On this episode we’re happily upstaged by podcaster extraordinaire Helen Zaltzman, host and creator of The Allusionist. Officially, it’s Britain’s smartest podcast – unofficially, it’s also witty and very entertaining, just like Helen herself. After we chat about Australian sound, the barriers of podcast entry and what editing your own show tells you about storytelling it’s time for writer Allee Richards to read her short story ‘The Passengers‘. Come along for the ride!
Thanks to Audiocraft for their help in making this episode happen!
Meaghan Dew (KYD): Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew and today I’m bringing you as usual a couple of very good storytellers. You’ll hear from short fiction writer and playwright Allee Richards as she reads her story ‘The Passengers’, one of the new fiction releases on Kill Your Darlings.
Before that we’ll speak to the inimitable Helen Zaltzman, who was in the country for the Audiocraft conference earlier this year. You might recognise Helen’s voice from her linguistics podcast The Allusionist, or from Answer Me This, where she and her collaborator Olly Mann have been answering questions from their listeners for more than a decade. Since then she’s acquired a boatload of experience shaping stories, editing audio and drawing in her listeners. But since we’re word nerds here, we thought we’d start by asking her to explain the podcast voted Smartest in the 2018 British Podcast Awards.
Helen Zaltzman: I am so bad at doing this, I don’t even have the elevator pitch for my own show that I’ve been doing for three and a half years. So if I was talking about it to a friend I’d say, Oh it’s a podcast, you don’t have to listen to it. It’s fine. And if I really had to, I’d say it’s kind of an entertainment show but has a focus on language and how people use it and why we use it the way we use it.
KYD: That is pretty much how I’d describe it, except I would also use the word ‘funny’ a lot! Because if you describe it purely by the content you must often get some people like ‘oh, isn’t that a little bit dry?’ It’s like ,no, it’s really interesting!
HZ: That is a problem. People assume that if you make a show about language it’s just saying ‘you’re using commas incorrectly, ra ra ra.’ It’s yeah, so dull. So I’m operating against people’s assumptions that this thing is dull, and who am I to say to them it’s not dull?
KYD: You seem to be doing it quite effectively. But this is not your first foray into podcasting at all. It’s been going for a few years but it’s not your first. It’s been seven years since you started podcasting?
HZ: Eleven and a half.
KYD: Eleven and a half!
HZ: I know, right. I know, and iPhones weren’t even out when I started podcasting, and I wasn’t on Twitter or Facebook yet – the social network we used to plug my first podcast was MySpace. So just giving you an idea of the different era we were in.
KYD: I think I managed to skip MySpace completely, not by being too young at all, just by going, I was still deep into LiveJournal when MySpace was a thing. Could you tell our listeners a little bit more about your first foray into, other than that you promoted it on MySpace, which is a really important detail…
HZ: Yes, we trawled MySpace looking for teenagers, because we thought they’d enjoy our show, and befriended them – and it sounds creepy now when I think I was looking for people who were meant to be 14, but some of them are still listening and they now have master’s degrees. So the show that I was doing that for is called Answer Me This, and we started it in my living room in January 2007, and I hadn’t heard podcasts then, and I didn’t know what they were, but a friend of mine from university, Olly Mann, said ‘do you want to start doing a podcast?’ because he had a sense that they would be the next best thing. He’d been kind of ahead of the curve on blogs and he’s like, let’s do a podcast, and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no, so I said yes. And then we, a friend of ours said ‘make sure it’s not just the two of you talking shit.’ (LAUGHS).
So we came up with a format which was that we would just field questions from the audience, which sounds like such a basic thing now, but this is before Web 2.0, as aforementioned – so now when you watch the news they’re like ‘text in, or tweet us at blah blah blah, join the conversation!’ It’s never a real conversation. It’s a controlled monologue! But then it meant a lot of things, just kind of by accident really – we thought that because we didn’t want to have to think up all the material from scratch every time, but also it meant this community built up around the show really quickly. And the listeners had a lot of investment in it, and they would tell their friends if they had a question on ,and they would come back and give us feedback and so on, and so it helped the show to grow. I feel quite attached to a lot of these people as well – there’s one who’s been listening since he was like twelve, and now he’s a graduate, and I went to a protest with him in London a few months ago. Yeah, and things like that – it’s a really nice side effect of podcasting that I don’t know whether you would get now if you started it, because the whole thing is much more big and corporate.
KYD: And niche as well, I think. I think one of the nice things about it is that you can run into people and if you mention podcasts, the people who listen to a lot get really excited, and then everything they list is generally completely different to what you listen to, which is really lovely.
HZ: That is really great. I do think there should be a dating app that somehow matches people on their podcast feeds – and it’s not necessarily matching the shows exactly, because as you say there’s always a disparity – but just whether you’re likely to get on based on you having Night Vale, and the other one of you having, I don’t know, The Daily or something in it.
KYD: There are worse ideas for a dating app. I mean the ones we have are pretty awful in a lot of ways. I don’t see how a podcast related one could be any worse of an idea there.
HZ: Yeah, and I’d imagine a lot of people who are going on a first date with someone they met via a dating app have the conversation about what podcast they listen to.
KYD: Recently I had to actually do an interview about podcasting, and one of the things that they asked all of us was, where do you think the industry is going? I’d love to hear, as someone who started their first podcast before there were iPhones, what do you think…
HZ: (LAUGHS) It was all water powered then…
KYD: Yeah, you just actually went over to people’s houses and just like talked behind them while they were…
HZ: It was intimate, yeah.
KYD: So what do you think is going to happen over the next few years?
HZ: Oh no, because I’m in such a negative frame of mind about it…
KYD: Oh no, should I ask you at the end of the conference when there’s all these people who have been really enthusiastic and showing things off.
HZ: Yeah. I’m really excited to be in Australia because I think that you have an incredible wealth of talent in audio, and I feel like people here, who are given the opportunity for it to be financially viable to do so, could make shows unlike any others that we have out there, and that is kind of what I have been desperate to hear since we began, because it’s so dominated by American ones, and then in Britain by celebrities and BBC shows. I’d love to hear just people with this, like, original viewpoint. And I think here you’ve got these people that make such artistic shows, but also have like an irreverent sense of humour. A lot of the American shows that are beautifully produced, but they could do with being a little bit less earnest, a little bit cheekier. But at the moment my perspective is from two places – and in Britain, not that much has been happening in podcasting, we’ve been waiting a long time. But slowly some developments are happening this year, like the BBC is doing stuff and some of the big newspapers are. But still like, there’s not many networks, and if you’re an independent person… it’s very hard to pay for your own time, which stops a lot of people doing it. A lot people can’t afford the time.
And then in America, like it’s this hugely successful medium at the moment, but it’s replicating old media, and that’s a little disappointing to me, because there’s a lot of money being thrown around, but only in a few directions. And a lot of those are people who are from Public Radio. So you’re not getting kind of new, exciting audio forms. And also they’re replicating old media structures, which I was kind of keen for podcasting not to do, because then you’re putting layers in between the listener and the creator that don’t need to be there…and it’s getting a bit more corporate. So I hope that there is a way for podcasting to stay a bit wild, and a lot of independent people to be able to pay at least for their time, if not better, and make a living – but I don’t know, and I wonder whether also you’ve got a lot of… companies coming up where they kind of prioritise shows from bigger makers, because they can afford to pay them to have more exposure and stuff.
KYD: I’m not sure how you end up with a situation where people have the money to continue doing something, continue getting better, and dedicate the time for it without something becoming more corporate. I mean like maybe a Patreon type model or something like that, but…
HZ: I kind of want to fix it and I can’t work out how, and I’m also thinking – well, in a year if mine has plummeted then there was my backup career. Any suggestions?
KYD: So tell me about the podcaster support groups, speaking of people working on stuff of their own, and it being quite disparate… How did that come about, and what do you think that offers?
HZ: The Podcasters Support Group is a Facebook group I run, and at the moment it has over 6000 members, and that started in mid 2014. I get asked a lot by people ‘how do I start a podcast,’ and ‘can you give me any advice, I can meet you for coffee,’ and it was like – if I met all of you for coffee, First I don’t drink coffee, secondly I would never get any work done. Like I want to help but like, there came a point where I just couldn’t do anything. And in mid 2014 I heard about these people that had set up in Britain, they were charging people to go to podcaster meetups. I was like, ‘that’s a load of shit, I’ll do that for free.’
So I was like, if you want to start a podcast or something, you want to find out how to do it, or you have an idea and you’re wondering how to make that into a viable idea, or you’re kind of stuck – because also a lot of podcast friends I had were like, ‘I’ve been doing this for years, what do I do?’ And I was like, if you need advice, and I feel like I need advice, there are loads of people who had it worse off than us, who needed both. So I started doing these meetups and the Facebook group evolved out of that. It was originally just to tell people when and where the meet ups were in London. And then it was just the social aspect to the meetups very quickly became a lot more important than the ‘how do I start an an RSS feed?’ that is boring, and you can Google it. So a lot of the group is people asking , ‘how do I set up an RSS feed,’ and ‘how do I record a Skype call,’ and where do I host a show. But I have met a bunch of people through it that I’m really happy to know, and it’s really sweet as well to see the people in the group genuinely getting along. Occasionally there’s some angry behaviour but I think less than in most online communities. I mean sometimes someone will ask a question that you were just not expecting. So it’d be like, ‘I’m really trying to find some falconry podcasts and I can’t, any suggestions?’ And then would be like three people in the group go ‘I make a falconry podcast!’ And you go, where have you been!? (LAUGHS). Wow!
KYD: It’s a high barrier of entry in the sense that you do need to have the technology and the time to dedicate to learning, but so long as you can do those things there’s nothing stopping you just putting a thing out there. And yet it doesn’t have the same, where in books, self publishing is still quite a bit of a…
HZ: Which is a shame…
KYD: Which is a real shame, which is that if you try and get something published into a bookstore there’s still a bit of stigma around it, where there’s no stigma whatsoever around making your own podcast, it’s just a ‘Oh, that’s a really cool thing that you’re doing,’ it’s just really nice to have a DIY ethos.
HZ: Totally, and then I think the most important thing to me with any of these kind of things that I do, where it’s helping people start a podcast, is just trying to indicate to them that there are not that many barriers to entry. Like you can record it on a phone if you don’t have any other equipment, and you can use free hosting, and there are ways to make it fit in with your life. And don’t, if you start looking up how to do a podcast you can get so much advice that will tell you you have to spend $400 instantly, and do a course that’s $1000 and employ eight people, and I just want people to know that that is not the case and you can just do it. I think that’s excluding people who would be great at it, and I’m so glad that when I started there was no advice around – it just meant we didn’t know what we had to worry about, so we didn’t worry. And I think that is still a decent ethos. Fundamentally it’s not changed enough that you couldn’t just do it the same way we did.
KYD: So you’ve mentioned that The Allusionist is a much more narratively constructed podcast than how you guy started out. What did you learn about storytelling and putting a narrative together?
HZ: Oh god, so much. I, when I started The Allusionist, did not know what the show was going to be and how to make it and I’d never hosted something solo like that either, so I didn’t know how to monologue naturally. I like conversing with people. And… And yet it was a show that I was making alone, but I still wanted it to have the feeling that I was in conversation with the listener even though they weren’t able to directly participate. So learning to do that and also just, you know, what I found interesting in language as a subject turned out to be different to what I had thought. I had this huge Google Doc of ideas before I started the show, and I’ve maybe done five of them in the three and a half years of it. But that’s good. I think it’s a much more broad remit than I had ever anticipated. So that, but then there’s also a load of stuff I don’t know how to do. Like a lot of production stuff, and I should probably outsource it, but I don’t know how to outsource! So much still to learn.
KYD: When you’ve done a lot of interviews for an upcoming episode, so you’ve talked to a lot of people, you’ve recorded a lot of content, you have a bunch of material and you’re staring at it and you have to pull it together to a much shorter episode – how do you plan? What is your process for getting that down to telling the story you want to tell, and keeping in mind things like, you know, the people listening to this won’t have heard all the rest of the content, how do I make sure that it makes sense to them the same way as it does to me, and is as interesting to them as it is to me.
HZ: Yeah, this is where other people would get the team in, to make sure that it was comprehensible to that team, and I don’t – and maybe I should, but… Often I do the interviews not knowing what I want the outcome to be. So that’s quite liberating. I just think, ‘this person seems interesting and I don’t know about it, so what am I learning from it?’ And then sometimes they’ll say something really unexpected and I’ll work back from that. So in the first year I had a friend whose job was Audio Describing films and TV for people with vision impairments, and I knew that she’d had some struggles with it because some things are so hard to describe. Like David Lynch’s Inland Empire was this nightmare for her for weeks. It’s an incomprehensible film, did not enjoy. And so I got her on to talk about writing audio descriptions, and she said that she had gone through this phase where she kept getting given dance films to audio describe, and she’d done so many Step Up films that it nearly broke her. But I thought it’s really interesting that she had to put dance into words. So I made this episode about putting dancing to words and interviewed her, and I interviewed this choreographer in London, who was really interesting. He was a friend of a friend. He said, ‘the most I learned about choreography was doing an English literature degree,’ And I was like, ‘whaaaaat!’ So that was just real serendipity.
But then sometimes when there’s a lot of history I find that very overwhelming, because, like, I don’t want it to be like a boring thing where you’re just giving people all the facts like an encyclopedia entry because that’s not fun to listen to, but particularly when it’s non-American stuff. Most my audience is in the States and I did something about Welsh Patagonia recently, and I was like, will they know not only where Patagonia is, but what Wales is, and what Welsh is? And like, what is the maximum information you can give people in the most minimalist way? So I think I’m a kind of minimalist at heart but maybe don’t sound like one. So it’s just really difficult to find that balance. I like to act like the listener knows everything already but they haven’t, they’ve forgotten that they know it. So I don’t want to be like, ‘Did you know, blah blah blah,’ I don’t want to be that patronising – I want it to seem almost like I’m retrieving thoughts, like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’ It makes them feel clever but also like they’re along for the ride with me… hopefully? Hopefully it’s not a condescending show, I don’t know.
KYD: Some of the episodes of The Allusionist include quite personal stories, or include stories that are quite personal information-adjacent, if that makes sense. When you’re deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, how much is that, how personal the content is to the person you’ve interviewed, how much does that come into it?
HZ: Before I interview anyone I say that the show is edited so anything they don’t want to go in is absolutely fine. And also it’s never my intention to make anyone look bad in the show. They’re only on because I think they have something interesting to say, and I don’t think I’ve interviewed anyone for the show that I didn’t like, as well. It’s not journalism either, so I don’t have to be giving an objective view. So I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone where they were uncomfortable with what I did with their story in the end. But I always do feel a lot of responsibility, because you’re like, this is your life, and you’ve given it to me and then I have done my thing with it, and also condensed that down, so not all the detail is there. That’s a very trusting thing to do. I would never listen back to myself on someone else’s show, to be honest, because I’d rather not know. Yeah, I don’t know. There is a responsibility there to the people, but on the other hand… you can be like, ‘ah, fuck the people, I’ve got a show to make.’
But I think on my show it’s not nearly as acute as shows that are about people’s emotional lives or sexual lives, or like personal lives a lot more than mine are. I’m glad that most of the time it’s an intellectual show. But I’m always really interested when people do tell me their feelings. I did this episode about the word ‘step-’, and that happened because it was the middle of the night and I had insomnia. And sometimes I’ll start thinking, ‘oh, I wonder why the word ‘stepfather’ is the word ‘step-’, and I’ll look it up. And sometimes it would be what I think it is, but in that case it wasn’t – I thought it’s because they’re a step away from your biological father but it’s not, it’s to do with grief. And I thought, well, I didn’t know that – and if I didn’t know that, other people wouldn’t know that. And so I just put out a call on Facebook saying if any of you have step-parents or step-siblings or step-children, would you mind just recording your feelings about the term and I put them in the show as a montage. Quite a lot them were like, ‘you know, I never thought about it consciously before, but now you’ve made me do that, I realise I hate it, so thanks!’ (LAUGHS). But that, I think, was the first show I had something that felt emotional from people, and gave me a taste for it, to be honest.
KYD: That was Helen Zaltzman, talking about the future of podcasting, Australian audio talent and what she’s learned over a decade of creating intriguing audio. You can listen to The Allusionist wherever you access your podcasts. It’s one of my favourites. Now settle in to hear Allee Richards read ‘The Passengers’.
Allee Richards: My name’s Allee Richards. I’m a playwright and short fiction writer. I live in Melbourne in the inner north, in Thornbury, and I work as a theatre lighting technician as my day job.
KYD: Is this your first piece of published fiction?
AR: Ah, no. I’ve had a few short stories published before – I’ve had one in Kill Your Darlings before that then went on to be anthologised in Best Australian Stories, so that was really great. And that was with the same fiction editor, Ash, so it was really nice to work with Ash again on this story, because it’s a very different story to the last one I had published in Kill Your Darlings.
KYD: So for everyone listening, if you want to read the other story on Kill Your Darlings, we’ll have a link to that on the website. So as you’ll know we have a copy of this one on our website right now, so make sure you check it out. So what made this story so different from your previous piece – is that standard for your work, changing between broadly different themes, or is this just really a new direction for you?
AR: I would say actually that this story is much more like most of my other work. It’s, a lot of my work is narrated by women, narrated by young women, and narrated by women who are in positions that they’re being entrapped by, in some way, by men. My housemate was asking me a while back, because I’m working on a collection of short stories, and he asked me to kind of list what every one of the short stories was about. And I did, and he was like, ‘oh God, men just can’t do anything right, can they?’ And I was like, ‘well they’re all true stories, so…’ (LAUGHS).
KYD: Like ‘it’s not just in my stories, it’s in the world.’
AR: Yeah, and this story was based off true events – not mine – they were based off events that happened to two friends of mine. And one was a very dear friend of mine who was in a five-year relationship, and it was one of those relationships that you kind of just looked at and assumed was domestic bliss because they were both really successful people. So I guess you just assumed that their relationship was really successful. And then they broke up, and I said to her like, you know, what happened? And she basically said they, you know, they, he sort of hadn’t slept with her pretty much the entire time. And it was just one of those moments where you like, what? Like, the biggest WTF. And that’s kind of a process for me with writing, is any moment in life where I’m like… ‘what the F’, then that usually probably means that there’s something to be thought out and then turned into a story there.
KYD: That was Allee Richards, reading her story, ‘The Passengers.’ You can find ‘The Passengers’ along with other Australian short fiction on Kill Your Darlings. That’s all we have time for, so thank you to Allee and Helen for their time and the Audiocraft staff for setting up the interview. If you’re interested in podcasting yourself, you should check out their podcast – it’s full of recordings from conferences past.
I’m Meaghan Dew and you’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. You can find us, along with fiction, essays, columns, reviews and memoir on our website. So make sure to check in regularly online and on our regular first book club events. See you next time.