The Best Is Yet to Come

  • By Otho Eskin
  • December 29, 2023

The pleasure of writing later in life.

The Best Is Yet to Come

There’s a legend in literary circles: Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has a wall chart displaying how old writers were when they penned their masterpieces. His contemporary Martin Amis (who recently passed away) once referenced it on Britain’s “Today” program to make a point about how authors perceive themselves to be racing against time.

According to Ishiguro, there’s no such chart. But the worry that writers peak early? That’s all too real. Ishiguro was about 30 when it hit him that the world’s most acclaimed books were largely written by people under 40. He later told the Guardian, “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking.” Asked if he thought he himself had peaked, the then-56-year-old admitted, “Yeah, in some ways.”

As someone who is nearing 90 and for whom novel-writing is a third act, I have mixed feelings about Ishiguro’s outlook. Creatively, I perceive myself to be thriving, and I have no regrets about pursuing other professions for most of my working life. But I do face a marketplace that favors youth in the present, and this can be challenging.

I began my career as an officer in the Foreign Service, spending over two decades at overseas embassies and in Washington, DC, before turning to playwriting. After my plays were produced on Broadway and beyond, I decided to write a thriller. In 2020, I published The Reflecting Pool, about a murder that leads a fearless homicide detective named Marko Zorn all the way to the White House. At an editor’s request, I’d refashioned the main character to make him appear younger — in his mid-40s. I supplemented that book with two others in the series, Head Shot and the forthcoming Firetrap.

It often surprises people to hear that I write five hours a day and never suffer from writer’s block. So many ideas come to me that I have to let most go. But there inevitably comes a time when a manuscript becomes a book, and readers “enter the chat,” to use the youngsters’ parlance. The first time this happened, I was startled to realize that, despite my story featuring a middle-aged protagonist and taking place in the current day, some readers thought it old-fashioned.

My active memories and experiences date from the mid/late-20th century to the present. Evidently, my instinct is to use the language and social conventions of the 1980s. I had no clue that I was even doing this until my first book came out. A few women friends gently observed that the hairstyles described were out of date. A Goodreads user praised the book but wondered, “Who still drives a Datsun?” My children, for their part, informed me that no one under 45 uses email for personal correspondence. They use Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or text. Who knew?

In my second book, I made an effort to be more up-to-date with technology and trends such as by including a scene in which Zorn uses a smartphone to activate his home-security system. My third book apparently resembles the present even more. It depicts Zorn’s herculean efforts to bring down an illegal opioid ring masterminded by psychopathic twin brothers. I suspect that, far from detecting an inscrutible bygone realm, readers will be unnerved by the all-too-familiar scene of fentanyl-laced drugs overtaking the streets. At the same time, they’ll be emboldened to envisage how this awful crisis may actually come to an end.

You see, having lived through such calamities as the German Democratic Republic, I know better than to be shortsighted. There have been countless times when all seemed lost, only for justice to prevail. And isn’t the latter what readers yearn to see? The real power of fiction, it seems to me, is not to approximate the real world but to imagine a better one.

Ishiguro may be right that there is a vitality to the work of writers in their physical prime. But I believe there’s a hopeful awareness that comes with age which today’s readers sorely need to be reminded of: Even in a world as broken as ours, there will always be people risking their lives to set things right.

Otho Eskin is a nationally and internationally produced playwright and author of the Marko Zorn thriller series. Before turning to writing, he served in the U.S. Army and the Foreign Service. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

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