CONTOOCOOK — Alan Scribner, 81, became fascinated by ancient Rome as a 4-year-old growing up in the Washington Heights section of New York City, a stone’s throw from The Cloisters museum’s collection of Greek and Roman art. He read avidly about life in the ancient world, learned Latin, and pored over maps, histories and philosophers’ original texts, becoming immersed in the culture and codes of classical Rome. Later, as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and a lawyer specializing in criminal appeals, “I met people who committed crimes and those who chased them down.”
But it wasn’t until his retirement years that Scribner combined his knowledge of crime investigation with his passion for all-things Ancient Rome. Today, he is a prolific author of mystery novels set in the ancient empire, as well as “Anni Ultimi: A Roman Stoic Guide to Retirement, Old Age, and Death “ which he co-wrote with J.C. Douglas Marshall, a retired St. Paul’s School classics professor.
His soon-to-be-six novels, published online and in paperback between 2012 and 2018, follow the lives and sleuthing of Marcus Flavius Severus, a criminal court judge of the Urban Prefect in Rome, Artemisia, his Greek wife, his freed former slave Alexander, who now serves as his private secretary, and two assistants who are members of the Urban Cohort, one of three police forces of Ancient Rome.
“I feel comfortable in an ancient Roman setting, and on the ancient streets. It’s a little bit strange but I don’t fight it. I just go with the flow,” Scribner says. “I’m mostly interested in daily life in Rome. You have to extrapolate to some degree,”
Copious research is essential, he says. His creative process involves solving the mystery as the story unfolds through the writing. “Not only do I not know what’s going to happen, I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. I have a beginning, then I do the investigation as I’ve been trained."
Scribner represents a growing cadre of seniors who write novels during their retirement years, frequently turning to self-publishing as a way to get their stories down and out the door quickly for others to read as online novels or small-run paperbacks, for a relatively modest investment.
“There are fewer barriers to publication now, and a broad range of services you can access,” says Michel Hermann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord. “You can hit a button and print your book” or pursue self-publishing services that include editing, marketing and distribution. The options don’t only appeal to elders. “People feel they have a book in them” regardless of their age. Aspiring authors choose self-publishing after or instead of traditional publishing “just to get the idea out quickly, and turn it into a book they can hold in their hands.”
To be commercially published is often difficult at an older age, especially for first-time authors without a track record, says Jim Milliot, editorial director of Publisher’s Weekly, a trade magazine that follows the publishing industry. “There are always exceptions, but typically publishers are looking for new authors they can grow over the years.”
“And while you might think folks 65 and older would be primarily interested in memoirs, since it focuses on writing about your own life, I personally find they’re more interested in cultivating their own creativity. In so many cases, they’re giving themselves permission to do something they’ve longed to do, but either talked themselves out of, or between work and family commitments, they never had the time,” says Kelly Caldwell, dean of faculty at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, the nation’s largest adult education writing school.
“A lot of people, maybe everyone, has a book inside them and a story to tell,” Scribner says. “The creative process is in a lot of us.” His advice to seniors: “Just write it. Tell your story and forget all the obstacles. We’re so constrained in our society by all these things we have to do or take into consideration. If you want to write, just go ahead. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
“Rejections work on your stability,” says Scribner. He chose Kindle Direct Publishing, which produces an e-book accessible to Kindle readers, because it was fast, free, and didn’t require the patience or courage to work through traditional publishing channels. “It’s very important to be centered especially when you’re older, and you’re approaching the end. You have to identify those things that are important to you. Writing is very useful for senior citizens because it’s been difficult expressing oneself. Now you have the opportunity to do it. We lead lives of interest in many respects. It’s so rewarding just to come out with it. Writing is a way of examining your life, of seeing its value.”
It was important for Scribner to reach his audience. “Writers need a certain amount of feedback. I wanted enough readership to encourage my writing,” he says. “I have 105 reviews on Amazon, from all over the world, including from some curmudgeons who don’t seem to like anything. Everybody gets bad reviews, including famous writers of classics. Mostly I get very good reviews, including from people who can’t wait until the next book comes out. One person wrote, “I like reading Shakespeare and Scribner. “That was over the top.”
Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.