factory—Bloom founding editor Sonya Chung wrote:
Mary Costello is not a formally trained writer of the creative-writing-program ilk. Now in her mid-40s, she has been a primary school teacher in Dublin for the last 20-some years. She started writing stories in her early twenties – before that, it had never occurred to her in any serious way that she might be a writer – and had early success with two stories, one published in Ireland’s (now-defunct) Sunday Tribune, the other shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award. She enrolled in a creative writing class back then, and attended a writers’ conference; but then her full-time work as a teacher took precedence, and, as she puts it, “life intervened,” she was not connected with a literary community, and she didn’t publish another story until 2010. It was The Stinging Fly literary magazine—champions especially of new Irish writers and the short-story form—that accepted her stories, and subsequently The Stinging Fly Press that approached her about publishing a collection.
Since then, Costello’s 2012 collection was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, and in 2014 she published a novel, Academy Street (from Picador). The germ of Academy Street was taken from a short story in The China Factory, which featured a child whose mother grew up in a big, old house—just as Costello’s own mother did. The protagonist of Academy Street, Tess, emigrates to America (as two of Costello’s aunts and one uncle did). Costello’s Aunt Carmel worked as a nurse in Manhattan for four years before returning to Galway, but Tess remains in New York City all her life, living on Academy Street—where Costello’s aunt lived as well. Tess is a single working mother experiencing New York in the 60s and onward, and carving out a life there.
The novel was named Book of the Year and Eason Novel of the Year and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the International Dublin Literary Award, and the EU Prize for Literature.
Jennifer Acker first wrote about Donald Ray Pollock for Bloom and described his pre-publication history in this way:
Donald Ray Pollock’s parents ran a small general store in Knockemstiff, where he worked as a teenager before dropping out of high school at 17 to work at a meatpacking plant. Not long after that he took off for Florida, where he worked at a nursery for a few months, until his father called to say he could get him a job at the paper mill in Chillicothe, just 13 miles from Knockemstiff. It was a union job with benefits, and Pollock knew he wasn’t likely to find anything better, so he returned. He settled in at the mill, married and divorced twice, had a daughter, filed for bankruptcy, and often drank too much. After about 14 years, he looked around and saw that the other guys who’d been hired at the same time had stacked up some accomplishments — homes and cars and families.
In his 30s, Pollock decided to go to college, earning a degree in English from Ohio University. When Pollock was 45, his father retired from the paper mill. Seeing that leaving the mill job meant the end of his father’s working life unsettled Pollock and reignited his desire to try writing stories.
This desire led to his first story collection, fittingly titled Knockemstiff, which won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize as well as the Devil’s Kitchen Award in Prose. Then came The Devil All the Time (2013), his first novel, which was one of Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Books of the Year and earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing, the Grand Prix, 3rd place for the Deutscher Kimi Preis, and 1st place for the Prix Mystère de la critique.
Pollock’s most recent publication is The Heavenly Table (2017, Doubleday), an Amazon Best Book of July selection as well as 1st place for the Deutscher Kimi Preis. The novel tracks the collision course of two families in 1917, the rough-and-ready Jewetts and the good-natured Fiddlers, on a sliver of borderland between Georgia and Alabama.
Deborah Eisenberg‘s auspicious career can best be summarized by Lisa Peet’s 2012 feature article:
Growing up in Winnetka, Illinois, a wealthy North Shore suburb of Chicago, Deborah Eisenberg never dreamed of being a writer, despite having had all the ingredients at hand—the outsider identity as a Jew in a WASPy town who wore a body brace for scoliosis from age 12-16; an appropriately rebellious nature and consequently strained familial relations; and most of all a love of reading.
She was packed off to boarding school in Vermont, then went on to nearby Marlboro College, where she lasted two years. There followed the obligatory stint of hitchhiking around with a boyfriend (this was the mid-’60s) and a short stay in Boston. Finally, Eisenberg’s mother called her with the news that there was a school in New York that would, in her words, “take anyone.” That was the New School for Social Research, a progressive, free (at the time) university devoted to the humanities and social sciences.
While waitressing, she began a relationship with Wallace Shawn, quitting cigarettes to spare his asthmatic lungs. In the midst of her detox, Shawn handed her pen and paper, and from that sprang her debut collection, Transactions in A Foreign Currency, and many other story collections as well as a play. She has received the Rea Award for the Shorty Story, the Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and six O. Henry Awards. In 2007 Eisenberg was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and two years later was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant. She has also won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story.
This September she published Your Duck Is My Duck (Ecco), a collection of six new stories whose characters revolve around the themes of money, power, and sex in their daily lives. She teaches writing at Columbia University.
Joseph Kanon was featured at Bloom by Jane Hammons in 2013. Hammons wrote:
Kanon describes a childhood with his parents and two brothers as “perfectly happy.” In an interview, Kanon discusses his career, one that began as a reader for Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate. After receiving a master’s degree in English Literature from Trinity College, Cambridge, he became an editor at E. P. Dutton and eventually CEO. A position as Executive Vice President of Trade and Reference at Houghton Mifflin followed. Had it not been for [a] trip to New Mexico, Kanon would have been happy to continue his career in publishing. When he returned from New Mexico, intrigued by Oppenheimer and the potential for a murder mystery set in the Manhattan Project’s secret location, he was thinking like a publisher. Which author could write it? When no one came to mind, he decided to write the novel himself. But he did so privately, concerned about the embarrassment of being a publisher who couldn’t write.
Los Alamos, Kanon’s novel about Oppenheimer, was recognized by the Mystery Writers of America with the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel, and Kanon flourished from there. He has since retired to write full-time and has published seven more novels, most recently 2017’s The Defectors, which depicts the reunion of two brothers on opposite sides of the Cold War. Years after protagonist Frank Weeks was exposed as a Russian spy and fled his CIA job for Moscow, he calls his brother Simon to Russia to edit his KGB-approved memoir, and political plot twists ensue.
Kanon’s novels often are inspired by and circle around a real place and a historical event, both of which he deeply researches before spinning out a tale of fictional characters, their lives and experiences, around it. His works are international bestsellers and have been published in 24 languages. He is a recipient of the Anne Frank Human Writers Award for his writings on the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Raquel Jaramillo, better known by her pen name, R. J. Palacio, is the creator of the wide world of Wonder. As Sangeeta Mehta recounted in her 2013 feature article, R. J. Palacio worked as an art designer and creative director in the publishing industry. The daughter of Colombian immigrants, Palacio grew up encouraged to read early and widely, and her mother always believed her daughter would be a writer. Palacio had illustrated and authored several children’s books, but Wonder was her first novel.
Inspired by her own children’s encounter with a young girl with craniofacial difference, Palacio began writing Auggie’s story. She would go to bed, then rise around midnight to write, before heading out for her publishing job during the day. She maintained that schedule for a year and a half before beginning the search for an agent and publisher. Wonder has since sold over 1 million copies, is a New York Times bestseller, and was made into a feature film.
Palacio now writes full-time, immersed in the Wonder universe. Her most recent publication was the picture book We’re All Wonders (Knopf, 2017), a story for younger readers. She adapted Auggie’s story from the original novel in which he enters mainstream schooling in 5th grade, and explores the relationships he builds there.
Palacio’s series has also inspired the Choose Kind campaign, where the principles of Wonder are integrated into curriculum plans for classrooms, anti-bullying programs, discussions about responsibility, overcoming challenges, friendship, and group reads.
Mollie Weisenfeld is an Editorial Assistant at Hachette Books. Her poetry has been published in Folio, Lilith, and Guildscript, and her children’s story was published in Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. Visit her Facebook @MollieWeisenfeldAuthor for updates on her mocha addiction, worldwide quest for the perfect writing café, and attempts to write everything except the next Great American Novel. Also Twitter @TheMollieJean
homepage image via pen.org