About twenty years ago, I began a PhD in University College Dublin. One of my fellow students – albeit following an entirely different research path to me – was Susan Cahill, who became a friend and colleague. We’d occasionally go for coffee or lunch together, pass pleasantries in the staff room when we both became tutors in the School of English, Drama and Film, help one another out with finding a lost whiteboard marker or the loan of a working pen, and that was that.
We left university. Susan went on to a brilliant academic career in Canada. I – did not. My own academic ambitions stumbled over lots of roadblocks, and so I found myself working to pay rent in jobs which taught me a lot about myself and what I was capable of.
And through it all, Susan and I kept in sporadic contact. I was aware of how well she was doing; she was aware that I began to publish books, and she got in touch to congratulate me.
Many years later, Susan left her academic life. She returned to her first and most beloved thing: stories. Like me, Susan had always nurtured a deep love for children’s books, particularly children’s fantasy novels – something we had in common, and which we now saw we’d always shared. She began to write for children and reached out to me once more for guidance, which I was delighted to give. Soon, she’d secured herself a brilliant agent and her first book deal. We reconnected over this change in her career path and realized, with a pang of nostalgia, how much more we could have brought to our friendship in our younger years if we’d only known the depth of love we both shared for the same books – the stories that had shaped us as children, and the stories whose shaping power extended into our adulthoods.
And then, one bright July day, Susan sent me a text. She had just read Alan Garner’s Elidor, a novel I had first read as a seven-year-old in the 1980s and which I had loved ever since. Susan had found herself captivated by Garner and his work, and she knew I was a huge fan too. “I need to talk to someone about these books!” she said, her enthusiasm palpable, even on the other end of a phone. We texted back and forth about Garner and his work, and then Susan said something which would come to change both our lives and careers:
“Let’s start a podcast.”
I had barely heard of podcasts. Up until a few months before this chat with Susan, I’d never even listened to one. I’d heard friends discuss podcasts they enjoyed, and had had several recommended to me, but I’d never found, or made, the time to listen. I was always too busy, and I didn’t have the right phone (which was true; my old phone was so old that if I’d tried to download a podcast to it, the poor thing would probably have thrown itself out the nearest window). But then, I replaced my phone with a sleeker, smarter, more pod-friendly model. I got curious. My brother insisted I download Spotify. And then, I was hooked.
I listened to podcasts while I cooked or cleaned, while I prepared to go to bed, in any down-time I had where I was occupied with something else – but not something I needed my brain for. Washing dishes? Put a podcast on. Sweeping the floor? Time to catch up with the latest edition of whatever I’d been listening to. So Susan’s suggestion felt like someone switching the light on inside me. It was a brilliant idea, and I knew I wanted to do it. But neither of us had any idea how.
We batted concepts back and forth. We knew we wanted the podcast to have a bookish theme; we had a feeling we’d like to focus mostly on children’s literature, as both Susan and I are children’s authors; we wanted to focus on books we really loved. For a while we considered discussing children’s fantasy novels of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, which had brought us together, but then decided we’d broaden our scope a bit. We thought: why not discuss the stories we’d loved as children, the stories which had had the most influence on us and which had left their fingerprints all over our lives? And get some guests on to discuss the books that meant the most to them?
Excited, we knew we’d hit on our format. Now, all we needed was something to call it.
One night around midnight, as my brain pinged with ideas about content, and guests, the perfect podcast name just popped into being.
“Storyshaped,” I texted Susan, squinting at my phone in the dark. “Good name?”
“Perfect,” was her reply.
And one week after we decided to start our podcast, Susan and I found ourselves recording our trailer. In that week, we’d designed a logo, familiarized ourselves with podcasting and editing software, managed to set up accounts everywhere we needed to in order to ensure our podcast was distributed across all major platforms, and experimented with recording over Zoom. Storyshaped was alive!
We began by recording some deep-dive episodes into some of our ‘soul books’ – including Elidor, Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life and Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams – but we quickly began welcoming guests, who’ve come on to talk about the stories that shaped their lives, and the stories they’ve gone on to shape in the course of their own work.
So – come and join us! You can find us at shows.acast.com/Storyshaped, or search ‘Storyshaped’ on your podcast streamer of choice. And tell us: what stories have shaped you?
(c) Sinéad O’Hart