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A Word With...Tania Hershman
I never know in advance what I’m going to write...
A Word With… is our brand new interview series in which we’ll be chatting to writers, journal editors and indie publishers about words and stories.
We are delighted to welcome the inimitable Tania Hershman to be our first guest. Tania is a queer poet, prose writer, teacher and editor based in Manchester, UK. The author of nine books: her second poetry collection, Still Life With Octopus, was published by Nine Arches Press in July 2022, and her debut novel, Go On – a fictional memoir-in-collage partly inspired by being writer-in-residence in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery – by Broken Sleep Books in November 2022. Find out more about Tania here.
Over the years since Retreat West began we’ve worked with Tania on several occasions and she has judged contests for us, given a fantastic keynote at our Online Flash Festival and taught online workshops. Essentially, we love doing stuff with Tania!
So here’s what she had to say to my questions…
Tania, you are a prolific and diverse writer who I always think of whenever experimental writing is mentioned. Can you tell us what inspired you to write your hybrid novel, Go On?
Thank you, Amanda, that’s a lovely description! It’s always so interesting to think about what inspired something. I had thought of myself for years as a short story writer, and would quite often declare “I will NEVER write a novel!” It was a point of principle, since short story writers are always being asked by agents/publishers when we’re going to write the Proper Long Book. But then in Jan 2018 my agent forwarded an email from an editor at a major publishing house who said she’d “spent a lovely hour wandering around my website reading some of my stories”. She asked my agent: “Is she working on a novel?” and for the first time I didn’t react defensively, I got a bit excited.
I was in the bath not long after that when the first line came to me: “I want to tell my story”, and that’s how Go On began.
Everything came from that – a shot of permission and a first line! Then I just followed the threads, and because I was calling it “hybrid”, it allowed me to do whatever I wanted. I never know in advance what I’m going to write, I’m telling myself the story or stories, and after all this time I trust in my brain and my Story Sense that something will come together. It’s always something of a relief when it actually does.
As a writer of stories, poems, and the things that lie between, do you have a first writing love and prefer one over the other? If so, what is it about that form that you enjoy so much?
To be honest, to me it’s all words in different shapes and configurations, and I just love playing with words. I am not so bothered with what other people call the things I write – “stories”, “poems”, “hybrids”. There’s not much distance for me between a poem and a piece of flash fiction, say. I tend to love whatever it is that I am working on right now – and right now I am finishing a novel, the longest thing I’ve ever written, with four main characters and a plot, and I am loving it so much that sometimes it stops me sleeping, I am so excited about it.
The keynote that you gave at our Online Flash Fest focused on using constraints to inspire flash fictions and it was very inspiring. Can you give us some examples of recent constraints you have used in your own writing and what they brought to the work that was created?
I find imposing some sort of constraint on my work in advance really helps free up my writing and bring forth something unexpected. Something I did recently was pick a letter out of a bag of scrabble tiles and write a flash story with each sentence starting with that letter. The flash story, Get Gone, won second prize in the Reflex Fiction flash contest!
I always love length constraints, I adore the drabble, getting it all into exactly 100 words, that’s something I often do. I love everything I’m allowed to let go of, to not include because there isn’t the space. I think that’s a useful exercise for writing anything of any length: do you really need to say that? I’m still very much a minimalist, even in this novel I am finishing, which is around 200 pages. (Some of the pages don’t have many words on them!)
Earlier this year you appeared on the Spinsterhood Reimagined podcast to talk about Go On, and about moving happily alone through this human experience - can you tell us what you think being happily alone brings to your words on the page and to you as a writer creating them?
Such an interesting question, thank you. For me, this choice of lifestyle is deeply tied into my life as a writer. What I relish about being alone is the freedom to be completely inside my head whenever I want to be, not just to write, but to think. Thinking is one of my favourite hobbies, and I love that I can daydream, contemplate, chew things over whenever I like when I’m at home, and also when I am moving through the world on my own (I always have to make sure I am concentrating when I’m driving...).
I also think that figuring out how to make myself happy without having to rely on anyone else is probably the greatest life skill I’ve learned. Having the time and space to write is one of the major things that makes me happy, and when I’m happy I want to write, so it all feeds in. I love that some of the reviews of my latest poetry collection talked about how some of the poems are about joy. Joy is very much not a boring subject, to me anyway.
Some of my happiness definitely also comes from being with other people, it’s just that I choose carefully who I spend my time with. I think that’s something you can do when you’re very content to be alone. You have to decide who it’s worth giving up that delicious solitude for!
Throughout your career as a writer you have done residencies in some unusual places - a biochemistry lab and a cemetery, for example - can you tell us about these experiences and how they influenced your craft?
I spent a year as writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab in 2010, shortly after moving back to the UK, something I initiated myself just by turning up and asking. I have a background in science, but never worked as a scientist, and decided I’d like to hang out in a lab and find out what it’s like to have that as your workspace. I was so lucky to find a lab which was open to me spending a day there every week, watching, asking questions. I learned so much – part of why I love residencies is that I always want to learn, to step into different worlds, absorb the atmosphere, the different rhythms of daily life, the vocabularies. I learned quite a lot of biochemistry, too, and they even let me do something with a pippette every now and then!
After that, I always had the idea of being “in residence” somewhere else at the back of my mind. When I moved to Manchester and stumbled across the wondrous Southern Cemetery, as someone who had always been a cemetery junkie this seemed like the next natural place to be in residence. Because, once again, I initiated it myself and found someone to ask for permission to do it, I could set the parameters of the residency myself.
I always start with no idea what might then occur, what I might write. My third short story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, was the result of the lab residency, as well as a number of radio pieces. And I had no idea when I started wandering around the cemetery that a half-hour radio documentary, Who Will Call Me Beloved? (still available on Radio 4 and the World Service) would result, about how I, as a single person without children, might want to be remembered after I die. I am so delighted with that programme – I got the most moving responses from people around the world who said that I validated their own life choice to move through the world alone. It made me even more determined to finish Go On, which circles around the same themes, and to start the next book, a novel I am just finishing.
One of your most recent projects is the FUEL anthology, which features prize-winning flash fictions and is raising money for fuel poverty charities in the UK. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this and what you think the anthology brings to the writing world?
FUEL was inspired by my distress last summer, as the prices of gas, electricity and petrol were going up and up, at learning new terms like “warm banks” and hearing how many people were already being forced to choose between heating their homes and heating their food. I wanted to do something more than a one-off donation to what were now being called “fuel poverty” charities, and my first thought is always flash fiction. I know the community and how generous you all are, and I had no doubt people would donate their flash stories for such a good cause.
But then I decided I wanted to make this multi-author flash fiction anthology more than just a fundraiser, I wanted to make it a useful book doing something I had never seen: collecting together flash stories that had all won first prize in a competition, to explode the myth that there is some “formula” for winning a short story contest. The 75 stories I collected together – thanks to competition organisers such as yourself, Amanda, and the brilliant authors from around the world – are so surprising, fresh, innovative and diverse that I am inspired every time I open the book, and I’ve read them many many times now!
I also included something else I thought might be useful for writers – especially newer writers and writing students: an Index of First Lines, to demonstrate 75 different ways that a writer grabbed a competition judge’s attention and to add to FUEL’s offering of permission to do things you might not have thought were “allowed” in a story you’re submitting to a comp. We’ve already raised over £1600 which I’ve split between our 4 chosen fuel poverty charities, but the need to raise funds is, sadly, still ongoing, so I’m hoping to raise even more. Buy your copy exclusively here, I’ll post worldwide! They make great presents, too.
What can we expect from you next?
Well, I’ve just sent the revised version of the new novel I mentioned above to my agent. The working title is “This is the Epoch”, and it’s set in an alternative version of our society where being single is the norm, solitude is very much celebrated and encouraged, and being in a “couple” is not only frowned upon, it might even be a crime! So, it’s exploring similar themes to Go On in a very different way, sort of experimental crime fiction, with four main characters. I’ve loved writing it so much, once again I didn’t plot anything, and very often would start a sentence and be totally amazed by what happened at the end of that sentence. I love being surprised by my own characters. Fingers crossed my agent thinks it’s ready to send out.
I also was recently awarded an Arts Council Developing Your Creative Practice grant to work on a hybrid pamphlet colliding neuroscience with non-human characters from Star Trek to “explore ourselves as other”, which I am very much looking forward to getting stuck into. I’ve bought two new notebooks, so I am ready!
Thanks so much Tania for your time and insights. Hopefully lots of us will now find the inspiration to go and ask for our own writing residencies in the places that interest us! And I agree that joy is definitely not a boring subject. I am always seeking out more joyful stories.
Come join Tania on 14th October at 16.00 UK time for a 2-hour workshop that will get you mashing up fairytales with crime stories: Fairytales Meets Crime Fiction. Just £10.
Our next writer in the spotlight, appearing in September, will be Amy Barnes. Amy is the Co-Editor at Gone Lawn, an Associate Editor at Fractured Lit and was a reader at Retreat West for several years. She is also the author of three collections: Mother Figures (ELJ Editions, 2021), Ambrotypes (Word West LLC, 2022), and Child Craft, forthcoming from Belle Point Press in September. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, long-listed for the Wigleaf Top50 in 2021 and 2022, and included in The Best Small Fictions 2022.
Thanks for reading. If you know of any other readers and/or writers who would enjoy this interview, please do share it with them.
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