Westworld’s Jonah Nolan, Lisa Joy and the Writers Who Inspire Them

By Ashley Morton

Harari, Blake and Vonnegut are just a few of the names on their must-read list.


With a unique mythology, literary references galore and nuanced narratives, the epic drama Westworld is a bibliophile’s dream. Showrunners Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy share some of the writers and stories that inspired Season 2.

The author who’s included in the series: Kurt Vonnegut

Books: The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five

Satirical sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut is “a huge favorite” of Joy’s. “There are references to his novels throughout the show,” she shares. “I put a copy of Silence of Titan in the episode I directed [Season 2, Episode 4 “The Riddle of the Sphinx”]. There are some visual references and allusions to Slaughterhouse-Five within the series. That’s a marvel of a book.”

The poet who explores good and evil: William Blake

Poem: “Auguries of Innocence”

“The line about holding eternity in the palm of your hand reminds me of the hosts -- these eternal immortal creatures, who have lived through so many lives and never changed. What must the world look like to them? They must experience such a balance of goodness and evil, and violence and bliss.”

The author who will make you think...and then think about why you think: Yuval Noah Harari

Books: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

“It’s a fascinating follow-up to Harari’s book Sapiens,” Nolan notes, “and the text has informed an awful lot of our pessimism about the human animal. Both books deal with the development of the human mind and culture as an artifact of the process where homo sapiens sort of wandered out of Africa, armed with a tool that no other creature had — language and an ability to share ideas back and forth.”

“His books are about human intelligence and the limitations of it,” continues Nolan. “He’s not an author who seems particularly taken with the human condition, but looks at it with a very balanced eye.”

The poet who will stay with you: Rita Dove

Book: Mother Love

Joy drew inspiration from a book of Dove’s poetry once given to her by a high school teacher. “It stuck with me all these years,” she says. “It’s the story of [Greek mythological figures] Demeter and Persephone and their relationship when Persephone gets taken to the Underworld. Demeter can’t get her daughter back. The way in which she yearns for her — and wants to scorch the earth for her — has a lot of resonance for me in thinking about Maeve’s arc with her daughter, and the suffering of a mother whose family is torn asunder.”

The author who will make you cry: Kazuo Ishiguro

Books: Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day

Never Let Me Go left me weeping at the end,” Joy confesses. “It’s about people who are treated as less than people, trying to find their way in a world that is not meant for them to inherit. The parallels between their story and our hosts’ predicament are really striking.”

“Ishiguro’s work speaks to me,” Joy continues, “as he captures this reserve and quiet longing in many of his novels — including The Remains of the Day. That sense of yearning and self-denial reminds me of Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Bernard. Bernard holds himself back both as a host and a human, but there’s this deep well of feeling beneath the surface. It’s the same for Man in Black. These characters act very controlled, but you can see the animal roiling underneath begging to be let out.”

The author you might not expect: Mo Willems

Book: We Are in a Book from The Elephant & Piggie series

“It’s one of our daughter’s favorite series,” Nolan explains. “We threw in a lot of references, specifically to We Are in a Book, which is one of the most deliciously meta narratives I have ever encountered.”

Find more book suggestions on the Reading Is Lit page or head to Westworld to discover more about the series.