Books

She’s 80 Years Old, She’s Furious, and She Just Published Her First Book

Jane Campbell on why more angry, sexy old ladies is exactly what the publishing industry needs.

On the left, a charming-looking older woman with gray-blonde hair smiles at the camera, her right hand raised to her chin. On the right, the cover of her book Cat Brushing, showing a somewhat wrinkly hand wearing a big bright blue stone on a ring running its fingers through thick gray hair
Photo illustration by Slate. Author photo by Ian William.

You might say that, at 80 years old, Jane Campbell is a literary late bloomer. But you also might say, as the poet Sharon Olds once did, that “anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” Fresh off the late-summer publication of Cat Brushing, her well-reviewed book of short stories, Campbell spoke to Slate about being an 80-year-old debut author and why more angry, sexy old ladies is exactly what the publishing industry needs. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Heather Schwedel: You published a debut book of short stories this year at 80. Were you writing all along, or did you start writing more recently?

Jane Campbell: When I was about 8, I wrote an ode to a peanut by a squirrel. I don’t know if that answers your question. Yes, I’ve written all my life—poems, nothing very grand, short stories, a few novels, a novella, and so on. But actually, “Cat Brushing” was the first short story I’d ever tried to write. And I wrote that when I was 77, so it took me a while to get there.

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It not only got published, but it became the title story in your collection.

Yes, indeed, because it was very well-received. The London Review of Books, which doesn’t often publish fiction, decided to put it out. And then I got an agent who said, “Write more stories about old women.” And we went on from there.

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When you wrote that story, did it feel different to you? Did it feel like something clicked? Is that why you were confident enough to submit it to the LRB?

I do wonder about my hubris in a way. To be honest, I was on holiday in Bermuda. I was staying with my eldest son. Nothing in these stories is true—it’s all fiction—but the settings are very accurate, because I was on holiday with my eldest son and his lovely wife, and he had two cats. One was called Lucy. Lucy liked being brushed, and I was brushing her. Now, my son was at work, my daughter-in-law was away. I was alone in the house. And I just began to develop the idea of the story. And I spent the next four days probably doing nothing else but write the story. And at the end of it, I looked at it, and I thought, “This is a damn good story. I am going to send it to the London Review of Books.” I’m a devoted fan of theirs. I believe I knew their editorial style. I just thought they might take it, and marvelously, they did.

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I knew it usually took six months before you heard anything. And actually, I heard, I think, within three weeks. I got this letter from Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then the editor, saying she really liked the story and she’d like to publish it. I think she did think of it as a diary piece. I think she thought initially it was literally true. And I was very pleased with that, because it means it sounds convincing. And then we explored it a bit more. And I said, “No, it’s not true. I am old, but luckily not housebound. My son would definitely never ever kill the cat. Nobody’s cruel to me, and I’m not incontinent.” And so she realized it was fictional. So she published it as a story.

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What about all the other writing you mentioned? Can you tell me what your writing life was like in the decades leading up to now?

OK, I think there’s one word, really: random. I didn’t work hard at writing. I didn’t. I never thought I’d do it as a job. I never thought I’d be lucky enough. First of all, I was a housewife looking after my four children in Bermuda, wishing I could go back to England. Then I did get back to England. Then I did my training as group analyst, and then I was very busy doing that. However, all my life, if I heard a quotation that interested me, I’d write it down. If I was in a situation that interested me, I’d record it. I’m a compulsive involuntary writer. And I have, trust me, oceans of notes all over the place, which everyone will have to throw away when I die. But I just can’t stop recording my life.

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Your agent had advised you to keep writing about older women. Was it hard to come up with more stories?

I think partly it’s because I am an old woman. And a lot of them were written from the point of view of anger. Dorothy Sayers wrote, a long time ago, a paper, “Are Women Human?” She was trying to persuade the patriarchal world, which was even worse in her day, that women were people, that they were human beings. And I think that old women are kind of othered in a curiously destructive way, in a way that probably old men aren’t. Are they quite human? Are they subhuman? Are they full human beings? And what I wanted to say, from quite an angry point of view, was, yes, old women are totally functioning human beings. And, I will add, if the stories have made any impression at all, it may be because I took my old women, and I put them in standard situations that any 40-, 50-, 60-year-old might find themselves in. They’re looking for relationships. They’re trying to cope with families. They’re dealing with ill health, they’re afraid of loneliness, and they’re confused by death. And they’re just doing what anybody would do. The fact that they’re old doesn’t change that.

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Does publishing a book now mean something different to you than it would have meant when you were younger? If you had published one of your early works?

Truthfully, no. I frankly don’t think it’s any different. The only thing is, I suppose if I’d done this when I was 40, I might have had six more books in me. I don’t know how many more books I’ve got in me, but I don’t feel that they’re drying up yet.

Does any part of you bristle at your age being one of the main things that is mentioned in marketing materials and reviews of your work?

I have learned to think of it as a “USP,” a unique selling point. Publishers have been very good to me. If they managed to sell books by emphasizing my age, I’m all for it. Do I mind? I’ve never minded being my age, by the way, I’ve always thought I was just very lucky to be fit and healthy and still alive. But some of my friends have said, “Oh, didn’t you mind them saying you’re an 80-year-old?” And I thought, “No, I don’t, actually.” And in a sense—this sounds arrogant—I’m a slightly good model, because it means that old women are human. And not only are they human, they’re also quite articulate. They can put one word in front of another. They can even get a book published. So we really are human beings.

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Even in a supposedly staid field like publishing, there are always writers who are sold as the next hot young thing. Do you think we’re too age-obsessed in general and in publishing? Are you surprised there aren’t more 80-year-olds making their debuts?

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I don’t know. Perhaps the publishing world on the whole is prejudiced against older writers. Maybe they send in their stuff and somebody looks and they say, “Oh, well, we’ll never sell her” because, of course, one becomes less photogenic. I do sometimes think that.

You were talking about the anger in in your work. When people hear about a woman in her 80s, they might think of a cute little grandmother. Did you want to defy that stereotype?

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I did say in one interview that there are two models for old women as far as I can make up. There’s either a round grandmotherly figure in the kitchen with a flower-stained apron and grandchildren puttering around. The other stereotype is in that wonderful poem about “I will wear purple.” It’s edgy and different and funny, and it’s quirky and eccentric, and it’s doing everything in order to be slightly annoying, because they can. And those two models of old women are interesting to me. One, they’re both sexless. And two, they’re not gonna get in anyone’s way. And I wanted to present old women that weren’t like either of those stereotypes but were fully formed human beings. You know, sometimes they kill themselves. Sometimes they fall in love. Sometimes they kill someone else. Sometimes they have passions, and they make mistakes, and they do ghastly things, and they do wonderful things. But they’re not saints. They’re hard to overlook, I hope.

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You mentioned that the sexless part, so I imagine that’s why it was important to get the themes of sex and desire into your stories. Did writing in that register come naturally to you?

It did. You must remember, I spent 35 years working in the field of psychoanalysis, right? Well, you can’t do that without being aware of libidinal energy, which is, of course, sex, but also a whole lot more. I’m not a rabid Freudian, but Freud did say some good things, and he postulated two instincts: the life instinct and the death instinct. The life instinct is Eros, the death instinct is Thanatos. So when I talk about something or write about something as being erotic, it’s not about sex, per se. It’s not about having sex. It’s the life force. And the life force, for all of us, consists of trying to communicate with other people, trying to connect with other people, trying to reach other people. And often this takes a sexual form. It doesn’t have to be sexual. It has to be erotic. But it may be that it’ll come out sexually.

What would you say to anyone who wants to start writing when they’re older or wants to do anything and feels like they gotten a late start?

I’d say go for it. What else would I say?

I think a lot of people are just wanting permission, or someone to tell them they can.

Maybe one of the advantages of being as old as I am is you stop asking permission.

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