Tania Hershman's [photo credit: Naomi Woddis] third short story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, was published by Unthank Books in May 2017, and her debut poetry collection, Terms & Conditions, by Nine Arches Press in July. Tania is also the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open, and two short story collections, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, and The White Road and Other Stories, and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers' & Artists' Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014). Tania is curator of short story hub ShortStops (www.shortstops.info), celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland, and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics. Hear her read her work on https://soundcloud.com/taniahershman and find out more here: www.taniahershman.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, a short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was published, by Salt Publishing, inSeptember 2008 and it really was life-changing. I have found – and other authors have said the same – that Life Before A Book is completely different from Life After A Book. To see your name on the spine of a book, for me that was a childhood dream come true. But it was also terrifying, to be “out there”, to have other people reading what really only I and maybe another 10 people had ever seen. To be reviewed, oh my! I learned from this that it's not important what I think my own stories are about, to let go of them once they are in the world (I did know this on a small scale from having individual stories published), to allow others to say what they think my work means, and to enjoy hearing that. Accepting praise is uncomfortable, especially, it seems, for women. The collection was commended for the (then) Orange Award for New Writers, an award open to novels, novellas and short story collections, and to be one of only two books – and the only short story collection – singled out by the judges was utterly life-changing, it gave me a enormous confidence boost. They said something like “We are interested to see what she does next”, and I thought, Gosh, someone wants me to do some more of this. So I did.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to fiction first, 20 years before poetry! I wrote short stories when I was a child, inspired by the stories of Roald Dahl, and then started taking my first writing workshops in my late 20s. My first short story was published 7 years later, and my first book, a collection of short stories, came out in 2008. I was also a science journalist, I did that for 13 years, a job I loved.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
All of the above! I am always writing, generally I hear the first line in my head. Poetry I write out loud, and prose seems to come when I have my fingers on the keyboard or the page. Nothing EVER comes out perfect in a first draft and I think anyone who says it does is not being entirely truthful. Some pieces I write quickly, some pieces take years – regardless of their length. I don't do research, that's not how I work, or, rather: everything is research, everything I read, everything I see, hear, watch.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I never consciously worked on a “book” until my PhD in creative writing, which I passed in December. All my collections were a compilation of all the pieces I had written to that date which I was happy with that hadn't yet been in a book. And there are several pieces that are in both my third short story collection and my first poetry collection, both of which came out last year, I like the idea of creating conversations across books. I am not a fan of grand pronouncements in terms of where a poem or story or other piece begins, I have found that the minute I try and pin down my “process”, it is likely to change! That said, stories often come to me as a voice, I can hear a character, a first line. Poems come through sound, through a combination of words, a first line. Then I follow the character or the sounds and see where they lead.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings, performing my own work. Writing for radio has played a major role in my writing career so I am always thinking about how a piece will sound aloud when I am writing, I read them out to myself, it's part of my writing process. I love that connection with an audience, especially now that I can perform my poems mostly by heart, so I can look at the audience and see them looking at me. I love it. It's almost like a stand-up routine for me, I like to chat as well as read!
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I have a background in science, which I like to call a “framework for curiosity”, and I used to be a journalist, so I am all about questions. I think my writing is less about answering than about expressing the questions in new ways. I have many concerns, I am fascinated by so many things, from why we human beings behave as we do, to issues around love and death. I will never run out of questions – I think humanity is mostly dealing with the same issues it always has, just in new ways, with new technologies. What are we doing here? What's the meaning of it all? Exploring these through my poems and stories rarely give me any answers but they writing them does give me one source of meaning, of purpose, especially when the miraculous happens and someone who is not me, another person, tells me that they connected with and were affected by my writing. That is a joy, something I never take for granted.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don't believe in shoulds, or putting pressure on writers to be anything at all in our culture, to write about anything in particular in any particular way. We are too good at pressuring and sabotaging ourselves, stressing ourselves out and not giving ourselves permission to do what we want to do in the way we want to do it.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love working with an editor, working with Jane Commane, my publisher at Nine Arches Press, was one of the best experiences of my writing life! I wish I had been edited more, it didn't happen at all with my three story collections.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was putting together my half of 'Writing Short Stories: A Writers and Artists Companion', I finally found, after 15 years, a wonderful book specifically about writing short stories, called “Ron Carlson Writes a Story”, by, of course, Ron Carlson. A tiny book, it's packed full of wisdom, and the part I loved the most is where he says “The writer is the one who stays in the room”. Sometimes all I want to do, when I've written something I like, is to jump up, go off, do something else. My way of “staying in the room” is often to play online scrabble with random strangers, it calms that twitchiness, keeps me in the chair a little longer.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories)? What do you see as the appeal?
It felt like a natural progression, from short stories and flash fictions towards poetry. For years people would ask me why my flash fictions weren't actually poems, and I was very resistant, not being a fan of poetry. But I slowly opened myself up to the possibility of poetry, helped by some fantastic teachers who showed me that poems weren't all like the ones I read at school, which didn't engage me at all. I began to see how poetry can be even sparer than flash fiction, and how using the shape of the words on the page could enhance what I was trying to do, adding ambiguity, leaving more gaps for the reader to fill in. I fell in love with the line break!
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
No routine, nothing at all. As a writer of short things, there is no pressure on me to meet some sort of word count, and I don't put any pressure on myself to write anything at all. After 20 years, writing is like breathing for me, it is vital and necessary to my wellbeing. Going for a walk, clearing my head, very often helps, opens up a space for a poem to emerge (it's mostly poetry these days, and hybrid odditites).
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don't worry, as I said, about being stalled or blocked. I never worry about not writing. I like to let the urge to write build up, until I have no choice, I simply must write.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
EVERYTHING. I can't stress this enough. Everything I read, watch on TV, listen to on the radio, read in magazines, often science magazines. Music inspires me, film inspires me. I never understand the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” Just being alive in the world fills me with ideas, with questions.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Too many to list here. I find new favourite writers all the time, in fiction, poetry, non-fiction... Einstein Dreams by Alan Lightman was an early work that gave me permission to try to do what I'd been thinking of, write short stories inspired by science. A glorious book. Then short stories by Ali Smith, and poetry, oh so much poetry! Adrienne Rich, James Tate, Louis Macneice. And more recently non-fiction and hybrid books – Maggie Nelson, Mary Ruefle, Anne Carson, oh my. Don't start me off...
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a film script. I've been trying. I love film and there aren't enough women writing films. I have ideas.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, I studied maths and physics, but I was terrible at it, so perhaps not that. I was a science journalist for many years, I loved that job.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There was never a moment when that was a choice. I was a reader first, I read everything, and then I began to write around the age of 6 or 7. I didn't believe I could do that as a profession, but I am living the dream I had as a child, earning my living from writing (or writing-related work, to be honest!), writing what I love. I can't believe it, it's really a miracle, a blessing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book was Hope Jahren's Lab Girl, a gorgeous mix of popular science and memoir, beautifully written, moving and educational. The last great film was Arrival, I loved that, it's so much more than a film about aliens, it's about language and reality. And with a great female main character.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I may be working on a Long Thing, a hybrid collage of fictions, memoir, images and uncategorizables. Maybe.