Persephone Pioneers: Helen Zaltzman

Cesy and bookgal recently had the ridiculously good fortune to interview one of their heroines, Helen Zaltzman.

Helen Zaltzman is a British broadcaster and writer. She co-hosts the popular and award-winning podcast Answer Me This! with her friend Olly Mann and husband Martin Austwick (AKA Martin the Sound Man) where they attempt to answer questions various and sundry from people all over the world. Recent gems have included the Answer Me This! team examining the linguistic difference between American and British terms for masturbation, and solving numerous bridesmaid-related quandaries. Helen and Olly have written a companion book for Answer Me This! as well as releasing Royal Jubilee and Olympic – pardon me, litigation department – Sports Day Specials. Answer Me This! has released the first episode of its new season on September 20, so go check it out on iTunes or at answermethispodcast.com.

Advert for Answer me this! with Helen and Olly, text with pictures of Helen and Olly

Helen’s answers and advice are funny, pragmatic and often blunt. She is also fantastically crafty, the results of which can be seen on her website www.helenzaltzman.com (she recently made a Robert Plant doll for a friend’s mum). She talks to Persephone Magazine about her adventures in broadcasting and writing over the past few years.

 

Persephone Magazine: How did you get started in podcasting?

Helen Zaltzman: At my flatwarming party in the autumn of 2006, Olly, my friend from university, came up to me and asked if I’d fancy doing a podcast with him. He had an inkling that podcasts were going to be a worthwhile thing to get into, and decided he should collaborate with me because we’d had fun when we did student radio together. Having only ever listened to one podcast, and being very much in ignorance of what it involved, I agreed! Then we sat down with a copy of Podcasting for Dummies and we must be dumber than dummies, because the process seemed so labyrinthine, we almost gave up before we even started. It’s much simpler to start doing it nowadays, thankfully. But eventually we figured it out, and roped in my now-husband Martin to be our sound engineer because he’s a musician with a lot of recording equipment, and thus Answer Me This! was born.

Of course, the best way to get started in podcasting is just to do it. If you’re thinking you want to try it, don’t wait for someone to invite you, or for inspiration to strike; get yourself in front of a microphone and start talking. Don’t be too disheartened if you think you sound like an idiot talking, because you can edit out all the shit bits afterwards, and you’ll definitely get better with practice.

 

PM: You bring some of your personal life on to the show, including a special appearance by your father and mother, your brother Andy and your niecephews; where do you draw the line about what is too personal to share? You and Olly clearly have different lines…

Ha, we definitely do! And Olly’s parents and grandmother listen to the show! My family doesn’t listen to it, but some of my mother’s colleagues do, and tell her what I’ve said in it, so she’ll call me up and complain, “You said my feet were horrible!” (I’m right; they are horrible.)

We Zaltzmans do tend to be quite private about our innermost feelings anyway, which is reflected in the fact that Olly talks about wanking, etc., all the time and I don’t. I’m pretty rude to and about my husband during the show, but we take the piss out of each other when we’re around our friends as well. Nobody wants to hear us being gooey and nice to each other, so we save that for private.

 

PM: You mother has stated on your show that you “raised yourself” and have always been strong willed. You are admired for your forthright, direct manner of speaking by us and so we’re wondering: is it true you’ve always been as forthright as you come across on the podcast? Are there any tips you might have for the more shy amongst us?

My mother is so funny ““ she definitely raised me! But we suited each other, as even as a tiny child I stubbornly hated being helped, and she’s not at all smothering; she would actually think something was wrong if I needed her too much. Also I was a “surprise” addition to the family (i.e., I was a mistake), several years after my parents thought they’d concluded the breeding part of their lives, so I looked up to my older brothers and always wanted to be independent like them.

I’m very flattered that you admire my forthrightness, but it wasn’t always thus! I was quite a shy and awkward child; I always felt everyone else knew what was going on and I didn’t. But at the same time, I was quite quippy, to compensate for my social insecurity and rather hideous appearance. My glasses and frizzy fringe were certainly character-building.

I think I’ve become a lot more forthright as I get older; with every passing year my tolerance seems to become lower for bullshit, or people being incompetent or pathetic, or not saying what they mean ““ I hate mind games. Meanwhile, I’ve grown more confident and my own thoughts have become clearer, and I have fewer qualms about expressing them. If the trajectory continues at the same rate, I’ll become one of those horrible old ladies who’s always saying the worst things to people.

 

PM: Do you have any particular role models in your professional or personal life?

Well, as my mother pointed out, I tended to steer my own course and so I never really bought into the concept of role models! In fact most of the people I admire are often those who are great in all the ways I never can be, for instance anyone who can keep their place tidy, or not be a complete layabout like I am. My eldest brother Rick, for example, is very efficient and gets things done, while my other brother Andy and I faff around forever and only finish things when the deadline is right in front of us (which is also when we start them).

 

PM: Both you and your brother Andy host popular comedic podcasts. Do you two trade tips or suggestions with one another?

Never! We don’t even listen to each other’s shows much, because we get enough of each other in real life. We have quite different tastes, but I do value his opinion: if Andy compliments something I’ve done, I know he means it.

I did learn a lot from Andy when he was starting out as a stand-up comedian, though; not so much comedic technique (unlike him, if I make a pun I feel faint shame) as attitude. He sets very high standards for himself, and is fairly ruthless when he thinks a joke is cheap or too easy, or is bored of hearing himself say it. Also unlike a lot of comedians, his self-esteem doesn’t seem to be influenced at all by external factors like audience reaction or reviews or popularity; he appears not to need external validation at all. He has an innate confidence that I think stems from his terrifyingly powerful intellect, which he chooses to squander upon sports trivia.

 

PM: Recently Andy’s podcast “The Bugle” had a special, listener submitted Q&A episode. Is this the first sign of a Zaltzman turf war?

Naturally, the value of his birthday present will be reduced accordingly.

 

PM: “Feminist” is often a fraught term, and one that many women feel passionately about embracing or discarding. Do you identify as a Feminist?

That is a really interesting question. For many years I didn’t because my attitude was that I didn’t need to, because I always assumed I would not be discriminated against, and I grew up in such a masculine household that I didn’t feel very feminine. Also I associated feminism with people I knew at university who were very vocal about their feminism, but were either tediously self-righteous and joyless or very un-feminist in their behaviour ““ measuring their self-worth by male attention, etc.

However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve been far more aware of feminism, especially now that, thanks to the podcast, I’m working in the radio industry, which is very male-dominated in the UK. For instance, there are far, far fewer female-fronted shows, and hardly any presented by a pair of women, though you’ll often hear two men host a programme and not even think about it. On most radio shows featuring a male-female duo, the relationship is either flirty or the woman is in a subordinate role, laughing at the man’s jokes and reading the weather. Olly’s and my dynamic on the podcast seems to be unusual because, although we have different strengths, we’re equals. Neither of us cleave particularly to a gender stereotype, so perhaps our listeners think more about our personality traits than our genders. But I was incensed by a recent iTunes review, which said, “I don’t usually find girls funny, but Helen is just like a man” ““ an intended compliment that is offensive in so many ways!

I’m very lucky to live in a liberal country where women are allowed to work, can appear in public with their faces uncovered, expect the same legal rights as men; but even so, there’s still so much progress yet to be made. This is a long-winded way of saying that yes, I do identify as a feminist.

 

PM: What is your favourite question you’ve answered on Answer me This?

I love questions about people’s private lives; it’s remarkable how much intimate stuff people will share with us! The 17-year-old boy who wanted to have an affair with his mum’s friend; the men using their own semen as aftershave; one guy even sent us his home porn the other week, though that was actually too much…

Of the more academic questions, etymology is my area of expertise, but I don’t want to feature it too often because I don’t think it’s interesting to everybody. We always have lots of fun with questions about shit pop songs, too. We never expect to have much to say about the likes of LMFAO or the Wanted, and yet out it all pours.

 

PM:  Are there certain types of questions that you find popping up quite a lot on the podcast? Why do you think these questions are put to your show more than others?

People are always asking about their bodily functions. I guess because that subject is universal to all our listeners? Can’t say we’re delighted by this, though; it’s not pleasant feeling queasy as you read the contents of your inbox.

 

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