I have just had the absolute pleasure of a lovely, inspiring chat with Heather Ordover. Many of you may know her as the woman behind CraftLit, now running on its seventh year. If you don’t, then may I suggest that you get yourselves over there and tune in. CraftLit has recently aired its 300th episode and is still going strong with new chapters of some of the most beloved classic books ever written, paired with equal measures of literature analysis and crafty news.
The current book is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which I am personally listening to, together with John, while we both sit and make stuff. Heather has helped me to see this book in a completely new light. From being a dark and broody story about a much too young girl wandering around the moors, a lot (I had only seen the first part of the BBC series from 1983), Heather transformed the book into an interesting and surprisingly modern story covering morals and ethics to which we can draw parallels today. I’m hooked! So how did she come up with this idea of an audio book/literature analysis/craft podcast?
Heather: Back in late 2005 I started listening to Brenda Dayne’s podcast, Cast On. Early the next year she announced that she was looking for essay submissions for a new series on the Greek muses. At nearly the last minute I submitted my essay. Almost immediately she responded and asked “who are you and what is the name of your podcast?”.
I’d been toying with the idea of starting one but hadn’t committed to it yet, and thought here is my chance to get the word out! I liked the idea of focusing on literature but hadn’t figured out a format. So I talked to my husband that night and we came up with the basic idea of the crafty talk and then the book talk. I don’t think the podcast has changed all that much over the years. One of the listeners calls the book talk curating, like in a museum.
If you have a look back at the show notes for the earliest episodes (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, of course), you will see that the format is pretty much the same. I also wanted to know about the audience and whether Heather’s relationship with them has changed.
Heather: It took a while to figure out the audience. If you listen to the very first episodes, its a podcast for crafters who “like” books, because I couldn’t commit to “love”. I was so worried I’d offend somebody. Finally, I realised, this is ridiculous, if anybody is listening it is because they are a book fan.
I couldn’t help wondering if it took a long time to build up the audience Heather has now and whether it is the same people who listen week after week, year after year.
Heather: In the beginning there was a core number of around 500 listeners and people seem to come and go with the books. During Connecticut Yankee, we lost a lot of people. Jane Austen books are always very popular, as is Jane Eyre. Dracula and Woman in White were also very popular. We even lost people on Little Women, which I thought was very interesting.
After a while I realised that there were three different types of listeners: those who listened every week as a part of their routine, those who hoard the chapters to them as a regular audio book, and finally, those who pick and choose between the books. They may listen to the first episodes of a book to see if they like it and then dropout and come back for the next one.
I guess for most podcasts, if they all of a sudden lose many listeners they would begin to worry, but here it sounds like the amount of listeners is a very variable thing. People come and go and know that if they are not so interested in the current book they may very well love the next. It all sounds so very reassuring.
While Heather comes from a background in theatre studies she has taught high school, first in California and then in New York. I was very curious to know whether she felt that sharing classic literature with only teenagers was very different from the more adult audience she has now.
Heather: With high school students there aren’t that many differences, especially in New York, the kids were very mature. They had access to museums, the UN is there and Wall Street is there, they just grow up knowing more. So the reference points I was able to use when I was teaching in New York were not all that different from what I would use on the podcast. Many homeschoolers in the States use the podcast as a supplement to their literature curriculum. So I try really hard to either keep the podcast clean and noncontroversial or let people know if I have to talk about something that may be potentially troubling for family listeners. But that’s developed over time based on meeting and corresponding with listeners.
I was also curious to know more about how Heather researches for the podcasts. As a listener you really experience the books in such a fascinating way because she begins each show by telling you what to listen out for and then she rounds off by explaining things that were interesting or complex.
Heather: I’m an alumni member at my university and I still have access to my university’s research library – so I have access to the literary criticism if I want. I don’t read it that closely now because I have a better idea of what our listeners want to hear, but I’ll read some literary criticism on the books. I’ll try and get a good picture of where the discussion or debate about a book has been. Mostly I focus on historical research, for example, with Jane Eyre this has been very tricky because most of it has been religious historical research. The history of religion in England at this time is so complex because it was changing and depended so much on where you where and where you fell in the wealth spectrum.
This led to a long chat about family history in Lancashire, different religions, churches and parish records in 19th century Britain. Let’s just say I learnt a lot that I can use for my further genealogy research. Bonus!
Now, if you are thinking, craft news, that’s not my thing, then you could always try out CraftLit’s lovely younger sister, Just the Books, where you get the classic books and the literature book talk but none of the craft. At the moment it is already used by homeschoolers but Heather would like to see it used more in classrooms. But wouldn’t this be taking the teachers job away from them?
Heather: Few teachers have time to really teach the books anymore. The pressures of the new standards means that in the classroom, teachers really have to spend most of their time teaching writing. So if the audio presentation takes care of teaching the book then teachers can focus in the classroom on getting the kids to do important writing about history or the books. That’s where they really need the teacher. They shouldn’t need to rely so much on the teachers to read the texts in the first place.
Stepping back for a minute to the main audience of CraftLit: people who do crafts while listening to classic books. We had a very interesting chat about how doing something with your hands while listening (be that knitting, sewing or doodling) can really help you retain information. This led us on to talking about the future for Heather and the Crafting a Life domain where she roams.
Heather: I would like to see Just the Books in more educational circles where more teachers could use it as a resource. Helping teachers teach with the aid of the podcast, would make me very happy. I would love to have that be one spoke of the wheel of things that I do.
I plan to continue the What Would Madame Defarge Knit?® book series, which is fun to do. I get to meet many interesting designers with great ideas and essays and I am just not ready to set that aside.
The knitting blog is just there, and it’s low key and that’s fine. I wrote a novel and right now it’s in the hands of an agent so I’m very hopeful that it will get picked up. If I can call myself a writer and a podcaster for the rest of my life, I will be very, very happy. It would be nice to have that be a job that can sustain a living.
If you have been listening to CraftLit you may have heard Heather mention working with Disney a couple of times. I was curious, and came out and asked her: What did you do at Disney?
Heather: It was the hardest job I’ve ever had. I was voted person most likely to be screamed at. It was not a good fit. I was a production assistant on the Aladdin movie – a film I still love. I loved working with the screenwriters, animators, and directors – which was the good part of my day. The rest of it was very challenging. One high point was that I got to record with Robin Williams who is an amazing and wonderful performer. I got to be there for all of the recordings, when they did all of the symphonies and everything. But all of that combined was not enough to keep me in that place. It was soul crushing, low-paid, and required brutal hours. I lasted eight months and then I left to pursue my teacher’s degree, which was the right thing to do. However, there is no question in my mind that because of my experiences there I was much more comfortable with recording a podcast, editing, and hearing my own voice on a weekly basis.
Heather has simply found a format of teaching/sharing classic books online that is both engaging and inspiring. I can’t recommend her podcast enough. Whether you are a homeschooling parent, a classroom teacher, or a part of her original audience of crafters who love (or just like) books, there is something here for everyone. Thank you again Heather for taking the time to talk to me. I feel inspired! What about you? Do you listen to Craftlit or Just the Books? What do you do with your hands while listening to audiobooks and podcasts or while watching TV?
The images in this interview are displayed with the kind permission of Heather Ordover. They are not covered by my sharing policy.