Everyone’s favorite lowlife laureate actually started off pretty young — his first short story, “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,” was published in Story magazine when he was only 24 years old. Two years later, he published another, but he had become disillusioned with the whole process and quit writing for what he later referred to as a “ten year drunk.” In the late ’50s, he began to write poetry, and even published a few books of it with his friends, but it wasn’t until 1969, when Bukowski was 49, that publisher John Martin made him a major offer. Bukowski quit his post office job and published his first novel, Post Office , in 1971, 51 years old.
Donald Ray Pollock
Pollock has garnered a lot of recent attention for his debut novel, 2011’s excellent The Devil All the Time , but not everyone knows that the author isn’t your typical promising young whippersnapper with a short story collection and a first novel. He dropped out of high school at 17 to work at a meatpacking plant, and then spent about 32 years working at the Mead Paper Mill in Chillicothe, Ohio. Eventually, he enrolled in the Ohio University’s MFA program, and the year before he graduated — the same year he turned 55 — he published his first collection of short stories. His novel, which helped him pick up a Guggenheim fellowship, was only three years behind.
It’s amazing to us that one of the greatest short story writers alive didn’t even start to think about being a writer until she was 30. Eventually, while quitting smoking three packs a day cold-turkey, she picked up a pad and paper, and with a little help at home, began to figure it out. It’s an ever greater feat then that her first collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency , came out in 1986, when Eisenberg was 41.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
It makes sense to us that Wilder would have started rather late — after all, if her Little House on the Prairie books are as autobiographical as they say, the lady had a lot of living to get through before she could put it all to paper. She actually began writing around age 44, working as a columnist, and had a pretty successful freelance career. But it wasn’t until 1931, when she published Little House in the Big Woods , that Wilder really made a name for herself, both in contemporary circles and for decades to come. She was 64.
William S. Burroughs
Though Burroughs’ friends — Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, among others — were always encouraging him to write (and indeed, he and Kerouac collaborated on a then-unpublishable mystery novel in 1945), the icon didn’t really start until he after he killed his wife in a game of William Tell in 1951. As he later wrote in Queer, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” His first book, Junky , was published in 1953, when Burroughs was 40. Naked Lunch appeared six years later.
DeWitt’s excellent debut novel, The Last Samurai , was published in 2000, when the author was 44 years old. In an insanely hectic and amazing “interview” with the LARB, which we can only highly suggest you go read, DeWitt writes, “I spent nine years in Oxford (B.A., D.Phil., JRF), then decided I could not face the enforced specialization of academia. Spent seven years working on various novels, trying to combine this with various jobs. In 1995 I decided this must stop. I had 100 novels in fragments, including a 300-page single-spaced MS with terrible structural problems. I quit my job: I would write till money ran out. … Thought: OK. I can’t work on this book. I will write a novel with a simple structure that can be FINISHED. I will set aside a month and write with NO INTERRUPTIONS. (Story: Son of single mother, obsessed with Seven Samurai, goes in search of better father than the one fate provided.)” The rest, as they say, is history — sort of.
In 1932, when Chandler was 44 years old, he lost his job as an oil company executive and (apparently) thought to himself, “well, better become a detective fiction writer.” He published his first short story in 1933, and his first and most famous novel, The Big Sleep , in 1939. We’ve never been so thankful for the Great Depression before.
Mary Anne Evans shook tradition in many ways, not least by becoming the assistant editor of a left-wing journal, to which she also contributed many articles. Near the end of her tenure there, and disappointed with the works of fiction being written by women at the time, she resolved to become a novelist herself, kicking things off with a manifesto entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Just three years after this, and as a youngster compared to some of the others on this list, Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede , when she was 40. Middlemarch would not be published for fifteen years.
Burgess had a little bit of everything going on — he began his career as a literary critic, writing treatises on the greats (Hemingway, Joyce, Shakespeare, etc), he wrote multiple screenplays, and he composed hundreds of musical works. Not to mention the fact that he was a master linguist. Though he eked out his first foray into fiction — Time for a Tiger , the first novel in what would be his Malayan trilogy — in 1956, at age 39, he didn’t write the book that would earn him his spot in history — A Clockwork Orange, of course — until 1962.
Marquis de Sade
We don’t know about you, but we always sort of picture the Marquis de Sade as a young libertine overflowing with libido and an anti-establishment itch. Of course, he was this, and got up to lots of trouble — but he didn’t write his first novel, Justine , until he was 47, and imprisoned in the Bastille (see what we mean about getting up to trouble?). An extended version of this first literary work was published a few years later, when Sade was 51.