With so much talk in the news lately about the rights and wrongs of parents helping their children get a step up on the career ladder, I wondered what difference it makes to an author to have a parent who writes.
I couldn’t quiz the two sets of writing relatives that first sprang to mind – Charles Dickens and his great-granddaughter Monica Dickens, Anthony Trollope and his descendant Joanna – on account of the elder of each pair not being available for interview. Instead I asked another author whose name popped up in my Amazon search for Ms Trollope – the lovely Joanna Phillips, author of Can’t Live Without and The Family Trap. Her mother, Anne Renshaw, recently launched her own debut novel, A Grave Inheritance. I’m delighted to share their responses below.
Q) Having followed your writing career, Jo, since before you published your first novel, I was excited to learn that there was another novelist in your family – your mum! Do you discuss your writing together or do you operate independently?
Joanne: We do discuss our writing and have for years, bouncing around ideas for plot lines and characters. I’ve always valued my mum’s opinion and she’s a great listener – ideal for when you just want to hear yourself talk through an idea, which may well come to nothing. But in terms of the actual writing, we do operate independently. I don’t show my writing to anyone until it’s ready for beta readers, but I will sometimes ask for advice from my mum on various aspects of the story.
Anne: Joanne and I discuss our ideas and book titles, and discuss whether a main character would be best written in the first person for greater impact.
Q) Although your book was published first, Joanne, who was the first to actually start writing a novel?
Joanne: Mum wins hands down on this one! She’d been writing long before I was born 😉
Anne: I began writing a children’s story for Joanne and my eldest daughter Dawn when I was in my late twenties. In serial form, each story had the same four main characters, a teenage boy and his younger sister, the boy’s best friend and his uncle. They had a Saturday job helping the uncle clean his ramshackle old house, full of antiques, and had adventures through a large gothic style mirror they found under wraps and hidden on the top floor. The stories were entitled Curio’s Magic Mirror.
Joanne: I remember that! And I still think you should write and publish it!
Q) Were you both keen writers from your school days, or have you come to it later in life?
Joanne: I loved English at school, and I’ve always loved inventing stories. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have imaginary conversations in my head! I listen to my daughter now (she’s five) acting out both sides of a conversation when she plays, and I realise that what I do is just an extended version of this, and that it’s something I’ve always done. I had good comments and grades from my English teachers, but I don’t remember creativity in writing being actively taught at school, not the way it is now. Even at five my daughter is learning about setting and structure of stories! I always knew I wanted to write – and was told quite often how difficult it was to make a living from writing, which was one of the reasons I went into hairdressing. University wasn’t on my radar at sixteen, but now – at 43 – I’m doing an MA in Creative Writing and making a nice income from royalties, even after only a year of being published. So I guess the short answer is, my love for writing was always there, but I’ve only managed to realise my dream recently.
Anne: Yes. English was my best subject. My family were great readers (still are). Of course, when I was a young girl, television had only recently come on the scene, and I remember it being a momentous moment when my father came home with a small black and white TV.
Q) I assume you both write under your married names, although I suspect many of your readers will know that you are related. With that wonderful thing that is hindsight, do you think it would have helped you to sell more books if you’d written under the same surname, or did you consciously decide against that, to ensure you were considered on your own terms? – a tricky challenge for the children of famous people!
Joanne: Well, my maiden name is Tasker – Mum remarried, so Renshaw is her married name now, and Stephenson her maiden name. I did think of using Tasker, though – I think it’s a very striking name – but the problem is, I just don’t feel like Joanne Tasker any more. I also considered a pseudonym, but figured I had enough identity problems without confusing things even further 😉
Anne: This was never discussed. Joanne is her own person, and I don’t think it would have helped her sell more books. Her first novel, Can’t Live Without, was a huge success long before mine was published.
Q) Although your debut novels were in different genres – Jo’s a light-hearted contemporary women’s novel, Anne’s a mystery spanning a century – it strikes me that you are now converging, with Jo’s next book to be a “cosy mystery”. Is that the case, or will Anne’s next novel be digressing into a different genre?
Anne: Definitely not. My next novel is also crime/mystery with an element of historical. A few characters, Amelia Farrell and DCI Peter Montrose, from A Grave Inheritance contribute, and it is mainly set in the same vicinity.
Joanne: Yes, I’d agree Mum’s books are very different from mine. I don’t really do historical, but I am excited about the mystery element in my next book. After that, I’ve got plans for all sorts of genres – I’m going to be a hopper, I think!
Q) How has it helped you to be related to each other? Do you share social networks, retweet each other, share best practice, etc or do you work in isolation from each other?
Joanne: Oh, I do everything! 😉 Only joking. Mum has come to the world of social media late in the game and is still getting used to how it all works. She does retweet me and share my books with her friends and contacts, which is fantastic. I tend to help with the more complicated stuff, for example I set up a free promotion for Mum recently, listing her book on all the relevant sites ahead of time. I think because I went into publishing first, I’m always one step ahead and happy to share what I’ve learned. More than happy – it’s a privilege to be so involved in my mum’s career as a writer because I know more than anyone what it means to her.
Anne: We work (write) in isolation from each other. I’m addicted to Joanne’s blog though, and I have re-tweeted on occasion.
Q) As you’ve been working in different genres until now, has it helped you to “confess” to being related, or does it confuse or irritate readers who expect your books to be very similar?
Joanne: That’s a good question, and I don’t really know if it has or not. I know that lots of my readers and loyal blog followers bought Mum’s book, and many of them have absolutely loved it. I think it helps that the cover styles are quite different (even though my cover designer, Chris Howard, did them all), and the blurbs make it clear what the reader is getting.
Anne: It could be irritating for one of Joanne’s readers to buy my book expecting it to be in the same genre, and vice-versa. The information given on the back of the paperbacks and on Amazon enables readers to check first to see if it is for them.
Q) Your both being authors is a gift of a story to local newspapers and radio stations, particularly if you live geographically close to each other. Have you milked the publicity opportunities here yet?
Joanne: We haven’t, Debbie, and we should be ashamed of ourselves! Really, it’s just down to time – there is so much to do and so little time. Since Mum launched her book, I’ve published the follow-up to Can’t Live Without and have been busy promoting that and now I’m working flat-out on the first of the Flora Lively mysteries. I will get around to writing some press releases from that very angle… one day. Maybe we need to pool our resources and hire a publicist to do some of this stuff 😉
Anne: I haven’t yet, no. I’ve had a lot of ill health since January, and also a house move, so everything has been put on the back burner, so to speak. I am intending to send a press release to our local newspaper soon, and it would be great it Joanne and I could share this opportunity.
Joanne: Well, I’m happy to delegate all that to you 😉
Q) Do you both share the same tastes in your own reading matter? Can you please each name your favourite authors for relaxing reading; the writers who are your greatest influence; the book you’d most like to have written yourself.
Joanne: My favourite authors for relaxing reading are Anne Tyler, Linda Gillard and Edie Clare, and the writers who have influenced me most are Anne Tyler, Carole Shields and V S Naipaul. The book I’d most like to have written myself is definitely A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler. To me, this is the perfect novel, and was the inspiration for my wanting to become a novelist.
Anne: I love mysteries. Historical, adventures and crime. My favourite authors are Nora Loft, Bryce Courtney, Sebastion Barry, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and of course, Joanne Phillips!
Q) Let’s play “inheritance books”! I am frustrated when my ten year old daughter resists the books that I most enjoyed in my childhood, though she often takes an interest in them once I’ve stopped trying to get her to like them. (She’s come round to Alice in Wonderland and Teddy Robinson after some resistance; I’m still working on The House at Pooh Corner and The Moomins!) Anne, which of your favourite books have you tried to encourage Jo also to love (whether now or when she was a child)? Jo, if you could choose just one book that you’d like your own daughter to read and treasure, which would that be?
Joanne: Tough question! One of my favourite books is Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman, and I would love for my daughter to read and enjoy this as much as I have many times. But really, all I would want to pass on to her is a love of reading, and the urge for creative endeavour, whatever field or area she felt inspired in. I couldn’t assume she might enjoy something just because I did, and often children will reject something wonderful just because you like it! But if she can discover the joy and escape to be found in fiction, I’ll be a happy mummy.
Anne: Joanne loved Enid Blyton’s books as a child, and I never had any difficulty getting her to read and love books. I haven’t tried to encourage Joanne to read a specific book. We have different tastes in literature.
Q) What advice would you pass on to other writers who have another author in their family?
Joanne: Be supportive but not competitive. Recognise your differences and embrace them – there is more than one way to do something well, or right. Remember you are not necessarily going after the same readers, but even if you are it’s fine!
Anne: Value the support and motivation you give to each other.
Q) Are there any other writers lurking in your family that I don’t know about? And are there any signs a younger generation of writing talent in your family?
Anne: My mother (who passed away in 2008 aged 102), loved to write poetry. I have a little book with all her poems in which I treasure.
Joanne: My mother-in-law has always written, and she has a novel I’ve tried to convince her to self-publish. My mum is proof that age and technical know-how are no barrier to a successful indie career, but not everyone is as brave 😉 And yes, my daughter is definitely showing signs – she’s already written, and illustrated, her first book called The Three Hedgehogs! She goes to ‘book making’ club at school once a week, and really gets it that I’m an author.
Q) It has just struck me that the theme of moving house features in all of your books, both of you – A Grave Inheritance starts with a removal, Can’t Live Without & The Family Trap feature relocation and estate agents, and I gather Flora Lively runs a removals business! Do you share nomadic genes?
Joanne: Wow, what an amazing observation, Debbie! Yes, we do have nomadic genes, I think. I’ve moved house many times, Homes Under the Hammer is my favourite TV programme, and I’m fascinated by the whole moving and starting afresh thing. But I’d never noticed the theme before. And the removal business really interests me, how you come into contact with people in such a personal but transient way. Expect many more novels exploring these themes!
Thank you, Joanne Phillips and Anne Renshaw, for sharing your story on Off The Shelf. You can find out more about each of these authors at their official websites here: