I finished writing ‘Her Name is Rose’, in the summer of 2013. It was published in New York this past April, 2015 two days after I turned 61. I’m what the industry calls a late bloomer, and although it feels as if I’ve lived a few life times, I am not really a late bloomer at all. I’m just having a second flush. A bit like a delphinium in early summer. Give her a little fertiliser, cut her back, and she blooms again in September. This time I’m blooming as a debut novelist.
To complete a novel, have it published, and reach book stores is achievement at any age. There are many hurdles to leap. It takes stamina, self-belief, somewhat of a thick skin, and a good bit of luck. Consider the journey of the salmon. It’s a miracle.
In my own case, a book deal with a major publishing house in New York came within a year of the novel’s completion. A Polish publisher is bringing it out next spring and it will also appear in Turkey sometime in 2016. I had hoped it would be picked up by a UK or Irish publisher. But to date it hasn’t which is more than curious to me as ‘Her Name is Rose’ is about an Irish widowed mother, a garden journalist living in the west of Ireland and facing a health scare. She goes in search of her adopted daughter’s birth mother. It’s a journey that takes her to Boston and back to the west of Ireland. The publishers, Saint Martin’s Press, likened it to Maeve Binchy, but I’m afraid it’s not like the great Maeve. Nor is it a thriller or speculative fiction or a murder mystery. It’s a story, just a story about hope and heart and what do you do when the plot of life takes a turn for the worst. In a starred review ‘Publishers Weekly’ said “Breen’s characters immediately invite the reader to go on a heartwrenching journey that’s enhanced by her skillful plotting and authentic, lyrical descriptions… A moving first novel.”
However, coupled with the excitement of being published was the disappointment of not seeing my book in an Irish book store. That’s where having a thick skin comes in useful, which I’m developing, as well as a supportive network, which I have on two counts: being married to an Irish novelist and being a member of The Prime Writers.
Interest about novelists publishing their first book, not in their 20s or 30s but after they’ve hit the big 40, (or the bigger 50, or the enormous 60) is growing. Claire Fuller, author of ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, was recently awarded the Desmond Elliot Prize for best debut novel. She’s a year shy of 50. Vanessa Lafaye’s ‘Summertime’ was picked up by Richard and Judy’s Best Summer Reads. Both are members of a group of debut novelists whose first novel has been published, or will be, in or after their 40th year. The group was founded by Antonia Honeywell, author of ‘The Ship’, after she proposed it on Twitter. The call was answered by many. Turns out there are a good few of us older, first-time novelists out there. The Prime Writers has a supportive membership with over 60 writers, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a website. I think numbers are blossoming.
Should it matter what age an author is? On the one hand it seems not. It’s all about the story. But built into publicity and marketing is a bias towards younger writers because publishers want to be part of a novelist’s career. They want to brand and build and market. It is somewhat rare in this celebrity driven and corporate world for a book to journey out with little or no publicity and end up on the best seller list, although, quite wonderfully, salmon do get through. But the older the salmon, the harder it might be.
I have experienced a very rich life in my 60 years and I believe I have a lot of ‘story’ left in me. My second novel is underway and I have big hopes for it but the continuation of building my career as a late blooming novelist depends on me writing. And I like writing. The rest is beyond my control, like a lot of things. The experience of getting my novel published fulfilled a lifetimes’s ambition. But it wasn’t uncomplicated. It coincided with an emergency operation, and a diagnosis of colon cancer, followed by chemotherapy. And although all that threw me off course for a few months, I realised that one of the things that writers have to do to stay alive is write. I’ve begun again. Started a new novel. I’ve returned to the river.
This article first appeared in BooksIreland Sept/Oct 2015 issue.