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10 World-Famous Writers Who First Found Fame after 45

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Do you feel like you’re getting up there in years? Maybe you haven’t achieved as much as you were hoping to accomplish by this point in your life? Perhaps you look around at your friends, family members, and colleagues and see them producing things while you seemingly sit by the wayside? Well, don’t get too down about it. Because plenty of people from history found fame after their 40th, 50th, and even their 60th birthdays! And if it was possible for them, why can’t it be possible for you, too?

Sure, you probably won’t turn into a professional athlete after 40 or 50. And we don’t know of too many 60-year-olds who break into the pop music biz. But there are plenty of other ways to leave your mark late in life! Take writing, for instance. Many writers come to the profession at various points in their lives and don’t make a mark until the second half of their time on earth. Maybe that makes perfect sense. After all, it takes maturity and focus to write novels—something many of us lacked in our younger years.

So, in this list, let’s take a look at ten late bloomers in the publishing industry. This list of ten literature legends runs the gamut as far as places of origin, genres, and styles. But all these writers have one thing in common: They all first found fame after they turned 45 years old. Talk about patience and perseverance!

Related: Ten Famous Writers Who Have Mysteriously Disappeared

10 Laura Ingalls Wilder (65)

Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page | American Masters | PBS

The famed American author Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 years old in 1932 when she published the first of her eight famous Little House on the Prairie books. That first one, known as Little House in the Big Woods, was centered on the story of Laura’s early childhood years in Wisconsin.

The book became a big hit with readers nearly immediately, and Wilder was pushed to continue the rest of the series. That she did, and over the next decade, she published seven more books in the run—nearly all of which became massive hits. By the time she turned the ripe old age of 76, Wilder’s run was done, but she would be remembered forever for her contributions to children’s literature.

Wilder’s story is actually even a bit more interesting than that, though. She began writing professionally in her 40s when small farming publications in rural Missouri paid her to write stories about agriculture and business. She had no idea about being a novelist, though. Finally, in her early 60s, she wrote her first novel Pioneer Girl. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane was already at the time a successful author, and she tried to help her mom break into publishing late in life.

However, publishers roundly rejected Pioneer Girl, citing it as too depressing—what with the Great Depression just starting up and all. Laura persevered, though. And thank goodness she did! Who knew that she would entirely make her name and build her reputation after the age of 65. Unlikely—but true![1]

9 Charles Bukowski (51)

Don’t Try – The Philosophy of Charles Bukowski

In 1971, Los Angeles-based author Charles Bukowski published his novel Post Office through the local independent printing press Black Sparrow. The novel was based on Bukowski’s eleven very difficult (and very darkly funny) years working for the U.S. Postal Service in LA.

Nearly immediately, it became a success. The book sold nearly 100,000 copies in the United States thanks to major critical acclaim for its raw nature and no-punches-pulled writing. It then sold another 500,000 copies abroad, cementing Bukowski as an urban writing wonder. And to think it took him all of 51 years of his life to get to that point!

Bukowski’s path to success is an interesting one for a few reasons, though. Not only did he finally find literary success after 50, but he really only found a lasting legacy after death. Bukowski wrote many novels and many more poems in his lifetime, but most were roundly rejected by publishers. Black Sparrow kept at it, though.

By the time Bukowski died in 1994, most of his work had been published by that independent press and others. In a strange twist of fate, Bukowski is now more popular three decades after his death than he was during his lifetime. And it all started with a late-in-life publication of a novel about working for the government delivering mail in Tinseltown![2]

8 Richard Adams (52)

Watership Down and Richard Adams Documentary

Now-famed British author Richard Adams was already 52 years old before he published his first-ever novel, Watership Down. The book is a children’s literature classic by now. It’s about a group of rabbits who go out in search of a new home after their original warren was destroyed. And it’s a notably creepy book, which intends to scare and spook kids who read it—and it does its job quite well.

The book was first published in 1972, well after Adams’s 52nd birthday. The story had been percolating inside his head for a while, though; he perfected it before writing it down and publishing it by telling it to his daughters during a long car journey. They loved it, and were terrified by it, and wanted more. Eventually, they helped encourage him to publish it so other kids could enjoy it, too. And, well, the rest is history!

Watership Down went on to quickly become a bestseller after it was published. Tens of millions of copies were purchased all around the world and in multiple languages. The book was even made into a movie, with the film version of Adams’s tale debuting in 1978. Just like the book, it also featured graphic, apocalyptic scenes of impending doom for these poor little bunny rabbits searching for a home.

And just like the book, the film both enthralled and terrified children who went to the theaters to see it. Adams died in 2016 at the ripe old age of 96, so he lived a long time after his very late rise to fame. But still, it took more than five decades before he broke through. Could you stick it out that long?[3]

7 J.R.R. Tolkien (45)

Tolkien – The Father of Fantasy Documentary

It’s easy to imagine John Ronald Reuel Tolkien as a superstar literary genius, considering the legacy he has left in the world. After all, his children’s book The Hobbit is an all-time classic. It goes without saying that his series The Lord of the Rings is one of the most-read (and, on the big screen, most-watched) stories of all time.

Tolkien was incredible at creating rich, inventive, and epically impressive fantasy scenes in all his works. His writing is so thick with descriptions, character motivations, and plot twists that it seems as though he should have always been so famous. How could a talented writer like that stumble through obscurity well into his 40s?

That’s exactly what happened, though. Tolkien was born way back at the very beginning of 1892 in the city of Bloemfontein, South Africa. For the next several decades he wrote and worked and wrote and worked, but he didn’t enjoy any massive public breakthrough. Then, in 1937—at the fast-ripening age of 45—he found it.

In 1937, The Hobbit was published. Immediately, it was very well-received by audiences. But Tolkien had not only time on his side; he also had patience. He painstakingly worked out his storylines in The Lord of the Rings for nearly two more full decades after that, only publishing them in 1954 and 1955.

Thankfully, he lived a long time, finally dying in 1973. But two things were for sure during his long life: He loved to put pen to paper, and he wasn’t afraid of diving deep into the process and letting it go on for as long as it needed to until a story was perfect—no matter his age![4]

6 Raymond Chandler (51)

Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles documentary

After serving in World War I, Raymond Chandler returned home to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. There, he tried his hand at writing poetry, but nobody wanted to buy what he was selling. So he eventually started a job working as an accountant for a company called Dabney Oil Syndicate. That job became more and more a part of Chandler’s life, and by the mid-1920s, he was earning more than $1,000 per month—a massive sum in those times—as an executive for the LA-based firm.

Chandler found respect and admiration as part of his executive gig, too, and it seemed like he would live out a solid life in that way. But then he went off the rails a bit. Chandler began drinking heavily, and he was womanizing outside of work hours despite being married. His performance on the job suffered, too, and in 1932, he was fired from Dabney at the age of 44. Oh, and of course, that was right in the middle of the Great Depression. Not a great time to be out looking for work!

Seeing that his life had turned south, Chandler decided to get his behavior under control. Shocked and embarrassed that he’d been fired, he gave up drinking and tried to get his marriage back in check. More than that, he turned his attention full-time to writing. He began writing crime stories, and right at first, he found a buyer.

In December of 1933, he sold a story called Blackmailers Don’t Shoot to the publishers of Black Mask magazine for $180. That was good money for a time, but it didn’t last. Chandler had to grind out story after story in near anonymity for years and years after that. Eventually, when he was 51 years old, he wrote the crime novel The Big Sleep. Published in 1939, it became a major success and spawned Chandler’s late-in-life career as a crime-and-police detective novelist.[5]

5 Frank McCourt (66)

Frank McCourt interview on “Angela’s Ashes” (1997)

Born in New York City in 1930 and having spent much of his early life both there and in Ireland, Frank McCourt lived out a series of hard-earned, tough labor jobs on docks, in warehouses, and later, in banks. Eventually, as he grew into his 20s and 30s and after a stint in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, he moved from blue-collar labor to teaching students in New York City.

McCourt eventually graduated from New York University in 1957 as a 27-year-old undergraduate. Then, he began teaching at high schools all across New York City. His longest gig was as a regular English teacher at Stuyvesant High School—a place he finally settled in for the long haul after failing out of a Ph.D. program at Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin.

It was a big surprise to him, his students, and the rest of the world, then, when he published his memoir Angela’s Ashes in 1996. And it was an even bigger surprise when immediately upon publication, the memoir became a bestseller.

Dealing with his impoverished and brutal childhood in both Brooklyn, New York, and Limerick, Ireland, the memoir touched on the Great Depression, immigrant culture, and family heartbreak. It earned McCourt the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1997, as well as one of the National Book Critics Circle Awards that year. It was also made into a movie three years later.[6]

4 Mary Wesley (70)

Morning Motivation: It’s NEVER too late – with thanks to “Wild” Mary Wesley.

British author Mary Wesley got a very, very late start in life. Being born way back in 1913, she was already 70 years before she published her first novel in 1983. Appropriately titled Jumping the Queue, that novel wasn’t the most popular of her works/ However, it spawned a succession of rapid-fire follow-ups that gave her a strong legacy.

Over the next nine years, Wesley put out one book annually, including popular novels The Camomiles Lawn, Harnessing Peacocks, A Dubious Legacy, and Not That Sort of Girl. With those works between her 70th and 80th birthdays, Wesley made herself a name—and a fortune.

Before she died in 2003 at the age of 90, Wesley was remembered by the literary world for the quirky humor and sharp wit in all her writings. Three of her novels were optioned and filmed for British television, too, so her legacy lived on well beyond the printed page. She was even appointed CBE in 1995—a massive honor and one unthinkable for most who get their start in their careers at 70 years old.

While not a name always known well by American readers, Wesley is still well-regarded in Britain, and for good reason: Her novels are funny, unique, original, and well-plotted. It makes sense; she had 70 years to work it all out in her head![7]

3 Bram Stoker (50)

Bram Stoker: Resurrecting the Vampire

Bram Stoker was 50 years old when Dracula came out in 1897. The Irish-born author had spent his lifetime up to that point working as the personal assistant for actor Sir Henry Irving. Stoker was also the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End—a theater owned and operated by Irving.

To make matters even worse for the actor, Irving had a big role in Stoker’s life in many ways, including his (obviously mistaken) belief that Dracula was going to be a difficult story to sell to the public. Irving told Stoker that he might not find success in the theater or anywhere else in the literary world with such a brazen and spooky tale.

Of course, that was incorrect. When Dracula went on sale in London in 1897, it proved to be a very big hit nearly immediately. And in the decades since then, it’s only ever gotten even bigger. Today, Dracula continues to be read by millions of people worldwide. It has also been adapted into nearly countless plays and movies and woven into and reworked as part of other short stories and novels.

The cultural effect of Dracula on storytelling and, specifically, Gothic horror is nearly too great to even begin to analyze. That Stoker stuck it out and finished the novel even despite Irving’s early misgivings is a great thing for the world. What patience and perseverance![8]

2 Anna Sewell (57)

The story of Anna Sewell and Black Beauty voiced by Dame Joanna Lumley

English novelist Anna Sewell’s mark on the literary canon is the groundbreaking 1877 novel Black Beauty. Originally intended for an adult audience, Sewell’s work has found a lasting home with children from all over the world. But the amazing part of the story about the gorgeous black horse isn’t in its themes, which center on animal cruelty and the humane treatment of beasts like horses. Instead, it’s the fact that Sewell wrote the novel when she was 57 years old—and quite literally on her deathbed.

Late in her life, Sewell had become very concerned with the treatment of animals as she’d observed around England during the 19th century. So the author (who was born in 1820) resolved to write about it. There was just one problem: She was so physically weak with a variety of medical ailments—hepatitis and/or tuberculosis likely among them—that she couldn’t write very well on her own.

Thus, lying in bed and just months from death, she enlisted the help of her mother. Anna would dictate the novel to her mother seated beside her, who would then transcribe it onto paper. Amazingly, the process worked. By the end of 1877, Black Beauty was published in England, and it quickly rocketed to success. Sewell was 57 years old, and the first (and only) novel she was to pen had reached fame.

Sadly, though, she wasn’t around much longer to enjoy the spoils of it. Her health had greatly deteriorated during the writing process, and by early 1878, her body was nearly spent. In April of that year, she died at just 58 years old. Thankfully, Sewell got to see some of the impact Black Beauty would have on the public. But she not only got a very late start in the literary game—her light was snuffed out nearly as soon as it lit up brightly for the world to see.[9]

1 Henry Roth (58)

Henry Roth: Unveiling New York’s Secrets | Writers & Novelists Biography

Undoubtedly, Henry Roth and his novel Call It Sleep occupy the strangest spot on this list. The novel, which is about a young boy growing up in a heavily Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of New York City in the very early 20th century, is a rough biography of Roth’s own life. He published the book in 1934—a few years before his thirtieth birthday. So, knowing that, he shouldn’t be on this list, right?

Well, there’s much more to the story. See, after Roth published the book, a couple literary critics realized it was a masterpiece. The problem is that pretty much nobody in the general public thought so. Nobody bought the book, it never made any bestseller lists, and almost immediately after it was published, it faded off into obscurity. Roth faded into obscurity, too. He continued to write but not to publish, and for decades, nobody ever heard from him again.

Then, in 1960, literary critics once again found Roth’s book and decided to re-review it. The world-changing move came in 1964—after Roth had turned 58 years old—when the book was given a glowing review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Prior to that, it had been out of print for nearly three full decades. Publishers rushed to re-acquire the rights, and later that year, its paperback edition sold more than one million copies as readers surged in to devour the book they’d all so long ago missed.

In time, its legend has only grown. In 2005, TIME Magazine listed Call It Sleep as among one of the 100 best English-language novels written in the last one hundred years. It has since been solidified as both an American classic and a Jewish cultural must-read. Roth himself died in 1995 as an unlikely (and very late) literary genius.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen