Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Author Visit: Tania Hershman

Yey, look who's here [magically, even though she's in Scotland, without internet - she's very clever, that Tania Hershman].

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Born in London in 1970, Tania moved to Jerusalem, in 1994, and after 15 years in Israel, she and her partner, and their two cats, moved to Bristol in August 2009. After making a living for 13 years as a science journalist, writing for publications such as WIRED, NewScientist, the MIT Technology Review and Business 2.0, she gave it all up to write fiction.

Her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is now available from Salt and was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. She is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University and has received a grant from Arts Council England to write a collection of biology-inspired short stories inspired both by her time at the university and a 100-year-old biology book. Her short and very short stories, plays and film scripts, have won or been shortlisted for various prizes, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, been published in print and online, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and performed.


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Hi Tania welcome to my blog. Please take a pew [and a cake]! I really enjoyed reading your collection 'The White Road'. I think Evie was my favourite character, followed by Victor. How would you sum up your collection for those who haven't yet read it?

Gosh, a hard question to start! Well, 27 short and very very short stories, some less than a page long, and many which are inspired by articles from New Scientist magazine.

And which is your favourite story from it?

Ah now, that's like asking someone to pick one of her children! I can't do that, but I will say that I love each new story as I write it, it is my favourite at that point. I wrote many of these stories six or seven years ago so they have been supplanted by others since, which I think is probably the way it should be. But there are quite a few characters in the stories in my book that I still think about very fondly every now and then: Evie, Henry, Mags, Howie and Victor...


How long did your collection take to write?

I wrote all the “long” New-Scientist-inspired stories as my MA final manuscript in 2003-4, and all the flash stories were written between 2005 and the beginning of 2007, when I sent the collection to Salt.


The idea of 'home' was a theme in a couple of your stories, especially one about a character who had spent a lot of time in Israel. You've spent many years in Israel yourself. Where do you think of when you think of 'home'?

Another very interesting question. That's incredibly hard to answer right now. I lived in Israel for 15 years, longer than any other place in my adult life, but I also moved house 8 times in that time. I realised recently, when we moved for the second time here in Bristol, to a house we now own, that I have not lived anywhere for more than 4 years since I left home at 18, and I'm now 40. I really don't want to move again for a long, long time, I want to sink into this house, for this to become Home. But it's only been 4 months so it isn't yet. And I love Bristol but still feel a bit like an alien in England as a whole – 15 years is a long time to be away, my spoken English isn't as fluent as it was. But Jerusalem stopped feeling like home to me too. So perhaps right now home is more about who than where; it's where my partner and our cats are.


What attracts you to short story writing, and flash fiction?

Ah, an easier question! I am in love with short stories. Passionate about them. I believe that the perfect short story is possible, because I have read many of them. I get a kick from a great short story that is unlike any other reading experience, and I read everything, novels, poetry, non-fiction. But the short story discombobulates me, shakes me, moves me, in only a few pages or less, and it is these short stories I find I carry around with me, like whispering voices, for months, even years. I don't forget a short story I have loved. And this is why I wanted to write them, why I strive to somehow get my stories to do for a reader what other stories have done for me. Flash fiction is a joy for me, because the process is so different, these stories tend to come out in one sitting, in a rush, and that is very exhilerating. Flash fiction is the short story distilled to its heady, intense essence. You understand just how very little a writer really needs to say when you read a fantastic piece of flash fiction.


What is the best short story collection you've read recently, and who are your favourite short story writers?

I read a lot of collections, most of them for review for The Short Review, an online journal I founded which reviews short story collections. I get offered so many and so I often pick books I would never have chosen, and this way have discovered many new favourite authors. A recent favourite is A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud, a major French writer only now being translated (excellently) into English for the first time. His writing is unlike anything I've come across, an old-fashioned tone combined with something so surreal and magical and modern. I loved it. Other favourites include the Scottish trio, Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, American writers Lydia Davis, Peter Orner, Roy Kesey and Stefanie Freele, and then there are my fellow Salt authors Vanessa Gebbie, Carys Davies, David Gaffney, Elizabeth Baines, Susannah Rickards, Tom Vowler...the list goes on. Who says no-one's publishing short story collections?


Tell us about how you merge science with fiction.

Fiction was my first love but science was my second. I studied Maths and Physics at university. I always looked for a way to combine the two, and for a long time I worked as a science journalist, which was fun but didn't satisfy me creatively. The first time I realised how to let my fiction be inspired by science was at an Arvon Foundation course on Writing and Science in 2002. That was a life-changing course for many reasons, not least of all because that's where I met my partner, James. I had been concerned that getting science into fiction (not thinking about science fiction, which was not something I was reading at that time) would require the shoehorning of facts into a story, but the course tutors showed us how it could be subtle done, with a light touch. And that opened the floodgates. The stories in my book that take inspiration from science articles aren't really about what the articles contain, they take that “fact” as a starting point and then my imagination takes off. Writers and artists take inspiration from so many sources and science is a very very rich source, if you ask me! I am currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University and have spent a year being “embedded” in a biochemistry lab, learning what it means to do science on a daily basis. This was a whole new world for me, I learned so much, and am now working on a new short story collection inspired by this experience.


I love your Twitter idea of a television programme about short fiction. If you could head such a show, how would you do it?

Ha! Well, my idea never got as far as me dreaming about hosting it! I guess the main thing would be that it would dispel the myth that short stories are somehow “worthy”, that they are all heavy and literary, and so I would invite a wide spectrum of guests representing all the short story can be, from lit fic to chick lit, from gothic paranormal romance to feminist comic science fiction. And we'd talk about short stories not from a point of “why should we read them” but from the starting point of “we just love them so much”. No need to defend the short story, it ain't no victim, no “poor relation”.


You've won a very impressive number of literary prizes. What is your greatest writing achievement?

Wow, once more with the hard questions. Winning the prizes is an amazing boost, really fantastic, as was having a collection published, a dream come true. And every single publication is something I treasure, I never take it for granted. But I think the achievement is to keep on writing. There's always the worry that this is it, that the last story was, well, the last good one. And I have to say that I'm plagued by procrastination; writing is the one thing I want to do all the time and what I spend far too much time avoiding doing. So the act of writing is the greatest achievement, the thing that brings me the most pleasure.


I have to admit to being very jealous of your writing shed. I for one would love a writing tree house [ahh]. Does having a setting that is writing specific help you concentrate? How do you battle the nemesis of procrastination?

And this brings me on to the shed! I have never had a proper writing room, one with a door I could close. And after I while I realised that this was crazy – James and I both work from home and I needed my own space, somewhere I could pretend I was the only person for miles. Well, our place in Israel was very open plan, and the garden was small – and there's no shed culture over there, so it would have been difficult. In our new house, there was already a shed! We just had a wonderful builder insulate it so that I could heat it properly, and build me bookshelves and put up a desk. And I've just “moved in”, put all my short story collections on the shelves, hung my Einstein “Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge” poster. It's a blissful little space, I can shut the door and be alone with my characters.

But talking about procrastination, the first time I went in there I discovered to my horror that the wifi stretched all the way down the long garden to the shed. I didn't want it – but didn't have enough willpower to just click the Off button on the computer. I know what my demons are: email, Twitter, and online Scrabble (which I am playing as I write this!). And I wanted one place where these weren't an option. My Twitter friends suggested covering the shed in alumnium foil... but I came up with a better plan: I moved the router further inside the house. Now the wifi doesn't reach. And now the shed is perfect. I spent 2.5 hours there last week working on one story. Without interruption. I don't know when I last did that. So: no willpower needed, I just made it physically impossible. I don't think anything else is procrastination, a lot of my stories start life in my head, and it's the head space I need to leave free for them to foment, to mature until they are ready to be written down, because if written down to early, I am liable to ruin them.


On our Book Forum we have The Book Tree where members choose their favourite book and post it round to all other members in a circle, writing in each book as they read it. At the end, all members get their books back filled with comments written by everyone else. If you were to take part in our Book Tree, what book would you choose and why?

This sounds like such a lovely idea! Although I have to say that writing in a book is not something I normally do or condone But if it is out of love... Hmm, which book? This is an almost impossible task for a voracious reader. Ok, one of my favourite collections of the past few years is All Over, Roy Kesey's debut collection, the first book published by the excellent Dzanc, a non-profit publisher in the US. These stories were a great inspiration to me, something I hadn't encountered before, very surreal and very minimalist, funny and moving. Some of the pieces were so surreal that I had no idea what they were about – and I felt that this gave me permission, in a certain way, to let go of realism, let go of the need to explain, to let the reader do the work. I think your Book Tree members would find an enormous amount to say about every story!


Finally, are you able to tell us what you're working on at the moment?

Of course! Last summer I was very fortunate to be awarded an Arts Council grant to work on a new collection of short stories, inspired both by the biochemistry lab I am writer-in-residence in and by an amazing 1917 biology textbook called On Growth and Form which is a work of scientific literature, a beautiful book. So my challenge is to be inspired in two ways which are new to me: by the real life of the lab and by a historical text. It's really an experiment I have just finished my time spent in the lab and was very lucky again to win a fellowship to the Hawthornden Castle writing retreat in Scotland for a month. This is when I hope most of the writing will happen,I am looking forward to seeing what comes out when I am there, when the lab is not a real presence but enters that dreamlike space where fiction is created. I have given myself until the end of the year to have enough stories for a new book.

I also seem to be working on something longer and which is a complete departure for me, something in which I am following 6 characters, which I've never done before; it is already over 6000 words long and it makes me laugh as I write. I won't say more about that, it may come to nothing at all, but it's really fun!


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What do a library, an Antarctic station and a dream casino where gamblers can wager their shoes have in common? They're among the multiple venues where Tania Hershman sets the extraordinary tales of The White Road. But though Ms. Hershman is willing to go anywhere in her imagination, her stories are anchored by a poignant awareness of sorrow beneath the surface. The White Road is a unique combination of narrative extravagance and human intimacy. - Melvin Jules Bukiet, author of ‘Strange Fire and A Faker's Dozen’




The White Road and Other Stories is available here.

The Science Faculty blog: http://www.bris.ac.uk/science/blog.
Tania's blog: http://titaniawrites.blogspot.com/

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