The Short and the Long of It: an interview with Tania Hershman
Tania Hershman’s The White Road and Other Stories is a wide-ranging and imaginative debut collection of short fiction, some of it very short. Much of this moving, gripping, entertaining and thought-provoking work is inspired by articles from the New Scientist, making it a unique fusion of the two cultures. I was thrilled when Tania agreed to be interviewed for the blog.
Andrew Philip: Welcome to Tonguefire, Tania. The White Road is a beautifully structured collection — almost chiastic. How did you go about putting it together: did you write to fit into a structure or did it arise from the writing?
Tania Hershman: Hi Andy, thanks so much for having me on your blog! What a beautiful word, “chiastic”, a poet’s word. I, of course, had to look it up to find that “concepts or ideas are placed in a special symmetric order or pattern in a chiastic structure to emphasize them.” Well, if this has happened with The White Road and Other Stories, I can take very little credit for it. I wrote the 13 longer stories – the ones inspired by New Scientist articles – during my MA in Creative Writing in 2003-4, but although I was writing them as my final work, I really didn’t think they would ever be published in a collection, that was just a dream, and I didn’t have any overarching structure or theme other than “science-inspired”. I don’t plot out stories in advance, very often have no idea what is going to happen until they are finished. The other half of the book, the flash fiction, was written in the few years that followed the MA, also with no thought of a collection.
It wasn’t until Salt wanted to publish them that I first saw them all together and thought, Well, look at that, there are themes across many of the stories – weather being one of them, various aspects of parenthood being another. I didn’t put them in order myself, I just couldn’t do it. I printed them all out, we spread them on the kitchen table, and my partner, James, did it. I couldn’t see them in that way. I think he did a great job!
AP: He certainly did. In writing flash fiction, do you pare back from a longer draft or write short in the first instance?
TH: My way of writing flash fiction is to write it short straight away, not paring down something longer. For me, the process is as “flash” as the end product, it is different from writing something longer. It is a sprint rather than a longer run, the story bursts out in one go. It’s a really exhilerating process for me, quick and intense.
AP: Do you accept the notion of a strong dividing line between genre fiction and literary fiction? Aside from the obvious scientific inspiration for your stories, some of the pieces in The White Road could attract the sci fi label, which is certainly not to detract from their merit as literary fiction. I’ve read that Margaret Atwood rejects the label “science fiction” for her futuristic novels. What’s your relationship with the term? Would you accept it for your work?
TH: Ah, genre, one of my least favourite words! I don’t believe in labels, in anything that divides. To me, there is writing you enjoy and writing you don’t enjoy, and nothing else. I heard Janice Galloway speak last year at the Small Wonder short story festival and she said that she doesn’t call her writing anything at all. She said it’s her publishers who decided what she was writing was a memoir rather than short fiction or a novel or a script. She just calls it “writing” and I like that.
Since starting the Short Review, I have had my eyes opened to the joys of so much that is labelled “genre” and thus stuck in a section of the bookshop or library or in magazines I would not normally have chosen to read. I discovered that, for example, there is wondrous (and “literary”, if we need to use that word) science fiction which I really enjoy. I’ve reviewed several collections which were called “science fiction” (perhaps because the audience for SF is dedicated and enthusiastic and giving it that label, especially short stories, will make it more marketable) and would now say I am a huge fan. It is a shame that these divisions exist, because those of us who love to read are missing out on an enormous amount of fantastic writing.
As for my work, I am happy for anyone to call it whatever they like, I don’t believe it is up to me to assign descriptions, labels. I’d be delighted to be embraced by the science fiction community!
AP: Radio 4 recently broadcast a number of the flash fiction pieces from The White Road, including some of my personal favourites. What was it like working with the radio station and hearing your work read by others on the airwaves?
TH: It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. It really was. BBC Radio 4 has played a pivotal role in my writing career – my first big break came when a letter was circulated to all the MA students from an independent production company, Sweet Talk Productions, calling for submissions for a week of Afternoon Reading stories by writers new to radio. I sent in the story The White Road and was stunned when it was accepted. Hearing my story brought to life moved me immensely. And I have been extremely lucky to have had two further stories broadcast on Radio 4, one that was commissioned for a week of short stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 2007.
Sweet Talk have been incredibly supportive of me and my writing and decided to “persuade” the BBC to take a risk on flash fiction in the Afternoon Reading slot – 5 or 6 stories per 15-minute program instead of 1. So, 16 stories (5 from my book and 11 new ones) were broadcast over 3 days. I went to the recording of the stories to hear Nicola Walker (“Ruth” from Spooks) and Tom Goodman-Hill read them. It was the day after we’d had a break-in, my laptop had been stolen, and so I was pretty emotional already, and had to stop myself from weeping as I listened! They did the most amazing job. I didn’t know which stories would be broadcast each day, that came as a surprise, but I think they fit together really well. Listening to all of them did make me wonder about what it is that goes on inside my head! I am sure you must find that too, wonder sometimes where it all comes from, what deep, dark place!
AP: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader,” as Frost said. That element of surprise is one of the things that keeps me coming back to the writing desk.
You have also had some poetry published in the last while. Do you find there are any similarities between writing poems and working in flash fiction?
TH: Ah now, I’ve written three pieces which I think might be poems so really don’t feel I can comment on this at all! I am very much a beginner in poetry, know almost nothing but sometimes something compels me to write it down in a different way on the page from a flash story. But I also wonder if some of my flash stories are actually prose poems. Once again, I don’t think it’s for me to say. I am dabbling in poetry but I really need to learn much more.
I do like the idea of being constrained by a form like, say, the sonnet. I enjoy constraints – there’s a fantastic Carol Shields short story about writing a sonnet, and I’ve quoted it in my article on flash fiction in Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. She says “art breathes from containment”, a concept which definitely speaks to me. So once I learn more, perhaps I will try a sonnet? Several people have told me that there are one or two flash stories which remind them of sestinas, I’d better find out what that is too!
AP: I’ll have to look that story up! When I read your book, one of the things that struck me was that much of the flash fiction shared the qualities of prose poetry.
You mentioned the Short Review. Tell us about that side of your work.
TH: When Salt told me they wanted to publish my book, in June 2007, I was stunned and I think I went into shock. I couldn’t really write very much, I felt like I was holding my breath, waiting to see if this was real, so I looked around for something else to do. I realised that while so many of us blame publishers for this odd attitude towards publishing short story collections, perhaps they are not bought in huge numbers because they are not reviewed. Once this hit me, I decided to set up an online journal to review only short story collections. At the time, in November 2007, I imagined it would be for me and 10 friends. Well, it has grown somewhat since then! I have over 30 reviewers worldwide, 600 readers on the mailing list, and I receive emails constantly from authors and publishers asking us to consider their books. We try and interview as many authors as possible, too, which is, personally, one of my favourite parts of the site.
We review older books as well as new ones because the idea is not to sell new books it’s to stimulate readers to seek out short story collections anywhere and everywhere – from libraries, from second-hand bookshops, from friends’ bookshelves. We have a page called Categories (avoiding that “genre” word!) which goes from “art-inspired” to “lad lit” to “young adult”, and every short story collections appears under several if not numerous categories because short story collections – and fiction in general – are not just one thing, one “type”. The idea is that everything you love to read in a novel you can also find in short stories… why not read them too?
AP: Absolutely. That’s a very healthy approach. What directions is your own writing taking you in now?
TH: I am taking the “inspired by science” to the next level – from articles about science to being inspired directly by science itself. I am writer-in-residence at Bristol University’s Faculty of Science, and have been given the freedom to wander around all the science departments and find places to spend time and see what it means to do science on a daily basis. I’ve been embedding in a biochemistry lab where the focus is wound healing – I have a background in physics, so it’s the areas I have no knowledge of, such as molecular biology, that are so foreign and intriguing to me. I love watching the researchers mix things in test tubes and talk about DNA and RNA. After 4 months I am getting the hang of much of the vocabulary. I find the labs very calming, because you can’t rush science. You have to mix your liquids and then they need to be left for 1/2 an hour and there’s nothing you can do about that, so you have to wait.
I am learning an immense amount about how science works, and now starting to write some flash stories inspired by the experience. I read the first lab-inspired story on Radio 4 the other day on Off the Page, where I was one of the guests invited to talk about science. I was a little nervous, not knowing what the lab might make of what I’d written! It wasn’t about them, it was me playing with what I’d absorbed, making something up. I don’t find it interesting to write about what is right in front of me. That’s not the way I like to do things.
So, now I am waiting to hear from the Arts Council about whether they are going to approve my application for a grant for a biology-inspired short story collection, inspired both by current research and as a fiction writer’s response to an amazing 100-year-old biology book someone recommended to me. No more details right now, but it is definitely a brand new challenge for me! Fingers crossed.
AP: Tania, many thanks for such a fascinating discussion.
Salt are offering readers of this blog an additional 10% discount on the purchase of The White Road and Other Stories. Visit the Salt page here and enter the coupon code GM18py7n when checking out.
- Tania’s blog
- Follow Tania on Twitter
- “Walking the White Road” vitural book tour
Other interviews on Tonguefire:
- Inhabiting: an interview with Ray Givans
- Open Plan Otherness: An Interview with Claire Crowther
- Flint, Rime, Paint: An Interview with Siriol Troup