Tania Hershman is a short-story writer from Bristol England. She is spending some time in the states for her residency, a short-story conference, and time visiting friends.
Why and when did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. I think I began my first work – a novel about triplets – when I was seven or eight years old. Fortunately, it didn’t see the light of day! I always loved making things up, and I was a voracious reader, I read through every meal. I always wanted my name on a book – but was sidetracked for many years through several degrees in science and a career as a science journalist (in Jerusalem, Israel, where I moved from London in 1994). It took me til age 28 to come back to writing fiction, and then 7 years after that, after taking a load of writing courses in the US and UK, I had my first short story published. That was 7 years ago.
What inspired you to write your most recent work?
Well, my new book is a collection of very short fictions, but they weren’t written with any thought of a collection. They were written between 2007-early 2012, and they are my favourite 56 out of about 150 or so that I had written, many of which have been previously published in literary magazines and broadcast on BBC Radio. They are inspired by so many different things – I see inspiration everywhere – that I can’t really answer that. I do often take inspiration from science, and there are several fictions inspired by the time I spent as writer in residence in a biochemistry lab in 2010.
How did you come up with the title?
My Mother Was An Upright Piano is the title of one of the stories in the collection. The collection was going to be named after another story, How Much the Ants Carry, which I liked because it conveys how something tiny can shoulder a large burden, which is what I try to do in my very short fictions. But then I also wanted a title for the book that would be memorable and would immediately hint to people that these fictions are not necessarily rooted in the real world, that they are a little bizarre, a little magical, surreal. You may not believe me, but I had no thought at all about my mother during this, I completely forgot that anyone might make the connection, about what she might think! She doesn’t seem to mind.
What books or people influenced your writing? Was it positive influence, or negative?
I read all the time and am influenced all the time by what I read, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, poetry. I am inspired by writing I love and writing I hate. My earliest influence was Roald Dahl and his Tales of the Unexpected, which I read when I was a kid. They showed me how much a short story can contain. Later on, in my 20s, I read the short stories of Ali Smith, a fantastic Scottish writer, and they showed me how a short story can be something else entirely, it doesn’t need to contain murder and a twist at the end, it can be quiet, powerful, and very very intimate, placing the reader right inside someone’s head or inside someone else’s relationship.
I find new favourite books all the time, here are a few: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, the first book of science-inspired fictions I ever read, All Over by Roy Kesey, a short story collection which gave me permission to embrace minimalism and not be afraid of making my reader work hard, and most recently Memory Wall, a short story collection by Anthony Doerr, whose title story almost made me stop writing, it’s that good. I read and read and read, everything I can get my hands on, books, magazines, online, print, podcasts, radio.
How do you go about researching for your books?
I am out in the world, and I notice and I wonder about things. I think “What if..?” That’s it. No other research.
Did you base any of your characters on real people?
No, not consciously. Except Einstein!
What’s the most exciting part about being a published author? What is the hardest part?
It’s definitely holding the book in my hands, that never ever wears off, that thrill! It’s also a feeling that I have left a legacy, something that will be here when I’m gone. One book was a dream come true, two books is just sublime. The hardest part is the book promotion, having to talk about myself, which I don’t like. I wish the writing could just speak for itself and I could get on with more writing, but these days people like to meet the author. I do love reading my stories aloud though, am always delighted by those invitations, although that also gets in the way of writing time.
Do you have any other books planned in the future?
I’m not sure. I thought I was working on a collection of science-inspired fictions but now I am having a complete rethink about the concept of a “book” for a short story writer: what does it do for me? What does it mean to be working on stories with the idea that they will be in a collection? Are we moving towards an iTunes model for short stories?I don’t have answers yet -this is definitely a period of transition for the publishing industry as a whole – but since my new book has just come out, I figure I have some time to think, at least a few years.
Which of your stories or characters are your favorite? Do you dislike any of them?
I can’t pick favourites, never. I am really fond of all my characters, they are all real to me. I still wonder about the two ten-year-old boys, Howie and Victor, in my first book, I hope they’re doing okay. And Henry, poor Henry. This new collection has many more stories that have unnamed characters or are from the third person plural point of view, “we”, which makes for a slightly different experience. I haven’t yet met a character I dislike. Even the narrator of Missy, a fairly disturbing story, but I feel the narrator’s pain despite her actions. I write to affect myself, to make myself laugh or to disturb myself. That’s the point, for me. To tell myself stories. To meet new characters, to go to places I will never go.
What advice can you give to young writers who want to publish their books?
Well, I would say they should remember that writing and publishing are two completely separate things. One is creativity, the other is business. I would suggest a young writer doesn’t worry about publishing at all, but just about learning to write – read everything – and writing what they really want to write, rather than what they think (or are being told) the market wants. That way, I think, disappointment lies. I put in 7 years learning to write short stories, I was 38 when my first book came out. I was doing a lot of other things, all of which feeds some way into who I am and into what I write and why I write. There’s no rush! Also – there are no rules for writing, and if someone tells you you “must” do things a certain way, then they are trying to sell you something. It’s not true. Find your own way. Everyone does it differently.
Just for fun:
What are your ten most favorite things?
(in no particular order!) Short stories, chocolate, my partner James, our cat Zac, great films, other people’s book launches, talking to other writers about short stories, knitting, when someone else makes me breakfast, rain (which is lucky since it’s thundering as I write this – after spending 15 years in the Middle East, rain still feels like a blessing).
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Well, I teach writing workshops, I give readings and I talk about short stories. I also edit a journal, The Short Review, which reviews short story collections and interviews authors, so I manage 50 reviewers worldwide, which is time-consuming. I watch quite a lot of TV, like to swim in Bristol’s outdoor pool (yes, even in winter), I play Scrabble, I make peanut-butter-and-rum chocolate brownies.
Do you have any pets?
Our beloved Zachary cat, who has been with me for 15 years. We lost our beautiful cat Cleo last summer.
What are your favorite (and least favorite) foods?
I hate walnuts, rice pudding and rhubarb. I love very strong cheddar, especially in spaghetti with tomato sauce, I love all cheese. And chocolate. Right now chocolate with sea salt. Yum. And nothing beats a good cup of English tea.
Is there a specific place in the house (or out of the house) that you like to write?
I have a writing shed at the end of the garden. It has a single bed in it, a desk, a big picture of Einstein, and is full to the brim with short story collections and lit mags. Outside the house, I love to work in cafes, the white noise helps me focus, and I like to be near cake.
Do you have a specific snack that you have with you when you write?
Nope. That would be dangerous – what if I ran out?
If you could go anywhere in the whole world, either for a vacation or to live there, where would you go?
I’m very happy living in Bristol. But I would like to go on holiday to South America or Morocco. I wouldn’t mind a little apartment in Paris… and somewhere by the sea.
What was your favorite and least favorite subject in school?
Least favourite subject was English, which is probably a bit strange for a writer, but I didn’t like the way we had to descontruct stories and the teachers told us what things meant. I never agreed! Favourite subject was maths, I loved it.
What book are you reading right now?
I always have several on the go … I just finished Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich, a non-fiction book about white collar unemployment in the US, which was excellent. I have my fellow Fellow Barry Kitterman’s wonderful short story collection by my bed, am slowly savouring it. I’m also reading a few popular science books as a judge of the Royal Society’s Winton Science Book Prize but I am not allowed to divulge which! I also carry around Revenge of the Lawn, 62 ultra short stories by Richard Brautigan, published in 1972, and keep dipping into that, it makes me very happy.
Tell us a random fact about you that we never would have guessed.
I pierced my belly button – twice! But the hole’s closed up now.
Thanks Tania! It’s been awesome having you at Hambidge! Check out Tania’s website to watch a video of her reading one of her stories.
Born in London in 1970, I moved to Jerusalem in 1994. After 15 years, my partner and I and our cats moved to Bristol in August 2009. After making a living for 13 years as a science journalist, writing for publications such as WIRED and NewScientist, I gave it all up to write fiction.
My second story collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, was published in May 2012 by Tangent Books and contain fifty six very short fictions. My first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. It contains a mix of flash fiction and short stories inspired by science.
My stories have won various prizes, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, been published in print & online, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 & performed. I teach regularly for the Arvon Foundation & also give readings & workshops in flash fiction, short stories & science-inspired fiction.
I am currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, working on a new collection, of short stories inspired by spending time in a biochemistry lab, with funding from Arts Council England. I am also founder and editor of The Short Review, an online journal dedicated to reviewing short story collections and anthologies and showcasing short story authors.