ON THE COUCH ... Tania HERSHMAN
ALLOWING THE IMAGINATION FREE REIN
TANIA HERSHMAN was born in London in 1970. In 1994, she moved to Jerusalem, where she now lives with her partner and two cats. A former science journalist, her short stories imaginatively marry her two loves, fiction and science, in the here and now. She has won awards and prizes for her stories which have been widely published in British, American and other international literary journals. Many of her stories, which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in print and online, are inspired by articles from popular science magazines. In November 2007, she founded The Short Review, a website devoted to reviewing short-story collections. Her début collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was published by Salt Publishing in September 2008. For further information on the author or her book, visit The White Road and Other Stories. Also check out her blog at TaniaWrites. The White Road and Other Stories was recently longlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.
Congratulations on your first book of stories, Tania. Tell me something about yourself. Who is Tania Hershman?
There’s nothing like starting with an easy question. Well, here goes. Tania Hershman is a writer. She loves words and she loves numbers. She loves short stories, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Albert Einstein, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, Richard Feynman, well-crafted sentences and string theory. She was born in London and lives in Jerusalem. She has a degree in Mathematics and Physics, another one in Philosophy of Science, another one in Creative Writing, and a diploma in journalism. She was a science journalist until recently. She has a partner and two cats. She hears voices, writes things down and sends them out in case anyone wants to read them.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
At the age of six I began my first novel. It was never finished, fortunately. I have always written and have always wanted to be an author.
Was it difficult getting published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your first collection of stories?
Difficult? Yes. Difficult to take the first steps, to learn how to write a short story and then to learn how to write the sorts of stories I wanted to write. The MA in Creative Writing didn’t teach me to write but it got me to another point, a point at which I could almost say “I am a writer.” I sent a short story to a production company calling for submissions for BBC Radio 4 and they accepted it. They passed it on to an agent. She took me on but couldn’t find a publisher, so I did it myself. I sent out stories to many, many publications, and was thrilled when several editors wrote back, liked what I wrote and published them. I am still sending stories out, still thrilled when they find a home. With my confidence boosted, I sent three stories to Salt Publishing, they asked for my collection, and then they made my dream come true and offered me a book deal. I am very grateful to them, they made me a beautiful book.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I read everything! Well, anything fictional. I loved books about girls and horses, girls and ballet, girls and ice-skating, all the Chalet School books (thank you, Elinor Brent-Dyer), anything fantastical such as C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series and Edith Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. I read through every meal―and in between meals. I devoured books.
Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors? And why?
Ali Smith and Lorrie Moore are enormous influences; their short stories show me the possibilities of the form, that stories don’t have to be mini-novels, that they can be magical and otherworldly, can play with language. Alice Munro’s stories always inspire me, her language is unfussy, not pretty, not frilly, yet her stories slam into you and leave you reeling. Aimee Bender is another favourite author, revealing truths about our world through the fantastical. Recently I have greatly enjoyed Roy Kesey’s minimalist stories which force the reader to do a lot of the work, Paddy O’Reilly’s wonderful collection, The End of the World, and lots and lots of flash fiction (stories under 500 words).
What are you reading at the moment?
As editor of The Short Review, I try and review a short-story collection or anthology each month, and right now I am reading and greatly enjoying Lise Erdrich’s Night Train, which I will be reviewing in the December issue. I have also just read several novels that I loved: Mark Budman’s My Life at First Try, Sue Guiney’s Tangled Roots, and A.L. Kennedy’s Day. The first two, coincidentally, mix in Russia, science, Jewishness and families, in different and wonderful ways and with tenderness and humour. Day is an astounding book, one of the best novels I have read, fully deserving of all the accolades it has received, inspiring and opening in me the possibility that maybe, one day, I may write something longer.
Could you tell me a bit about your collection of stories? Why science fiction-based stories?
My collection is comprised of 27 stories (it’s great value for money!) Half of them are flash fiction, one or two pages long. The other half are “science-inspired”: I read articles from U.K. science magazine New Scientist and allowed my imagination to roam. This lead to some odd scenarios: a woman sets up a roadside cafe on the way to the South Pole, a grieving widow bakes science cakes, a girl is paralysed when it rains, another talks to her knees. I don’t know if this would fit under “science fiction,” I don’t like to label or pigeonhole my stories―or anyone else’s for that matter.
What do you read when you take a break from writing?
Many, many short stories, in collections, anthologies and literary magazines. I am always on the lookout for new literary magazines with the type of writing I love: quirky, surreal, magical, weird, playful with words, poetic and true.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
A hard, hard question. I can’t pick just one story or collection. It depends on what I am reading right now, I find new favourites all the time.
Short stories appear to be gaining more popularity. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to publish wonderful collections. Anne Enright published a short-story collection after her Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. What are your thoughts on this?
I am loathe to claim that short stories are gaining popularity, that there is a new and sudden rush for the short story―Lahiri and Enright are already well-known, but where are the new writers being lauded and reviewed? What I wonder is if Lahiri and Enright’s collections actually bring new readers to the short story form as a whole, or are they only read by readers who enjoyed the authors’ novels? That said, it is good for the short story to have some “celebrities,” such as Miranda July, who brought a little razzle-dazzle to our world! However, I don’t want to cry “oh, poor short story”, because no one wants to read something if it is portrayed as the pathetic cousin of the novel. Don’t feel sorry for the short story, it’s perfectly fine in its small, delightful corner.
Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell. Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
Someone said to me recently at the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, that perhaps people are afraid of short-story collections, they think that―as with poetry, perhaps―they won’t understand them, or that all short stories are dark and depressing. However, another author present, who teaches creative writing, said that when she introduces short stories to her students, they quickly get addicted to them, to the “high” you can get from a fantastic story that you can read in one sitting but which stays with you for far longer. So I think the answer is to show readers that everything you can get from a novel is available as a short story too―great plots, fascinating characters, wonderful writing, suspense, horror, mystery, humour, magic, science fiction, erotica, etc. This is what I am trying to do with The Short Review. As for publishers, I think that not even trying to market something to the public that the public may not currently think it wants is a failure of imagination. It’s easier for publishers to keep on doing what they’re or have been doing, but surely they have talented sales and markwting people? Try harder, I say!
“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
This statement doesn’t mean much to me. I don’t consciously write from life. I write from my imagination. I don’t take actual events as inspiration, I love to make things up, to meet new people (my characters) and find out what their stories are. I will leave history to the historians and the writers of historical fiction!
What are you working on at the moment?
I am writing a lot of flash fiction, also called short shorts or prose poems, very short stories which are under 500 words or so, although definitions vary. I have won several flash fiction competitions, and love writing these tiny stories, which are not fragments, not snippets, but can be a whole life in just one page. I am also following a character who may or may not be the protagonist of a screenplay I have been thinking about for several years. I am also working very hard on trying to sell my book, which is very new to me! It has taken me thirty years to become a writer, and now I also have to be the seller of my own book, which is another learning process, but a very enjoyable one. Thanks for having me!
ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. He has always been obsessed with the relationship between literature and life, and the role it plays in society. He has edited many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. He is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).