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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Really impressive writing…
Like advice to read and read and lists of stories which lead like an illuminated path to new horizons. Thanks for always interesting blog.
Very informative. Thanks
Received my book! Thank you so much, I am really looking forward to reading this…Best, Dee
Great post… I especially like the Short Story/ Flash Fiction Q&A. Let’s hope my “Lucky Thirteen” makes that list of favourite must reads one day!! 😉
Very interesting interview. I love this blog but my broswer isn’t letting me like your posts- sorry about that. Thanks for following me.
I loved this interview. There was so much helpful information shared.
This was very helpful. Thank you so much.
Great interview! In particular I found myself nodding in the answer about how you cannot dictate the order in which the reader will read the book of short stories or poems.
Very nice interview, good to about Tania.
Thanks, nice to meet you, Jyotirmoy!
“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.”
Liked this one a lot..If what you write entertains you, it is sure to entertain others as well.
Well conducted interview as usual Damyanti!
Thanks for stopping by!
I find Tania’s answers so helpful especially to over the inhibition I have and feel about me writing fiction.
Thanks for sharing another gem, Damyanti
So glad this was useful to you, we all have inhibitions and find our own ways to get past them. Best of luck with your writing!
I found the Writing Short Stories book you co-authored very useful.
I’m Irish, but based in Malaysia and have been relatively successful in getting stories placed locally, but not quite so much in the wider English speaking world. A lot of my stories tend to be based in Malaysia. Do you think stories with an South East Asian setting might be less interesting for European/American publishers? Would I be better off writing stories set in a European context? Any advice is welcome. Thanks in advance.
Hi Marc, great to hear the WSS book is helpful! And from my experience, reading and judging, I don’t think European editors prefer Europe-set stories or American publishers have a preference for American locations. It’s more about the type of story and whether it fits with what they are looking for. Write what you want to write, I would say, and keep sending them out, I know that many of the lit mags on the http://www.ShortStops.info list would be thrilled to receive submissions from outside the UK!
Thanks Tania. All the best
Great interview, thanks ladies! I so agree about the difficulty of writing short stories and how paradoxically it can take a year to write a few pages. I admire those who have honed this craft — clearly you both have. Sadly, I have not and much prefer the wide berth a novel provides. Perhaps I’ll give it another go one of these days as you’re inspired me with the “flash” option.
Hi pjlazos, thanks for stopping by! And really, there’s no “sadly” about it, everyone writes what they want to write, whatever length, whatever style you enjoy and you feel best tells the story you want to tell. No reason to write any one particular thing – best of luck with you writing!
Goodness, look how many comments! Thank you all, so glad you enjoyed the interview – and thank you to my host, the wonderful Damyanti! I’ll address the questions in separate comments…
Tania, I’m a huge fan of your work, but ever since I met you briefly, I’m an equally huge fan of you as a person. You’re so kind and thoughtful–it’s been a real honor hosting you. I look forward to doing a post with you again once your new collection is out! Looking forward to it.
Thank you for this fine interview. I really admire how you permit your work to evolve, keeping yourself open to new ways of expression. I followed a few of the links and can see how your short fiction could morph into prose poems and back again. Thanks for sharing your work and suggestions with us. Dee
Hi Dee, thanks so much, it’s really the validation and permission I’ve been fortunate enough to receive over the years, that’s what keeps me trying new things, not getting myself stuck into patterns I don’t want to be stuck in!
Thoroughly enjoyed this interview. Thank you both!! I read so much, I have to remind myself to write (just kidding but am I?) I’m going to pop over to Tania’s webpage and have a browse. Thank you both and have a lovely week.
Thank you for your lovely comment on my blog, Nicola! And we all have to remind ourselves to write, what with all the other important stuff* distracting us, right? 🙂
*checking twitter, eating chocolate
I’m not really a short story writer, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to write more of them. That said, I used to be that kid in English class who argued the word limit up. 😉
Hi Misha! My philosophy is that as story is a long as it needs to be. Pieces of string and all that 🙂
I loved that advice on reading a lot if one wants to be a writer – that’s exactly how I began my writing career in a newspaper despite having no other qualification.
Absolutely – there are so many courses and workshops, but to my mind, nothing beats reading voraciously. Best of luck with your writing!
Great interview Tania and Damyanti. I love flash fiction and it was nice learning more about it. Thanks for all the tips and links 🙂 Happy Writing.
Thanks so much, happy writing to you too!
Cool interview. Particularly love the short story recommendations. Amy Hempel and Aimee Bender are my favorites too. And, I discovered that Janet Frame story in the book about short story writing by Tania and Courttia Newland. I have to read the Doerr and the Barthelme — will look for them. Thanks.
Ah, Aimee and Amy, they are constant sources of inspiration to me! I took a week’s short story course with Aimee B in 2007 and it changed everything. I do hope you enjoy the others, too, thanks for stopping by!
Great advice to read as widely as possible. I know it has helped me on my journey. What do you see yourself writing in say another of years? Any change of direction on the horizon?
Hi JL, nice to meet you! Well, writing poetry was a pretty big change of direction, I’m still getting used to that. Also, I have just submitted my PhD in creative writing, and the book I produced is a hybrid of poetry, fiction and non-fiction – including some personal-essay-type pieces, which I’d never written before. I think I might be moving towards this kind of hybrid work, I have an idea for a new book now, we will see! Thanks for asking, best of luck with your own writing. x
I trained as a journalist too and it’s great training for getting to the point quickly. That said, it’s a special skill to leave a lot to the imagination of the reader, and that can be what makes a story memorable!
Hi Nick, nice to meet you. And yes, it took me years and years to understand how much I was “allowed” to leave out, our default, I find, is to tell the reader what we’re about to say, then say it, then explain what we’ve just said 🙂
Interesting interview. I enjoyed getting to know you, Tania. Best wishes.
Nice to meet you too, Diane!
Nice to meet you, Tania. Good luck in the writing adventure. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
Nice to meet you too, Anna! Best of luck with your writing, thanks for stopping by.
An interesting interview. Lots of useful advice, and links.
Thanks, Cathum, useful is what I always try to be!
I adore the answer to #2. I found myself nodding in agreement thinking, hell yes- I also write to surprise myself.
It’s fun, isn’t it? I suspect that even those writers who say they know how the story will go before they write it also end up surprising themselves in some way. That’s the magic!
I usually write what I’d like to read. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t enjoy writing it and not much more tedious than doing what you don’t like to do.
Tossing It Out
Exactly! Best of luck with your writing, thanks for stopping by.
Toss out the rules, write for pleasure. Sounds good to me!
Love those thoughts on “Voice.” It really does boil down to that. If you like the character, you’re going to follow their story. Period.
Yup, as long as the voice stays consistent. We readers are smart and sneaky, we spot immediately if it’s the writer and not the character talking!
There’s so much to love about this interview; thank you so much for doing it, Damyanti, and to Tania Hershman for visiting! I, too, love the short story form, although I don’t feel I’m as adept at flash fiction. Flash/microfiction certainly requires a brevity I can’t always tap in myself. That said, the question is, will you be my critique partner, Ms. Hershman? 🙂 But to be serious, I was at a F/SF con recently and attended several writing talks. I’ll ask you what I asked one of the panels there. About 10% of the time when I get a rejection for a short story, I’ll get actionable feedback. In absence of that and not often having a critique partner . . . I feel that my story endings are let-downs and/or that the stories yearn to be longer. Do you have any tips specific to resolving conflict, giving readers satisfying endings, and/or maintaining momentum in the short story form? I will definitely look up the stories you’ve suggested; I’m better read in certain genres (speculative) and in American writers than I am international ones. Thank you both again for your time!
Hi Leigh, thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment. Sorry for not being able to be your critique partner! I suspect you will be your own best critique partner 🙂 Regarding endings and the story yearning to be longer, no-one else can tell you that, it’s really about what you want your story to be. Rejections certainly don’t mean there is anything at all wrong with your story – I know from having been on the “other side”, as a judge and as an editor, that it’s really very subjective, the sort of story a judge likes, or even likes on that particular day. Or the vision an editor has for that issue of the journal, which pieces fit together. I think this is to do with time, practice and experience. Endings are so tricky, there’s really no way to teach anyone how to end a story in general. For me, after 20 years of writing, it’s a physical sensation, I know I’ve done my characters and their story justice and I don’t have a feeling of needing to do more. Not all stories need to resolve conflicts, there is no blueprint at all. The story that just won the BBC National Short Story Award, by a friend of mine, is, I think, a masterclass in the immensely quiet and powerful story, with the tiniest of shifts which actually make it enormous. (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/04/disappearances-by-kj-orr-read-the-2016-winner-of-the-bbc-national-short-story-award) My overall advice is to find the ending that satisfies you, the story is as long as the story needs to be. The more you write, the more stories you end, the more you will develop your own story sense, and the more you read the more you’ll find the kinds of stories whose endings speak to you. Good luck!
That is a masterful story by KJ Orr. So subtle but meaningful.
Thank you kindly for all the advice; this is a great help, Tania! Best wishes in your writing.
Real and distinctive – check!
I imagine journalism would be a good training ground for short stories.
It really is, since it’s about understanding not just the “facts” but also what makes for a gripping story – and the concision, of course. Best of luck with your own writing, Alex, thanks for stopping by.
Hi Damyanti – good to meet Tania here … she obviously has a passion … and it’s so good to see she decided in the end to follow her dream … I’m sure the science brings those extra elements into her stories … cheers to you both – Hilary
Thanks, Hilary, good to meet you too!
“Writing short stories is about learning how little you need, about what isn’t written as much as about what is on the page.” Such sound advice! Since I started taking part in flash fiction contests on Saturdays, I’ve found that my writing has become better because I’ve learned to write concisely. And instead of showing everything to the reader, I’m allowing them to take part in the story by adding their own details to what I’ve written (if that makes any kind of sense).
Thanks for sharing, Damyanti 🙂
That’s a great point, I think it will stand you in good stead whatever you write, of whatever length. Best of luck!
Thank you 🙂
Love the advice about flash fiction. I’ve been thinking about it, considering what books to read and how to prepare (like I researched to write thrillers). I love that I can just jump in!
Jumping in has always been my philosophy, good luck!
Hi Tania I’ve won a few short story competitions and been placed in others but I’m not sure how to tackle the literary journal market. There are so many publications that it seems really overwhelming! Any advice?
Hi MaryRuth, congratulations on your wins and publications! With regard to literary journals, please do take a look at the site I run, http://www.shortstops.info, with its listing of literary magazines in the UK & Ireland that publish short stories. It’s a good first place to start – no need to be based in the UK & Ireland! Duotrope is also an excellent database of writers’ markets, though it’s so huge it’s hard to know where to start. My advice would be to read as many of the journals as you can – both online and print, if you can afford to buy them – and submit to the journals whose work you really love and feel would fit with yours. Although I suspect we’ve all done this, there is no point submitting to a journal which is clear in its guidelines that it isn’t looking for the sort of thing you write – for example, the guidelines ask for fantasy & speculative fiction and your stories are more realist etc… Good luck, there are many many editors out there who want to read your work, do give them that chance!
Dear Tania, thanks so much for your reply. I will definitely check out the short stops site. Very helpful advice. (By the way, I saw you at the short story festival in Waterstones last year and bought ‘My mother was an upright piano’ & loved it 🙂
Ah, thank you! Looking forward to seeing you again somewhere, with more stories!