Writers aging like fine wines

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 | CBC

Author Herman Wouk then and now: The 97-year-old author has just come out with a new novel.

Prolific author Philip Roth has recently called it quits, declaring that his 2010 novel Nemesis is his final one. The 79-year-old novelist has scooped up numerous awards over his long career including a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, the Franz Kafka Prize in 2001 and the Man Booker International Prize just last year.

While the average Canadian worker retires at around 62, many professional writers continue to produce critically acclaimed, award-winning work well into their 80s. Now, putting pen to page or tapping away on a typewriter or keyboard isn't the most physically taxing way to make a living, but it still requires a sharp mind and disciplined approach. The Associated Press recently compiled a list of 80+ writers who haven't shown any signs of slowing down.

Elmore Leonard, 87, began writing westerns in the 1950s, including the short story Three-Ten to Yuma, before moving more towards crime fiction. He's written more than 10 books since 2000, with his latest novel Raylan released earlier this year. He also received the National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution this month, which he says has only encouraged him to continue writing.

Poet David Ferry also won a National Book Award this year, at the age of 88, for his collection Bewilderment.

Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison's latest novel Home came out this spring, and she has said she's working on a new book. She's 81.

This past fall also saw a new release from Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk, 97. His novel The Lawgiver is an epistolary narrative about a group of people trying to make a film about the life of Moses. The story unfolds through letters, emails, Skype transcripts and text messages.

Author and playwright A.E. Hotchner is still going strong at 92, with a book of essays about growing old due in February. Hotchner, who is well known for his friendship with Ernest Hemingway and for adapting his stories into TV programs, says writers today have the advantage of better medical care and tend to have healthier lifestyles, and that creative expectancy has never been higher.

"I think that the barriers have pretty well fallen," he told the Associated Press. "When Hemingway died, he was 61 and he really looked old. Writers used to fade out by the time they were 70. A phenomenon like Herman Wouk was virtually unheard of."

Some of the most celebrated 20th-century writers, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Steinbeck to William Faulkner, were heavy drinkers and never made it to 70. Author William Gass, 88, likes to joke that authors now live longer because of "better booze."

"During the 1950s, the academic world was full of people who drank too much," Gass, who has written several books since 2000 and has a new novel coming out next year, said. "The parties were cocktail parties and pretty potent. Now, there are dinners with nice wines."

"Ernest [Hemingway] said that life is like a bank account and how you use it is your determination," Hotchner said. "You can withdraw it in a hurry and live a very short life. Or you can be more careful, not that you baby yourself, but that some moderation is necessary."

-With files from the Associated Press