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Interview: Maggie Dana on the middle-aged female protagonistor lack thereof

 Interview: Maggie Dana on the middle aged female protagonist  or lack thereof

Maggie Dana's novel Painting Naked (Momentum/Pan Macmillan, Aug 2012), her first for adults, looks at love and life from the perspective of a middle-aged woman.

It's a perspective that's traditionally been relatively scarce. But with baby boomers moving into the middle and later years, there's growing demand for books that tackle the themes and issues that are relevant to women in this age group.

'Ten years ago I'd have said there were precious few novels on the market that celebrated middle-aged women,' says Maggie.

Some headway has been made since then. There are many 'excellent novels that feature energetic, middle-aged female protagonists', including those by Joanna Trollope, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Strout, Penelope Lively, Elizabeth Berg, and Jeanne Ray.

Where are all the novels about women?

But despite all the gains by these talented authors, this continues to be an underserved category. Novels featuring middle-aged male protagonists, on the other hand, are plentiful.

'I've gone in circles around this issue,' says Maggie. 'But basically, it comes down to this. Women, especially older women, are viewed as less competent than men, even by other women.'

She points to the prevalent stereotype of the 'bad woman driver' as an example. It's easy to see how fiction reflects culture, she says.

'Our society affords older men far more respect than it affords older women. When a 50-something man displays salt-and-pepper sideburns and eyes that crinkle at the corners, he's parked on the same pedestal as George Clooney and Harrison Ford.'

For women, on the other hand, middle age brings invisibility.

Why are middle-aged women women invisible?

'The moment a woman's hair turns gray and her face sprouts a few lines she's brushed aside. She becomes wallpaper, part of the scenery, and is often taken for granted by her family.'

Women in fiction are always the 'other', but scarcely more than when they are middle-aged women.

Publishers and, by extension readers, tend to categorise fiction about women differently from that involving men. Fiction featuring a young male protagonist falls into the 'mainstream' category.

A book featuring a young female protagonist, on the other hand, will be categorised as 'chick lit'; and an older female protagonist 'women's fiction'.

'If anyone has an explanation as to why there's no 'men's fiction' category, I would love to hear it,' says Maggie.

Invisibility is just the beginning, however. Middle-aged women are also far more likely to be scorned and derided for anything considered a transgression. And it is far easier to be a transgressor as a female than a male.

 Interview: Maggie Dana on the middle aged female protagonist  or lack thereof'Nobody gives a damn when a middle-aged man marries or dates a woman half his age. In fact, he gets pats on the back, sly winks, and 'attaboys' for being a stud, but heaven help the woman who falls in love with a much younger man. She risks being mocked and branded a cradle-robber.'

Maggie notes that a recent novel, On the Island, caused quite a literary dust-up over this very issue.

'Had the characters been reversed, that is, a 32-year-old man marooned on a desert island with an 18-year-old girl rather than the novel's female tutor and a high-school senior, nobody would've raised an eyebrow.'

This same issues comes up in Maggie's novel Painting Naked. Her main character, Jill, is in her mid-fifties, and is tired of men her age thumbing their noses at women of their own generation.

'It bugs me as well. So I decided to turn things around by having Jill's old flame, Colin, ditch his youthful girlfriend to make a life with Jill who's the same age as he is.'

How does boredom set someone on the path to becoming a writer?

Maggie has no qualms about thwarting expectations or pushing boundaries, however. Her open, matter-of-fact approach has invited plenty of tut-tutting in the past.

One admission that has raised eyebrows is the fact that Maggies first foray into fiction wasn't at the behest of a muse, but rather from boredom.

'I love the tut-tutting. Especially when it changes to laughter as I explain the reason for my boredom and how it propelled me into writing my first book many years ago.'

At the time, she was a newly divorced mom with three kids at home, a substantial mortgage, and two jobs that barely covered her expenses.

 Interview: Maggie Dana on the middle aged female protagonist  or lack thereof

Maggies first book

One of those jobs was an editorial assistant role at a children's publisher in their top secret New Products Department.

'It was so secret that nobody else in the company knew what we did. Half the time, we didn't either, but it involved many closed-door meetings and much speculation around the water cooler.'

When her boss suffered a slipped disc and had to take three weeks off work, Maggie had nothing at all to do. Fraternising with the other departments was a no-go for fear of letting slip whatever secret business was being cooked up in the Department.

'When I pointed out that having me sit outside his office doing nothing would reflect badly on him, he told me to look busy, to pretend I was working. 'I don't care what you do,' he said. Write letters, a shopping list ' you can write a book if you want.''

And so she did, noting gleefully that it was 'on their time, their typewriter, and their paper.' Best of all, she eventually sold it to them for $1,500, which was quite the princely sum at the time.

Why the shift from childrens books to mainstream fiction? And how?

Painting Naked'marks quite a shift for Maggie, who is best-known for her children's books. So how did it come about?

Largely through disillusionment, as it turns out. Underwhelmed by the paucity of novels featuring strong, independent middle-aged women who tackled life head-onand with a sense of humourMaggie decided to attempt to fill this gap.

'My best friend pushed me into it. She got so fed up listening to me whinge about the lack of these novels that she challenged me to write one of my own.'

Never one to turn down a challenge, Maggie did, and soon ended up with a 190,000 word doorstopper manuscript. Though much slashing'and hacking followed, the manuscript was eventually consigned to a hiding spot beneath Maggie's bed. Until another of Maggie's friends urged her to start over.

'So I did, and with a fresh voice, different point-of-view, and a brand new title.'

The book sold to Macmillan (UK) and was published in trade paper as Beachcombing in 2009. Maggie's new agent subsequently sold e-book rights to Momentum, Macmillan's digital arm in Australia, and the novel has just been released with yet another new title, Painting Naked, and a smashing new cover.

I love writing women's fiction and books for horse-crazy girls, and I plan to keep on doing both. Authors should write in genres they love reading and have the requisite writing chops to pull off.


Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Maggie, in which she discusses writers and their online personas, and her thoughts on design in today's brave new digital publishing world.


Visit Maggies Website | Twitter | Facebook

Visit the Painting Naked product page at Momentum Books

 Interview: Maggie Dana on the middle aged female protagonist  or lack thereof


Your turn:'Do you think that middle-aged women are under-represented in fiction? Do you think this is changing? If not, what can be done?


  1. Hooray! This is my soapbox topic, one Ive been ranting about and researching for the last few years. This is exactly what I argue and what I am examining in my PhD titled: Cougars, Evil Stepmothers, and Menopausal Hot Flashers: Roles, Representations of Age, and The Non-traditional romance Heroine.
    I would love to discuss this interview and topic with Maggie and anyone else whos wondered about the misrepresentation of middle-aged (and older) protagonists or the lack thereof!


    • Stephanie /

      Im so glad to hear that Maggies thoughts have resonated with you, Sandra. When I forwarded the interview to my mum (whos in her late forties), she said, yes! This is exactly what Ive been saying for years!

      The more I think on the issue, the more I do agree that the prototypical age for a character in mainstream fiction is up until their mid- to late-thirties. I think thats an unmarked age, and beyond this, the character falls into an othered category. Its like how male characters in fiction are typically unmarked (ie, characters are male until proven otherwise), although of course there are exceptions depending on the genre.

      I had a very long discussion with my husband about this last night, in particular about women in Hollywood and the fact that they so abruptly vanish when they hit middle age (and Hollywoods middle age is different from normal perceptions of middle age). It seems to me that female actors who are beautiful (even if very talented) tend not to be seen in role as they get older, whereas women actors who are known less for their looks than their talent seem to persist. Or at least to a degree, as older women are horribly, horribly underrepresented in Hollywood to begin with. I think this comes back to what Maggie is saying about women widely being considered inferior, and how looks are often negatively correlated with talent. The women who were less beautiful are perhaps seen less as women, since they fall outside of that widespread definition of women as objects, and are therefore allowed to persist. If that makes sense.

      Hollywood, however, is astonishingly male-dominated, and yet many genres of fiction have high representation of women (writers, editors, etc). Is it that people arent able to sell books featuring middle-aged women? Or that theyre not being written because we (both men and women) dont even see this invisibility as a cultural problem?

  2. Three cheers! I love writing about vibrant middle-aged women they make such wonderful protagonists. Plus, being middle-aged myself, it saves me having to research! Much of the reader feedback Ive received also indicates a frustration that theres not more of these books. And when there is, they often struggle for publicity. Funnily enough I was contracted to write a non-fiction book called The Invisible Woman, and other remarkable phenomena of middle-age, only to have the publishers have second thoughts because they didnt think there was an audience! Bah humbug.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Ilsa! This article has caused a bit of discussion on Twitter, with quite a few people chiming in that invisibility is an ongoing problem. I recently read a mystery series about an older women (I think in her 60s) who is a wonderful detective because people invariably never notice her or entirely underestimate her.

      • Stephanie
        Its so good to see Maggies piece on the invisibility of middle-aged women in fiction
        I started writing novels about older women about 12 years ago and was disparingly told that I was wasting my time and no one would read them Whod want to read about old women? Well seven best selling novels later it seems that lots of people do want to read about us.
        What amazes and saddens me though is that while fiction about the lives of older women is growing in the US and UK, very few people are writing it here in Australia. Maybe the undeniable sexism and misogyny here (recently discussed in national and international media) leaves a lot of women too disheartened to write.

        • Stephanie /

          Lovely to see you here, Liz. I think the response you were given is so very telling of the ageism and sexism that exists in our society today, and how only certain groups interests are seen as valuable. Its an ongoing issue, certainly, and Id agree that its particularly an issue here in Australia. Do you think that it might also have something to do with our obsession with youth? That writing about people who arent young is in a way transgressive?

  3. Even in romance the over 30 heroine is rare: The middle-aged protagonist by @readinasitting via @momentumbooks

  4. Well I am intrigued as a woman about to turn 40 I am losing interest in the 20 year old PR assistant with a shoe fetish looking for lurve. I would love to see the more mature age group better represented in fiction

    Ive already read everything by the authors who have commented above and Painted Naked just got added to my cart!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Shelleyrae! I agree with you about the 20-year-old PR assistant thing. I get annoyed by the ageism apparent in that as well, and quite enjoy reading about older protagonists as theyre often more centred in who they are and very often have broader, more interesting goals!

  5. Im getting tired of romances. Even when a middle aged woman shows up in a book, the story bogs down when she finds a guy. Id like to see a middle aged spy, like Mrs. Pollifax. A woman doing something and having adventures!

    • Stephanie /

      Definitely a valid point. I often think that in chick lit novels: a women invariably divorces her husbandthen finds happiness again in the arms of another man. I always appreciate it when a women is content in who she is as an individual. Im also dying to read a few books where a couple is happily married, and stays that way!