The rewards of age

The SoA has announced the creation of a new award: the Paul Torday Prize for debut novelists over 60. The Author interviews Paul Torday’s son, author Piers Torday, who co-founded the prize with his brother, Nick.

Author Piers Torday

Why is the prize aimed at novelists over 60?

The first reason is that my father published his first novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, when he was 60. I also feel that there is a genuine gap in the prize market. Like all media, publishing is orientated towards the young, and so many prizes have age limits or are otherwise aimed at younger people.

But we’re all living longer, and my brother and I felt that we needed to hear from older people. Let’s hear their voices. Let’s celebrate them. Let’s encourage them to write. And given that a large percentage of the book-buying public is older let’s have some books that reflect their experience! This is not about exacerbating divisions between older and younger; this is actually about a chance to begin a broader conversation between older and younger people.


Why did your father begin his writing career so late?

One answer is ‘because of me and my brother’. My father read English at Oxford, and entered poetry competitions in his twenties. (He won one of them, in the Daily Mail, which published the winning poem.) But then his mother was very sadly killed in a car crash in Africa, and his father said he needed help to run the family engineering business. He just got drawn in. Then we arrived, and needed feeding and clothing, so he couldn’t give it up. Both my parents sacrificed a lot.

He wasn’t doing it under duress, though. He enjoyed business and was good at it. But I remember poking around – as children do in their parents’ belongings – and discovering a sheaf of a manuscript in a shoebox. He must have written it while we were growing up. It wasn’t until he was looking at scaling down his work in his late 50s that he started writing again, and sending out his work.

He wrote three novels, one of which he sent out. It was universally rejected. The other two he couldn’t even bear to send so he put them straight in the bin. And he was about to give up when he was at an unbelievably boring government meeting about protecting molluscs in his local river, and his mind was wandering, and the idea for a book called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen popped into his head. This time he tried rather than a publisher, an agent – and six months later Mark Stanton in Edinburgh wrote back.


Did he face any obstacles as an older writer?

Like most huge obstacles it’s an opportunity too, depending which way you look at it. You look older, you’re less photogenic, you’re harder to sell. But equally because there are fewer authors who are beginning at that age it is a story in itself.

As his writing career progressed, as he became an established author writing other novels, it was harder. This was in the noughties, and he wasn’t on social media. He didn’t get any of that – he didn’t have a website or any of that kind of stuff.

So he was less fluent in the promotional world. And when he did the beauty parade, the auction for the book, I don’t know if all those young publicity and marketing people were prepared for how old he was. I think  they were quite shocked to see someone of nearly pensionable age sitting in front of them. That surprise became part of his story.


Were there any advantages?

It’s wonderful when people get their first book published at 25 but the challenge for them is to sustain that career. What the hell do you write about if all you’ve done is sit in a room and write a book? The danger is you end up writing books about writing books – and not everyone wants to read about that. 


Did he regret not starting earlier?

I asked him this once, and his response was that the experience of a life lived in business – taking him all over the world, and he was involved in lots of charities and associations – gave him a broader perspective than someone, say, in their twenties. My father was also a passionate and wide and voracious reader all his life – and that tends to make you a better writer, over time.

But a year after he published Salmon Fishing he was diagnosed with stage 3 kidney cancer. In the last five years of his life he had wonderful festival invitations from all over the world and he was only able to go to a fraction of them – or he wasn’t able to enjoy them to the full because he was on treatment and in pain. That was his regret: he met a lot of people, having entered this literary life, but he wasn’t always able to build on those connections and forge those relationships because he physically wasn’t up to it. He never let on. He didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. He just politely declined. So people thought he was more reclusive than he was.


Why did you decide to commemorate him with a book prize?

I had benefited hugely from a prize [the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, for The Dark Wild – Ed.] at the start of my career. And having been through that process, and judging the Costa now, I suddenly began thinking a lot about prizes and what they do and mean.

My brother and I are my father’s literary executors and we thought we could use dad’s legacy to increase representation for older people in the writing world. We could have set up some memorial in his name, issued grants or what have you, but also I see my job as his literary executor as being to keep his titles in print and to keep awareness of his literary legacy alive.


What do you hope the prize will come to represent?

Writing should be a wonderful second life career for many more people, as life expectancy continues to rise. If my dad had lived longer he’d still be in the thick of it. For other people, if they start at 60 they could be embarking on a 20-year writing spree. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone in this competition entered aged 99? It would make a really powerful statement about how different our expectations of life and work are now.


Who will judge the prize?

We’re going to have wonderful older judges. I hope that the panel will be diverse and representative in other areas as well but what will bind it together will be age and experience.


Why did you choose the SoA as administrators?

Nicola [Solomon] and Paula [Johnson] were so excited by the idea of visibility and representation for older writers. They clearly felt concerned about it too, so it felt like a natural fit. It is a prize about an industry issue as well as about literary merit. And the SoA’s expert prize administration and existing charitable structures made the process extremely easy.


Will the prize run every year?

Our intention is to run the award for as long as we can on the money we have – but for it to endure we’ll need sponsorship. Anyone who’s interested…

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