Sunday 12 June 2016

Helen Zaltzman

Helen 'get that bloody plant off my head' Zaltzman

I fell in love with Helen Zaltzman's podcast, The Allusionist, within five minutes of first hearing it. Anyone who gets off on words and cares about the English language will, like me, lap it up and count down the days till she records the next episode. I recently stalked emailed Helen and asked her nicely if she'd mind doing a quick Q&A for my blog. And, bless her, she acquiesced.

You’re a logophile. Give us three words that best describe you.

Collector of dictionaries.

How did The Allusionist start, and who are Radiotopia when they’re at home?

When they're at home, Radiotopians are usually hiding in a wardrobe or under a duvet, trying to emulate studio recording without having to leave their property. While they're doing that, and also the rest of the time, Radiotopians manage to be the most creative, thought-provoking, curious people working in audiotainment. I love that bunch of duvet-covered oddments.

The Allusionist started because Radiotopia's progenitor Roman Mars was a longtime fan of my first podcast, Answer Me This (b.2007). I have been interested in how language works ever since I became verbal, so I pitched Roman a show that would be a bit like his show, 99% Invisible, but about language instead of design. Lucky for me, he went for it.

To be honest, starting a podcast is rarely an interesting story. One day you haven't distributed an audio file via RSS over the internet; the next day, you have. I feel I should have made up something more exciting for you.

What’s the best board game ever?

Absolute Balderdash. But you have to go to a charity shop to get a slightly outdated edition so it has the movies category, where you have to describe the plots of movies based on the title. More recent Absolute Balderdashes have replaced this category with a more boring one, reining in the incredible flights of fancy afforded by the movies round. Absolute Balderdash didn't realise its own strength.

What song do you find yourself humming involuntarily?

'Proud of Myself', by a British band called Lincoln who did a handful of beautiful records early this century, then disappeared. The title is, I assume, ironic; pride in oneself is not a prominent British trait. I'm certainly not proud of myself.

Who would you relish being stuck in a lift with?

A lift engineer. Preferably one who is also listening to podcasts on headphones so doesn't want to chat with me while they fix the lift.

Who would you gladly punch tomorrow?

Tomorrow I'd punch my today self for not getting enough work done and thus making tomorrow extra-stressful. Also, I've never punched anyone before, so I'd want to practice alone so I get it right if ever the necessity does arise.

Do you text in longhand?

I do. It's not the olden days when texts had to be a maximum of 160 characters. Punctuation and keeping the vowels don't cost extra.

Do you still write ‘proper’ letters?

I don't. I barely even send birthday or Christmas cards. But whenever anyone sends me one, I love it and keep it forever. Yes, I operate double standards, letters-wise.

Which film do you regularly quote from?

I often quote Piper Laurie saying, "They're all gonna laugh at you!" in Carrie. Usually at my husband, to make him more worried that the world is judging and mocking him.

Tell us the last joke you heard?

I have never heard a joke. Not one.

Do you share your bag of boiled sweets on long train journeys?

I recently took a 37-hour Amtrak ride from Denver to Emeryville, and I tried offering fellow passengers my unopened breakfast yoghurts, but they didn't want them. On that journey I did share a two-hour conversation with a woman about the French taxation system, but if I'm honest, 'share' and 'conversation' would be more accurately replaced with 'receive' and 'monologue'. It's all take take take with me. On London trains, I share something even better than boiled sweets: in summer, I carry a hand fan with me everywhere, as most places here don't have aircon and it gets very hot and sweaty. So strangers come up and stand with me, and I fan them. Top tip from me to you: if you're lonely, spend £2 on a fan and you'll make lots of new friends.

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