Kate Gilmore on Perseverance and Writing at Midlife (Writing for the Long Haul series)

Kate Gilmore had already had careers in theatre and as a legal secretary before she came to writing fiction in her fifties. She joins the long haul series today to talk about her winding path that led her to a professional writing career—and the ways in which that path has continued to wind since then.

Although I spent much of my time in college writing plays and vaguely planning a life in the theatre, it was not until my 52nd year that I saw myself as a professional writer for the long haul. The idea arrived suddenly and took root in what most people would regard as poor soil.

My husband, Jack, was taking a vacation from tedious, annoying work as a high level programming consultant and writing a book about the early days of computers. I was sort of supporting the family as a legal secretary. This was a specialty I had acquired during a previous hiatus in the family fortunes—the time when I finally decided I would have to do something to make money. I was a terrific typist who could spell and construct a grammatical sentence, so temp work led to law offices and more substantial jobs. Thus at 52 I stood on the threshold of an actual career. There was still a lot of drudgery and much to learn, but I found the law interesting, and my final group of lawyers loved me.

So what happened to derail this attractive scenario? Well, I was in Central Park and, I think, contemplating a poem, when I realized that all I wanted to do was write and write and write, whether paid and admired or ignored and periodically impoverished. I have no idea why this happened but suppose it must have been bubbling along in my subconscious for some time. Obviously, I would have to give up my job, a major (and exciting) decision.

On an impulse, I asked an old friend to help me make up my mind. “Sally,” I said, “Jack has accepted a new and very well paid consulting job, and I am longing to stop working and write. What do you think?”

This query had a predictable outcome. Sally, who had known us for some years, pointed out that the consulting job would not last forever and said I should stick with my new career. “Think benefits,” she said, “and perhaps even some modest old age security.” I thanked her warmly and the next day gave notice to my three well-loved lawyers, one of whom actually shed a few tears. I was off to write for the long haul.

Did I ever regret this decision? Not for a minute that I can recall. Jack and I continued our chicken-feathers existence (chicken one day, feathers the next), and I began a novel that I intended to publish. I wrote, pretty much through thick and thin, using temp jobs to stuff in the cracks.

My first book was a teenage caper inspired by our fourteen year old son, who was leading a colorful and, to us, alarming life as a graffiti artist in the New York subway system. It told of a small group of middle class kids whose ambition was to paint the word PEACE in glowing, graffiti style letters on an international jet plane. Of Griffins and Graffiti was great fun to write, but I failed to take into account what was then, in the 80s, a rabid hatred of all things graffiti, the art as well as the trash, the people who produced it, and, of course, my jolly little book. This loathing was felt throughout the entire publishing world so far as I could see during a year of sending it around, but eventually it occurred to me that the Brits might not feel the same, and Penguin, at that time entirely British, snapped it up.

I don’t think that manuscript acceptance or rejection is any faster now in the electronic age than it was when my early books were making their stately way through the mail, over the transoms and into the slush piles where they awaited the attentions of a “first reader”. Houghton Mifflin mislaid my second book during this process, but eventually it was found and appreciated by a senior editor, Matilda Welter, who promptly called me. I shall always remember the sound of her voice, which was somehow both silvery and warm, when she told me that Remembrance of the Sun was beautiful, and she would love to publish it. There was only one problem, and I was to do as I thought best. In those days HM had a rule that young adult novels should not be more than 200 pages long. That left me 200 to cut. I gulped and agreed.

I learned a lot from Matilda Welter, not only a lot of clever ways to cut so a manuscript would appear shorter than it really was, but many ways to get rid of stuff that even I, after the initial pain, would never miss. We waged small wars, most of which I won, over what she sometimes felt was my too literate English, and we had increasingly luxurious lunches together as management came to admire my writing and Matilda published three more of my books.
It was a halcyon period for someone who was rapidly becoming addicted to writing. The books were extremely various. Even the research was fun, and I still have all the books I acquired for the ones I didn’t know much about. Two others were rooted in my life experiences—not memoirs but also not from the entirely invented world of the novel.

Remembrance of the Sun was the fictional story of the love affair between an American teenage girl and an only slightly older Iranian boy on the verge of the revolution that overthrew the Shah. I was there at that time with my family; and I had as well an intense, if strictly imaginary, emotional involvement with an Iranian man.

Then, after the admittedly splendid Enter Three Witches was written and published, came Jason and the Bard, drawn on my summers with Shakespeare Under the Stars and, like the Iran book, researched only in my head. This one was fun for me but not popular, having been judged “elitist” because the young actors and stage techs spouted Shakespeare (as I happened to know they would).

The Exchange Student, about a young traveler from a planet that had lost its animals, took me five years to finish what with delightful research at various zoos and the study of many books. Nevertheless, my still faithful publisher gave me a contract and waited patiently.

Matilda, for health reasons I had not understood, retired after the publication of The Exchange Student. The disastrous effect of losing one’s editor is an old story I have since heard a number of times and can confirm. The editor I inherited did not want my next book about an American girl stranded in Venice, so I published it on Nook and, typically, did nothing to sell it.

Then came the recession and a wretchedly new Houghton Mifflin where the idea of two sequels to The Exchange Student was entertained and then dropped. In this climate it was folly to even contemplate writing two unwanted books, but once I had the idea I plunged like a retriever into a duck pond and wrote steadily for another five years.

And now, at last, I have arrived at the theme of this blog. I have had trouble getting my trilogy published and expect to have more, but what a joy it was to write those sequels! Others have said it, and I will add my two cents worth: When I am working on a novel I feel a kind of deep contentment, a self-confirmation. Writing is, I think for most of us, extremely hard work. Yet I am glad to get up in the morning and go to my computer and begin again to do what somehow I feel I am meant to do. Yes, even if there is a problem, a block, a part that doesn’t work, I tell myself that it will resolve. The story will flow on, and the pleasure will still be there.

Kate Gilmore lost her heart to the theatre as a student at Antioch in the 1950s, where she participated in at least 80 theatre productions and took on nearly every theatrical task, from writing to directing to prompting. Along the way her verse play, Dark Wind Light Wind, was performed as the senior project of her friend Niela Miller. After college she went on to write more plays until meeting her husband, mathematician and computer game designer John Gilmore. She spent the years that followed living in New York, Italy, London, Iran, and rural New Hampshire while raising their two children.

She sold her first novel, Of Griffins and Graffiti, at the age of 50-something and has gone on to publish five more books since then, including Remembrance of the Sun and Enter Three Witches. She’s also written a series of science articles for teens for Earthwatch expeditions focused on subjects ranging from Australian frogs and Madagascan lemurs to cocoa farming in Ghana and medicinal plants of antiquity.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts

Kelly Bennett on Quitting Writing
Pete Hautman on the book that will save us
Elena Acoba on touching reader lives
Steve Miller on building a writing life
Sharon Lee on remembering we’re not alone
Betty G. Birney on always challenging ourselves
Nora Raleigh Baskin on making deals with the writing gods
Sean Williams on unpredictability and luck
Deborah J. Ross on writing through crisis
Sharon Shinn on managing time
Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

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