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Ageless authors: No plans to retire

Tom Wolfe
(Mark Sliger/AP)

Tom Wolfe (Mark Sliger/AP)

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Philip Roth, 79 and looking fit in recent photographs, has said that after looking back on his long and prolific career he decided he had written enough. The novel “Nemesis,” published in 2010, apparently will be his last.

Other authors, some of them years older, are carrying on.

Elmore Leonard, winner this year of an honorary National Book Award, is 87 and says the prize inspired him to write more novels. The winner of the National Book Award for poetry, David Ferry, is 88. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, 81, had a novel out in the spring and has said she’s working on a new one. Tom Wolfe’s “Back to Blood” came out this fall and he has more fiction and nonfiction planned.

“Being an octogenarian is just a hobby of mine,” Wolfe, 81, says with a laugh, “something I do at night.”

Just this fall, new works came out from 97-year-old novelist Herman Wouk, 93-year-old poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and 90-year-old historian Bernard Bailyn. Author-playwright A.E. Hotchner, 92, has a book of essays about aging due in February. The first novel in more than 30 years by James Salter, 87, will be published in April. The first novel by William Gass, 88, since 1995, is expected in March.

“I think that the barriers have pretty well fallen,” says Hotchner, whose career dates back to adapting the stories of his friend Ernest Hemingway for 1950s television productions. “When Hemingway died, he was 61 and he really looked old. Writers used to fade out by the time they were 70. A phenomenon like Herman Wouk was virtually unheard of.”

Hotchner and others say that thanks to better medical care and cleaner living, creative expectancy has never been higher. Nathaniel Hawthorne was just 59 when he died, in 1864, and had described himself as “wrinkled with time and trouble.” Some of the greatest 20th century authors, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to John Steinbeck to William Faulkner, were heavy drinkers and never made it to 70. Gass likes to joke that authors now live longer because of “better booze.”

“During the 1950s, the academic world was full of people who drank too much,” Gass says. “The parties were cocktail parties and pretty potent. Now, there are dinners with nice wines.”

“Ernest [Hemingway] said that life is like a bank account and how you use it is your determination,” Hotchner says. “You can withdraw it in a hurry and live a very short life. Or you can be more careful, not that you baby yourself, but that some moderation is necessary.”

Wouk’s editor, Jonathan Karp, says that Wouk has always taken good care of himself. The author’s first book came out more than 60 years ago, but his lifestyle has remained steady — work, family and religious faith, studying the Torah daily. The author of such favorites as “The Caine Munity” and “The Winds of War” keeps up with modern trends, working in Skype and text messages for his latest, “The Lawgiver.”

“He has such vitality,” Karp says. “I was on the phone with him the other day discussing our publishing campaign for about an hour and he finally ended the conversation because his personal trainer had just arrived.”

Gass says that he had heart problems a few years ago and may well have died without receiving stents, a procedure unavailable before the 1980s. The author of “Omensetter’s Luck” and other books didn’t simply recover, but had the mental and physical power to expand a short work of fiction into his new novel, “Middle C.”

Salter’s upcoming novel is called “All That Is,” the story of a book editor and his romances that retains the themes of erotic exhilaration and emotional distance of such previous works as “A Sport and a Pastime” and “Light Years.” He has worked through much of his ’80s on “All That Is,” aware that at a certain age the mind does not quicken or expand, but also compelled by nature to continue.

“You can’t stop writing,” says Salter, who notes that Roth is reportedly in active correspondence with his biographer, Blake Bailey. “Even if you say you’re not writing books anymore, you’re making notes, perhaps writing in your journal. I dare say, even when you feel, ‘Christ, I can’t do it anymore,’ you’re still observing life and taking things in. You’re thinking, ‘I’d love to write that story. I wonder how I’d do it?’”

AP



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