Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, today it is my absolute pleasure to welcome a short story writer I adore, Tania Hershman. If you’ve read her, you know why I’m so excited, and if you haven’t, I urge you to make up for this lacuna in your reading life pronto!
(This interview is also for Insecure Writers Support Group. Go to this site to meet the other participants: each insecure writer, trying to feel secure, from across the blogiverse. This month’s co-hosts are: Beverly Stowe McClure, Megan Morgan, Viola Fury, Madeline Mora-Summonte, Angela Wooldridge, and Susan Gourley.)
1. At what age did you start writing fiction? What prompted you?
I started writing stories when I was a child. I loved reading from when I was tiny, I read everything and spent a lot of time in my own imaginary worlds (as I still do). Writing came naturally from the reading. I then got “side-tracked” by a science degree into a career as a science journalist, and slowly found my way back to fiction writing, my first love, around the age of 28.
2. Do you have an ideal reader in mind as you write?
Me. It’s always me. I write to entertain myself, to make myself laugh and cry, to surprise myself first and foremost.
3. For someone new to your work, which of your books should they read first? Could you link us to some of your favorite work online?
Goodness, I don’t think this is a question I should answer, I am always delighted if anyone wants to read anything of mine! There are links to my stories, poems and where to buy my books on www.taniahershman.com. I don’t have favourite stories or poems of mine, if that’s what you’re asking – that’s liking trying to get me to choose between my children 🙂 The current favourite is always what I am working on right now, but I am extremely fond of pretty much everything I’ve written, the characters are like family to me.
4. You specialize in flash fiction. Could you link us to a few articles that might help a writer attempting the genre?
After having just taught a week’s flash fiction course where we started with a little theory and soon moved away from that, I would suggest no-one reads anything about anything before they start to write, just read as many flash stories as you can because to start with theory may end up being off-putting. Many people have “rules” about writing. For me, there are no rules about what a short story – or a poem, or a flash story – is, has to be, and the more you read the more you see everything it can be. Then you can attempt your own take on it! That said, there are some good articles here.
5. You write short stories, flash fiction and poetry. How has this shaped your work?
I began with short stories, always astonished as I read more and more widely, at everything a short story could be. I adore short stories because the best ones, in just ten minutes or less, can alter me completely, their effects far outlast the time it takes to read them, sometimes by years. I discovered the shortest short stories in the early 2000s and was blown away by what they could do in a page or less. I trained as a journalist so was already developing the skills of concision, saying as much as possible in a few words, and this form appealed to me. I wasn’t a fan of poetry, I didn’t read it and I certainly never thought I’d write it, but slowly, slowly, through flash fiction – as I kept being asked questions about why one of my pieces wasn’t actually a poem – I grew to love poetry, to get a feel for what the shape of it on the page could do, and to write it myself. As opposed to short fictions, through poetry I am able to document my experiences, letting go of the need for such a strong narrative, although every good piece of writing must be shaped in some way. I am mostly writing poetry now, I write short stories when someone commissions me to! And with a recent short story for Radio 4, I slipped a poem inside…
6. Other than length, is there a difference between short story and flash fiction writing?
This is a hard question to answer because it presupposes that there is a good definition for either a short story of a piece of flash fiction. I read around 1000 short and very short stories every year, and they are very hard to pin down – as they should be! If you mean the writing process, every time I think I understand how my own writing process works, it surprises me! I generally take longer to write a short story, it can take years, but then again, so can a piece of flash fiction. Writing short stories is about learning how little you need, about what isn’t written as much as about what is on the page. Flash fiction takes this to the extreme – but there are no constraints in terms of how many characters, for example, or how much description, how much time can pass. It’s all up for grabs!
7. When planning a short story collection, what factors do you keep in mind?
I have never written short stories with a collection in mind, my third collection is coming out next year and, like the other two, it will comprise of all the short stories I have written to date that I love and want to put in a book. Putting them in an order is difficult – more and more I am abdicating authority as the author over what my stories are about and leaving more space for the reader to read themselves into the stories, so it doesn’t work for me to somehow arrange stories by theme because this would be guiding the reader as to how a story “should” be read. So I have gone for some kind of loose anti-order, it was an instinctive process – and my publisher may yet move them all around! As with poetry collections, you can’t dictate how a reader will read. As a reader, I look for the shortest story or poem first! I have heard the process compared to a box of chocolates or a record album (remember those??). Write what you want to read.
8. Could you name five short stories/ flash fiction you think all short story writers should read?
Stories I adore are: “Porcupines at the University” by Donald Barthelme, “The Motherfucker” by Aimee Bender, “Between My Father and the King” by Janet Frame, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel and “Memory Wall” by Anthony Doerr. These stories range from 800 words to 80 pages!
9. As a creative writing teacher and short story writer, what advice would you give to aspiring/ emerging fiction writers?
Read. Read as MUCH AS POSSIBLE, especially in genres you think you don’t like. Open your mind not to how it should be done, but all the ways it might be done – then do it your way!
10. You’ve won many prestigious awards for your short stories, and judged various writing competitions. What pointers would you give a writer submitting to these?
For me, what stands out when I have a pile of stories in front of me and am looking for reasons to put a story on the Yes or Maybe pile is voice – I want to hear it from the opening sentence, either the voice of the character or the voice of the narrator. You don’t need anything bizarre, shouty or strident, just something that sounds like a real and distinctive person who I want to spend time with. One of the ways to achieve this is through avoiding cliché at all costs, because then your character sounds like everybody else. Freshness of language always impresses me. And I love to be made to laugh, humour is rare!
Tania Hershman is the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open (Southword, 2016), two short story collections: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012), and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008), and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, Dec 2014). A third short story collection (Unthank Books) and her debut poetry collection (Nine Arches Press) will be published in 2017. Tania is curator of ShortStops, celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland. Website/ Twitter/ Soundcloud
Are you a short story writer? Have questions for Tania? Finished a story or published it? Tell us all about it in the comments! Tania will give away a signed copy of her book to one of the commenters on this post.
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