Older characters in literature can build on ageist assumptions in society, says Melanie Joosten. Ahead of her workshop on Writing Older Characters, we spoke to Melanie about how to go beyond cliches to write older characters well.
What first led you to start considering how older characters and aging are represented in literature? Was there a particular character you read about that was a tipping point for you?
When she was already a very established author, Doris Lessing wrote two novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers. She wanted to show that the literary world was difficult to break into for unknown writers and demonstrate that well-known authors often got favourably reviewed, regardless of the quality of their work. However, it was not this literary spat that caught my attention but the books themselves: The Diary of a Good Neighbour, and If Only the Old Could... Both follow the story of Jane Somers, a magazine editor, who befriends an older woman, Maudie Fowler, she meets in the pharmacy. Accompanying Maudie home she realised this woman lives in squalor, forgotten by society. After that encounter and as their tentative friendship grows, Jane begins to notice older people everywhere and considers why they had been so invisible to her before.
This was one of the first books I read that seemed to really comment on the political aspect of ageing, and how our own fear of getting older seems to make us turn away from older people in need and the realities of ageing.
Why do you think ageism is so prevalent in literature?
People often write literature about their own experiences and so it might take some time for a writer to see the relevance of writing about older age. Novels often focus on a transition or turning point - characters coming-of-age or experiencing a crisis. In this context perhaps old age doesn't seem as exciting. Often older characters seem to be written in so the author can reflect on youth or the passing of time - they are rarely active agents in the story. But this ageism is simply a carry-over of ageism prevalent in wider society.
Your book “A Long Time Coming: Essays on Old Age’ has been described as ‘a powerful collection of essays exploring what it means to grow old in our youth-obsessed world’. Can you tell us a little about what led to your passion around this subject?
I was working as a social worker and researcher with older people and I realised how their experiences were not being written about, except in the most dire way (outraged stories about poor aged care, panicked stories about dementia, debates about end-of-life rights). The stories of everyday experiences of living in your seventies, eighties and nineties were not common - as though people of this age didn't exist in the same world as younger people. I interviewed many older people about their lives and the good and bad aspects of ageing and the essays were shaped from there.
Do you have any initial advice for writers to gather knowledge and weave depth into the older characters in their stories?
Think about who the character is regardless of their age. Make sure they are not included simply to represent a cliched idea of ageing or to play a role only related to their age (such as being a grandparent or experiencing dementia). Try to ensure your older characters have agency and are integral to the story.
Can you recommend some good books or authors that succeed in writing authentic and believable older characters?
Doris Lessing, of course. Michelle de Kretser's recent novel 'The Life to Come' has the memorable and very real character of Christabel, who herself gets misrepresented in fiction. 'Waiting' by Philip Salom considers the older people we see but don't really 'see' on Melbourne's streets. Kent Haruf's 'Our Souls at Night' and 'Like a Mule Bringing Icecream to the Sun' by Sarah Ladipo Manyika are both eloquent character studies of older people.
About Melanie Joosten
Melanie Joosten works in social policy and is the author of the essay collection ‘A Long Time Coming: Essays on Old Age’. She is also the author of the novels ‘Berlin Syndrome’ and ‘Gravity Well’ and has been named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist.
About Elisa McTaggart
Elisa McTaggart is the Program and Marketing Intern at Writers Victoria. She works freelance as a writer, photographer and project manager, and is an emerging artist with a particular interest in wilderness photography and nature writing.