THE WRITING LIFE ... Tania HERSHMAN
TANIA HERSHMAN was born in London in 1970. After living in Jerusalem for 15 years, in August 2010, she and her partner moved to Bristol, U.K., with their 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, and was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. It is now available as an e-book and can be bought and downloaded for the Kindle.
INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF TANIA HERSHMAN
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, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, Richard Feynman, well-crafted sentences and string theory. She was born in London, lived in Jerusalem for many years, and is now back in England. 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 a few years ago. 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) such as Nik Perrings’s newly released Not So Perfect and Stefanie Freele’s Feeding Strays.
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 the most recent collection I read was Peter Orner’s Esther Stories, which I loved, and I have Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories waiting for me on my bedside table. I’ve dipped into it already and it is wonderful. I have also just read several novels that impressed me: Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, which I enjoyed partly because it had scientific themes; Nora Chassler’s Miss Thing, which is a wild ride of a book, experimental yet tender and moving.
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 the 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 reluctant to declare that there is a new and sudden rush for the short story in mainstream circles ―Lahiri and Enright are already well-known, as is Alice Munro who won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize—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, and Petina Gappah, whose collection, An Elegy for Easterly, won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award. There’s no need to feel sorry for the short story; who wants to read something if it is portrayed as the poor cousin? The short story is alive and very well, you just have to know where to look. I recently compiled a list of U.K. and Irish literary magazines that publish short stories on my blog, expecting to find maybe 20 or 30—the list currently numbers 108, which astonished and delighted me!
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 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 marketing 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 currently writer-in-residence at Bristol University’s Science Faculty, a post I initiated myself with the aim of writing short stories inspired by spending time with scientists in the labs. I am loving it, the laboratory is a world non-scientists are not often given access to, let alone on a regular basis. I feel like I am learning an enormous amount about what it is to do science on a daily basis, the rhythms of experimentation, the pitfalls and the moments of joy. I have two ideas for new book-length projects related to science, but won’t reveal them just yet. I will say that I hope to be carrying on this residency next year, too—with the whole Science Faculty open to me, it’s like a treasure trove of inspiration! I am blogging about it on the new Science Faculty blog: www.bris.ac.uk/science/blog.