Tania Hershman Interview
Posted on 03 September 2008. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
Writewords interviews Tania Hershman, aka WW member Titania177
Tell us all about your writing background
I started writing fiction at the age of 6 with my first attempt, a novel about triplets, which luckily never saw the light of day! I always loved words, I devoured books even before I knew which way up to hold them. But I also loved maths and science, and growing up in England in the 1970s, my school wouldn't allow me to study arts and sciences after the age of 16, so I went towards science and studied Maths and Physics. At uni, I realised I would never, ever become a scientist, I was dreadful at experiments, so I studied for a diploma in journalism, moved to Israel and worked as a science journalist. While this did combined my two loves, there was always a niggling at the back of my mind about writing fiction. I went to some writing workshops in the US and the UK, including a wonderful Arvon Foundation course on Writing and Science, tailor-made, it seemed at the time, for me!
Then, in 2003, I decided to go to England for a year to be with my partner, James, (whom I met on that Arvon course) and it seemed like a good chance to do an MA in Creative Writing, which I did at Bath Spa University College. That changed everything, and really set me on the path to where I am now, writing fiction full time. I was one of only two or three students on the MA working on a short story collection as my final manuscript, and faced quite a lot of negativity regarding the possibility of ever getting published but this served only to make me more determined to stick with short stories! I am glad I did, since my first collection has just been published by the excellent Salt Publishing in the UK.
For several years, I tried to work as a journalist and write fiction as well, but I found that very very difficult. When you are a freelance journalist, you never leave work, and so I just didn't have space in my head to think about stories. Buying myself a second-hand laptop just for writing fiction and separating the two physically helped, but in the end, the journalism had to go! It was also not challenging me any more, after 12 years.
Last November, a few months after I was offered a book deal, in that state of excitement combined with anxiety about what to do next, I founded The Short Review. Looking around to see what was happening with short story collections, while it is certainly true that publishers aren't keen on publishing them, it was also clear that they don't get reviewed anywhere near as often as novels. And this is not, as I found out, because there aren't many collections being published. There are. So I decided to do my small part to redress the balance: The Short Review, which now has over 35 reviewers, including several WriteWords members, publishes 10 reviews of short story collections and anthologies every month, together with author interviews and other short-story-collection-related material. I write a review for each issue, as well as doing all the site admin, which is exhausting but it is for something I am passionate about, it really is a labour of love. I also learn an enormous amount, both through reviewing, which has taught me to examine an author's stories to see why I like or don't like them, and from my fellow reviewers, whose reviews are often as poetic and marvellous as the stories themselves.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
My favourite writers change over time, I keep finding new ones who influence me at a certain point and help me open up my own writing. Ali Smith and Lorrie Moore inspire me immensely, with their non-traditional approaches to short stories. Their stories, to me, are everything that makes short fiction magical and entirely different from the novel. And being taught by Ali on a second Arvon course was a fantastic experience, she is not only a great writer but a generous and talented teacher. As editor of The Short Review, a few months ago I reviewed a collection by an author I had never heard of: All Over, by Roy Kesey. His writing is spare, minimalist, often surreal. Less is most definitely more. He makes the reader work, he doesn't spoon-feed information. And this somehow allowed me to try that with my own writing. The first story I wrote after reviewing his collection won first prize in the Biscuit Flash Fiction competition. So I strongly believe in the power of reading to inspire.
How did you get your first agent/ commission/publication?
My first publication was in an online 'zine called The Beat. It was of a story that I wrote at the Anam Cara writing retreat, a magical spot in the west of Ireland, in 1999. I went along with Sue, who runs the retreat, to Mass in the local church, a fascinating experience for a nice Jewish girl. Then I wrote a fairly irreverent and humorous piece about Adam and Eve, and was amazed that it was accepted. I didn't get anything else published for another 5 years, but as a direct result of my MA, a short story was accepted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4, produced by an independent production company, Sweet Talk. They have been incredibly supportive of new writers in general, and of me and my stories, selecting a further two stories for broadcast, one of which was commissioned for last year's week of stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik satellite launch.
Through them, I also found an agent, with whom I was in touch for two years. However, she didn't seem to know quite what to do with me and my short stories, and in the end I submitted my stories to Salt Publishing and negotiated the book deal myself. So right now I am agent-less, but not too concerned, because I have nothing for an agent to sell. When I do, I will start looking around.
What's the worst thing about writing?
Having to be alone to do it, and needing to get away from family and friends and shut the door. I feel like I push people away, but for me there is no other way to be a writer.
And the best?
When a line, a phrase, a whole story comes out pretty much how it was in my head. I really only write for me, I write what I like to read, and when it comes out the way I had heard it, it is somehow miraculous.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
I am still not used to the fact that my stories are actually being read and by people I don't know! I have a wonderful circle of fellow writer/bloggers, we all comment on each others blogs, celebrate achievements, commiserate over rejections, anxieties, difficulties. I had an unexpected message through Facebook the other day from a writer I had heard of but never met, who asked for a review copy of my book because, he said, I've enjoyed your writing in the past, but also because the amount of time you've spent reviewing everyone else at The Short Review probably deserves some good karma. I was totally stunned by that, and moved, because I write and send stories out and sometimes they are published but you never really know who is reading them. It was a very wonderful thing for him to tell me. As for audiences I let you know after I've done my first reading, at the Frank O'Connor International Short story Festival in Cork, Ireland, in mid-September!
What was your breakthrough moment?
I think there have been many of them, small breakthroughs that took me to the next level when I needed it my story on Radio 4; my first prize win (Creating Reality's Flash 300 competition) which led to me meeting fellow WW member Vanessa Gebbie and forming a strong writerly friendship which has led to so many wonderful people and situations; meeting Ali Smith and hearing her telling me I was a real writer and should do it full time; getting a publishing deal; setting up the Short Review. All these are milestones that have nudged or shoved - me onwards!
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