Penelope Lively


For a minute I felt a little like Lana Turner must have felt as she sipped her Coke at a Hollywood drugstore counter and heard the guy sitting next to her say, “Would you like to be in movies?” I’m guessing she turned, smiled brightly, said “Yes,” as he took her by the hand and led her away to fame.
I sat in a wicker chair, so dry-mouthed I had to force my lips to open. No drugstore, only the Pacific mumbling below us. “I like the sound of your story.  Will you send me the manuscript?” I licked my mouth, tried to curve it into a smile. “Yes.” The NY agent walked me to the door and into a life of fame. But first I had to find a glass of wine or at least a Coke so that I could celebrate, tell the news to my friend.
We had spent the day at a writers’ workshop listening to a speaker tell us how we should write our next novels. I fidgeted. I couldn’t relate. I had finished my next novel and I had paid the fee to pitch it to the guest agent. I waited two sweat-palmed hours for my fifteen minutes with her and with destiny. “Send me the manuscript,” made the year of writing, the long workshop, the wet hands, the dry mouth all worth while.
I went over each page one more time, incorporated some of the changes one of my Beta readers had suggested, and created a title. The Long Road, I decided late one night. Done. Punched “Send” and flung my book into the world. Then I waited for fame––or at least a response from the pleasant young woman who had nodded through my halting synopsis in that ocean-fringed room.
“We get three hundred queries a week,” she had warned. Then she added, “We are a small agency. We bring out about four or five books a year.” For days I tried not to think of the odds. I went for walks, drank a little too much white wine, was so crabby that my husband escaped regularly to the bakery down the street for a little peace and his New York Times.
On the tenth day, I opened my emails and her name appeared.
It was not a standard everyday rejection. She referred to the great weekend at the beach. She had read The Long Road, liked it, but. . . “But I’m afraid that I just didn’t get that breathless sense of connection while reading your pages, and that’s the kind of enthusiasm that I need to summon when I decide to go to bat for a book.”
Fair enough. I know about that breathless sense of connection. I’ve experienced it in books I’ve read and loved, the ones I wished I’d written. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, the first half of Penelope Lively’s bio Dancing Fish and Ammonites, come to mind. These stories are my kind of stories, about the lives of older women. Perhaps I’d do better with an agent over sixty instead of a smiling twenty-something.
But I’m questioning whether I’m brave enough to risk further attempts to find an agent. Or tenacious enough for more rewrites of The Long Road, breathless connections in mind. When I decide,  I’ll have my summer’s work laid out.

It’s Been a Quiet, Reading, Thinking Month, a Waiting Week

It  makes sense that my books’ protagonists are older women.  I‘m interested in older women because I am one.  I also read about women who have survived the traumas of being young and are now facing the uncertainties of age.  So, I expected the three books I chose last month at Powell’s to have been written by writers like me. Old ladies. Not true. And all three books have found permanent spots in my bookcase. I’ll read them again and again for pleasure and for contemplation.
Dancing Fish and Ammonites, a memoir by Penelope Lively, describes being eighty so truthfully that I had to refrain from reading the first few chapters aloud to my sleeping husband. “You get used to it.  And that surprises me.  You get used to diminishment, to a body that is stalled, an impediment?  Well, yes, you do…” Reading it, I felt I’d found a sister, one who writes about being old a lot better than I do. Not an old lady, a vital one.
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf, tells of a brave seventy-year-old woman who visits her widower neighbor and asks him to sleep with her. He does.  It is a wonderful story of love, family, and the realities of being alone, aging. Haruf wrote this in his seventies, his last book, published posthumously.
Rabih Alameddine tells the story of An Unnecessary Woman,  who lives alone, unfriended, in an apartment in Beirut as war circles around her workroom where she translates classic translations into Arabic and then places her manuscripts in boxes in a back room to be read by no one. I had to look up Alameddine’s bio to confirm that this gorgeously written, sensitive description of an isolated old woman, was written by a man.

When I tried to place book covers on this post, my computer started writing in Greek. Really. I  believe this was punishment for stealing images from Amazon.  I’m trying again. As one of my books states, “It’s never too late to. . .”  whatever, even  become a thief.  And I’m thinking that it’s time to get back to the rewrite of the untitled manuscript in front of me––right after I attempt this little diversive crime . And finish Elizabeth Strout’s new novel lying open on my chair.


This week I received six novels for which I paid one cent each.  Of course I also paid the postage ($3.99), and the novels all look much used and written upon and eaten over. All were on Amazon, on the “other listings” section, the prices beginning at one cent and going upwards.  Only one was on Kindle. They arrived one by one from bookstores all over the country like gifts from unknown lovers.  Book lovers, that is.
I decided a month ago to write some sort of article about the paucity of novels about old ladies, my genre.  I can think of quite a few books about old geezers, written and applauded around the world. J. M. Coetzee, Wallace Stegner, John Updike  come to mind, probably because they are on my bookshelves.  As for women, only Olive Kitteridge is tucked in with the S’s.  Books by women of all ages, of course.  About?  Not really.
When I Googled “books for older women,” I found lists of publications discussing the possibility of sex after sixty, beauty aids one can find in one’s refrigerator, and one entitled Get Your Balance Back with Yoga.  No novels except a few tepid romances for women of a certain old age. I know they are tepid because they are rated as warm, not hot, certainly not burning.
Then I Googled “Novels about older women” and found a list of books from a number of countries, most published before ebooks existed.  All but one were written by women. All for sale for one cent.  I ordered the six or so that sounded good, even though I didn’t recognize most the authors. The copyright dates stretched from the l960’s to 2006.  For many of those years I was changing diapers and going to PTA and not thinking about getting old, just getting through the day. 
I’ve read three of my new/old books and have scanned the rest. I love them. Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel, May Sarton’s As We are Now, Penelope Lively’s How It All Began are piled on the Find a Good Place for These Books corner of my desk. The other pile is teetering on the bedside table waiting for this evening when I turn on the bed light and choose one of them. 
What I’ve decided, with this research, is that my own three novels about old ladies are important contributions to the genre Literature for Older Women. I can only hope that one way or another women who are wondering what’s on the path ahead will find them and accept their messages of courageous exploration—on Amazon, on Kindle, or on the one-cent table of some internet book store. 

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