Interview – Burning Books Podcast by Books Ireland

Books Ireland is our national hub for all things literature, covering the literary scene from pretty much every angle possible: news, interviews, features, reviews, Irish book charts, events listings, First Flash (a roundup of books published in the current month) and, most recently, a series entitled Backlist Beauties, giving books a well deserved return to the spotlight, long after their launch. The one thing missing from this list? A podcast of course, which is where Burning Books comes in.

If your house was on fire, what books would you save from the flames? 

Burning Books is the new podcast by Books Ireland, where editor Ruth McKee invites authors and well-known cultural figures to remember and discuss the books which have impacted and shaped them on their journey so far. The conversation is loosely guided by asking them which books they would save from a fire, which they would gladly leave behind, and what other non-book item they’d run with; a framework which allows the conversation to develop broadly and fluidly, from childhood to now, charting and exploring the books which stood out along the way. Rather than an in-depth analysis of the books themselves, the podcast aims to explore how books can make their marks on our lives, something any book lover will be able to relate to.

There has been a surge in popularity of podcasts in recent years, satisfying our preference for on-demand entertainment; we can seek out the topics that interest us, line them up, and then listen to them whenever and however suits us. Podcasts have become our companions while in the kitchen prepping meals, while out on the go, in the evenings as an alternative to reading or TV, and at numerous other points of our day; offering light entertainment, profound insights, and plenty of food for thought in between.

The first episode of Burning Books features a lively and insightful discussion with author Jan Carson, whose works include Children’s Children, The Fire Starters (which won her the European Prize for Literature), and the recently published The Last Resort. 

With one successful episode down, I caught up with Ruth from Books Ireland to find out a little more about where the podcast is coming from, how Episode One went, and what we can expect as the podcast progresses.

Books Ireland already provides such broad coverage of the literary scene in Ireland; a podcast seems like the natural next step. Could you tell us a bit about how your new podcast came to be? 

There are many insightful book-related podcasts out there; we wanted to offer something different. I’ve been a radio addict all my life, from when I was small with my first transistor radio, until now — when it’s the first thing I turn on in the morning after the kettle. A programme that has formed the backdrop to much of my life is Desert Island Discs. When I imagined a programme about books, I wanted the impetus to be similar — to talk about books but in the context of someone’s life, rather than simply the books per se.

Podcasts are so prevalent now but one element of a great podcast is definitely when the chat feels somewhat organic; like there is a skeleton list of questions but room to expand in the moment as the chat progresses. You and Jan sounded like you were having great fun, and there was definitely an organic feel to the chat. With your first episode successfully under your belt, how did you find this? 

Jan makes it easy as she is witty and droll, and speaks from a place of honesty; she’s there to talk about what genuinely matters to her, and books are in her DNA. The format is loose and flexible, so while there are a few general questions about which books a guest might save, going off on a tangent is really the best part — I’d like it to feel like a great conversation with a friend in a café or a pub.

The premise for the show is asking guests which books they would save from a fire, and which they would leave to burn; exploring which books have impacted them on their journey to date. It was lovely to hear more about Jan’s professional and personal story. It seems like your podcast is aiming to go far beyond the books your guests do and don’t like; striving to find out more about where they are coming from, and affording us a deeper understanding of how this has shaped their work. Could you talk to us a bit more about this aspect of the podcast?

Sometimes when we talk about books in the media, there’s an eagerness to dissect, reflect, and critique; often we focus on the author, who they are, how they practise. I wanted to steer the conversation towards the meaning of certain books through our lives — those titles we remember from childhood or at certain intense times in our lives.

On your website, the description of the podcast mentions how books can offer refuge or a life raft. It’s amazing how books can become so intrinsically linked to particular periods of our lives, providing the inspiration, comfort, entertainment, or profound stimulation we might have needed at a particular time. Do you feel this could be something that will become very evident as you chat to guests going forward?

I hope so. I know that books have saved lives; I recognise there are texts people return to over and again that offer solace. Some books have opened doors — or closed them. Everyone is different as to how much of their own experience they want to share, but it’s certainly one of the deeper questions that guests are asked.

I find it really interesting that you also ask guests which books they would gladly leave to burn. What value do you feel there is in acknowledging, and reflecting on, the authors and genres of literature that we don’t like, rather than just dismissing them?

This question should be taken with a good pinch of salt; it’s really just for devilment. No living writers are ever suggested and it’s not a place to get up on a podium and rant about how much you can’t stand a certain author; there’s no value in that. However, there is something interesting when we consider what books don’t work for us and why — and it’s fascinating how books that one guest just couldn’t jam with are someone else’s joy, which is the case with Jan Carson and Patrick Freyne.

When booking guests, what are you looking for? Have you a sneak preview for us of what to expect in the coming months, or should we just stay tuned? 

Everyone is interesting. I’m looking for people who are genuine, who are keen to talk about books and life experience. Coming soon are Patrick Freyne, Rick O’Shea and Ethel Rohan. For the rest, stay tuned!

And lastly, a few parting words from Burning Books… 

Burning Books is just starting; we’re finding our feet and our tone. I’d love you to come along with us as we grow and deepen — more than anything I’d love to know you were listening in your kitchen, putting on the kettle.


A big thank you to Ruth for taking the time to chat to me about Burning Books, and the hugely enjoyable first episode with Jan Carson.

Visit the Books Ireland website to catch up on Episode One, subscribe to all future episodes, and generally get your daily dose of all things literature in Ireland.

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