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Older writers aren’t letting the speed bumps of age prevent them from producing meaningful work

Habeeb Salloum

In 1985, Habeeb Salloum wrapped up 36 years as a Revenue Canada employee and, at the age of 61, entered his version of retirement. The very next morning, Salloum woke up his children, proudly brandishing a copy of The Globe and Mail carrying his byline. Over the following decades, Salloum travelled, cooked, and wrote tirelessly, publishing 12 titles, 20 book chapters and, he estimates, about 2,500 articles.

That staggering collection of clippings resides in an overflowing bookcase in the basement of Salloum’s North Toronto home office, where the author, now 93, still spends most of his waking hours working. Every day, after rising from bed, Salloum puts on a suit, descends to his office in an electric stair lift, and writes for 10 hours or more. Sometimes, according to his daughter Muna, he gets out of bed in the middle of the night invigorated by an idea. Salloum’s just published an updated version of his winsome Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead, a mixture of history, recipes, and reminiscences of growing up in a Syrian immigrant family in Depression-era Saskatchewan. And more books are coming, he says.

“A lot of people watch a hockey or baseball game. But I’d rather write than watch any sports,” says Salloum, sipping a small glass of arak. “I used to love reading, but I can’t read now. I used to drive and go different places, but now I can’t drive anymore. So I’m restricted in a lot of ways. But I can still write.”

Salloum isn’t alone among nonagenarians and other older authors who are publishing meaningful work despite obstacles posed by health, technology, and a culture that can sometimes feel indifferent to the insights of the elderly.

Salloum’s publisher, University of Regina Press, also recently issued 97-year-old Eric Koch’s Otto and Daria: A Wartime Journey in No Man’s Land, and 94-year-old Kay Parley’s Inside the Mental: Silence, Stigma, Psychiatry, and LSD. It’s very much part of the publisher’s mandate to broadcast underrepresented voices. Older people’s voices are rarely heard, says URP director and publisher Bruce Walsh. “If an older person submits a manuscript, I give it a lot more attention because of that.”

For a publisher, hurdles tend to emerge with authors of advanced age. The promotional process can be particularly hard. Salloum struggles to project his voice, complicating audio interviews. Parley, meanwhile, has hearing issues serious enough that her publicist warns a hopeful caller: “Speak loudly – not a yell, but more loudly than you’ve ever talked in your life.”

Parley, in fact, can’t hear the ensuing phone call, so she suggests her usual workaround: reporters send questions to her publicist, who hand-delivers them to Parley’s Regina retirement home so she can reply on a typewriter. She can’t use a computer because she has Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder, so scrolling gives her “debilitating dizziness.” She no longer drives and taxis also make her dizzy, so venturing to interviews is daunting.

Yet she remains sharp. Inside the Mental documents her path from patient to nurse at Saskatchewan’s Weyburn Mental Hospital, where she voluntarily took part in LSD experiments in the 1950s. Even before retiring as a teacher at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, Parley was a prolific writer. She says a fantasy epic she wrote over several decades has just been accepted for publication. “So far my head still seems to work, and that’s the crucial thing,” Parley says.

People who publish as they near the century mark do seem united by a healthy stubbornness. Jim Gifford, editorial director of non-fiction at HarperCollins, has worked on memoirs by former Mississauga, Ontario, mayor Hazel McCallion (93 at the time), businessman Charles Bronfman (then 85), and Holocaust survivor Max Eisen (87). “Some might have said, ‘Take it easy on my schedule. Remember that I’m 80 or 85.’ Then, that would just go out the window,” he recalls. “They would do anything and everything and wonder why they weren’t doing more.”

Eisen fits that bill. The author of the memoir By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz – shortlisted for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize – travels to multiple public speaking engagements per week. Born in 1929, he lifts weights and runs two miles every day in his condominium’s gym. Last summer, he tore up the deck at his cottage and rebuilt it himself. “I don’t give any attention to age,” he says.

In fact, Eisen found motivation in his years. Writing in longhand with a pencil, he spent two years documenting his harrowing account of life as a 15-year-old slave labourer at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Reliving his experiences was “truly blood, sweat, tears, and nightmares,” he says. “But I knew that I would not have another chance. I had to do it now.”

Salloum, too, is making up for lost time. He wishes he’d retired sooner. “I had a good job in the government, but I always had dummies telling me what to do, so I never enjoyed it.” Two years ago, he had perfect vision. Now, his eyes have degenerated to the point that he struggles to see much of anything and needs a magnifier to slowly navigate his computer. “He used to be able to type really fast,” Muna says. “Now he takes forever.”

But Salloum continues writing. One book is an etymological study of English words of Arabic origin. He’s also collaborating on a new book about medieval Arab cooking with his daughters Leila and Muna. Their method: Salloum dictates recipes from memory, while his daughters prepare and refine the food to his exacting taste. As one might imagine, “highly motivated discussions” sometimes occur. After one such debate, Muna recalls her father gathering his daughters close.

“I just want to tell you two something,” he said. “I’ll never work with either of you again.”