Katherine Ashenburg

Writer and Editor Katherine Ashenburg Talks Pursuing Her Dreams at 72

Writing non-fiction feels like a continuation of writing paragraphs, then book reviews, then essays and term papers for school. But write a novel? No, that was too scary and wonderful to contemplate.

FASHION’s March issue is all about women who are in their element, from Big Little Lies’ Zoë Kravitz–who talks about embracing her natural beauty and surrounding herself with strong women in our cover story–to author Katherine Ashenburg, who—at 72—is fulfilling the life-long dream of publishing her first novel. Below, she talks about achieving goals throughout the course of her life and how she talked herself out of writing Sofie & Cecilia.

One of the benefits women of my generation enjoy is, unlike fish or birds, we aren’t limited to one element. Life always seems to present us with a series of environments in which we can flourish—if we’re lucky. Right now, I’m enjoying a personal, elemental sweet spot as a happily single woman with six treasured grandchildren. It’s the perfect time to publish my first novel.

My interest in the world of books began in childhood. I was a reader—I won’t say “an omnivorous reader” because what I mostly read was fiction: short stories and, later, novels. When I grew up, I wrote a PhD dissertation on that great storyteller Charles Dickens. Perhaps because I love novels so much, it never occurred to me that I could write one. I went on to successive careers as a CBC Radio producer and an editor at The Globe and Mail, and along the way I began writing non-fiction books. That seemed possible, I think, because writing non-fiction feels like a continuation of writing paragraphs, then book reviews, then essays and term papers for school. But write a novel? No, that was too scary and wonderful to contemplate.

Writing non-fiction was a very satisfying element. Learning about mourning customs around the world and the history of washing our bodies (the subjects of my last two books) fed my perennial interest in how people in other eras and places thought and lived. Then, almost 10 years ago, I went to Sweden to visit the house of the late-19th-century artist Carl Larsson, one of my favourite painters. I discovered that the idyllic home life he painted was more complicated than it appeared. When I got home, I phoned a novelist friend to tell her about the Larssons’ marriage. “It’s my gift to you,” I said, “because you might put this in a novel someday.” “No,” she said. “I’m giving you back your gift, because this is your story. It’s your first fiction.” No matter how many times I insisted I couldn’t write fiction, and no matter how many times I cursed her over those years I spent learning, by trial and error, how to write a novel, she never wavered in her belief that I could do it.

“Friends and their encouragement are supremely important. While fish and fowl technically don’t need help swimming or flying, we sometimes need to be shown our element before we can find it.”

That’s another thing about the various elements in which I have found myself: friends and their encouragement are supremely important. While fish and fowl technically don’t need help swimming or flying, we sometimes need to be shown our element before we can find it.

At the end of March, when I will be closer to 73 than 72, my first novel, Sofie & Cecilia, will be published. Writing about Sweden at the turn of the 20th century allowed me to marry my “non-fiction” interest in the far away and long ago with fictional staples: plot, character and even the roller-coaster challenge of writing dialogue. My novel about the Larssons’ marriage became the story of two women who travel a long path to friendship and fulfillment. It begins in their 30s and ends when they are old—a time of personal and professional flowering for them both. I could write about that because I know a bit about it. It turns out that I am in my best element so far.

We all want to slay our goals, revel in success at work and at home and feel comfortable in our own skin…to truly be in our element. But that looks different, depending on where you are in life. Click here to see what being in one’s element looks like for women of all ages.