Kirsty Gunn: Older women can still be next big thing in literature

Novelist Mary Wesley was a phenomenon, having her first novel published at the age of 70
Novelist Mary Wesley was a phenomenon, having her first novel published at the age of 70
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I have long thought that older women need to have a greater presence in Scottish literary life.

The publishing world is full of the stories of the first-time writer, the ingenue, some impossibly young thing who’s bashed out her first novel or perfect collection of poems while still in her 20s. The photos show model-like features and wide-eyed surprise; the CV is impressive but short.

Of course we have the great dames of literature – our Val McDermids and our Ali Smiths and Janice Galloways and Denise Minas – who continue to shock and amaze us with their literary productivity and skill as the years go on. However they are not exactly ‘older’ in the way I mean and are far and away from being newcomers on the scene. They’ve done time on the fields of photo-calls and profile pages, the best of the under 30s lists and the rest of it. They’ve well and truly arrived.

No, I am talking here about first-time writers who are definitively, from the outset, older women, who are coming to the game late, and yet still receiving the same amount of attention as the new kids on the block. Where are they? I remember talking about this a while ago with Sara Hunt, publisher at Saraband – one of Scotland’s most inventive and forward-thinking publishers, sadly recently moved to England, another story about publishing, there … Sara and I concocted together the theory of … what might we call it? Instead of Chick-lit, Granny-lit? For why should all the first-time female novelists be younger? Why couldn’t they be of retirement age or older? Wouldn’t readers, many of whom are grannies and grandfathers themselves be thrilled with such an idea – that writers could hit the writing scene well after their last grandchild had flown the nest?

Yet examples of that happening remain scarce. Mary Wesley, the English writer, comes to mind, producing her acclaimed “Camomile Lawn” when she was in her 70s. And Euripedes, who I found out recently only came to composing his great tragedies in his later years – his world changing Oedipus trilogy was written when he was in his 70s too. But one’s English and the other’s an Ancient Greek. Where are our Scottish women of years? Where are the writers of the silver era newly arrived to wow us in 2018?

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Well, she doesn’t have silver hair – she’s a glamorous blonde – but she is a granny and a terrific writer, and just now published her second novel, a year after her first, with clever, clever Saraband. Claire MacLeary whose “Burnout” – a novel about sexual abuse in the Weinstein era – was launched in Dundee last week, and whose previous novel “Cross Purpose” was shortlisted for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year, is openly celebratory of her years and what can be achieved “at a

certain age”.

Claire was a student of mine. I still think of her as a poet, and remember the wonderful short stories she wrote in class that, I have no doubt, will be appearing after – or perhaps alongside! – her duo of older fictional female detectives have solved their next crime. I’d met her first at one of the many literary events I host in Dundee with friends and colleagues like Eddie Small and Gail Low – and she was the reason I’d had that conversation with Sara those years ago. It was clear to me then that here was someone who had what it took – tenacity, imagination, verve and a great sense of fun – to be a successful writer.

All that was needed was for someone in the publishing world to overcome certain prejudices that exist out there in the marketplace about the profile of a first-time writer.

For though the world is being shaken up a bit – with issues of inclusivity dominating the headlines, pushing further and further at the boundaries of what was always considered “normative”, that dominant mode – age-related discrimination is still casting a shadow. Claire’s is a great story – but it’s one that kicks the trend – and it depends on a great publisher like Sara Hunt and Saraband to demonstrate the imagination and intelligence to include, in her roll call of authors, a demographic most certainly represented in readers, but less visible when the posters go up for First Timers at festivals and literature events.

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As we start turning our minds towards the mighty Edinburgh Book Festival, that might be something to consider. I am already feeling the sense of excitement that’s in the air when we see the tents go up in Charlotte Square – and it’s only

March! The Book Festival is like that, I think. An annual fixture so prestigious, and formal and grand and international – the UK’s oldest book festival after all – that feels, nevertheless, first and foremost like a party. I do wonder if this is due in part to what I call the “Square factor”, everything enclosed so nicely within a certain configuration of Georgian streets … that this creates a sense of concentration, focus, as though we’re all in the same party in the same room?

I know the festival is spreading out now, and there are events in venues down George Street and elsewhere, but still, the beautiful Charlotte Square mood prevails. This year I think I might buy a dress for the occasion, and I can drive down from Sutherland and change in the car outside. My friend Jennifer Clement will be over from Mexico reading from her amazing new novel – and it’s nice to think how I met Jennifer in that same Charlotte Square a number of years ago now, when she was one of the winners of the then Canongate Short Story Competition. Herself a mother of two, and only turning to writing seriously when her children were older and leaving home, she’s now president of Pen International and “Gun Love” is her fourth novel. So we might add her name to that wonderful inclusive list that casts out the prejudice of age! Time flies, but time also, in Charlotte Square, seems magically, perfectly, stilled. I look forward to seeing a host of older and younger writers and readers collected together on the grass as if we are all the same. Which, in the end, we are.