Mooresville resident Dorothy Pentz O’Neill’s writing career began in second grade.
At the time, she was in the second grade at Staten Island Academy in New York City. Seventy years later, her first novel was published, and now, as she approaches her 100th birthday, she is working on what will be her 14th published novel.
“I had written something just for fun, and my teacher said, ‘This is a poem, Dorothy, and I’m going to submit it to our school literary magazine, The Quill.’ You might say that was the start of my writing career.”
O’Neill continued to write poetry throughout her grade school years. When she was 11, she read about Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic and decided to write a poem about him.
“My grandfather had a friend who worked for the New York Herald Tribune and he showed him my Lindbergh poem,” she said. “To my surprise, it was published in the Tribune’s Sunday magazine.”
O’Neill didn’t just write poems as a child. “I was in the habit of writing little stories in those black and white speckled notebooks that were so common at the time. When I’d get close to the end of a notebook, I would simply write myself into a conclusion.”
She worked on the school yearbook while attending Curtis High School on Staten Island and went on to attend a community college, Arlington Hall, in Arlington, Va.
Although she took secretarial courses, a common choice for young women at the time, she managed to include electives in journalism and creative writing. “The first year at Arlington, I was editor of the school newspaper, and in my second year, I was editor of the yearbook.”
Six years after graduation from Arlington, in 1942, she married William Harrison Barlow and they had four sons. He was chief of surgery at Staten Island Hospital and she worked writing advertising copy for the Montgomery Ward catalog.
Poetry was still in her blood, though.
O’Neill began writing humorous verse in the style of Ogden Nash, and saw her poems published in major magazines, including “Good Housekeeping,” “Ladies Home Journal,” “McCalls“ and “Look.”
With four boys to raise, she didn’t have time to write a book, which was her ultimate goal. But she recalled some of her ‘child-inspired’ early poems, such as “Dirt.”
“In our house it has boundless scope.
I even have to wash the soap.”
Her first poem published in Look magazine was called “Junior Is in College Now.”
“Since he’s been away, life has changed quite a lot.
Our ice box is full and our cash box is not.”
Her husband died of prostate cancer when her youngest was 7. As she raised the children she also continued to write and publish poetry.
She remarried seven years after her husband died and still continued with her writing. “My husband was very supportive of my interest in writing as long as I was supportive of his golf habit,” she said. He died of a heart attack after they had been married for six years.
O’Neill always thought she’d like to write novels.
“I finally wrote my first one when my boys were older, and I continued writing novels, romance mostly, but I could not find a publisher willing to publish any of them,” she said.
O’Neill began to try her hand once again at longer historical novels, but she still could not get published, and returned to writing romance.
She was in her 70s and still writing on an old Smith-Corona typewriter when her first book was published by Avalon Books, a romance called “Change of Heart.”
Within a few years, O’Neill had published four more romance novels, each followed by a book signing at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Greensboro, where she lived at the time.
In her 80s, she received a call from her publisher, Avalon Books, explaining that they were going to begin publishing mysteries. “Since I’d always had elements of mystery in my romance novels, they asked if I would try my hand at writing a mystery, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
“I didn’t know much about police work, but I muddled through. ... I got a lot of good information from (TV) shows, which I was able to incorporate in my novels.
“I actually found that I enjoyed writing mysteries more than romance because there was more substance to them.”
Thirteen novels ... and counting
O’Neill has 13 novels now in print.
When asked how she comes up with her plots, she said, “They just come to me. I create my characters, put them in a difficult situation and then turn them loose to see how they resolve it.”
These days, O’Neill lives at the Brookdale Retirement residence in Mooresville. She has now published eight mysteries, her last one five years ago, and all of her books are still selling. “I get a royalty check every month, and surprisingly enough, many of my books are sold in England.”
As for the future, she has been working on a romantic suspense novel for about a year. But her eyesight is worsening and she is finding it harder to write. “I hope to have it finished soon, if my eyes don’t completely shut down on me.”
She also has some straight-forward advice for aspiring authors. “Never give up. Believe in yourself, in your ideas and in your characters, and never take no for an answer.”
With her 100th birthday coming in September, might this be her last book?
O’Neill was quick to reply. “I don’t think any writer ever expects any book to be his or her last. As for me, I’m having too much fun to stop now.”
Bruce Dunbridge is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Bruce? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.