Writing “Women of a Certain Age.” A Roundtable on Crafting Older Female Characters in Fiction


The idea of exploring mature female characters came to me while rereading Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa, I realized with a jolt, is only fifty-one.There are moments when she feels like a girl of eighteen, but she also sees herself  as “unspeakably aged” and sidelined. This sent me to take a fresh look at A Passage to India, where Mrs. Moore, who a bit of math suggests is in her fifties, is repeatedly described by Forster as “a very old lady.”

Lifespans have obviously changed since these novels were published nearly a century ago; today, few women in their fifties or sixties or seventies think of themselves as decrepit. By contrast, many women in this age-group feel in their prime. On her sixtieth birthday, Ana, the protagonist of my upcoming novel, Ana Turns, does a headstand, walks across Central Park, and visits her lover in his Harlem brownstone. That said, she senses the undertow of time and the entrance to the final third of her journey: an awareness that marks a shift in her consciousness from when she was a girl.

When I first reached out to Julia Alvarez, Fiona Davis, Andrea Lee, and Elizabeth Strout, I suggested a conversation among us as women of “of a certain age” who’ve written about women “of a certain age.” Andrea gently pointed out that there’s something a bit coy about this moniker—and, on reflection, I agree.

–Lisa Gornick

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Lisa Gornick: Is there a term that better captures how you think about yourself and your characters of our age? Can you tell us about one or some of these characters? In particular, how do they view themselves with respect to the timeline of their lives?

Julia Alvarez: Just as your first question arrived in my inbox, and I was wondering, oh dear, how to get a handle on this big question, an email rolled in from a reader who had just finished my last novel, Afterlife, in which the protagonist, Antonia, is an older woman. The reader wrote:

Afterlife spoke to me on many levels. Poetry! Spanish! Culture! Grief! The book came to me at just the right time as it has taken me many life chapters to arrive here. I feel that my life is “kintsugi” putting all the pieces together to make it whole and beautiful.

¡Muchas Gracias!

She gave me my answer! At this point in my own life (seventy-three years old) I too have many chapters behind me and if I’m lucky a few more to go. My kind reader references “kintsugi,” a Japanese concept of “repair” that does not try to hide or “beautify” the broken places and pieces, the wear and tear, scars and losses in our lives, but instead embraces them.

It’s a concept that my protagonist in Afterlife, Antonia (my same age!) finds helpful in moving forward with her life after enduring many losses. Writing about Antonia was a way for me to understand and embrace the fullness of this time in our lives. Aging has brought a lot of aches and pains and failing body parts but the view is incredible! To quote the African-American activist Ruby Sales (seventy-five): “I’ve now got hindsight and foresight and insight.”

My kind reader references “kintsugi,” a Japanese concept of “repair” that does not try to hide or “beautify” the broken places and pieces, the wear and tear, scars and losses in our lives, but instead embraces them.

What I aspire to in this stage in my life is being an elder. All of us, if we live long enough, will grow old but only a few will become elders. This elderhood is something we make of ourselves, not a given. It means, as with kintsugi, that we gather all of ourselves (no cherry-picking allowed!), our many layers, chapters, and embrace them and use them in service to others, most especially the younger generations that need our support, our high spirits, our solidarity going forward.

I no longer feel that burning ambition to make something of myself, to please others whether it’s my immigrant parents, or a love interest. Instead I am who I am, no monolithic impermeable self, but a changing, work in progress, and sometimes regress. That, too, has to be embraced, as we are bound to keep getting it wrong. There is no road map for getting old, as there was none for growing up, but we were given road maps by others, which often led us astray. So here’s to these discoveries and recoveries.

I love the last line of Wendell Berry’s fabulous poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: Practice resurrection. I aim to do just that, repeatedly all the way to my grave!

And along with resurrection, gratitude! So, to my life, all of it, I’ll again quote my kind reader:

Muchas Gracias!

Elizabeth Strout: The two characters that I have written who are older are Olive Kitteridge and Lucy Barton. It’s interesting because as I wrote them it was their character that was most important to me, and their age was simply a piece of that character.  So even though I knew I was writing about older people I didn’t think about that in a way, except to make sure they were always who they were.

Andrea Lee: Since it is a truth universally acknowledged nowadays that prosperous people in developed countries are leading longer and healthier lives than ever before, one question that arises is: does living an active life for longer mean that we simply have more time to expand our period of immaturity, or does it mean more time to acquire—or attempt to acquire—wisdom?

In my writing, I’ve always found it most interesting to portray characters in pursuit of knowledge, whether consciously or unconsciously; it’s a pursuit usually situated on the path toward an encounter with the Other—whether that otherness is defined by race, social class, culture, or sex. I’ve written fiction and nonfiction about expatriate life in Russia and Italy and other foreign countries, as well as about being Black in white spaces in America.

Red Island House, my latest novel, is about neocolonialism in Madagascar, and its main character, a Black American professor named Shay, is on a spiritual journey to understand her ancestral relationship to the continent of Africa, as well as to confront her own privilege as a prosperous citizen of the first world. This personal progression, which is contained within the story of an Indian Ocean island increasingly exploited by foreigners, runs over two decades, from Shay’s late twenties to her early fifties, passing through marriage, divorce, the raising of children and building of a career.

To me the passage of the years for Shay was something subsumed into her gradual awakening into knowledge, empathy, and connection to the hard truths of the rest of the world. In my narrative, the subject of Shay’s age is directly discussed only once when her attention is drawn to the contrast between her healthy forty-five-year-old body and that of her friend, a Madagascan woman who at the same age is already worn down by poverty, childbearing and overwork.

Thus this contemplation fits directly into the larger themes of the novel. In general, I find that I wanted Shay’s journey into awareness to be more timeless than chronological. By the end I wasn’t really counting her years, but trying to guide her into becoming smarter, braver, more perceptive, and more compassionate.

Fiona Davis: It doesn’t seem fair, somehow, that older men are considered “distinguished,” while women are deemed “of a certain age.” In a number of my books, the younger female protagonist has a counterpart in an older female character, usually one with a juicy secret or two. They might have health issues that should’ve knocked them down, but didn’t, and they might be fiery but are never bitter.

“Seasoned” is an adjective that comes to mind, but not like a roast chicken. More like “having lived through many seasons”—harsh winters and satisfying summers—with more to come. They’re not wise old sages, offering advice to the young ‘uns. They reject pity and own their choices. I like to think my seasoned ladies are still changing and growing, possibly learning from their past mistakes—or not. They’re sharp and funny and drive fast.

LG: Julia refers to the Japanese concept of kintsugi: embracing “the wear and tear, scars and losses in our lives.” It reminds me of another Japanese concept, wabi sabi: the acceptance of imperfection and impermanence. Both ideas are deeply appealing to me as a woman with lines on her forehead and the fragile pages of decades-old books on my shelves.

It doesn’t seem fair, somehow, that older men are considered “distinguished,” while women are deemed “of a certain age.”

As a writer, however, I’m driven by perfectionism. Like many writers, perhaps you included, I revise and revise and revise. With my fourth novel, twenty-seven drafts; with Ana Turns, I can’t count. My aims for my work have expanded and grown more difficult to achieve.

Having approached my first novel with the mistaken notion that it would suffice for my characters to be fully developed, I’ve over time become increasingly interested in the architecture—the interplay of narrative arc and structure—of novels. Now, with my work-in-progress, it’s dawned on me that it might be enlarged by having a conscious awareness of the questions the novel will pose early in the writing process rather than only recognizing them post facto.

How about you? Have your attitudes towards and aims for your work changed over time? Has there been a shift in what interests or concerns or excites you, in what you want and don’t want to do? Is this reflected in those of your characters, who, as Fiona puts it, are seasoned in the sense of having lived through many seasons?

AL: There comes a low point in every writing project where everything I’m doing seems confused, useless, boring, and trite—to me, and potentially to any reader. The great thing about having written a lot over the years is the simple fact of being able to say to myself: “This happens every time, and every time it somehow passes. You’ve gotten through it before, often, so please shut up and keep plodding along.”

I didn’t come up with these majestic words of wisdom—my daughter did, when she was tired of hearing me whine. But they are effective, because they are true. They keep me aware that I have wallowed countless times in the horse latitudes of creativity, and every single time discovered that they do have an end. Always.

Thinking of this reminds me of another advantage gained in writing over a number of years: as time has passed, one is likely to have been joined in life by someone close—a long-time friend, a lover, an editor, a blunt-spoken daughter—who will do you the immeasurable favor of telling you the unvarnished truth. And to stop whining.

FD: In terms of process, I used to write a first draft straight through, without looking back or editing at all. I needed that momentum to get me through the shock of facing a blank page day after day, as the first draft is my least favorite part of writing a book.

In my latest manuscript, however, I did a light edit of each chapter once it was finished. By now, I’m familiar with the aches and pains of the first draft—they don’t frighten me anymore—so I can take the time to polish as I go along. It made the first-draft read-through much more satisfying, and I plan on doing the same going forward.

Another way my current manuscript is different from my previous books is that female friendships are the focus, not the love interest. I have a sixty-year-old unwillingly teamed up with a nineteen-year-old in order to solve a mystery, and I’ve enjoyed focusing on the way they interact and play off each other as women of different generations and backgrounds. Their romantic lives are now minor subplots, which is not a choice I would have made ten years ago.

ES: Again, I have to keep coming back to character.  All I seem to care about is getting my character right.  I am not thinking about themes or things I “want to” write about.  I just let my character go, and see where she takes me.  In my older characters, like Olive Kitteridge and Lucy Barton, they take me places, naturally, that younger characters could not go. But I confess to having no “ideas” as I am writing, just the women who I am writing about.  Or men. I have written about some older men as well.

JA: In my writing life, “everything has changed and nothing has,” to quote my friend Jay Parini. Writing was/is/ and I suspect evermore shall be a labor, even if it is of love (mostly). It’s hard work to try to put into words the complexity of any single character and situation. So that’s a given.

What has changed is that as an older writer, I know more, have more experience, more self-knowledge: so there’s more to encompass and take into consideration in what I write—that 360-degree view Ruby Sales talked about, many more kintsugi pieces to piece together—and I have less stamina, gumption (I’m more humbled by the challenge of how to render justice to my characters and their stories) and or competition towards my characters than I was aware of as a younger writer. In fact, I want my characters to be smarter than me!

My two most recent protagonists, Antonia in Afterlife and Alma in forthcoming The Cemetery of Untold Stories are older than my protagonists in earlier novels. A big part of that is I write to understand and make meaning of what I’m up against in my own life. I wrote How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, my first novel, because back then there weren’t many stories about the immigrant experience from a female point of view. And I desperately wanted to understand that experience for myself and others. So I wrote into that gap. I find the same silence surrounding truly complex and vital older women protagonists.

As for wabi sabi? Acceptance of imperfection, oh yes. I remember when I was stuck on how to tell Antonia’s story and later Alma’s, a writer friend sent me to Leonard Cohen “Anthem”:

forget your perfect offering
there is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in!

LG: There’s a wonderful phrase that Lauren Groff used to describe one of her characters: “She’s not not me.” Groff was referring to the relationship between memoir and fiction and the “biographical fallacy” of presuming if a character’s biography is similar to the author’s, the two are one.

In Ana Turns, I appropriate the idea for a different purpose when Ana, on her sixtieth birthday, thinks about her reckless young self that she’s “not not me.” At times, she sees herself as a tree trunk with concentric circles—at core, unchanged. At other times, the transformations seem more disjunctive, like a caterpillar to a butterfly.

Liz returned in her response to character: “All I seem to care about is getting my character right.” We all have characters we’ve depicted over time. For example, we are with Liz’s Lucy Barton as a young child, locked in the cab of a truck with a long brown snake, screaming and screaming until she can hardly breathe, and then decades later, as an established author whose first marriage was ruined by affairs, firmly telling her married daughter to not make the same mistakes.

When you think about your characters—and yourself—how do you see the connection between younger and older selves?

ES: Such an interesting question. Experience helps make us who we are, or at least it’s one part of what makes us who we are. I’ve had readers ask to see Olive as a child, so they can understand why she is the way she is. But Olive is Olive. She arrived to me in her middle-age, and got older under my watch, and I have no desire to show her as a child. I’m not sure why, but to my mind, that would not be interesting. She’s Olive. Period.

My two most recent protagonists, Antonia in Afterlife and Alma in forthcoming The Cemetery of Untold Stories are older than my protagonists in earlier novels. A big part of that is I write to understand and make meaning of what I’m up against in my own life.

But Lucy Barton came to me in a different way, and so I included her younger experiences. This is because they were very much a part of the story (to me) in a way that Olive’s childhood was not (to me.) Who knows why I made the decisions? I feel in a certain way they were made for me, in so far as the story I was telling required, or did not require, these details.

FD: In my book, The Spectacular, the connection between younger and older selves is very much present throughout. One timeline involves a nineteen-year-old Rockette dancing at Radio City Music Hall in the 1950s, while the other features the same woman in the early 1990s, as a fifty-five-year-old. I truly enjoyed writing about a wide-eyed innocent learning the ropes of life in New York City, as well as mining the ruefulness that I feel when I look back at my life and some of the choices I made as a young woman.

The personal connection to Marion is a strong one, as the health issues the older Marion is coping with—Parkinson’s—are my health issues as well (although she’s much further advanced). Although it’s really only a subplot in the novel, I was interested in exploring what it would be like for a dancer (someone who is used to having full control of her body), to lose that control. Young Marion has the freedom to look outward and seize every opportunity, while older Marion is required to redefine her place in the world and how she plans to move through it.

JA: Your question, Lisa, instantly sent me to the wonderful poem, “The Layers,” by Stanley Kunitz, written in his seventies. (He went on to become Poet Laureate at ninety-five. I find a lot of his poems about aging resonate with me.) Stanley writes:

I have walked through many lives, some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

I think it’s important in creating complex characters to give readers a sense of those layers. Everyone has a back story, or rather, back stories. Of course you can’t unload them all on your readers, you have to be selective. Like the speaker in Stanley’s poem, I believe each character, myself included (!), has “some principle of being which abides.” A through-line. Not quite Lisa’s “unchanged core,” because that through line is changed by what it goes through—the story I’m telling or living as a person.

In writing down that character or in living my life, I have to make choices about which layers to highlight and include. “Live in the layers, not the litter,” Stanley says later in the poem. Selection is important—we don’t want to litter our stories with details and information our readers or the people in our lives don’t need. The choices a character makes about what to carry forward on the page and in the life tell us a lot about that person.

AL: For me there’s no disjunction between past and present in the way that I conceive my characters, and the way that I think of myself. I think Ana’s tree ring analogy is wonderful: always expanding, yet in some way always the same. Or, I tend to think of the character I am creating as a river of which the beginning and end are out of sight.

Heraclitus famously observed that one never steps into the same river twice, and certainly every river is always moving and changing—yet there is something ineffable that makes each an individual and particular river: this quality could be described as name; identity; or even, soul. The fact of constant change is part of the nature of the river, but so is its identity, which is a kind of permanence—timelessness.

When creating a character going through different life stages, I try to address the interplay between endless variation and that which stays the same. The whole thing is paradoxical, and so is every human life, as we live it, and as we attempt to write it.

LG: Ann Tashi Slater has been interviewing writers for her series in Tricycle​, ​”Between-States: Conversations about Bardo and Life​.” Whereas I was familiar with the idea of bardo in Tibetan Buddhism as the passage from death to rebirth, in her interviews, Slater explores a more expansive view of the concept as “between-states,” including moments “when we go into the zone while doing creative work.”

The phase of life we’re talking about—no longer young, not yet old—might be ​considered a bardo state. As Fiona wrote, Marion in The Spectacular is redefining ​​”her place in the world and how she plans to move through it.”​ ​Shay in Andrea’s Red Island House is facing a crisis in “her carefully fabricated notion of a marriage of distance and tolerance.”

Antonia in Julia’s Afterlife is a recent widow, isolating during a time of profound mourning, while Lucy in Liz’s Lucy by the Sea, also recently widowed, is thrust into the collective liminal state of the pandemic​. In my own Ana Turns, Ana is at a watershed ​moment where she could​ continue to nurse resentments and anxieties​ or, perhaps, enter her seventh decade in a freer, more generous way.

Does the idea of bardo resonate with how you imagine your characters—these or others—and ​think about yourself? 

FD: I think, as we get older, we begin to incorporate the past, present, and future into a kind of rolling bardo state: worrying about what’s ahead, ruminating on what came before, all while trying to live in the moment. But I think that makes for a rich character in a novel. You might have a protagonist who is trying to solve a problem in the present while drawing on her past experiences in order to do so.

I think, as we get older, we begin to incorporate the past, present, and future into a kind of rolling bardo state: worrying about what’s ahead, ruminating on what came before, all while trying to live in the moment. But I think that makes for a rich character in a novel.

As an author, I love it when the character pulls me back in time and begins telling me about something that happened before, knowing it will impact on what she’s going through in the current timeline and in the final chapters. To be in a rolling bardo state is to be free-flowing, almost as if time doesn’t exist.

JA: Your question, Lisa, helped me understand and give a name to the characters I find the most absorbing to write and read about. They are characters in the bardo, in liminal, in-between states, neither caterpillar, nor butterfly, with the jury still out on who or what will emerge or not emerge at all. “Characters in conflict are the most interesting,” one writing teacher used to coach us—that tension and uncertainty keep us turning the page, even when the conflict is seemingly under control or submerged and suddenly triggered by something that happens.

It’s why I have often written about bicultural/bilingual characters—and aren’t we all bi- this and bi-that, or maybe myriad this and myriad that (“I am large, I contain multitudes”). Everything is pending, everything is in the offing.

Antonia, my protagonist in Afterlife, is suddenly widowed, she has just retired from a long professional life as a teacher in a classroom. The solid ground under her feet has vanished. “Who am I going to be anymore? Antonia asks her sister after Sam’s memorial service. The rest of the novel is her lived answer to that question.

So bardo states are ripe for fictional picking. That said, I confess they’re not much fun to live through! All that confusion, commotion, the abyss opening at my feet. Get me out of there! So, it actually can be fertile writing time, as I’ll do anything to get myself out of there, including spending long hours at the desk, building a tentative footbridge for myself word by word, chapter by chapter.

AL: All of my life I have been fascinated by the idea of liminal dimensions of existence—locations which are neither one place or another–whether they are conceived of as the Buddhist bardo; Christian purgatory; crossroads; thresholds; Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden; or C.S. Lewis’ Wood Between the Worlds—(absolutely my favorite place in all the Narnia books.) These are all environments of great power and peril: fonts of vision and creativity, places of transformation, opportunity, and change, where the wayfarer can encounter both gods and demons. (There is a reason why, in countless cultures, doorways have their guardian spirits; and why Robert Johnson met the Devil at midnight—another liminal space—at a crossroads.)

For me personally, this interest in a chimerical location between worlds connects with having grown up in a mixed-race African American family, where we habitually moved back and forth between different social and racial settings. Once when I complained to my older brother about not feeling completely at home anywhere, he said: “But that’s what’s so cool: we get to see both sides—more than most people.” So, instinctively I’ve always created characters who are somehow out of place, striving for balance on the seam of two realities.

This is true whether the character is a black child studying in a white school, or an expatriate living in Europe, or my Red Island House heroine Shay, an African-American woman who finds herself adrift in Madagascar, a place bafflingly different from her naive visions of an ancestral continent. To me, protagonists in liminal situations are always the most fascinating, because they are, willy-nilly, gaining knowledge and undergoing soul-deep transformation; without his stormy heath, Lear would certainly remain a vain and petty-minded old man—and not even a very interesting one.

LG: As the retort to bellyaching about getting old—”What’s the alternative?”—highlights, aging is synonymous with living. Nonetheless, the word is rife with paradoxes. On the one hand, aging connotes diminishment and breakdown. On the other, it suggests wisdom and refinement: aged whiskeys and ukuleles are improved​.

Recently, a friend told me about her decreased appetite for social interaction: after two hours at a party, she’s ready to pack up and go home. Was this, I asked, because she has less energy and a shorter attention span, or because she is more discriminating about what is worthwhile and more confident about asserting herself—because she finds the reading she commonly does upon her arrival home more nourishing than a third hour of chit chat? ​(Perhaps you hear the echoing of “more” as opposed to “less​….”)

Did you ever write about women of ​your age ​now ​when you were younger—and, if so, do you think you got it right? Was there anything you got wrong? Anything you’ve learned from living with ​your characters ​who are now your chronological peers?

ES: Well, this makes me remember that I wrote my first Olive Kitteridge story when I was forty-one years old.  And Olive was a great deal older than that. I had forgotten that. But I did not have trouble writing about her—because I saw her (and heard her) so perfectly. I was fifty-three when the book came out and I remember people in the press saying how interesting it was that I was so young (ha!) to write about someone so much older.

When I wrote Olive, again she is a great deal older than she was in the original Olive, and I was sixty-two as I started that, so she would have been at least twenty years older than me. But again, I just felt that I knew her so well I could do it, and I have no memory of wondering what it was like to be her age, she just was who she was.  And my job was to get that down.

What’s interesting is that since having written that book certain things—like the fall Olive takes—I realize from my own experience I got right with Olive. I mean, I thought I had it right, but it turns out I did.

AL: When I was about thirteen, I scandalized the English department at my all-girls school, by composing, in florid couplets, a Stephen Vincent Benét-esque poem, in the voice of a retired courtesan looking back fondly on her career during the Civil War. (The assignment had been to write a monologue by an imaginary wartime survivor.)

Improbably, Molly Polk, my fictional harlot with the heart of gold, has been the toast of both the Union and the Confederate armies, and is known by adoring troops in blue and gray as “the Union Rose” or alternatively, “the Dixie Belle”. Not only this; my Molly is a pacifist, who believes that “Yankee and Rebel were merely two names” and that love-making could dissolve the universal plague of war. (“If only I could have held them all!” she laments of her boys in—and out—of uniform. “Would they have answered the bugle’s call?”)

Since I knew little about sex work (and sex in general) except what I’d read in romance novels, my brothers’ Playboy magazines, and the books of Colette, I envisioned Ms. Polk as a glamorous ex- grande horizontale, like Gigi’s Aunt Alicia: serene, earthy, yet philosophical, enjoying her sunset years while lounging in silk-hung salons earned with her ill-gotten gains. Above all (and this is what seemed to have annoyed my English teacher the most), Molly feels no shame in her reminiscences, but remains jauntily pleased with herself: (“Well, they got my love, and I got their money/And my life since the war has been smooth as honey”.)

Looking back now on this nearly forgotten creation, I’m a bit impressed that I was able to invent such a multifaceted older female character, when I myself had barely passed through puberty. Like many characters I’ve created since, Molly is a person who crosses borders, in this case both military and moral, and disregards social expectations. In hindsight, I wouldn’t change anything about her—except, perhaps, to make her biracial, a trait that would resonate with the Civil War setting, and make Molly still more a borderline personage.

In any case, Molly may be the fantastical and faintly comic product of a teenage imagination, but this sketch depicts a woman whom I wouldn’t mind having as a friend—or even a muse. Free-spirited, wise, raunchy, and pragmatic, with a touch of enduring idealism and more than a touch of glamour, to the adult me she represents timeless qualities that remain valuable throughout any historical period, as well as through the different stages of any woman’s life.

FD: My first book, which I wrote in my mid-forties, featured a character in her eighties. The story had dual timelines, which meant that I also wrote about a seminal moment in her life as a young woman. I’m very glad about that, as otherwise I don’t think the older version of her would have been as three-dimensional.

By writing the earlier timeline first, it became a little bit like when you run into someone from high school: instead of noticing the gray hair and wrinkles, you see the “ghost version” of them as a seventeen-year-old. The ghost version of my character as a young woman was very much present as I wrote the eighty-year-old’s scenes, with all of the old hurts and resentments – as well as the joys of that earlier time—bleeding into the aches and pains (and wisdom) of having lived for eight decades.

JA: Once again, Lisa, your question/reflection helps me understand myself and my characters, Antonia in Afterlife and Alma in my upcoming novel, The Cemetery of Untold Stories, and what I thought was a quirk only they and I shared, less appetite for social interaction. Antonia and Alma (and Alvarez) are writers and feel less desire to be out there in the book biz world, making a name for themselves, or hanging out at dinner parties, exchanging pleasantries or jockeying for attention.

Old age does bring richness and accumulation of memory and experience. But it’s also about stripping away and getting to the heart of the matter.

When talking about Alma and Afterlife I often referenced the Japanese aesthetic of stripping away excess (as in a haiku) so that what remains is charged. Old age does bring richness and accumulation of memory and experience. But it’s also about stripping away and getting to the heart of the matter. Socializing without intimacy can be exciting but also exhausting. “Who has the time for the litter?” to return to Stanley Kunitz’s quote. The rich layers, the sweet core, more and more that’s what I’m after.

Even as a younger writer I was always interested in older folks, especially women. Maybe it was that I grew up in an extended family in an oral culture and our viejitas were our libraries, our storytellers, and often the ones with more time to give to us children. That said, writing about women my age now (seventy-three) when I was younger, I can see I often romanticized them or flattened them. I didn’t inhabit them in the same full, achy way I do now that I am spending time in a body with many of its parts reaching their expiration dates.

They also were not the front-row center character, who was usually a younger woman. If an older woman was narrating, she was looking back and telling us about her life as a younger self.

One last thing: when my agent finished reading the draft of my upcoming novel, The Cemetery of Untold Stories, he called it “feral.” I loved the term. I no longer wanted to tame or tidy the wildness and mystery by exerting too much control or caging my characters in too mannered a style or too monitored a plot. I’ve spent a lifetime in this craft. I wanted to get out of my self-constructed and safe craft corral.

At one point, Alma, the protagonist, asks herself about what old age as an artist might look like on the page—what some critics refer to as “late style,” often a term used condescendingly. As an older writer, I am more willing to take risks now that I’m no longer in the running for world’s darling writer. I never was, and never will be, and so be it.

What a relief.  And the irony is that although I can no longer run fast and bending brings on a debilitating jab of pain in the joints—and I can’t do handstands like your Ana—I have more internal freedom than ever before.



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