Authors From Literary Families Tell the Stories Behind Their Stories

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I’ve always been intrigued by literary families with more than one published author. What must it be like to be able to pick up the phone and discuss the writing process, plot, and character? To share a mutual understanding and speak a common language? Would it be suffocating or reassuring? Competitive or inspiring? I imagine it’s probably all of the above.

Earlier this year, I attended a virtual reading and conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro, who was promoting his latest novel, Klara and the Sun. It was during this event that I learned his daughter, Naomi, is also an author. Just a few months earlier, I’d stumbled across some papers from a college creative writing class and noticed my teacher’s name: Paula Saunders. I’d loved her class and have never forgotten the time-tested principles I’d learned from her. Curious about what she has been up to, I googled her and discovered she’s now a successful novelist whose husband is none other than George Saunders.

All of this got me wondering about literary families with multiple publications to their names. How many are there? What do they say about each other? What must their creative lives be like? So, I did a little digging and discovered there are many more literary families — whose authors are related both by blood and by marriage—than I realized. Some of them have offered, in various interviews and articles, a glimpse into their lives together. So, for all you book nerds who are as curious as I was, I’ve compiled some of what I’ve learned about the real-life scenes behind the scenes.

Kazuo Ishiguro and Naomi Ishiguro

How They’re Related

Kazuo Ishiguro has won a number of literary awards, including the Booker Prize and Nobel Prize in literature. His books include An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and Klara and the Sun, among others.

Naomi Ishiguro is Kazuo Ishiguro’s daughter and an author whose first collection of stories, Escape Routes, came out in 2020 and whose first novel, Common Ground, launched in 2021.

Their Perspective on Literary Families

On Naomi Ishiguro’s Childhood

Kazuo Ishiguro once told The Guardian that he used to read Enid Blyton’s books to his daughter when she was younger. At the virtual event I attended, he told the audience that he also used to regale her with stories spun from his imagination — told from the most unexpected perspectives. In fact, in an interview with Evening Standard, Naomi Ishiguro revealed Klara and the Sun was based on one of those stories. The tale became known as “Merm and the Sun.” Merm, short for Mermaid, was Naomi’s nicknameIn her own interview with The Guardian, Naomi Ishiguro remembers her dad teaching her how to play guitar when she was 5. “I had a guitar teacher and loved the lessons and would do everything the teacher said. Then when my dad tried to teach me, I was like, ‘Noooo! I won’t do that!’”

On Their Work

Naomi Ishiguro told The Guardian that having a writer-parent makes a career in writing “feel possible; it doesn’t feel completely mystical. You think: ‘I can make this happen if I want to, it’s just that I’ve got to work hard.’”In that same interview, she revealed that when she was younger, when she shared her writing with her parents, they were brutally honest. While her mom was direct with criticism, her dad was “much more Guildford about it, and go round the houses!”According to her interview with Evening Standard, when her father shares his first drafts with Naomi and her mother, they don’t hold back with their criticism either.When she learned her father won the Nobel Prize, Naomi Ishiguro described her reaction to Evening Standard: “I screamed and my housemate came running in because he thought we were being burgled.”

On Other Stuff

Earlier this year, in a New York Times feature about Kazuo Ishiguro, his daughter summed up his style this way: “He hates shopping, but he wants to look cool, so at one point he just bought a thousand black T-shirts.”

Paula Saunders and George Saunders

How They’re Related

Paula Saunders’s first novel, The Distance Home, was long-listed for The Center for Fiction’s 2018 First Novel Prize and was included in The Best Books of 2018 by Real Simple.

Her husband, George Saunders, is an author and short story writer. His novel, Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Man Booker Prize. His short story collection, Tenth of December, was the winner of the Folio Prize. His other works include CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, among others.

Their Perspective On Literary Families

On Their Relationship

In a New Yorker essay about the timeline of his writing education, George Saunders describes his life in September and October of 1986 this way: “I start dating a beautiful fellow writer named Paula Redick, who is in the year ahead of me. Things move quickly. We get engaged in three weeks, a Syracuse Creative Writing Program record that, I believe, still stands.”Paula Saunders told The Guardian she was one of her husband’s first fans — “before he’d published more than a story or two in little magazines.” She added that she was proud to have her book next to his on the shelf. In a conversation with Jonathan Rabb at the 2019 Savannah Book Festival, the couple agreed that from the beginning of their relationship, they’ve always bonded over the idea that fiction is a way to “get to the heart of things.”

On Their Work

In an interview with LitHub, George and Paula Saunders revealed that when they talk about each other’s work, rather than discussing characters and other literary elements, they mostly talk about sentences. “It’s all we ever talk about,” George Saunders said.At the Savannah Book Festival, they told the audience that they work separately, but come together to share their progress. George Saunders waits until he feels like a piece is almost finished before sharing, while Paula Saunders tends to share earlier in the process. Both of them agreed that they rely on each other’s honest critiques.In fact, in that same discussion, George Saunders shared that he’s learned to intuit his wife’s reactions — both negative and positive. When he left her a partial manuscript of Lincoln in the Bardo for the first time, he was extremely nervous about what she would think, but then she left him a Post-It note with “the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my writing — so nice I keep it secret.” That note, he said, gave him the confidence to move forward. 

Zadie Smith and Nick Laird

How They’re Related

Zadie Smith is an author, essayist, and short-story writer. She’s won multiple literary awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her works include White Teeth, On Beauty, Swing Time, and Changing My Mind, among others. 

Smith is married to Nick Laird, a poet and novelist whose works include Utterly Monkey, Glover’s Mistake, Feel Free, and Go Giants, among others. His literary awards include the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize, the Ireland Chair for Poetry Award, the Betty Trask Prize, and the Somerset Maugham Award among others.

The couple co-authored a children’s book, Weirdo, which launched earlier this year.

Their Perspective On Literary Families

On Their Relationship

The couple’s first encounter happened when Smith submitted a story to The Mays Anthologies, of which Laird was the editor. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is head and shoulders above everything else I’ve seen,’” Laird told Belfast Telegraph. In “Joy,” an essay she wrote for The New York Review, Smith described being excited to see Laird at the end of the workday — they both worked in the library, but on different floors — so they could tell each other everything interesting they saw and heard during the day.In an interview with Writer’s Digest, Smith broke down their differences when watching TV shows: “I’m the person who watches a TV show and has no idea who the murderer is till the last 10 minutes of the last episode. Nick’s the one who knows a few minutes after the opening credits are finished.”Talking with Belfast Telegraph, Laird revealed he was often “elbowed out of the way as people clamoured to get to his wife” at literary events. “I’ve sort of accepted being Mr. Smith,” he said.

On Their Work

Laird and Smith always share their work with each other. In the Writer’s Digest interview, each confirmed that the other is always the first to see their work. While Smith will also share her pieces with friends and other writers, Laird’s editors are the only other people who see his writing.Much like the Saunders duo, Laird and Smith work separately before sharing with each other. In a Penguin podcast, Smith explains how, when critiquing, they play to each other’s strengths: “Nick is really good at your story, I’m better at people-speaking.”Laird claims, in Belfast Telegraph, that his novel Modern Gods would have been “twice as long and half as good if [Smith] hadn’t gone through it with a pen.”In that same interview, Laird puzzled over writer couples who don’t read each other’s work. “It just seems weird to me. The couples I know who don’t do that are now divorced, and the ones who do read are still together. The couple that reads together breeds together.”

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re looking for more stories about published authors from literary families, here are a few relationships to start with: Carolyn See and Lisa See; Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer; the sometimes awkward competitive vibe between Emma Straub and Peter Straub; the complicated relationship between Alice Walker and Rebecca Walker; and, of course, the literary empire of Stephen King, Tabitha King, Joe Hill, Owen King, and Kelly Braffet.

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