One Extraordinary Bookish Podcast
The Austen Connection is a treasure trove of goodness for Janeites, and more than enough to pique the interest of those who aren't quite there yet
Welcome to One Extraordinary Bookish Podcast, where I have conversations with my favorite “bookish” podcast creators to learn more about them and what makes their podcasts so good. If you’ve been here for a few months, you know of my love of podcasts; if not, you can find those episodes listed on the home page.
I’ve been listening to podcasts for several years now, and one of the newer bookish podcasts I’ve discovered is the Austen Connection by Plain Jane. If you are a Janeite, this podcast will provide hours of listening pleasure featuring Austen experts, authors, bookstore owners, and others. If you are like me and have never read an Austen novel, stay tuned, this podcast is for you too. Plain Jane is here to tell you more about her journey to Austen and why Austen’s stories “connect to us today and connect us to each other.” Here’s my conversation with Plain Jane:
GG: Thank you for being here and sharing your love of Jane Austen with us. Tell us more about yourself, and if there is a connection between your day job to your passion for Austen, tell us about that connection.
PJ: Sure! There is definitely a connection between the Day Job to Jane Austen.
For my day job, I produce and host radio and talk shows and audio. When lockdown occurred in March of 2020, I found myself hosting and producing a LIVE daily show, sometimes from my living room. The connections over the airwaves are always a joy and privilege to share with people, but during the lockdown, I was even more grateful to be able to connect with listeners.
During this time, I found myself wanting a break from the news, and I began re-reading my Jane Austens. I also joined some of the lively Austen Zoom discussions, notably an incredible series hosted by the University of North Carolina-based Jane Austen & Co. and their series “Race and the Regency.”
Eventually, I realized while reading Jane Austen on the sofa that I could easily walk across the room to my makeshift home studio and simply record some of these conversations about Jane Austen for pleasure and also to put a mic on the voices and artists that I so appreciated and that was such a lifeline for me. And a podcast was born!
GG: You've stated on your podcast, "How Austen's stories connect to us today and connect us to each other." What do you mean by this?
PJ: As a journalist during the pandemic, I was able to observe in slow motion, while talking with people daily on a talk show, the disparities in health and wealth and racial justice that were always there and that were illuminated even more starkly by the pandemic and by the murder of George Floyd. And what was wonderful to discover was that through conversations like Jane Austen & Co.’s “Race and the Regency,” the #VirtualJaneCon, and other dialogue in the Austen community, issues of race, history, the slave trade, and human rights then and now were very much a part of the conversations about the stories of Jane Austen.
So that’s what excites me about being a journalist tackling conversations about classic literature - to connect what we’re experiencing today to our past and find the historical context for our times. And also to help lift up the diverse voices, scholars, and artists retelling those classic stories in ways that connect to our experience as humans in the world today and connect us to each other through a shared past, shared traumas, and injustices. And perhaps even finding love and joy through it all, together.
GG: When did you first encounter Austen’s books, and what did you think of her writing? Were they easy to understand, or did you have to grow into appreciating her writing?
PJ: It was definitely a matter of the latter sort, for me! I was an English Literature grad student in London in the 1990s, stomping around in Doc Martens and reading and writing about Gertrude Stein, H.D., Virginia Woolf, and experimental modern writers, which is what I thought mattered. Jane Austen rarely even came up! Feminism had not yet decided, largely thanks to writers like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar and their book, The Madwoman in the Attic, that simply centering the lives of women and female consciousness in the world was a feminist act.
So my discovery of Austen came much later, living as a journalist in Southern California when I picked up Mansfield Park and was struck by the fact that it’s a story about a bunch of young people stuck in a giant house together behaving badly, and it struck me as a great story for someone to adapt.
I was always a big fan of Proust, Henry James, and Dickens, and I still read those authors obsessively. But it really wasn’t until the pandemic lockdown and my Austen re-readings that I decided that Jane Austen, and her connection to classic literature as well as pop culture and fandom, was a great way to channel all of my literary interests into contemporary dialogue about what matters, as well as tapping into the fandom that just brings a lot of joy.
GG: Tell us about the Janeite community and anything interesting about it. I know there are festivals, and beyond that, not much else.
PJ: Perfect segue! It’s such an amazing community! For some magical reason, the six novels of Jane Austen (seven if we now want to include Sanditon, her unfinished fragment) have resonated through the past 205 years into a sort of Jane Austen Universe with its own memes, in-jokes, screen adaptations, fanfic, and fandom.
The characterizations, situations, themes, and settings are so rich that they lend themselves brilliantly to endless re-readings and retellings. They provide a shared reservoir we can all tap into and draw from.
This community includes readers and watchers of Jane Austen but also, of course, serious scholars, high school teachers, fanfic writers, authors, and librarians - and many times, those roles overlap, so you have really smart literary scholars podcasting about material culture in Jane Austen as in the podcast The Thing About Austen.
GG: In the first episode, you interviewed Soniah Kamal, author of Unmarriageable, and she stated that when she read her first Austen book, she could see herself, her country, and her culture in the words. How do you explain how Austen's writing transcends time and place to allow for this?
PJ: Yes, I love that conversation and Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable. Kamal says that when she first read Jane Austen, she immediately saw all the characters as Pakistani, and she likes to say, “Jane Austen is Pakistani.” I just heard her today on a BookTalk panel referring to Austen as “Khala Jane” or Auntie Jane.
Talking to writers from so many cultures and countries adapting Jane Austen’s stories, I can say that she taps into universal truths and universal feelings - many of which are very relevant to today, wherever we are: feelings of marginalization, disparity, and uncertainty. And within those situations, her protagonists find love and joy.
Jane Austen, for me, is a humanist and a philosopher. Our culture attributes these labels to writers like Shakespeare, Proust, and Dickens, who also wrote about love and family. But we - let’s call it sexism! - are reluctant to give Austen credit for those universal truths in her writing.
GG: What do you think of all the Austen retellings, adaptations, and remixes? Do you like any of them, do you have any favorites, and if yes, what makes some of them stand out to you?
PJ: Honestly? I love it all!
And this is quite the controversial question, as the Persuasion Netflix film just dropped recently, to rousing debate (helped along by Twitter algorithms, I suspect) about how to adapt Austen’s stories and characters.
For me, contemporary, diverse retellings of classic stories are what will keep these stories relevant and alive. As my podcast guest Damianne Scott told me, without these retellings, the stories will cease to be relevant and will die! I agree with her. And it’s precisely because the stories can be adapted to our world today that I’m in this game. And frankly - it’s why Jane Austen was in the game. She wrote innovative, contemporary, and challenging stories of her day.
So, the adaptations with diverse casting and updated themes are the best - in Shakespeare and Austen. The Netflix Persuasion has that and, to a lesser extent, PBS’s Sanditon. I believe every adaptation from now on will have diverse casting - it’s the way of the future, and it’s already here.
Another really fun, diverse LGBT retelling is “Rational Creatures” - a free YouTube series about to drop its second season. It’s put together by a wonderful creative team who are also guests in the upcoming third season of the Austen Connection - stay tuned!
GG: How does a reader "dip their toes in the water" of reading Austen if they have never read her books before? Is there a specific one to start with? Is a retelling/adaptation/remix a way to introduce oneself to Austen’s writings, or is this a bad thing if you've never read an Austen novel?
PJ: I think engaging with the films and series is a wonderful way to get into Jane Austen.
My advice: Watch Clueless, the 1995 film with Alicia Silverstone, and then read Emma.
Or, watch the 1995 Pride and Prejudice and the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Check out some #PrideandPrejudice memes on social, and then dive into the book. You’ll have a new appreciation for Darcy's social awkwardness and Elizabeth's subversiveness. And nothing is going to take away the power of the books - the language, the characterizations, the settings, and the emotional resonance are all strong enough to weather all of the memes and cultural onslaughts as you go into it. The story will slay you - see if I’m wrong!
One more thing - remember that Jane Austen is funny! She’s writing within a classic courtship plot because that was the form available to her to work within as a woman artist in the late 18th century and early 19th century. But she is always sending up and forcing an examination of that very plot she’s working within.
So, have fun!
GG: When is season three of the podcast coming, and what do listeners have to look forward to in the way of guests, topics/focus?
PJ: Season three will drop later this summer - and we have amazing guests! Joining us will be designer Jennyvi Dizon, podcaster and musicologist Stephanie Shonekan, the “Rational Creatures” team, author and professor John Mullan, and author Nikkie Payne, to start with! We usually add a few guests as we roll them out, so let’s call those Surprise Guests!
GG: Where do your tastes in books and reading lie? Please tell us a few of your favorites and why.
PJ: While I read across all the genres, including romance, contemporary fiction, futurism, essays, and nonfiction - my go-to tends to be the classics and contemporary literary authors. Contemporary authors I rush to read as soon as they have a book out include: Sally Rooney, who connects nicely with Austen, Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Margot Livesey, Geraldine Brooks, Curtis Sittenfeld (also connects to Austen), and my favorite classics are Henry James, Proust, and Octavia Butler. I also read the New Yorker religiously and love nonfiction.
GG: Do you listen to other podcasts, and if yes, give us a few recommendations and why you like those specific podcasts.
There are some ultra-cool Subtack pop-culture podcasters that I love and am proud to work with but who are way too hip for me, including the Rodeo Break podcast Talk Rodeo, Unruly Figures, We Have Notes, and a podcast from my day job, Cover Story with Stephanie Shonekan, about classic music covers and who did it better.
GG: You have a newsletter all about Jane Austen. I enjoy it even though I have never read an Austen novel. You make connections between her writing and life today, which makes me excited to read it. Why is that important to you to create an entire newsletter/website around these connections, and what do you hope your reader learns from these connections?
PJ: Thank you so much, Gayla. That is the best compliment, and it always makes me swoon when people say they like the Austen Connection podcast and posts but don’t read Jane Austen. It took me forever to read Austen seriously, but the reason it’s important for me to write about our connections to Austen’s stories is that I really believe if our history is important for understanding our present day, then understanding our stories in history is even more important. The Jane fandom community shows that Austen’s stories have stronger resonance than perhaps any other classic author. Those stories about who and how we live and love are vital. And my goal is to lift up the voices and artists that expand those stories and keep them alive by bringing diverse, new voices to them, bridging us to our past, our stories, and each other. That’s what I hope readers take away from the podcast and the posts, those connections across time, continents, culture, and all the other boundaries. And I hope wherever it is people are joining us from, that it also brings them inspiration and joy.
Plain Jane, it was so much fun getting to know more about you, your love for Austen’s novels, and why Janeites love Austen so much. And what I find fascinating is why non-readers of Austen like myself can enjoy her also, through all things Austen adjacent. You have provided us with many links to great podcasts, other newsletters, and more; thank you so much for taking the time to introduce us to you and your community, and what a lovely community it is!
Thank you to my readers and bookish podcast listeners for being here. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Plain Jane; I know I sure did. Be sure to check out all of the links above for more information about the Austen Connection and so many things Austen adjacent. I listen to the podcast often; I can’t wait until season three drops into my podcast feed. I save each Austen Connection newsletter to read until I have time to savor the writing and learn more about the connections of the past to the present day; it’s genuinely one of my favorite newsletters. Have a great reading and listening week, and happy reading!