A collage of headshots of authors, including Ian Rankin, Nigella Lawson, Neil Gaiman, Dolly Alderton, Stephen Fry, Zadie Smith and Romesh Ranganathan, seen against a bright orange background.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

First launched in 2015, the Penguin Podcast aims to understand just what it is that makes writers tick. Using some of the objects that have inspired them, our guests consider why they write, how they write and, even, the struggles they’ve faced along the way. 

Over the past seven years, we’ve had hundreds of conversations with writers of all sorts, from novelists to scientists, philosophers to food writers and more. We’ve delved in the archives to pluck out some of our most listened-to episodes, so read – and listen – on for fascinating conversations with the likes of Stephen Fry, Dolly Alderton, Meera Syal and more.

Dolly Alderton in conversation with Sue Perkins (2020)

“For my first book, I became a correspondent for promiscuity and binge drinking. And for this book, I’m now the official correspondent for men disappearing.” 

Speaking to Sue Perkins shortly after the release of her debut novel, Ghosts, Alderton describes how the modern dating phenomenon of ghosting – when a potential partner suddenly stops communicating without any explanation – inspired her first work of fiction, and why every day of the year she gave herself to work on this project felt like going on holiday.

Halfway through, Alderton turns the tables on Perkins and starts interviewing her, as they both discuss the some of the difficult relationship moments, with friends as well as romantic partners, they’ve lived through.

Neil Gaiman in conversation with Richard E. Grant (2015)

Good Omens tended to get written by Terry and me talking a lot, on the phone, and then one or other of us would be in a desperate race to get to the next good bit before the other could.”

Neil Gaiman was already an established biographer and comic book writer by the time he started work on Good Omens but this seminal fantasy novel, created in collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, was the first time he had written a novel.

To mark the release of a brand new radio adaptation of Good Omens in 2015, Gaiman spoke to inaugural Penguin Podcast host Richard E. Grant about the inception of the book, and how he and Pratchett relied on an answerphone to write it.

Zadie Smith in conversation with David Baddiel (2016)

“I really wanted to know more about my roots… It was beautiful for me to be in West Africa and realise it was possible to have a long complex history … which was not primarily written but was real and deeply felt.”

Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s last novel, follows two girls who dream of being dancers – but only one of whom has talent. Moving between London and West Africa the story explores music, identity, race and class in the way only Smith can.

Joining David Baddiel in the studio just after the release of Swing Time, Smith’s discussion takes us across the world and across time, taking in what Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson mean to her, oral history from The Gambia and the importance of knowing your roots.

Romesh Ranganathan in conversation with Nihal Arthanayake (2019)

“If I was truly honest about what I felt about everyone, it’s the end of my career!”

Aged 9, Romesh Ranganathan delivered his first ever stand-up routine at a Pontin’s talent competition. But despite his early success on the comedy front, his childhood also involved plenty of struggles, from being one of the only non-white children at his school to dealing with homelessness and a parent in prison.

On this episode of the Penguin Podcast, Ranganathan speaks to Nihal Arthanayake about how 90s East coast hip hop helped him feel more understood, why he thinks Richard Pryor is the greatest comedian of all time and how he practices new routines in front of an imaginary audience in his garage – with lots of laughs in between.

Malorie Blackman in conversation with Nihal Arthanayake (2019)

“I sat down to write Noughts & Crosses because I was really angry… it’s my way of channeling my emotions.”

These days, Malorie Blackman is the beloved and bestselling author of over 70 books, and with artists such as Stormzy counting themselves as super-fans, it’s hard to imagine a time when she wasn’t already a successful writer.

Recorded at a live event hosted by Nihal Arthanayake, Blackman tells us how her unhappy career as a computer programmer only cemented her determination to make it as a writer, what it was like to receive 82 rejection letters for her first book and how, in an eerie turn of events, reality has started mirroring some of the events she’s written about in her Noughts & Crosses series.

Stephen Fry in conversation with David Baddiel (2017)

“The typewriter is an equivalent of moving type, which is what Guttenburg gave the world, so the printed book arrived and we’ve never looked back.”

Stephen Fry is something of a polymath – a comedian, actor, broadcaster and writer who seems to know everything about anything – but the Greek myths have been a lifelong fascination for him. In 2017, he released Mythos, a retelling of some of the most well-known myths, from Persephone’s journey into Hades’ underworld to the story of Pandora’s jar (yes, it was a jar rather than a box).

In this lively conversation, Fry talks about his love of stories and words, why Greek mythology will always interest and inspire him and, even, the many ways in which artificial intelligence may soon impact our lives.

Nigella Lawson in conversation with Katy Brand (2019)

“Food writing is so much about an enjoyment of language as well, because I do think, in some way, words have a taste.”

When Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat was first published in 1998, it was immediately obvious that hers was a much-needed fresh new voice in food writing and that this book – her first – was an instant classic of the genre. In 2018, to mark the twentieth anniversary of its release, How to Eat was re-released as a Vintage Classic, and not long after it was also released as an audiobook read by Nigella herself.

Speaking with Katy Brand for the Penguin Podcast, they discuss why Nigella thought this would be the only book about food she’d ever write, what she’d change if she were writing the book now, and her sensibilities as a home cook who sees food not as an end in itself but as a way to create meaningful shared moments with friends and family.

Noam Chomsky in conversation with Nihal Arthanayake (2020)

“We have two choices. We can decide to be pessimistic, think ‘it’s all over, nothing we can do’, and thereby we can ensure that the worst comes about. Or we can recognise that there are opportunities … we can try to grasp them, and maybe the world can become a better place. It’s really not much of a choice.”

Considered the founder of Modern Linguistics, and once voted as the World’s Top Public Intellectual, Noam Chomsky has written over 100 books on linguistics, war, mass media and more. His book, Optimism Over Despair, was first released in 2017, and then released as an audiobook last year, in the midst of the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK – a fitting time to hear a manifesto for living with optimism.

Recorded down the line during lockdown, Chomsky speaks about how capitalist interests suppressed a swift response to the coronavirus pandemic in certain parts of the world and why approaching life with hope and optimism is beneficial for everyone.

Meera Syal in conversation with Richard E. Grant (2015)

“Surrogacy was always the perfect metaphor to talk about the complex relationship between the hugely changing India and the West, and for me surrogacy perfectly captured the complexity of that connection - is this exploitation or is this a solution?”

One of the very first guests when the Penguin Podcast launched in 2015, Meera Syal joined Richard E. Grant in the studio, bringing some of the objects that have inspired her writing along with her in person. 

Her 2015 novel The House of Hidden Mothers explores surrogacy from both sides of the coin, and in this episode she tells Grant how The Handmaid’s Tale a book Syal has read eight or nine times – and a BBC documentary on unregulated surrogacy programmes in India both inspired her book.

Ian Rankin in conversation with David Baddiel (2017)

“I’m also a very lazy writer… it’s quite painful sometimes, writing the stuff.”

In 2017, Ian Rankin was asked to write an original short story for BBC Radio 4. Rather than abridging an existing novel to fill five 13 minute slots, Rankin shares how he had to learn to write in a very different, and much more succint, way than when writing a novel. 

Speaking to David Baddiel, he also discusses how real-life historical events inspired The Deathwatch Journal, how he wrote one Rebus novel and put it away, not expecting it to amount to much, and why Edinburgh will always inspire him.


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