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Between the Lines

Can literary talent be inherited?

About the author

Jane Ciabattari is a journalist and book critic based in New York and California who has written for The Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, NPR.org, The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, and the Paris Review. She is a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, having served as its president from 2008-11, and is the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire.

(Corbis)

(Corbis)

Three notable pairs of mother-daughter writers suggest writing ability can be passed down through generations. For Mother’s Day, Jane Ciabattari investigates.

The art of novel writing isn’t often a family business. The combination of talent and perseverance required, plus the good fortune to be published, are rare indeed. Even rarer are literary generations of mothers and daughters. But there are three notable pairs of mother-daughter novelists throughout literary history who share the gift of language and the same storytelling talent – and suggest that talent can be inherited, either through natural ability or through careful nurturing. An author mother can be a path opener or a role model for her daughter, or both, and help shape her literary destiny.

Mary Shelley ‘s mother Mary Wollstonecraft died of an infection only days after her daughter was born. But her maternal legacy was strong.  Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, is a fundamental feminist document arguing for educating women to become equal partners to men.

In Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary: A Fiction, written in 1788, a young single woman is adventuresome enough to travel abroad, but ends up back in the English countryside, visiting the sick, comforting the poor and educating the young. The last lines of the novel reflect the limits of a woman’s life at the time: “Her delicate state of health did not promise long life. In moments of solitary sadness, a gleam of joy would dart across her mind – she thought she was hastening to that world where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage.”

Mary Shelley showed an early interest in writing and noted that she was “the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity”. (Her father was the philosopher William Godwin.) Because of her parents’ influential intellectual circles, she had opportunities to explore her talents early on.

While still in her teens, Mary Shelley ran off to Europe with a friend of her father’s, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who later became her husband. On a dare at a gathering on Lake Geneva hosted by their neighbor Lord Byron, she began to write the horror story that became Frankenstein.  

Wollstonecraft’s influence on her daughter’s work appears in the themes of birth and creation central to her great gothic novel.  In an ironic reversal, given her mother’s death after childbirth and her own series of miscarriages, Shelley confers the power of giving life upon a man, the scientist Dr Frankenstein – the “modern Prometheus”.

Finding feminism

Hilma Wolitzer was 44 when she published her first novel, Ending, a raw portrayal of a young wife and mother struggling to keep grief at bay as her husband lies in hospital dying of cancer. It was 1974, at the height of the second wave of feminism – a time when Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women was being revived. Wolitzer captured the voice of her generation of women – urgent, intimate, searching: “I found myself lying in the middle of the bed on those strange new nights, like someone staking claim to territory in a wilderness.”

“I started writing short stories in my thirties, after my children were grown,” Hilma tells BBC Culture. “I knew no other writers. We lived in the suburbs. [But] I was invited to Bread Loaf [Writers’ Conference in Vermont], where I met John Gardner.”

In nine novels, filled with rare insights and moving scenes shot through with moments of beauty, Wolitzer has chronicled the juggling acts women face when combining marriage, family, work and friendship. Her most recent, An Available Man (2013), ranges from melancholy to wry wit as the male narrator, a 62-year-old science teacher, enters the new world of dating after his wife’s death.

“She was changed by feminism,” says her novelist daughter, Meg Wolitzer. “Her writing was empowered by the Women’s Movement. To have a mother be able to do what she wants is wonderful, inspiring.”

Hilma Wolitzer only became a writer in middle age. By contrast, she exposed Meg  to writing early and discovered she was “a natural writer with a gift for language”.

“I started writing in college,” Meg says. “I was very affected by my teachers – John Irving, John Hawkes and Mary Gordon.” While an undergraduate at Brown, Meg wrote her first novel, Sleepwalking, about a trio of ‘death girls’ at Swarthmore obsessed with Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and a fictionalised poet named Lucy Asher. It was published in 1982.

Meg married and had children after her own writing career was established.  Like her mother, she has often focused on family and relationship in her work. She has written with sophisticated wit about confronting family legacies (The Position, a hilarious take on the lasting effects of a couple’s Joy of Sex-style manual on their children), the sacrifices creative women make when they support husbands whose ambitions mirror their own (The Wife), taking time off to raise children (The Ten-Year Nap), and, in a modern take on Lysistrata, the power of sex withheld (The Uncouplings). Her effervescent ninth novel, The Interestings (2013), follows a group of six friends, who meet as teens at an artsy camp the summer Nixon resigned, through four tumultuous decades.

Meg says she values her early exposure to the daily solitude and persistence of a writer at work: “Seeing my mother working at it, you see what it’s like to make a life of writing, the necessary aloneness of being a writer. Most writers don’t have a writer parent so they don’t get to see it first hand and all its problems. It’s like being a royal taster.”

Run the world, girls

In 2006, Kiran Desai became the youngest woman to win the UK’s Man Booker Prize with her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, a multicultural, postcolonial, immigrant tale distinguished by its exuberant narrative and fluid prose. The head of the Booker judges, Hermione Lee, noted, "I think her mother would be proud. It is clear to those of us who have read Anita Desai that Kiran Desai has learned from her mother's work. Both write not just about India but about Indian communities in the world.”

Her mother Anita was indeed a groundbreaker, Kiran tells BBC Culture. “She was one of the first Indians writing in English being published abroad. I do see a link between her and what is now a vibrant scene. It's changed dramatically in my lifetime.”

Anita Desai, who was born in the hill town of Mussoorie to a German mother and Bengali father, began writing as a child. Since 1963 she has published seventeen novels – elegant, austere elegiac books that explore the lives of individuals, especialIy Indian women, circumscribed by societal limits. She has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker (in 1999 her Fasting Feasting, two interwoven family novellas set in Indian and Massachusetts, was official runner-up), and she was longlisted  for the 2005 Orange Prize for The Zigzag Way, in which the descendant of a Cornish miner traces his roots in Mexico during the Day of the Dead.

Kiran Desai was raised in India until 14 and went to high school and college in the US. She wrote her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), in which a hermit lives in a guava tree for years and offers up oracular commentary to the passing villagers, while in graduate school.

Mother and daughter often work in the same house. They spent this past winter writing in Mexico. “I seek her counsel more as I grow older,” says Kiran. “The writing life has exacted a growing toll.  I was unprepared for the psychological cost of a slow, solitary life of writing books that are always, each one of them, a gamble. Writing school may teach craft, but a writer has to learn to be psychologically tough.”

Kiran’s acknowledgement of Anita’s role in her life as a novelist might serve as a motto for these mother-daughter pairs:

“It is wonderful to have the example and advice of a mother with a superb mind and matchless dignity. I know it hasn't been an easy life, but it was one that was necessary to her.  I followed her sense of discipline until it became my own.”

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