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Helen Zaltzman Headshot by Teri Pengilley

In the world of podcasts, the year 2007 is ancient history. Especially if you recently became a digital broadcasting enthusiast thanks to the runaway success of Serial, you may not even know that some podcasts are more than a decade old.

Answer Me This! hasn’t quite hit the 10-year mark, but it’s damn close. The wildly popular British podcast first hit the digital airwaves in January 2007. Hosted by Helen Zaltzman, Olly Mann and Martin Austwick, the question-answer show is lively, funny and smart, and adored by its fans. Zaltzman and Austwick married in 2011.

For most of its lifespan, AMT! was a weekly program — a schedule that turned this living room hobby into a grueling full-time endeavor. In 2014, the podcast went fortnightly; not coincidentally, both Zaltzman and Mann began working on other shows. Mann appears regularly on BBC radio and TV, and launched his own podcast, the Modern Mann, in October, 2015.

“I rarely feel fully awake or asleep.”

Zaltzman also regularly brings her wit and wisdom to British airwaves and, in January 2015, she launched The Allusionist podcast, in which she goes deep into culture by way of linguistics. The Allusionist is part of the Radiotopia podcast network — another household name for podcast fans thanks to its flagship program, 99% Invisible.

In her own words, Zaltzman talks about not sleeping, not recognizing her husband and not missing a minute’s sleep in hotels.

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I’ve always been a pretty terrible sleeper. When I was a child I always wanted to be awake to read or listen to the radio, but I wasn't allowed. My parents and brothers would police my bedside lamp-use. Also, weirdly, if I fell asleep in the car or something back then, I would furiously deny it afterward. I must have thought there was something shameful about sleeping.

I'll go through regular bouts of insomnia and then spells where I just want to nap all the time. I rarely feel fully awake or asleep.

At university, I stayed up till five a.m. or later every night, or even remained awake for two or three days straight. Then at some point in my mid-20s, my body refused to do that any more. Now, aged 35, if I pull an all-nighter it takes at least a week to recover. So I guess not being nocturnal is a better habit?

I do miss it, though. A few weeks ago I was on a Radiotopia trip in Cambridge, MA and stayed up till three a.m. with Roman Mars from 99% Invisible and Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder, talking and eating cookies and drinking chamomile tea. It felt just like being a student again! It was great, until the next morning. You can get hangovers even if you don't drink, you know.

Martin is a very somnolent man. He'd sleep 16 hours a day if he could. So this affects my waking habits: I get extra Martin-free time to spend watching TV shows that he hates.

Martin is the first person I could be asleep with — previously, I never could sleep when sharing a bed with a friend or a paramour. I remember in college when one overnight guest stayed over for the first time, sleep was such a hopeless prospect that I got up and translated the whole of Beowulf for a class the next day.

“My subconscious is my enemy.”

Martin gets treated to one of my nocturnal quirks: waking hallucinations. I think the neurological state is called hypnopompia. I'm aware I'm in the real room, but things are different, and it takes a few minutes to resolve into normality.

By “things are different,” I mean I will think I'm seeing the walls caving in, or fluorescent spiders dangling from the ceiling, or snakes or birds, or I'll be anxious about there being visitors who've arrived in the night and are staying in our bed, or burglars who came in and moved things around in the room.

One night I woke up, couldn't recognise Martin and started screaming. Weirdly, he wasn't much placated when I said, “Don’t worry, I just didn't know who you were.” We’d been together nine years at that point.

Our bedroom is a lurid mess of my husband's patterned shirts and my vintage scarves and costume jewelry. So it looks like the nest of a rat with aspirations to be Diana Vreeland.

As my brain relaxes, preparing itself for slumber, an idea will pop into it. I know I will forget it by morning, so I have to write it down immediately. Then in the morning, I find some absolutely incomprehensible note to myself; or I'll start digging into it a bit more right then and that means my brain is wide awake again and is not going to shut down for another few hours, dammit.

“You can get hangovers even if you don’t drink, you know.”

I'll usually be working right up to bedtime, which isn't healthy but I naturally work better in the evening than the morning, so I don't want to waste the time. Sometimes, good work happens very late at night or very early in the morning, because my brain is too tired to resist so just gets on with the task. But at those times of the day, there's also the risk of tiredness leading to terrible decisions.

My sleep has been far worse this year because I started The Allusionist. I had stress dreams for weeks before the show began, then for the first several months of doing the show, I'd go to bed unable to block out the sound of the edit rolling around in my head. Making both podcasts has taken up almost all of my time this year, and my natural laziness has taken a real hit.

If I wasn’t working every waking hour, my indolence would take over and I’d get no work done at all. I can easily lose six weeks at a time watching Netflix and sewing.

If I were to recreate my home in a hotel room, I'd have to hang up some laundry and dump a heap of unread newspapers beside the bed. I often don't sleep much when I’m away, and I think this is my subconscious saying, “Don’t waste the hotel, stay awake to experience it!”

My subconscious is my enemy.

I still get bad jetlag because I can’t stop myself waking up at shit o'clock in the morning. If I'm on a short trip to the USA, my body clock is like, “No point adjusting for five days, I’m just going to keep you awake the whole time.” So if you see me when I'm in the States and I'm acting a little deranged, that is why.  

You know how boring it is when people describe their dreams? Of course you do. Everyone knows that is super boring, yet everyone still does it. The reason it is boring is because dreams are rambling in plot, and people don't think to edit them before they recount them. Edit the dream down to one surprising plot point or one weird image. Do not describe the various routes your subconscious took to get there.