I’d like to thank Lynn Michell for this guest post about writing about middle-aged heroines. In addition to writing, Lynn runs Linen Press, a small indie publishing house for women writers. She describes this as a fine balancing act “but ever since I saw Elvira Madigan, I’ve secretly wanted to be a tight rope walker”. Lynn’s previous thirteen books are published by Harper Collins, Longman and The Women’s Press, and include a writing scheme for schools and Shattered, a book about living with ME. Those closest to her heart are fiction: Letters To My Semi-Detached Son and her debut novel set in Kenya, White Lies. When not writing or editing, you’ll find her building a house and moving rocks to create a landscape in an oak clearing high above a small village in southern France.
His response made my jaw drop.
‘I can’t sell a novel these days about a middle-aged heroine. No publisher would touch it. Give up. Youth is exciting. Old age is interesting. Middle-aged men are powerful and sexy or going through an existential crisis. Middle-aged women are simply boring and bland. You can put older men in a novel, but forget all about women aged between 40 and 65. No-one wants to read about them. They’re of no interest to anyone. They’re simply not sexy.’
I am paraphrasing somewhat because this conversation took place as he escorted me (a middle aged woman) down some steep narrow stairs and I didn’t want to stumble in shock and break a fragile, aging ankle.
I’ve told this tale to a few female writing colleagues who suggested I should have kicked him where it hurts, but he was not expressing his own boredom with middle-aged heroines. He was telling me frankly that, as an agent, he’d have a hard time selling novels about older women to mainstream publishers. He knows his stuff this guy, and I believe him. No middle-aged heroines.
So instead of weeping my way along the street, I gritted my (filled and capped) teeth and decided to accept his dismissal as a challenge. I was angry. I would not bin Alice Green, my latest middle-aged heroine whom no-one values. Here is a valiant women who, apparently, has no appeal to readers. In real life, as in novels, women of a certain age had better make themselves scarce. We’re useful as grannies and good citizens and volunteers in charity shops. The assumption is that our days of amazing adventures and new creativity are over.
Run, Alice, Run follows Alice’s journey from naive, pretty student at Birmingham University through affairs and marriage to her final chrysalis emergence as a heroic, rebellious, delinquent, fifty-something-year old woman. Why should the young heroines flooding the market keep this excitement for themselves? In Run, Alice, Run you will hear the older but wiser, blackly funny and irreverent voice of female oppression that many people don’t want to attend to.
I wonder if there are other authors out there writing novels with a heroine in the banned age group? Are you going to give her a face-lift and bum-tuck to bring her up to acceptable aesthetic standards and send her on a sexy adventure? Or, knowing no publisher will read your writing if you leave her un-airbrushed, will you put her away in a drawer where no-one can see her? Or you could fast-forward twenty years or so and make her very old. That, apparently, would be acceptable.
Alice Green stays as she is, without cosmetic surgery, without Guardian Soulmates where men of sixty want women in their twenties, without attending keep fit classes for the retired. I won’t give away the ending…but she triumphs.
And this novel with a middle-aged heroine was accepted by several publishers and signed up with IQ Press.
Here’s the blurb:
Respectable, middle-aged women do not embark on crazy shoplifting sprees.
But Alice Green realises that being over fifty is much the same as being invisible, so why not make the most of it? Her head-in-the-sand husband doesn’t notice the mountain of clothes and the piles of stationery. When two police cars draw up outside her house in leafy, upmarket Edinburgh, Alice back-tracks through her memories, recasting the events – and people – who chipped away at her confidence and contentment over the years. What happened between the heady university days and the sad marriage to a husband who gets more excitement from his computer than from his wife?
Run, Alice, Run is an irreverent coming-of-middle-age novel which looks with irony at the way society defines and diminishes women of all ages.
You can buy Run, Alice, Run here.