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Something old, something new: the story behind Audible’s Hag podcast

In this interview, Harriet Poland of Audible describes the genesis of the Hag podcast, which will be launching on 29th August.

How did the idea for this podcast come together? 

A few days after I’d joined the company I sat down with one of our producers and we began thinking through ideas for a themed short story collection. Early on we became interested in the re-emergence of folk stories, and set about tasking an Oxford English Professor, Carolyne Larrington, to dig up some long forgotten folk tales from around the British Isles. When we looked at the stories we were struck by how much they reflected so many contemporary themes – from class divides to #MeToo. It became this vital and potent project, which reflected culture and said something really important about how power has worked throughout history.

How did you choose the eight authors to write for Hag? 

Well the most important element was that the authors came from each region that the stories came from. We wanted those slight cultural and linguistic differences, which would have shaped the stories as they were originally passed down orally, to be reflected in the contemporary re-imaginings. When we first planned the anthology that was our only requirement, but when reading the original stories it was so clear that these had to be a group of female writers. These felt like cautionary tales or hopeful imaginings that would have been passed between generations of women, a mix of female agency and patriarchal oppression embedded in stories of race, class, gender and environment. From that starting point, we wanted a really broad range of writers who work across different genres and styles while consistently challenging the norms of literary culture.

How did the authors find the experience of writing for the podcast, knowing that their work would be read aloud?  

It was fascinating to see how each author reacted to the challenge of audio in different ways. Some really experimented with sound itself, from unsettling banging noises in Naomi Booth’s story, to folk lullabies in Kirsty Logan’s. Others focused on the rhythm of a story, which can feel so different when read aloud; it was remarkable with Eimear McBride’s story to see how much the sense of the story shifted when she narrated it, while the lyrical magic of Mahsuda Snaith’s just emanated out of the page as soon as you read it. Crucially, each of the authors started from a place of voice, and the power of those narratives when read by actors from each of the regions transforms the way you understand them as a listener.

Do you find that short stories work better within a podcast format rather than audiobook format? 

I wouldn’t say they work better, but I think a podcast is an exciting way of being a little more experimental – developing a theme and commissioning directly to that focus. With fewer stories we can be really dedicated in how we approach each one, layering sound design and effects throughout and giving each story enough space and attention to really shine. We’ve also been able to add a conversation between Professor Larrington and the author at the end of each episode, which would have been disruptive in a straight audiobook. These interviews provide fascinating context and insight into the stories, letting the listener in on the creative process in a way that’s usually impossible.

Literary fiction has been seen as a smaller corner of the market for audio. Do you feel that’s changing? 

Absolutely. Sophisticated and complex podcasts have perceptibly shifted engagement in audio, bringing in completely new audiences who are eagerly consuming audio content across the board. As we all become busier, more stressed, and more overwhelmed by gym classes and commutes, audiobooks are offering people a way to take in books they might otherwise have missed. Certainly some literary writing can be challenging in audio, but hearing a world-class actor bring a beautiful and evocative piece of writing to life can enhance the experience of taking it in and now I rarely go a week without someone telling me about a literary novel they’ve loved listening to.

What do you look for in fictional podcasts as a platform? 

Audio is all about intimacy and voice, and we want to create worlds our listeners are going to disappear into. With so much choice across podcasts listeners can be fickle, so we’re looking for a captivating idea that immediately connects the listener with the character and doesn’t let them go.

Harriet Poland joined Audible in 2017 after working as a literary agent. She acquires audio rights across all genres, and commissions original fiction and non-fiction.

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