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Apr/May 2016 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Tania Hershman

by Paul Holler


Tania Hershman was born in London and lived for a time in Jerusalem. Her university studies led to a career as a science journalist during which she contributed articles to Wired, New Scientist, and other publications. She is the founder of The Short Review, an on-line review site specializing in short story collections. She writes fiction and poetry full-time while working on her PhD at The University of Bristol. Her short stories and flash fictions have been collected in the books The White Road (Salt Modern Fiction, 2008) and My Mother Was an Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012). Her first chapbook of poems, Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open, was published in February, 2016, by Southword Editions.

 

PH    Why do you write?

TH    Why do I write? That's not something I often ask myself, because I have always written. It began with making up stories as a child, as so many writers do. However, I didn't have an English teacher I found particularly inspiring and was actually drawn more towards maths and science, and found myself at university studying maths and physics. When someone mentioned to me a possible career as a science journalist, that suddenly sounded like the ideal combination of everything I loved. And it was, for 13 years. But every now and then there would be a whisper in my head about writing fiction, and that voice got stronger, until I couldn't ignore it. I have been writing short stories for almost 20 years and my first motivation is to entertain myself. I love meeting the characters in my stories, they are really my imaginary friends, and I have no idea when I started writing where a story may go. I make myself laugh and cry, I move myself when I write, and that's my first reason for doing it. Through my own fictions, I go places I couldn't go in reality—not just physical locations or other times, but into other people's heads, to see what the world is like through their eyes. Writing calms me, it has come to feel, over the years, like a form of meditation, a way to calm my own fears about the world and its uncertainties. More recently, writing poetry is a new joy, a different process, a different aim, allowing me to use words and their shapes on the page to more directly express and work with my own experiences. I am quite introverted and feel I express myself better through the written word than in conversation. I am constantly grateful that writing is available to me. I don't take it for granted.

PH    One of the things I find interesting about your work is how you use and approach science. It seems to me that you are at least as interested in the culture of science as you are in pure science. Examples of this include "The White Road" and "Heart." In the former story, you focus on the everyday lives of researchers in Antarctica. In the latter, your character, a heart surgeon, reflects on the experience of seeing a patient's heart stop beating in her hand.

To what degree do you see science a way into the characters you create? Do your stories begin with a scientific inquiry or with a character making a scientific inquiry?

TH    You are right that I am just as interested in the culture of science—in fact, I am interested in every aspect of science, from the methodology and the mindset to daily life in a lab, the creativity of experiment design, and the wondrous and often bizarre vocabularies, which I love to plunder! As to what comes first, it's really hard to say. I immerse myself in science all the time, I read New Scientist every week, actively opening my mind to ideas which I could use as springboards into stories or poems. Stories begin with a character or, more specifically, a voice, which may be the main character or a narrator. It's that voice talking to me that generally gets me going. Poetry begins differently, with a phrase, with certain words.

What I actively do now is collide two ideas together, very often a scientific one with something else I have been thinking about, and see what results. I have been known to read two things at the same time—say, a New Scientist article and an article on something entirely different in another magazine—just to mess with my head and produce something new. Messing with my own head is an intrinsic part of my process!

PH    I've always noticed a close association between very short fiction and poetry. Very short stories tend to rely on language to a larger degree than longer stories. For example, in your new book, Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open, the poem "Hold the Baby" is very prose-like:

They said she had to hold the baby so she held the baby even
though she had no notion why she held it, him or her.

On the other hand, another poem in this book, "Vandalism," uses a verse form that evokes the violence of an act of vandalism:

Pieces which                   when the glass was smashed
                   slid into the innards of the door.

Both pieces use poetic language and both pieces have elements of narrative, yet the style, and presumably the intent, of each piece is quite different from the other. When a piece begins for you, how do you choose between a verse form and a prose form?

TH    I've been writing short stories for a long time now, and in 2008, when my first book was published, which contains short stories and flash fictions, I started fielding questions about why these tiny stories "weren't actually poems." I was quite taken aback. I'd never consciously written a poem, and in fact didn't like poetry, had never taken to it at school. But this began a long and slow meander towards it, which required me conquering a serious "fear" of the line break: I didn't understand how to read it let alone how to use one in my own writing.

I began attempting to write poetry seriously three years ago, going on many workshops, and buying enough poetry collections to keep many publishers afloat! Suffice it to say, after producing maybe 150 poems over the past two years (many of which will never see the light of day!), I now love the line break, have come to embrace it fully, and delight in what the shape and structure of words on a page can add to my writing. Not only this, but writing poetry has enabled me to do something I've never felt comfortable doing through short stories, which is to directly examine my own experiences, to get much closer to autobiography. I do enjoy being able to let go a little more of the needs of narrative, although everything is story, I believe.

To answer your question, I'm no longer at all concerned about any "lines" between prose and poetry, I gave up labelling my own work a few years ago, I leave that to others. I generally have a feeling about whether something I write is more poem-like than flash fiction, but I'm not bothered at all. I don't actively choose one form or the other, but the process of creating poetry and prose is different for me. Prose I have to "write," as in: my fingers have to be moving, on the keyboard or the page. Poetry I write aloud, this is how it comes to me, and I work on it out loud for several drafts before writing it down. I always read my prose out loud at some point during the writing process too, but it doesn't start that way. It's been fascinating, and continues to be! I often use science in poetry too, in the ways I mentioned above, and many of my poems are "fictional" in that they are stories rather than some sort of autobiography.

And now I am finishing a book for my PhD which blurs everything even more, morphing from poetry into prose and vice versa, which I am having a lot of fun with!

PH    Lee Rourke devoted an entire chapter of his Brief History of the Fable to your work. In his view, you are continuing a tradition that began with Aesop. Do you see your work as part of a larger body of stories by many writers? Or does your work primarily express your view of the contemporary world?

TH    I was extremely surprised to discover that there was a whole chapter on my work in Lee's book—he'd asked for permission to quote from some of the stories, as far as I remember, I never thought I'd merit such attention! I think the answer to your question is yes to both those things. My primary impulse for writing is to try and understand the world, more by asking questions than by finding answers. My own writing reassures me, calms me, by allowing me to express and give shape to uncertainties, by my attempts to portray in words, and through the eyes of my characters, something about life and all its wondrous messiness. But I also do see myself as part of something larger, of course, because, firstly, everything I have learned and continue to learn comes from reading the work of others writers.

But also due to the fact that we seem to have storytelling hardwired into our human brains. I like to begin any writing workshop with a great exercise I borrowed from Vanessa Gebbie called Word Cricket: I give participants the first line of a story, and they carry on writing without stopping for 10 minutes. Once every minute I "throw" a word at them and they have to catch this word and use it in their story. What never, ever, fails to happen is that everyone writes a different story—woven wonderfully around the often bizarre words I chuck at them. I take this as proof that our brains will make "story" out of anything, and isn't this what we do on a daily basis, trying to join together into some coherent pattern the events that happen to us?

PH    In your story, "Evie and the Arfids," a woman takes a job sewing Radio-Frequency Identification devices into articles of clothing to allow government tracking of an individual's movements. It occurred to me that if this story had been written 50 years ago, it could have been published in a science fiction magazine. Today, of course, it could not be considered science fiction because the technology it depicts actually exists. Nevertheless, your interest in this technology and how it affects individuals reminds me of a larger tradition of science fiction. Do you see your work as a part of this tradition?

TH    Ah, Evie! I love her. I have never seen myself as part of the science fiction tradition, because I haven't read much science fiction—this story is from my first collection, written between 2003-2006, and I only really came to science fiction as a reader after that book was published. I set up The Short Review, an online journal reviewing short story collections, in 2007, and it became a wonderful vehicle for me to find authors and genres I had never come to before. Around that time, I submitted a flash story to the science journal Nature, for its Futures section on the back page, which calls for science fiction stories. I thought I'd give it a go, but assumed that I didn't really know what SF was, so was surprised when they accepted it!

I prefer to avoid genres and labels all together—I don't mind what people call my work, where they'd like to "shelve" it! I am simply interested in great stories, in imagination, in writing that has a love for language. That's found everywhere, in non-fiction too, of course.

PH    Who are some of the writers who have moved, inspired and/or influenced you over the years? Is there anyone in particular who has stayed with you throughout your life?

TH    Gosh, there are so many writers! The early influences were Roald Dahl and then Ali Smith, so very different, both of whom taught me that there's not just one kind of short story, that the short story can be many things. Then I started going to workshops in America and discovered Aimee Bender, a huge influence, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, Grace Paley, all of whom sent me in new directions. These are the writers I will recommend to everyone, whatever they want to write! I read and re-read them. I like to carry around Richard Brautigan's Revenge of the Lawn. Just in case. In terms of poetry, I am reading as much as possible, from everywhere. I love Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, James Tate, and so many British poets that I can't even start, from the traditional through to the more experimental. I find new favourite poets all the time, especially through Twitter. Every day, more beautiful words!

PH    I'd like to ask you about your new chap book, Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open. You've mentioned before that you began writing poetry relatively recently. How did this book come about?

TH    The chapbook came about, thrillingly, because I submitted 20 poems to the Fool For Poetry chapbook contest run by the Munster Literature Centre—and I won 2nd prize, which included publication! It is the most enormous boost, as someone who was fairly unsure and insecure about whether what I was writing was even poetry, it feels like a great dose of validation and permission. It's out in the world now, has been for 10 days, and I have had some lovely responses, which is just wonderful, and not something I expect or take for granted.

PH    Do you ever think about what you are going to do next with your writing? Or is it better to let the future take care of itself?

TH    In terms of writing, I am finishing up the book for my PhD, and the accompany contextualizing document, and will be submitting this in October. I've applied for an arts grant from the UK Arts Council for a new book I want to work on, but I'm not going to say any more about that! My PhD book is hybrid, and I'm interested in pushing further on the boundaries between prose and poetry. I don't know much more than that—which is the way I like it!

 

Source Cited:

Rourke, Lee, A Brief History of Fables, Hesperus Press, 2011, p. 165.

 

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