When Anne Youngson’s agent told her a publisher had made an offer for her first novel, she was worried. “I said: ‘Don’t they want to meet me?’ I was convinced that when they discovered how old I was, their whole attitude to whether they wanted me would change,” she says.
Youngson was 69 then and 70 when her debut – Meet Me at the Museum – was published. Her first instinct was to see her age as a commercial disadvantage. “I thought they would look at me and think: ’Oh God, how will we promote this?’” But then Meet Me at the Museum was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award, and she had to think again. Her second novel, Three Women and a Boat, was published last year. Now 73, she is midway through writing her third.
Third, that is, if you exclude the one in the drawer, which she wrote in her late 30s during lunch breaks at her job in the motor industry. Back then, her children were two and five, and writing was an enjoyable, secretive hobby. Youngson became a chief engineer at Rover, and stayed with the company for 30 years. Periodically an idea struck her, and she would have a go at writing a story. “I wasn’t about to tell anybody I was doing it, but I felt quietly pleased with myself,” she says.
Why wouldn’t she tell anyone? “I think I felt that if someone had taken hold of what I was writing, and said, ‘Oh, you’ll never be a writer!’, that would have derailed me. Because somewhere – you know, in my heart of hearts – I always thought I might be.”
The chair of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, Martin Pollecoff, has said: “One of the great things about old age is that you can fail and it’s not going to destroy you.” That wasn’t Youngson’s experience.
“I recognise what he is saying and it applies to everything – except writing,” she says. “When I gave up work, I took up horse-riding and it honestly didn’t matter to me that I was rubbish at it. I took up botanical painting and drawing, which I’m not good at – I just enjoy it. But writing was so important to me. If somebody told me I was really bad at it, it would take something out of my life that I would miss for ever and which I would not be able to replace.”
And the something would be her belief in herself as a writer?
“That’s exactly it,” she says.
After Ford took over Land Rover, Youngson, then 56, retired and enrolled on a creative writing diploma. After that came a creative writing master’s at Oxford Brookes University, then a PhD, during which self-belief finally asserted itself and she started to write Meet Me at the Museum.
No wonder the subtleties of decision-making – “how we decide to break out” – are a theme in her work. “People often ask me: do I wish I’d started earlier?” she says. “I honestly don’t know. It would have been such a major disruption in my life.” A younger Youngson would have written different books. “I wouldn’t have written such thoughtful novels because I wouldn’t have had the courage to think anyone would be interested in what I thought.” (The novel in the bottom drawer is plot-heavy, apparently.)
Did Youngson’s belief in her ability grow after she retired as an engineer, or only after nurturing her ability? Maybe she simply felt she had amassed the wherewithal to withstand disappointment? “You have a better sense of yourself as you get older,” she says. “You begin to understand where you fit, and you are not so anxious about who you are and what people think of you. It is liberating. Actually, I’m a big fan of old age. I think everybody should experience it.”