Fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird” eagerly await Harper Lee’s previously unpublished book. But she isn’t the only successful author producing unexpected, late-in-life novels.
After a 56-year hiatus, former LSU faculty member Warren Eyster is churning out e-books on Amazon.
His books are set mostly in Pennsylvania, where Eyster grew up and lived for several years, and in New York, where he lived on and off in the 1950s. Eyster, 90, first planned to publish the recent books to build up a nest egg for his wife, Esperanza. After she died in 2012, he went ahead with the project.
“That was really the only thing left undone in life, to finish up some of these novels,” he said.
He’d already done what most writers only dream of.
After four years aboard a Navy destroyer during World War II, Eyster worked a variety of jobs before making use of his military benefits and enrolling at Gettysburg College. There, a writing class taught by Katherine Kressman Taylor, set his career path.
He got a short story published in The Atlantic magazine. Much revised, it became part of “Far From the Customary Skies,” a novel about life aboard a destroyer in World War II.
“I wanted to capture the way ordinary seamen experienced the war,” Eyster said. “The only novel that ever touched on that was ‘Mister Roberts.’ ”
Eyster’s book received considerable critical acclaim and reached the New York Times best-seller list, a rarity for first-time authors.
And first-time authors almost never react the way Eyster did. To avoid book signings and other promotional events, Eyster went to Mexico. He also wanted to learn about Quakers who refused to bear arms during the war and went to Panama to combat malaria and other tropical diseases. Many of them kept at it after the war, some of whom were in Mexico.
His experiences there would inspire his third novel, “The Goblins of Eros,” published in 1957, two years after “No Country for Old Men,” which was about work in a steel mill (and was published 50 years before Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name). Eyster met his future wife in Mexico.
Returning to the U.S., he freelanced and edited for a publishing house, continuing to associate with literary lights like Bennett Cerf, Robert Penn Warren, William F. Buckley and Mario Puzo. Then began the teaching career that led him to LSU in 1970 to direct its undergraduate writing program. Some of his students, like John Ed Bradley, James Colbert, Valerie Martin and Charlotte Holmes, became published authors themselves. Eyster retired in 1992.
“I always felt my obligation was not merely just to teach them, but to really make efforts to get them published,” he said.
Now, he has renewed his own interest in getting his writing out there. He does so with some themes and concepts that run contrary to current thought.
Though a World War II veteran, he doesn’t care for Tom Brokaw’s famous designation “The Greatest Generation.” Two of Eyster’s books attack that notion.
“We weren’t the sweet people,” Eyster said. “People need to remember the draft. Over half of our forces went very unwillingly to war. Once we got into it, we really went at it, but it was not the sort of glory thing that they paint it to be.”
Remembering female students who had told him that men lacked the insight to write about women, Eyster produced a four-book series. The first book, “The Woman Who Couldn’t Say No,” is written from an observer’s point of view, but the books that follow: “In My Mother’s House,” “Dutchtown Inn” and “Summer’s Lease” are written in the voice of the female protagonist.
“The best way to get me to do something is to say I can’t,” he said.
The most autobiographical of Eyster’s books is “The Blue Collar Poet — The Early Years,” which has a sequel that covers World War II.
“It shows what the Depression was like from an adolescent’s point of view,” he said. “I never encountered that in other writers, at least in any way that satisfied me. The other thing was that we took undue credit in World War II and never really realized the enormous sacrifice that countries like England and France and Russia went through.”
All of Eyster’s books, including those published in the 1950s, are available on Kindle. None of them have done very well, he admits, but Eyster’s attitude toward self-promotion hasn’t improved much since he ran off to Mexico to escape the limelight of his best seller.
“If I were to have an inscription on my tombstone — I ain’t going to have a tombstone,” he said, “but if I had one, what I’d want on it is, ‘Read my novels.’?”