Wednesday 5 October 2011

Tania Hershman: an interview

I've been a follower of Tania Hershman for a while, partly because she and I both have science-related degrees. For years was a science journalist, publishing in magazines like WIRED and "New Scientist". Now she's had stories in "Nature" too. She's interested in the interaction of Science and Fiction. I was impressed when she appeared last year on a BBC Radio 4 discussion program called "Blinded by Science". I wouldn't be surprised if she does more media work.She's currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University and has just received a grant from Arts Council England to write a collection of biology-inspired short stories.

I've kept tracks on her also because she writes Flash as well as short stories. With her Flash Fiction Tania's managed to reach parts that I thought Flash could never reach - pieces in "London Magazine", and a week of her stories on BBC radio 4! Her first collection The White Road and other stories (commended in the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, and included on a list of "10 collections to celebrate the strength of British short story writers" compiled by booktrust) contained many Flash pieces (some as short as 50 words) and also short stories (3000 words or so). To me, she seems equally at home with any length. She's also been involved with adaptions of her work to video and the stage. She continues to appear in magazines big and small, paper and online.

When she's not writing she seems busy being on festival panels, workshopping, judging, and spreading information to other writers via her blog. Writers have further cause to be grateful to her - her (Non-Complete) List of UK and Ireland Lit Mags Which Publish Short Stories is invaluable, and she founded The Short Review, a review of short story collections - stories need all the publicity and critical attention they can get.

As an old cynic I find her enthusiasm refreshing and her willingness to explore new subjects and genres exemplary. This interview was conducted via e-mail in Autumn 2011.

  • What came first - Science or Fiction?
    Definitely fiction! I started reading at a very early age, apparently, according to my mother (yes, she does say I was a prodigy, she is my mother) and stories were a big part of my childhood. Science came later, I have vague memories of reading some children's book about Famous Scientists but have no idea when that was. It was at school that I fell for maths (gosh now that sounds odd). I just loved solving equations, loved the right-or-wrongness, the lack of greyness, although now I understand far better that science and the scientific endeavour are full of grey areas. I didn't get on with English at school, I didn't like deconstructing stories, didn't agree with my teachers' assertions about what Dickens, for example, must have been thinking when he named Estella in Great Expectations. Perhaps it was a nascent rebellious streak, or some foreshadowing of my own path, but I couldn't help thinking, Well, maybe he just liked the name? I just loved stories, but found that I wasn't really allowed to write what I wanted to write or read for pure pleasure. Science at school was the fun part. I got to university and it got rather more serious - and difficult. That's when I discovered I wasn't the scientist type!
  • If you were 18 now, would you be thinking of doing a Creative Writing degree?
    At 18 I had absolutely no clue what I was doing, I think I had vague thoughts about a career in science (see above) but didn't imagine that, although it was a childhood dream, I could be a Writer, that that was a career option. I suspect my parents, both very academically minded, would have shoved hard away from a Creative Writing degree, but I can't be sure. I'm not sure either that that's the way to do it. I took a circuitous path to fiction-writing - via degrees in Maths & Physics, Philosophy of Science and journalism and a career as a science journalist - and I am glad for it. I got to a point where I found I couldn't not write fiction, that the voice in my head wouldn't stop nagging. I think it's valuable to find that out, and had I gone so young into a CW degree, I might not have left the space to know that.
  • I notice that The White Road is available on the Kindle. Has it changed your life? Will it change all our lives?
    I am assuming you mean the Kindle and not my book! I am of two - or perhaps more - minds. Everywhere I go now, someone whips one out and declares that they read more, they buy more books, which has to be a good thing, right? But I despair that you can't share books through the Kindle - and, as someone pointed out the other day, you can no longer see what someone's reading on the train, for example. It seems another step in the move towards only reading/buying what you think you want and an end to browsing and stumbling upon things you didn't know you wanted. But it is definitely opening up markets for short story writers who, I see, are beginning to publish single stories or sets of stories straight to the Kindle. I don't have one but have the app on my iPod (can't believe I use these terms sometimes... ) and have purchased a few stories. That's got to be a good thing, right? Not necessarily a changing-lives thing, but an enrichment, I hope.
  • You don't seem to be an SF addict. Have you ever been? Do you have any favorite SF authors or stories?
    I was brought up on Star Trek from a very young age, and Doctor Who, and loved them both, the sense of adventure, of limitless worlds and possibilities. But I never read SF until founding "The Short Review". I asked for some review copies of short story collections for myself, the kinds of things I wouldn't normally read - the Logorrhea anthology edited by John Klima, Kelley Eskridge's "Dangerous Space" - both described as SF, and I found new writing worlds opening up to me. I really felt, "Who has been hiding this wonderful writing from me for so long?" That simply by not visiting those shelves in the bookshop or in the library, I'd been missing out on all these incredible, imaginative, magical stories. More recently, being introduced to Carol Emshwiller's work was one of those experiences, where you feel that your writing will never be the same as before you read a particular work. I love her writing, am terrified to think I might never have read her books, what an enormous tragedy. What else am I missing??
    I would rather not say whether any of my own work is SF, I don't feel qualified for that. I call some stories "science-inspired" and for me that is purely a description of the process not the end product. I prefer to stay away from labels. I've now had a short story published in Nature's Futures section, which I believe is called SF, so who knows? All I know is that I will never dismiss an entire section of a bookshop again. I've recently been turned on to crime, too (ahh, Fred Vargas!). It's all about great writing, great stories, great imaginations, isn't it?
  • So when are you going to start writing novels?
    Nice one. You should be a stand-up comedian!
  • Stories like "Hands" (from "The White Road") are more poetic than many a poem I've read. Do you have any plans to focus more in that area? Maybe it's just a matter of sending the same work to different magazines?
    First, thanks so much for saying that. Funnily enough, yes I do have plans in that area. I recently went on an Arvon Foundation course in Writing for Radio and one of the tutors was Simon Armitage. I deliberately chose this course in order to meet him after hearing him read at the TS Eliot Poetry Prize readings and being struck by how close his newest collection is to flash fiction. I am really interesting in writing radio plays too, so it seemed a great opportunity to explore both. Simon was very encouraging about some of my work actually being poems and recommend some reading material including James Tate, the Pullitzer-prize-winning American poet. His work was a revelation - surreal, funny, wonderful! That has made me take a look at a number of what I thought were flash stories and rethink them. And I have sent a few out as poems - just had a very short poem and a prose poem published. We will see what happens in that direction but I am very excited. I was nervous of poetry, felt I wasn't "qualified" to talk about it, to claim I might be writing it. I am feeling a bit bolder now.
  • Sorry, but I have to ask - who's your favorite scientist?
    It's a little clichéd, but it's a toss-up between Einstein - a large picture of him with the caption "Imagination is more important than knowledge", hangs here in my writing shed, just by my side - and Richard Feynman, what a character. And also all the researchers in Paul Martin and Kate Nobes' lab at Bristol University where I have been writer-in-residence, they are all wonderful, and were very patient with me!
  • The story of how you got published is already online. Are things getting harder or easier for budding prose writers?
    Hmm, well, if you are talking about within the short story world, I think things are easier in that there are more and more publications calling for prose submissions. There seem to be more and more lit mags, each with their own specific likes and dislikes, which has really helped me find places that like my particular brand of oddness, and I am sure it's helpful for others too. And there are loads of new print magazines too. But when it comes to short story collections, things are definitely not easier, from what I can see. Even some of the small presses who championed short stories are finding it so hard to sell them that they are pulling back. It makes me deeply sad, since to me short stories are purely sources of joy, and I am talking about the dark depressing ones as well. I love to read them, they make me feel better, they make me better able to cope with life, I think. Ali Smith said at Small Wonder recently that she believes the short story is intimately tied up with mortality, because it is so much about its ending, and perhaps that explains its appeal, to a certain sector of the reading public - and maybe its lack of appeal to the majority! I would encourage budding writers to read magazines and send their work out to places whose writing they love and where they feel they might fit. And to understand that rejection is an essential part of the process.
  • The recent Forward poetry prize all-male shortlist raised again the issue of gender bias in the literature world, and science is supposed to be a male-oriented profession. That said, this year's Hugo awards shortlist had 4 women and one man. Have you noticed any particular problems?
    This doesn't really come up in the short story world at all, and the lab I was writer-in-residence in, a biochemistry lab, had an every-changing population, sometimes with more women than men and sometimes the reverse. But it seems that things haven't changed much in the UK in Maths and Physics since I studied those subjects, 20 years ago, when there were 20% women. I have heard that the majority of the Italian physicists working at the CERN particle accelerator are female, which is thrilling! Re writing and gender, I haven't run into problems myself, that I know of, but I do wish that these prizes were judged anonymously. I know it's hard with book prizes - but surely it should be about the writing?
  • Job interviews sometimes end with "Where do you see yourself being in 5 years' time?". Well?
    Ha! Urgh. Still writing, I hope. If it's what I am supposed to be doing. I can't plan ahead. I have a booking to teach an Arvon course in Nov 2012 and that freaks me out. I'd like to just think about today, this moment. I'm not writing as much as I want to be, I am not very good at carving out the time, I feel so lucky to get wonderful invitations to do short-story-related things, and many of them pay well, but it's hard to reconcile that with writing. And if I don't write, well... the invitations will dry up, won't they? Was this a job interview? Oh, oops, not sure I got the job then...

Thanks Tania!

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