After reading one too many articles about the next crop of “Best 35 Writers Under 35,” we decided to compile a list of 35 writers who all got their start after the age of 35. In the process, we were surprised (and heartened) to find some of our favorite writers among them. To all the procrastinators out there, this one’s for you.
1. Djuna Barnes, Ryder
We’ll take our cue from the author herself and ignore the 1915 chapbook The Book of Repulsive Women—an “idiotic” title, Barnes said, and she torched copies to keep them out of the public’s hands—leaving the modernist’s semi-autobiographical novel Ryder as her first true work. She published it when she was 36.
2. Alice Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades
The masterful short-story writer from Ontario didn’t publish her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, until 1968, when she 37. Munro went on to receive numerous accolades, including three Governor General’s awards, the Man Booker International Prize, and the Nobel Prize for Literature, which she won in 2013.
3. Ursula K. Le Guin, Rocannon’s World
Two of the best science fiction novels ever written, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, take place in the alternate universe first established in Ursula K. Le Guin’s debut, Rocannon’s World, published in 1966 when she was 37.
4. Newton Thornburg, Gentleman Born
Only a few fanatical evangelists will recognize the name Newton Thornburg today, but his 1976 novel Cutter and Bone is as deft and smartly written a crime novel as you’ll find, evoking with great panache the seedier side of 1970s Santa Barbara. Thornburg worked numerous jobs before turning to writing full-time, producing his first book, Gentleman Born in 1967, at the age of 38.
5. Anthony Burgess, Time for a Tiger
Yes, Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame. He published his first novel, Time for a Tiger, at age 39, in 1956.
6. Sherwood Anderson, Windy McPherson’s Son
Sherwood Anderson, the erstwhile owner of a paint factory and a workaday advertising writer in Chicago, published his classic Winesburg, Ohio in 1919. His first book, Windy McPherson’s Son, came out three years earlier, when Anderson was only 39.
7. George Eliot, Adam Bede
When she was 40 years old, having already written several essays and other short pieces, Mary Ann Evans published her first novel, Adam Bede, under the pseudonym George Eliot. A little more than a decade later, she would write her masterpiece, Middlemarch.
8. Katherine Anne Porter, Flowering Judas
A truly modern woman, Katherine Anne Porter has an equal number of books and ex-husbands to her name. Her debut collection, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, which was published when she was 40, already tackles many of the themes that would appear in her later works: social criticism, religious disillusionment, a complex love for the American South—and an exploration of the lives of strong, stubborn women.
9. Roberto Bolaño, The Skating Rink
It’s debatable when the enfant terrible of the Chilean literary world debuted—do we count a 1984 novel, never translated into English, that he co-wrote with A. G. Porta? His first solo novel, The Skating Rink, came only in 1993, though, after the birth of his son persuaded him to swap writing poetry for putting food on the table.
10. William S. Burroughs, Junky
William S. Burroughs of Naked Lunch fame (or infamy), published his first book, Junky, at age 40.
11. G. V. Desani, All About H. Hatterr
Born in Kenya in 1909, Desani spent his childhood in India and, at the age of 17, landed in England, where he embarked on a successful career as a journalist, teacher, and gifted orator. His first book, All About H. Hatterr, was published in 1948. It’s a comic masterpiece, a brilliant, whirling novel that revels in its Anglo-Indian milieu and has been championed, over the years, by the likes of Saul Bellow and Salman Rushdie.
12. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Although a prolific writer, Angelou did not publish her first book until 1969, when she was 41. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings brought Angelou to the international stage as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African-American woman.
13. P. D. James, Cover Her Face
When P. D. James’s husband returned from World War II, he suffered a mental breakdown, forcing James to work as a National Health Service administrator to support her family. During this period, she began to write detective stories, publishing her first, Cover Her Face, when she was 42.
14. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
Although he trained as a doctor, Walker Percy, after contracting tuberculosis at 26, quit his job in medicine and spent his time recuperating, reading, and writing. He published the first of his six novels, The Moviegoer, almost two decades later.
15. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai
Helen DeWitt wrote dozens of books between menial jobs before she was able to publish The Last Samurai, her 50th, at the age of 43. After 11 years out of print, the novel was reissued with its original title in 2016.
16. Bram Stoker, The Snake’s Pass
While working as an actor’s manager, Bram Stoker, who would later inaugurate the modern-day vampire craze with his book Dracula, published his first book, The Snake’s Pass, when he was 43.
17. André Aciman, Out of Egypt
If publishing a book by 35 doesn’t work out, waiting until you’re 43 is the next best bet. That’s when André Aciman, a professor at the City University of New York, published his memoir, Out of Egypt, to rave reviews. His 2007 novel, Call Me By Your Name, was later made into a movie starring Timothée Chalamet (and he’s also written essays for the Scholar).
18. Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine
By the time she wrote her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, over the span of three months in 1934, Zora Neale Hurston was already a well-known figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement. She continued to draw on her own life and those of the African Americans she spoke to during her travels in the Deep South for the rest of her literary career.
19. Wallace Stevens, Harmonium
In 1923, at the age of 44, a successful insurance executive named Wallace Stevens published his first collection of poems, Harmonium. Some three decades later, his Collected Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
20. Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Most famous for his 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Haley published his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in 1965, when he was 44.
21. Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Working toward her doctorate in American literature, Kate Atkinson failed the oral examination, leading her to pursue a variety of jobs—legal secretary, teacher, home help. She exacted her literary revenge, of sorts, at age 44: her debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the 1995 Costa/Whitbread Book of the Year and First Novel awards.
22. Karen Blixen, Seven Gothic Tales
Karen Blixen, better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, is also better known for her second book, Out of Africa, a memoir of life on a coffee farm in Kenya. But her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, won praise when it was first published in the United States in 1934, when Blixen was 49.
23. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
The creator of the noir hero Philip Marlowe didn’t write his first novel, The Big Sleep, until he was 50. He went on to complete six more novels, as well as an impressive number of short stories.
24. Richard Adams, Watership Down
Richard Adams originally told the story of Watership Down to his two young daughters to pass the time on a long car trip. He finally decided to write it down, and since the book was published when he was 52, it has never gone out of print.
25. Annie Proulx
Although she published several nonfiction gardening and cider-making guides in her 40s, Annie Proulx’s fiction-writing career began to take off when she published her short story collection, Heart Songs and Other Stories, in 1988, when she was 53.
26. Anna Sewell, Black Beauty
Sewell’s beloved novel about a beloved horse, Black Beauty, was published in 1877, a year before her death at 58.
27. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Defoe was a political journalist-turned-novelist who published his first book, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719, at the age of 59.
28. Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child
English writer Penelope Fitzgerald, who spent much of her life raising children amid terrible poverty—including occasional periods of homelessness—published her first novel at age 60.
29. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs
One of the great autobiographies by an American, it was written as he was dying of throat cancer. It was published in 1885, when he was 63.
30. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods
Laura Ingalls Wilder, at the urging of her daughter, began publishing her “Little House” series, about her life growing up on the American frontier, in 1932, when she was 65.
31. Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
Frank McCourt was 66 when he published his first book, Angela’s Ashes, a tragicomic memoir of his upbringing amid an impoverished Irish family.
32. Bridget Quinn, Broad Strokes
Art historian Bridget Quinn published scholarly articles, but she didn’t publish her first book, Broad Strokes—which highlights overlooked female artists—until 2017.
33. Harriet Doerr, Stones for Ibarra
A novel set in a “a declining village of one thousand souls” in Mexico, where a middle-aged American couple has mortgaged everything to reopen a copper mine once owned by his grandfather. Doerr published this book in 1984, when she was 73.
34. Clyde Rice, A Heaven in the Eye
This memoir, set between 1918 and 1934 in and around San Francisco, evokes a workingman’s world of strong passions and a love of living. Rice published this book in 1984, when he was 81.
35. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an Italian nobleman, had already been dead for a year when The Leopard, his first book, was published in 1958.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.