Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions.
Yvvette Edwards’s first novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats, was among four debuts long-listed for the Man Booker Prize this year. Of the four, Ms. Edwards stands out as the only woman, the only person of color, and – most relevant for our purposes here – the only one whose first book was published when she was over 40 (Patrick McGuinness, b. 1968, has previously published books of poetry).
I was drawn to Edwards’s novel initially because of a sense that she’d struggled above and beyond to birth it; and not only did she succeed, at age 45, but she was recognized for it with the prestigious Booker nomination, a game changer in the world of letters. “It was a very surreal moment,” Edwards said in an interview with the BBC in August. “I feel like I’ve gone from 0-60 mph in five seconds.”
I suppose we all struggle, “above and beyond,” and there’s no sense in comparing one struggle to another. And yet Edwards’s official bio grabbed my interest, along with my admiration: YVVETTE EDWARDS was brought up in Hackney and is of Montserratian-British origin. She works for the Housing Benefits office and lives with her family in London. This is her first novel. It’s an unadorned description of a life, but there seemed to me a rich story, and a journey stacked with obstacles to a creative life, contained in those few sentences. In a personal essay for the Daily Mail last spring, Edwards wrote:
I have always loved writing, but really, it wasn’t a credible ambition for a black single mother [she became pregnant with her daughter, Danielle, at age 18] who’d grown up in an inner-city area. I lacked the self-belief, time and confidence to have a serious go at making a career out of it. So like my mother’s desire to be a teacher [her mother, too, was a single parent, pregnant at 18, and worked many different jobs to earn a living], it remained a hope on simmer. Instead, I wrote as a hobby, found myself a reliable job in housing with my local council, and focused my energies on holding that down and paying my bills.
The reviews for A Cupboard Full of Coats have been glowing. Edwards has been praised for her “pellucid prose” (Kirkus), her ability to give us a story that is both “gut-wrenching and gorgeously lyrical” (Publishers Weekly), and the skillful way in which she weaves her narratives, past and present. Her narrator, Jinx, is a young woman living alone (in every way) in London’s East End; she is estranged from her five-year-old son and bears the guilt of her mother’s death 14 years earlier, when she was a teenager. A visitor – Lemon, the best friend of her mother’s abusive lover, Berris, from those days long ago, and the man to whom she lost her virginity – knocks on her door one day and sets in motion the novel’s intricate journey into the past when he informs her that Berris has been released from prison. The story of Jinx’s mother’s life and death, and each character’s part in both, thus unfolds.
What impressed me most about Cupboard was what some readers and reviewers have called Edwards’s “unflinching” treatment of her subject matter: Jinx’s mother makes a clear choice – in her actions – to favor her lover, and her own needs as a woman, over her daughter; Jinx herself does not take to motherhood and finds time with her son more aggravating than anything; Lemon urges Jinx to forgive both her mother and Berris, despite the physical and emotional brutality she suffered (and with which the reader becomes painfully intimate). Underlying all these brittle realities is a more complex, profound reality, which is that love and hate, selflessness and selfishness, are somehow not so different or far apart. The novel’s awful and yet ultimately hopeful truth is that love is always tainted and ugly, and yet still it never ceases to be love.
Following is a Q&A that Yvvette Edwards was kind enough to grant us:
The Millions: What do you think of the term “late bloomer,” and do you consider yourself one, as a writer? Why or why not?
Yvvette Edwards: I suppose I qualify as a late bloomer in terms of having my first book published at the age of 45, but I don’t feel like one. That may be because for me the term has connotations of stagnation, finally followed by some kind of transformation. Perhaps because I’ve been writing my whole life I feel that eventually being published was a natural and inevitable progression. Also, my abilities have been continually evolving and maturing. I am able, literally, to chart the development of my capacity to write through the work I’ve produced in my lifetime, if I arrange them in chronological order. I’d probably prefer to equate myself to a fine wine or good cheese, something that takes time, passion, and dedication to mature perfectly.
TM: Was there a moment or series of moments you recall as a turning point of resolve regarding completing this novel? Did you always know that you’d finish it?
YE: I think I committed internally to seeing this book through in the year that followed my 39th birthday, which was, for me, an intensely introspective period. Having toyed my whole life with the notion of being a writer, I found myself at a junction where I felt forced to make a choice: write your book or get moving and build a “proper” career. Maybe it suddenly dawned on me that I was in fact mortal, but when I started writing this book, I had no doubt I was going to finish it. Before I made that decision I think I had dreams of writing, but no determination. Determination was the key factor that made a difference.
TM: For how long in total did you work on it?
YE: The idea had been knocking around inside my head for a couple of decades before I finally got going on my novel. I had a false start, during which I absolutely knew the way I was writing my book was not right. I persisted in the false hope that my efforts would not be wasted and it could all still somehow come good, till finally, painfully, I accepted I would have to start again. My first draft, (my second attempt really), took about eight months to write from that moment, then another year to edit and fine-tune.
TM: What was the most difficult part?
YE: The most difficult part was entering Jinx’s head and probing around inside it. In order for me to be able to write her realistically, I had to inhabit her reality, and it was very grim, filled with so much hatred and rage. I had to wade around in that for a while, before finding her vulnerability and the core of her humanity. I have to confess that affected me for a while, but only for a while. I’m acutely aware that there are people whose whole adult lives are stuck in that place.
TM: Tell us a little about your work at the Housing Benefits Office. I wondered what it means to you to have that detail in your author bio. What other jobs/vocations/studies have you pursued along the way?
YE: My work in Housing Benefits helps to pay my bills and in that respect, it is a means to an end. Like most jobs, it has its problems and triumphs, but it is not a passion. I’ve done many jobs in the past. I’ve worked as a homeless persons officer, as a housing and welfare benefits advisor, as a child minder, a support worker with adults with learning difficulties. I’ve had many fleeting occupations, in telesales, reception work, antisocial behavior, finance, administration. The only theme really is that most of the jobs I’ve done have involved much contact with the public, and that at some point, I’ve moved on to something slightly different.
TM: Most writers would say that if they could afford to quit their day job and write full-time, they’d do it in a second. Do you share this feeling, or do you find something productive for your creative life in having a “real world” job?
YE: Very generally, I believe that nothing is wasted, and every experience you have shifts and shapes you. I’ve enjoyed “real world” jobs during the periods I’ve done them, and done them wholeheartedly, to the best of my ability. But for years now, I’ve been whittling the work I want to do down to just the single choice. More than anything else, I love writing and I want to be able to make a living from doing that thing I enjoy most. That is my ultimate ambition. Given the opportunity, it is inconceivable that I would pass it up. Having said that, much of the work I have done has helped me to understand people and the real world. It has informed and enriched my creative life. I’m not sure I could walk away from it completely, even if I was in a position to make that choice. I’m confident I would still do some kind of work, voluntarily, in something I believed in.
TM: I read that you’ve studied various genres – screenwriting, stage plays, TV writing, etc. Do you feel you’ve found your “home” in novel writing? If so, tell us about the process of getting there.
YE: I think I have found my home in novel writing. Although I’ve tried other genres, I found them restrictive. There are so many other factors to bear in mind that I don’t want to concern myself with, like costs, and set changes. In novel writing, I am freed to have as few or as many characters as I like, in whatever location I fancy. And the ultimate satisfaction of producing something just the way I want it, immortalized that way forever. For me, it is a heady liberation. I’ll probably dabble with other genres again at some point, but for now, novel writing suits me down to the ground.
TM: What would you say to a room-full of aspiring, unpublished writers who are 40 and over?
YE: Congratulations on having arrived at an age where you have the experience to recognize what’s important, and the maturity to write something truly valid and meaningful. You are beyond any notion of wanting to write to impress your mates, and this means you are excellently placed to please yourself. So do that. Think about those things you’ve learned on your life’s journey and what of that you want to bring to your writing. Over the last four decades or so, you’ve definitely earned some “me” time, so grab it, with both hands. Lift your pens and do it. Write what you like. Start wherever you want and just keep going till you finish. You are stronger and wiser now than ever before, and you CAN have this.
Here at The Millions we’re pleased to launch a new monthly feature, “Post-40 Bloomers,” which will highlight authors – living and deceased, new-on-the-scene and now long-established – whose first books debuted when they were 40 or older. In this column we will review recent debuts, look broadly at the legacy of later-blooming authors, present author interviews, ruminate essayistically on an author’s life and work, and/or all of the above at once. In the spirit of Martha Southgate’s recent post here, “Older and Wiser,” we offer not so much an answer as a small contribution, a counterbalance, to Southgate’s question: “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?” Herewith (I personally hope) is a bit o’ good stuff for 40 and over writers.
Fortunately, I don’t feel I have to make a detailed or impassioned argument here for the value of this column. Others have done so recently, and eloquently, in response to the New Yorker’s publication last summer of the “20 Under 40” list – young writers whom the editors believe “are, or will be, key to their generation” and whose writing exhibited “a palpable sense of ambition” – and the correlating anthology of stories. I refer you in particular to Matthew Hunte’s review of the anthology in The Observer, and to Joe Schuster’s post at Work-in-Progress. Both Hunte and Schuster (along with Southgate) provide terrific counterexamples to the prodigy/precocity paradigm and remind us that slow, later, and older produces as great if not greater literary work than fast, early, and young. In other words, by focusing too much on youth when bestowing awards and recognition, we miss out – we readers and we writers and we critics, that is. We generate cultural blind spots, and we even have the power to thwart possibilities for alternative creative paths by influencing market and career viability in favor of the young.
In his essay “Late Bloomers,” published (ironically) in the New Yorker in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell makes the useful distinction between late bloomers, late starters, and late-discovereds. You’ll likely see a mix of these appearing in this column, but my personal curatorial bias is toward the late starters. Gladwell writes mostly about artists who require a long, reiterative, “experimental” approach to their work – artists (Cezanne is his primary example) who might begin work on a novel or a painting at a relatively young age but need 10, 15, 20 years to fully develop and execute their vision, to attain a level of noteworthy excellence. My bias toward late starters – people who have lived a whole life, or two, or three before seriously devoting themselves to write a book – relates to the collision of life and art; I’m interested in writers who perhaps had the inkling, or the deep desire, to write, to pursue a creative life, for a long time, but for myriad reasons were impeded – internally, externally, a combination of the two. I am excited and inspired by individuals from whom a determined self-reinvention – a digging in, a deep breath, an about face or leap off a cliff – has been required at some point in order to pursue the vocation that has called from within but for which there has been little native tailwind.
Perhaps it is clear by now that this was very much my own experience.
But then again, the distinction is ultimately artificial: is the individual who, say, has a full-time job as a bookkeeper and who scribbles at a novel, or at notes for he-knows-not-what, sporadically, for 20 years, before something resembling an “a-ha” moment strikes him and suddenly the notes come pouring out in waves and consistently and then he finds he’s really writing it – the background of his life has transitioned to the foreground – is this individual a late bloomer or a late starter? Perhaps it’s the timing of that transition moment that I’m interested in, the point at which someone not only puts both feet into the writer’s boots but in fact begins to walk – shakily, but unmistakably – on a literary path. It’s the point where “may” morphs into “must,” where the obstacles begin to fade in power and importance.
I myself am hesitant to use the word “late” (or “older,” for that matter) in reference to writers over 40, which is why the column is not called “Late Bloomers.” Late relative to what and according to whose definition of early or on-time?
Writers we plan to feature include, tentatively, Penelope Fitzgerald, Daniel Orozco, Isak Dinesen, George Eliot, William Gay, Walker Percy, Helen DeWitt, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and Harriet Doerr. And we’ll kick off later this month with Yvvette Edwards, whose debut novel A Cupboard Full of Coats was longlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize. There are more in the works, so worry not if your favorite late-bloomer/late-starter is not mentioned above.
Thanks in advance for reading. May we all bloom in good time.
Image credit: George Eliot via Wikipedia
With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2011 literary Prize season is officially underway. As is usually the case, the list offers a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and beloved standbys. The lone past winner (for The Line of Beauty) is Alan Hollinghurst, and longlisters Sebastian Barry and Julian Barnes have gotten shortlist nods in the past. At the other end of the experience specturm, four debut novelists make the list: Stephen Kelman, A.D. Miller, Yvvette Edwards, and Patrick McGuinness.
All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (excerpt)
On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (excerpt [pdf])
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (excerpt)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (excerpt)
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (excerpt)
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (excerpt)
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Staff Pick)
Far to Go by Alison Pick
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Derby Day by D.J. Taylor