The story of Hag: how a fiction podcast became a book

Blog header showing the cover of the book Hag discussed in the article below

Last August, Harriet Poland of Audible described the genesis of the Hag podcast here on the BookMachine blog. In this new post, Rose Tomaszewska of Virago Books explains how an audio concept became a book…

Folklore has been an oral tradition long before printing was invented or books popularised. When Audible created a podcast called Hag, they did so with the storytellers of ancient times present like a ghost in the machine. Their inspired idea was to  commission a folklore expert, Professor Carolyne Larrington at Oxford, to select forgotten stories from the British Isles and Ireland and match them with modern authors who each had a connection to their story’s region. Because they were writing for spoken word, there is a liberation in the prose, a conversational tone, an acknowledgment not of a reader but of a listener.

So Eimear McBride tells the Tale of Kathleen from a sharp-tongued narrator who demands the recipient’s attention:

“I have some sympathy. Not much. A century or so later hers was the type who kept making ham salads for the parish priest despite revelations about where he’d been shoving bits of himself. As for me? I leave the island and I leave the past, or as much as I can. Meaning now there’s only you. So, I hope you put your best foot forward as you heard all this and, if you didn’t, you might want to have a think about that.”

Kirsty Logan tackled her tale by making her narrator a mother talking naturally to her babe in arms, singing lullabies that could be performed in the podcast:

Oh my darling wee fishie, you sleep there on your own
Your mama is too busy list’ning to these old bones –

Oh Sweet Jesus, that last one was bad. No more making up songs today, Mammy promises. Talk about forcing a rhyme until it creaks! I never was much of a writer, I’ll tell you that right now. Luckily there are lots of stories round here that I can tell you, so I don’t have to make anything up.”

In Sour Hall, Naomi Booth’s haunting story of a boggart representing old trauma, Audible were able to add the disturbing sound effects of the trapped demon rattling its prison, just like children telling ghost stories today will knock on bunkbeds to terrify each other.

In all the stories, there’s a resounding accent, strikingly realised by the podcast readers, each hailing from the same region as the stories and their authors – from Norfolk to Scotland, Yorkshire to Cornwall. Capturing brogue and dialect on paper is a joyful evocation of each author’s voice.

There’s much to be celebrated in the way these stories were commissioned and conceived for an audio edition; yet when I first heard about the podcast, I was immediately interested in creating a print edition. I’ve studied and read folktales for years, and I’ve always loved reading prose that’s unusual, voice-driven, replete with vernacular, poetry, direct address – to me it leaps off the page. These stories sang out to me in print, and I knew that a collection could be treasured, reread, kept on a bedside table, in a way that a podcast can’t.

I contacted Harriet Poland, the editor at Audible, and happily she was only too excited to share the project with Virago. As Audible and Virago are both publishers, this could have been competitive; instead we collaborated. I commissioned two new authors to write stories for the book and we agreed Audible would commission the audio versions to add a bonus edition of the podcast. It all serves to expand the audience for a wonderful set of creations and hopefully readers will listen to their favourite stories, and those who loved the podcast will want the book as a keepsake.

We’ve forgotten so many of our old folktales and resurrecting them and resetting them in the modern world shows how powerfully relevant they still are. The wisdom of Hag echoes through the centuries – and shewill live on as a cackle on the airwaves and a book of enchantments.

Rose Tomaszewska is Senior Commissioning Editor at Virago where she commissions fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels; she also teaches at the Faber Academy.