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Late-blooming novelist's persistence pays off

Author Rita Plush at her home in East

Author Rita Plush at her home in East Hampton. (June 29, 2012) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Daniel Defoe was 59 when he published his first novel, "Robinson Crusoe," in 1719.

In 1932, Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 when "Little House in the Big Woods," the first of a series of her best-sellers that provided the basis of the TV show "Little House on the Prairie," came out in print.

Frank McCourt was 66 in 1996, when his first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angela's Ashes," appeared in stores.

And in 2012, add the name Rita Plush, 74, to the list of first-time authors whose publishing success came later in life. Her debut novel, "Lily Steps Out," was published in May, after seven years of trying.

"I think I'm the original late bloomer," Plush says with a laugh, sitting on the patio of her exquisite East Hampton summer home. "I didn't do anything in life until later."

According to a 2010 study done at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, the average age of a novelist or short-story writer published in book form for the first time is 42. At that age, Plush hadn't even made it to college.

Plush says she grew up when women's horizons and expectations were limited. The former Rita Weingarten was only 19 when she married Herb Plush, a high school classmate at Jamaica High School in Queens. She raised three children, and when her youngest daughter started kindergarten, "I had a year of playing tennis, having lunches and going shopping," she said. "And I said, 'That's enough of that.' "

She knew she wanted to do something more. She loved to read, and she loved to decorate. Not knowing how one could make a career in reading, she went back to school to earn a certificate in interior design and developed her own business as a decorator.

Yet, despite her success, something gnawed at her. "I always knew I was smart, but I didn't feel educated," Plush said.

She applied to Queens College and started classes in the summer of 1980. "It was thrilling," she recalls. "It was a wonderful coming together of minds and ideas." Reading, always a joy, became an almost sacred act. "I read a lot of Henry James," she said. "It was amazing to me the way he wrote. I remember closing the book as if to keep the words from escaping." It took her 12 years to complete her undergraduate and graduate work, but at 54, Plush earned her bachelor's degree in English literature and at 57, her master's in creative writing. Her adviser was professor Joseph McElroy, himself a successful novelist ("Actress in the House," "Night Soul and Other Stories").

"She's a wonderful person, and a wonderfully hardworking writer," says McElroy, who is retired and has stayed in touch with Plush.

The housewife from Hollis Hills resolved that she would try to write, if not like Henry James, well then, like Rita Plush.

She joined a writers group at the Barnes & Noble near her Queens home, and in the mid-1990s she began to submit her work to literary journals and magazines. Her first short story -- about a cheesy night table her mother purchased in Woolworth's -- was rejected 93 times in six years. Subsequent works followed the thumbs-down pattern.

"Over the years, she's sent me close to 40 or 50 manuscripts," said Phil Wagner, editor of The Iconoclast, a digital literary magazine. "She's very tenacious."

Eventually, that persistence paid off: In 1997, a story she wrote about a family coming together at a funeral was accepted by the prestigious Alaska Quarterly Review. "The editor said, 'It had heart,' " Plush recalls, proudly. At age 59, she sold her first short story, and she was heartened by the success.

The next natural progression, she said, was to a novel. But about what?

"You make it up out of what you know," McElroy, her adviser, said, quoting Ernest Hemingway. In other words, "the story is what actually happened. More important . . . the story is what can happen. What can happen brings in all kinds of strangeness and invention."

In a nutshell, that's how "Lily" was born. The main character of her book is a married, middle-age New York woman with grown kids and an interest in interior decorating, just like the real-life Plush. But as a novelist, she took her fictional creation into all kinds of new, humorous and sometimes tragic directions. (It should be noted that while Lily's husband has a heart attack, Rita's real life husband, Herb, a retired real estate broker, is alive and well and supportive of his wife's work.)

Plush found a literary agent, who, in short order, got her a nice collection of rejection letters. "She said, 'Sorry, I can't sell your book,' " Plush recalled. "I was crushed." She then tried to get the job done on her own, going directly to publishers without an agent. Again, the rejection emails piled up. "They would say stuff like, 'You have an unusual voice,' or 'interesting characters,' " Plush said. "I'd think, 'If it's so unusual and interesting, why didn't you publish it?' "

Finally, after nearly 12 years of writing, rewriting and rejection, "Lily Steps Out" arrived in the inbox of Patricia Morrison, acquisitions editor for Penumbra, a small publishing house in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

"I found it to be a delightfully poignant and humorous story full of personality and wit," Morrison said in an email. "It is about a 50-something empty-nest homemaker who realizes she wants more out of life than cooking and cleaning. It has a little dash of Jewish New York flavor, but the characters go deeper than typical stereotypes. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the unique voice and style of the author." Morrison offered to publish Plush's 200-page novelette.

"We've been celebrating ever since!" Plush said with a laugh. The book came out in May, priced at $10.99 (or $2.90 for the e-book on Amazon.com). She also scored with a big-name blurb on the cover. Plush jokes, "I practically stalked" Joyce Carol Oates at a book talk the novelist gave on the East End a few years ago. But Oates eventually responded to Plush's dogged requests with a generous assessment that any author would envy: "Engagingly written. The voice is shrewd, sharp, funny, and yet tender."

The book is not self-published, but it's up to Plush to sell "Lily" to garner royalties, she said. To that end, she has been making calls to libraries and various organizations to present author readings. Her next speaking event is at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. (Call 631-324-9858 or visit jcoh.org for information.)

Plush, who writes every day, is already revising her second novel, which follows some of the same characters from "Lily Steps Out." In East Hampton, she writes under a tree in her backyard, her laptop perched on a slab of bluestone that serves as her "outdoor desk." But even an idyllic setting doesn't make writing easy, and this late-blooming author knows she has to push herself.

"Whatever you want to be, be it," she advises anyone of a certain age. "Do it. It can be done."

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