Most Promising Emerging Alaska Novelist Under 30 Goes To…

MAIA NOLAN!!! (Hear cheers of delight, jeers of envy, the clink of glasses, a murmuring crowd.)

(Note to others turning 30 soon, or 50, or 80, please feel free to request that your name be added here quickly. Now, on to the letter that follows.)

Dear Maia,

While searching for Alaska writer blogs to add to this site, I stumbled across your post today, lamenting how few days you have left (as of today, 10 days) before you turn 30 and miss out on the chance to have your name enshrined on one of our nation’s many envy-inspiring “Under 30” lists. You wished that someone with some kind of power would take care of your dilemma. (I know you were hoping Senator Begich would proclaim something, but I decided to step in — just in case.) The problem has been solved with the announcement above. Perhaps additional honors will be bestowed between now and December 20. If not, be reassured: I know this is just a little blog, but it is read by several hundred people a week, including some really extra nice and smart people, and I hope that counts for something.

We’ve never met, though your name is familiar to me (no doubt because you are a Daily News correspondent) and I was very excited to hear you recently won a Rasmuson grant (those Rasmuson people know what they’re doing!) to help you finish your novel. I’m always hopeful when I read about new Alaska novelists. We have more acclaimed nonfiction writers than fiction writers, and being a novelist myself, I’m always happy for more company. Perhaps New Yorkers stew in envy when other New Yorkers get awards (oh all right, perhaps some Alaskans do, too), but I feel differently.

But that’s a whole different subject, and this is supposed to be a personal letter from a young-ish (I flatter myself) writer who failed to make any Under-30 lists but who is, with a fair measure of contentment, on good days, now a respectably published debut novelist nearing 38. (OK, not so young-ish; in fact today she is visiting the salon to have her gray hairs covered up in time for her own upcoming birthday).

I could tell you about other fine Alaska writers who took a while to get started. Rich Chiappone, who I wrote about yesterday, didn’t take his first writing class until about the age of 38. (If this were a newspaper article, I’d have to fact-check that; it’s a blog, so I won’t). My friend Ellen Bielawski of Anchorage/Edmonton, who wrote and published an awesome first book in her late 40s/early 50s used to laugh whenever people alluded to her — or my — “overnight success” in our fields because we’d known each other’s long stories of toil. Nancy Lord, also profiled here, mentioned a long wait between the publication of her first book and the many that followed. There are many other examples, I’m sure.

Will you indulge me for a moment as I think about where I was at your age, nine years ago? Perusing my daybook from that year, I am forced to recall that I hadn’t even DREAMED of writing fiction, as of December 2000. I was dedicated to nonfiction in those days, and I’d pinned my hopes on making a decent living from writing by my 30th birthday. I had set a specific, extremely modest income goal a full decade earlier, and had told myself I would try for at least ten years and quit if I didn’t get there. In 2000, I still hadn’t gotten there. But I still wasn’t ready to quit. I was living off my writing, but at an income level that was about one-third the goal originally set. In other words, I was bouncing a lot of checks, and going many years between dental appointments, and still fielding well-meaning questions from friends (who are no longer friends) who were curious when I would be willing to get a “real job.”

My other 30th birthday goal was to publish a serious work of creative nonfiction. I would miss that goal, too. But I was working at it. In December 2000, I had written the first half of what would become my first nonfiction narrative, a book that would be published in 2002. I look back at that book now, and can imagine a hundred simple ways I could have written it better, which makes it all too easy to forget that in December 2000, I was desperate simply to finish a first draft. Really desperate. My daybook notes: “depression spell started here.” I was ready to make some Faustian bargains just to have a pile of completed pages in my hand, not because I was worried about messing up my deadline (I did have to extend my deadline) but because I so desperately wanted to be a more capable writer — and still do. Learning to be a better writer — teaching myself via reading and writing — taking the hard knocks and persisting — pushing myself to write more authentically, as well as more ambitiously — consumed me. (And still does.)

It irked me to turn 30 and be so far from the person I wanted to be. Then at the age of 31 I decide to write fiction. I’d barely even read fiction by that point. In high school I skimmed all the lit assignments, which was a shame, because we were reading pretty good stuff — not Orwell or Woolf or “Clockwork Orange” or something that might have appealed to my rebellious side, but good, old-fashioned stuff. My English teacher hated me. Really.

In college, I studied political science and economics. When I applied for an MFA program years later, I was rejected. (Shucks. Now everyone knows.) I had a pretty good feeling that when those “Best Under 35” lists came out, I wouldn’t be on them, either. And I wasn’t. My first novel was published in 2007, when I was 36. Oh well. By then, I didn’t care. (Getting reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and selling a bunch of foreign translation rights did help just a little.)

By now, you’re probably tired of hearing about me, and just in time. I thought writing this blogpost might be a little — weird? presumptuous?– but then I googled the subject of “late-blooming writers” and stumbled across a great article published by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. I took that as a sign. Me and Gladwell, working the same subject, just in time for Maia Nolan’s birthday. Bring it on!

Gladwell tells the wonderful story of a man named Ben Fountain who quit his job as a lawyer to become a writer, and whose early works were rewarded with sensational reviews. But then Gladwell takes apart the timeline, revealing that “Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.”

The rest of Gladwell’s piece looks at genius and prodigy and how talents develop in different ways, at different speeds. If you’re not a subscriber, maybe you should print it out and save it to read at breakfast on December 20.

I’m still a little young to be giving advice, but looking back, I wish a slightly older writer would have told me how long it would take to make it as a writer, just so that I could have been easier on myself, a little more forgiving. Before I published my first novel, I wish I would have read this line from Norman Mailer: “A dreadful book will probably get three good reviews, and a very good book will get six,” so that I understood the inherently mixed reception that greets most published works.

Nearing the age of 38, I feel both more connected and more alone than I ever thought I would feel. More connected to other writers and readers — that has been a kick. And more alone with the work. I wish someone would have told me long ago that no one can help you — not teachers or agents or editors –finally, when it comes down to the work. There are always a thousand problems to solve, and you — the person who knows and cares the most — are the only person who can really solve them. Which doesn’t mean that you don’t accept help, just that you bite the bullet.

I’ve been biting the bullet just a little longer than you, and my teeth and jaws are really messed up now. I need expensive orthodontia — desperately. (Not kidding.) I’d hoped to get it by the age of 40, but then I emptied out my savings in order to fly to Texas and volunteer for Obama last February, which was fun, but not good for my teeth. Maybe I’ll have orthodontia before I’m 50? We all have dreams.

That’s most of what I have to say, Maia, if you’re still reading.

Oh, except for this: Happy Birthday, Alaska’s future famous novelist. We’re all rooting for you.

6 thoughts on “Most Promising Emerging Alaska Novelist Under 30 Goes To…”

  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for the second comment, Joshua/Sharon. But I fear you may be a robot. Why else would you post the same comment twice, except to lure us to your autoloans site? We shall see if you attempt this a third time.

  3. Love this post! My inspiration is Linda Lae Schuler, mother of my former teaching colleague John Schuler (are you out there, John?) who as I recall published her first novel in her eighties. It sold well, and it was on the racy side, too. Imagine.

    Arbitrary deadlines are only good if they prod us to greatness. We do what we must, and hope that sooner or later we also do what we love.

  4. Thank you!!! I’m starting to think the mayor-cum-senator isn’t going to come through for me on this one after all, but recognition from another writer means more than recognition from a politician anyway (even a super adorable politician). I guess I really have to write the sucker now.

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