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Interviews with Fiction Writers Laura Elizabeth Wollett and Tania Hershman

Tania Hershman‘s third short story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, was published by Unthank Books in May 2017, and her debut poetry collection, Terms & Conditions, by Nine Arches Press in July. Tania is also the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open, and two short story collections, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, and The White Road and Other Stories, and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014). Tania is curator of short story hub ShortStops, celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland.

Frances Badgett: It’s been eight years since “My Flickering Self” was published in Contrary. Where has flash fiction taken you since?

Tania Hershman: It has taken me to rather magical places! First, it took me to BBC Radio 4, right after my publication in Contrary in 2010, when, instead of the usual single 15-minute short story in their Afternoon Reading slot, 16 of my flash fictions were broadcast over three days. This was the first time Radio 4 had done this, and it was utterly amazing, my stories were read by two actors. Radio brings your work to life, you think, Gosh, my characters are real! And the other joy of radio is that people hear it all over the country – sometimes further afield – and get in touch to tell you how much they enjoyed it.

What was the most astonishing, and brought about a breakthrough for me in terms of my writing, was the fact that one of the flash stories the producer picked for inclusion was the oddest thing I had written at that point, something I myself didn’t understand and thought no-one else would get. To my great surprise, that story, “Like Owls,” turned out to be the flash story that the most people got in touch with me about. A high school teacher even asked if she could use it with her drama students! That gave me a huge short of permission to keep writing the really weird stuff – and to let go of the need to know what my own stories were about.

The next place it took me was to my collection of flash fictions, “My Mother Was An Upright Piano,” which was published in 2012 by the wonderful Tangent Books in Bristol, where I was living at the time.  The book has really taken on a life of its own. I’m off to talk to students at a university who are reading it as one of their course books. You never dream of this as a writer, I never thought anyone I didn’t know would read my work, let alone that it might be a set text.

Flash fiction has also become a source of joy in terms of teaching, too – I very often run flash fiction workshops, and I can see how these tiniest of stories are a brilliant way in for those who have wanted to start to write, sometimes for decades, but haven’t taken the plunge. Flash fiction’s brevity, and the way it allows you to let go of so much, because you can’t include a great deal in such a small space, makes it less daunting to beginner writers. But of course, like everything, doing it well takes time and practice -and a LOT of reading.

Frances: Your stories are like little, perfectly formed universes. What do you think is the essence of great flash fiction?

Tania: I am not a fan of rules, of making general and sweeping statements, and I mostly try to avoid labels and definitions – is this a flash story? Is it a poem? I do think, though, that “essence” is the correct word, that a great flash story embraces compression and makes best use of the tiny space, while at the same time not having to be stripped back or minimalist. I’ve learned from reading many short short stories and poems that a small number of words does not necessitate letting go of anything – description, backstory, number of characters, time covered in the story – but requires more awareness of the power of each word, each mark of punctuation and space and the shape on the page, of prose too. Is your flash story a tight block of text or does it meander around the page? Is it in the form of a list or a recipe? A flash story makes an immediate visual impression, this is something to think about too. A flash story is the perfect form for play and experimentation, and for letting go of almost everything you might think you “must” include, which allows your reader to take part in the storytelling process, leaving space for them.

Frances: Who are your mentors or influences? Where do you draw inspiration?

Tania: I have so many, it’s hard to know where to start. Early mentors and influences were the Scottish writer Ali Smith, whose stories are magical, intimate, funny and affecting. I then discovered so many wonderful American writers and have been fortunate enough to take a workshop with Aimee Bender, which was an amazing experience that changed my writing. I love Lydia Davis’ work, as well as Donald Barthelme and Richard Brautigan, and so many more that I will not attempt to list them. I read widely, every form, fiction, poetry and non-fiction, in translation too, where possible, and I get a great deal of inspiration from science, both articles about science and from scientists themselves, having spent a year as writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab. I like to mess with my head by reading several things at the same time – perhaps a science book and a novel, etc… I see everything as a source of inspiration. I am currently writer-in-residence in a very large cemetery near where I live, and am finding that incredibly moving and inspirational. Also, the cemetery staff laugh more than any other group of people I’ve ever spent time with!

Frances: You write incredible poetry as well. Tell me about your process in poetry? How is the experience of writing it different for you?

Tania: Thank you, what a lovely thing to say. Writing poetry — or things that I now feel confident enough to call “poems” — is a relatively recent thing, and it took quite a number of workshops before I felt comfortable with the line break, understood to some extent how I might use it to enrich and shift what I had been doing in prose. I adore poetry now, after years of feeling ridiculous in my non-understanding. It turned out early on that I write poems mostly out loud, they come to me as sound, either when in the bath (a lot of my early poems were written there!) or when I go out for a walk. I think it’s no coincidence that both these activities remove me from computers, phones and the Internet. I write many many drafts of a poem, my first attempts are to get something – anything – down which I then spend a long time fiddling with, shaping, cutting. This is different from how I write short stories, which rely more on hearing a character’s voice and following it, writing a little at a time and waiting until I knew what might happen next. That said, every time I try and set my writing processes in stone, I find that something has shifted! Which makes it exciting, right?

Frances: What’s next for you? What are your upcoming projects?

Tania: Last year I had two new books out, my third short story collection (“Some Of Us Glow More Than Others,” Unthank Books) and, thrillingly, my first poetry collection, (“Terms and Conditions,” Nine Arches Press). I also finished a PhD in Creative Writing a year ago, producing a hybrid book of poetry/prose/fiction/non-fiction which was more experimental (and more personal) than anything I’d ever written, and which is currently being considered by a number of publishers. I loved the process of writing and creating this book, it opened up my writing, gave me permission to think of book-length works and how that shape might serve the stories I want to tell.

I am now working on a Long Thing which is a sort of fictional memoir-in-collage, partly inspired by the time I am spending in the cemetery, and reflecting on being a writer and a woman who has chosen, in the face of societal pressure, to live alone, with no children or partner, and very much enjoys this lifestyle, which is still seen as somewhat odd. Someone might be able to call this Long Thing a novella or maybe a novel. Maybe. I might also be writing a non-fiction book next year on the topic of time. And then there are poems and short hybrid pieces that appear along the way, depending on how much time I spend in the bath and how many walks I go on!

Fiction editor Frances Badgett is a writer in Bellingham, Washington. She has a BA from Hollins University and an MFA from Vermont College. Her fiction and poetry have been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, Salamander, and many other places. She lives in Bellingham, Washington with her husband and their daughter, Cora.