Interview with Tania Hershman

“Everything is Permitted”: Exploring Boundaries, Freedom, and Brevity with Tania Hershman

by Ramola D

My Mother Was an Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012) by fiction writer Tania Hershman offers up lush exquisites like these:

Tania Author Photo 2012small            I went down to greet our friends who stood in the drive, stood by the car, stood waiting to be greeted. I thought about the manner of my greeting of them, everyone thinks they are so kindhearted in themselves, everyone believes they will just genuinely be able to welcome, freely and with no conditions. Do you doubt that because I do. I doubt it in myself. (From “retreating, I retreated”)

 Instead of the cod, she chose the fin.
“Why?” said Leonard, lifting his beer glass and looking at her through the foam.
“It’s the state I’m in,” she said. “I’m in that place. It’s all fins for me from now on.” (From "it’s the state I’m in")

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The next day and the next I imagine that street lamp and the rushing of you towards me and the longing in me would fill white bowls full to the brim and overspilling. (From “my flickering self”)

RD: This is a gorgeous, profound, sometimes surreal book of mini-fictions—really tiny flash fictions, whimsical, fanciful or outright absurdist yet with psychological realism and always heart at their core—in form, do you see them as following on naturally or evolving from the stories in your first book, White Road?

9781844714759frcvr.qxdTH: I definitely see them as an evolution. The stories in my first book were everything I’d written up to that point and I see them as quite “traditional” compared to the new fictions. I feel like in the years since that book came out, in 2008, I have been reading more widely and feeling liberated by other people’s stories to try something new, to allow myself to venture more towards the surreal, to explain less, to make the reader work harder, which is how I myself like to read. I don’t know how others would view the relationship between the newer stories and those in The White Road, but I definitely feel that my newer stories—as is probably always the case for any writer—better represent what I am trying to do now in my writing.

RD: Like the fictions of Clarice Lispector or Lydia Davis or Janet Kaufman, these vignettes seem to slant in to a character’s depths—the surreal focus on the moment, the sort of free-floatingness of the character nevertheless slices into the psyche of self in relationship or self alone with insight. Do you set out to use time in close-focus while aiming to mine psychological depth, or how do you approach that kind of excavation of character?

TH: I am incredibly honored to have my fictions mentioned alongside Clarice Lispector and Lydia Davis—and must seek out Janet Kaufman’s work! I really don’t set out with any aims at all, I just try and get something down the way I hear it in my head. I often write very fast, which for me seems to dampen down my inhibitions and allows me to write in a more surreal fashion. If it works, if something actually emerges from this that speaks to even one other person, I consider that a miracle.

RD: In the delicacy of the language and the almost-constant use of present tense, and compelling syntax too, I seem to hear echoes of Helene Cixous, Marguerite Duras—are you drawn to language-centered writers like those, do you look to translations or to other languages to shake up syntax or rhythm, to experiment with language?

TH: Interestingly, I have never read anything by those two writers, but I feel that yes, I am quite obsessed with writers who have a deep love for language, that is vital for me. I am increasingly drawn to writers like Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, who use language for something other than its accepted meaning, for its rhythms, for some other kinds of significance. I adore reading fiction in translation—the short stories of Georges-Olivier Chateareynaud and Cees Noteboom, for example—I hate being so English-centered, I wish I could read in other languages. I feel very strongly that after spending 15 years living in Israel, where English is not the first language, I have lost much of my natural instinct for English, and I relish this, I think it allows me a looser grip on “right” and “wrong” in my own writing, it gives me permission. I am often invited to give workshops in schools and it’s always in the English classes, but for me creative writing has nothing to do with English. I don’t have an English degree, I certainly don’t think a writer needs to study English in order to write.

RD: Would you consider your stories somewhat experimental? I mean, when you start, do you have an outline in mind or know where you are going? Do you impose boundaries?

TH: I never have an outline because for me the fun of it is telling myself the story and not knowing where it will end up. But boundaries are becoming more and more important to me, and I have begun teaching workshops on liberation through constraint. I stumbled across this in a Carol Shields story, Sonnet, in which she quotes Leonardo da Vinci saying “Art breathes from containment, suffocates from freedom,” and then, later, I heard about the Oulipo movement, which seems to be exactly this, using restrictions to free your writing. I am testing this out on my students and myself! I know that length constraints really set my writing free, but am also playing with other types of constraint—on style, content, form, language. And it’s really playing, serious play is how I like to see it.

As for the word “experimental”, I understand less and less what this means because someone said (and I can’t remember who!) that if a writer isn’t always experimenting, what’s the point of writing? I think my writing is non-traditional in that it doesn’t always have a linear narrative, doesn’t always use full sentences, often confuses the reader. I like to think of “experiment” in the scientific sense, of being open to the possibility of failure but trying anyway, always trying.

RD: In reading these stories I am also reminded of Jeannette Winterson, Janet Frame—a dreamy, almost feminine sensibility (écriture féminine) driven by language, deep psychological insights through consent to meander through narrative possibility, not linear or focused on outcome—do you play with story on the page in that way?

TH: Once again, an enormous compliment to mention my work together with these two literary giants. It has become increasingly important to me how a story looks on the page. I’ve not until the past few years read much poetry, but now that I am delving more into this, I love how poets play with word placement, and I like to try this too. I am writing prose poems and enjoying the text block. But if we’re also talking about playing with the content of the story in terms of narrative, I don’t play with that so much, a lot of the time the stories remain the same as when they were first written down (or written in my head, where a lot of the process takes place). I think perhaps I do play a lot more in my head first, but once it’s down on the page it’s more a question of tweaking than major revisions. I do increasingly think of my stories as dreams, less fixed to our external reality, freer to jump, skip, float. I feel freer in general than when I first started writing, thanks to the enormous amount I read, which shows me each time anew what a short story might be.

RD: Some pieces read like prose-poems in extended metaphor, as in “life burst out” or “like owls”—reminiscent of Francis Ponge’s prose poems in Le Parti Pris Des Choses (The Nature of Things) but also with a distinct narrative flow which situates them as much in fiction, and a flavor of the surreal—do the surreal poets inspire you—I mean either the early French, later Spanish, South American surrealists or modern/contemporary (eg Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca, Cesar Vallejo, Wallace Stevens, James Tate, Charles Simic)?

TH: I understood after a few years that perhaps, yes, I was writing prose poems, and like owls” was in fact published in the poetry section of a literary magazine, Specs. I hadn’t read many prose poems then but do now, and I absolutely love the form, I think it’s a space I would like to spend more time in—a looser reliance on narrative, more emphasis on language, a playfulness. Out of the list you mention, I have only read James Tate’s work—I have a fear of poetry, but when British poet Simon Armitage, with whom I took a course, recommended Tate’s work, I was knocked sideways. These are poems? Then maybe I could write poetry. The fear has lessened a little, but the world of poetry, here in the UK anyway, is quite separate from the short story world, and I am nervous about attempting to enter it. I think things seem looser in America. Ah now you have given me quite a reading list!

RD: There’s a lyric sensibility, a poet’s awareness of metaphor and moment in your vignettes—it brings attention to the minuscule, the almost unnoticed, in the fanciful “the short tree” for instance, inspired by a Camille Corot painting—where do you begin when you write scene like that, is it visually motivated, is it drawn through language or metaphor or rhythm, does it vary?

TH: For me, it’s almost always language, that’s how stories come to me, the first line appears, I hear the rhythm of the narrator’s tone, the voice. Being inspired by a painting was a new thing for me, I am not such a visual person, but did enjoy this.

RD: How do you traverse the space between lyric and narrative as you write?

TH: I don’t think about it at all!

RD: “the google 250″ is an absurdist, laugh-out-loud take on the phenomenon of Googling we live under. You have others, the comical surreal runs through many of these—would you say you are drawn by absurdism, what writers of that bent would you name as influences?

TH: Oh yes, definitely! I am a huge fan of Richard Brautigan, I was pointed towards his collection of ultra-short stories, Revenge of the Lawn, a few years ago and it makes me insanely happy. I very recently started reading Donald Barthelme’s short stories and immediately realized he had been this unseen influence on me, through others who have been influenced by him, for many years. Wonderful wonderful stuff. Also, the French writer I mentioned above, Georges-Olivier Chateareynaud. All of these are men, how interesting. Lydia Davis can be very funny, Aimee Bender has been a huge influence, her work and her as a person.

I was surprised when a friend said to me a few years ago that I am a funny writer, that I often write humorous stories, and this was repeated at a live lit event a few months ago, where the organizer, in introducing my work, said how difficult it was to find funny stories. I don’t necessarily know how comic a story is when I write it but I do a lot of readings of my work and nothing gives me more pleasure than to make the audience laugh. I think you can slip in a lot through humor, most of my stories are fairly dark, so I hope that the humor eases the reading of them.

RD: You have a background in Physics and recently worked as a writer in an academic science setting, after work in science journalism, and have written elsewhere of your dual interest in fiction and science. The science in these stories never stands out, if there, it is a very fluid inclusion, intrinsically part of the story. What impels these inclusions?

TH: I am delighted to hear that it doesn’t stand out; it has taken years and much experimenting to find a way to make the science part of the story. I spent a year as writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab here in Bristol, and I think that everything since then has been in some way inspired: by the scientific method, by the rhythms of lab life, by the concept of failure that permeates science, by the idea in much of science that we can’t see anything directly, can only tell where it has been or see its effects on others. So often the scientific inspiration is hidden inside the stories, sometimes they are set in a lab. I hope to do this with a light touch, but also to inspire other writers to see science as a rich source for fiction, not to be frightened about getting the facts wrong, which I certainly am not concerned about.

RD: The science-fiction stories have a psychological edge—we luxuriate in improbables like the particle physicist shedding her clothes and stepping into the neutrino tank or being able to count neutrinos at all with accuracy (“the mathematics of sunshine”)—how do you embark on such stories where real physics is a jumping-off point, do you make choices regarding what aspects of science to use?

TH: Some of these stories—especially in my first collection—used articles about science as jumping-off points, so there was a factual basis, such as the existence of such things as a neutrino tank used to count neutrinos. I collect interesting science articles, especially from New Scientist, using them in workshops and to inspire myself, often combining them with another idea, something very different, and seeing what friction—and fiction—results from the mixture. As I mentioned before, I don’t then feel tied too strongly to “fact,” I allow myself to do whatever I like, I am not in the business of educating anyone about, say, neutrinos. I’m in the story business.

RD: Your range sweeps as much across art, artists, ordinary people caught at credibly strange moments in their lives and relationships as across science, scientists, and science fiction—how do you choose your subjects, or does subject choose you?

TH: A bit of both. I studied Math and Physics at undergraduate level but knew fairly quickly I was not cut out for a life in science, so became a science journalist, but my first love was always fiction. I don’t want to leave the science behind so have gone out of my way to seek out scientists to spend time with; as writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty here at Bristol University I spent a year in residence in a biochemistry lab, which I adored. That said, stories come to me, mostly as a first line that demands being written down, often through the use of prompts such as snippets from other people’s poems. I generally don’t know what I am writing about until afterwards—sometimes a long time afterwards. I like to think I look at things from the side, I don’t like to look at a topic head on, I approach it gently, from the side, obliquely. Sometimes so obliquely that I really don’t know what my own story is about. I think that’s fine, especially for short and very short stories, which involve the reader, who has to fill in the gaps and thus becomes implicated (in the best way) in the telling. I am delighted when someone tells me what they heard and saw in one of my stories, I am open to all interpretations.  I love that one reader will find one of my stories funny, while another will find it very sad.

RD: There are stories in here of love and loss, of tiny moments of change, of relationships and people in limbo or in pain—how does the real world in which you live intersect with the stories of these characters on the page?

TH: This is such an excellent question. I am in quite a difficult period in my life right now, everything is in some turmoil, and I have been, for the first time, reading a lot of philosophy: Nietzsche, Michel de Montaigne. I have realized through this that these are often the questions I am trying to grapple with in my stories: How to live, what does it mean to be an individual, what does it mean to be part of a community, society, how does a romantic relationship work, what is intimacy, connection, loneliness? None of my stories are based directly on real incidents, they are all imagined, the characters are all fictional, but they are really me trying to address these questions, and I feel relief when I write a story, not to have found any answers but simply to have expressed the questions.

RD: Characters are filmed or zoomed in on at varying, intensified moments in their lives, often, for the briefest of moments. How much of a dimensional view of characters do you reach for, in such instances?

TH: This isn’t something I worry about at all. I think I am more interested in the intensity of the story than about well-rounded characters. Short stories and flash fictions are, at their best, powerful glimpses that, for me, can utterly shake me in only a page, a few pages. I have slowly over the years let go of descriptions, details, both of characters and of location. I rarely give my characters names any more, rarely set the stories in a specific physical location, that’s just not what is important to me, as a reader or as a writer. I want to create a physical jolt in a reader, perhaps of recognition, of surprise, which is different from painting a whole world with all its colors and hues.

RD: These are polished, compelling fictions that occupy very little page-space, often less than a page in length, never more than three pages long. Anyone who writes short stories—even the longer form—knows how challenging the form is, how precise its demands. What are some of the challenges of writing in such abbreviated forms?

TH: I think I wouldn’t write such short stories if I found them too challenging rather than liberating. I am quite lazy! One of the great things about the very short story is letting go of telling the reader almost anything at all. There is so little space, you just can’t, which is very freeing. The reader has to fill in the gaps with any short story, all the more so with the shortest of short stories. I always write knowing that what I write will be around a certain length, I think my natural pacing right now is around 500 words, so I don’t write a great deal and then cut it down. This is how it comes out. I love the writing process. I think it takes a lot of practice to write short stories and short short stories, but it is mainly about letting go and trusting the reader.

RD: Also, do you fit these flash fictions into the genre of short stories, or do you see them as a genre unto themselves? In today’s environment of cell phones and iPads and iPods and e-readers, do you feel these tiny stories become more relevant, more au courant? Is this where the short story is headed, do you think?

TH: Another interesting question that I have been thinking a lot about. I see flash fictions, or microfictions, nanofiction, short shorts, whatever you want to call them, as definitely being short stories, but also being on the cusp of poetry in many ways. Yes, they are gaining in popularity but not, I hope, at the expense of longer stories or any other writings. There is room for all, and I believe a story should be as long or short as it needs to be. There is the assumption that shorter is easier—we both know that that is simply not true! Not for short short stories or anything else.

RD: What is your revision process like?

TH: Ah, now, a sticky question. For years I thought I was doing it wrong, I had been told that you splurge a first draft onto the page and then, at another time, perhaps even in another room, with your “analytical” head on, you revise, revise, revise. Well, I don’t do that. And it was only when I started asking writer friends and reading Paris Review interviews with well-known writers that I discovered how many different ways there are to write. I revise as I go along, quite a lot in my head, as I mentioned. I never get into that “analytical” space, I can only write when I am in a zone, when my inhibitions, my inner editor, is as quiet as possible. That’s how I do it.

RD: Can you share with us what you are working on currently? Do you find yourself continuing to work in this space—of mini-fictions—or are you drawn these days to longer or other forms? Is your writing still science-inspired in some way?

TH: I am at a rather confused point in my writing life right now. Two books is double what I dreamt of, it’s so wonderful, that I am not sure where to go now. I have no desire to—as many tell me I “should”—write a novel. I love brevity. I have taken some poetry courses and am taking another in May, trying to deal with the fear and also my feeling that poetry, in some ways, is like coming home. I recently won several prizes for flash fiction, which was immensely gratifying, especially since they were judged anonymously, so it is really about the writing. I love writing these tiny fictions and will carry on doing it. But I also like new challenges. I have just written a radio play, which I then adapted into a stage play. I adore writing for radio. I am working on a sequence of prose poems inspired by a 1917 work of scientific literature, On Growth and Form, by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, which is a real challenge, very thrilling. I also keep a list of interesting occupations that I hear about and have written and published several stories using some of those, such as “The Special Advisor” in Five Dials, where the main character has a very interesting occupation which I won’t give away! I want to try new things, and not think about endpoints, such as another book. I am not sure how another book might serve me, and also book promotion is fairly stressful and time consuming!

RD: What words would you offer to beginning or other fiction writers experimenting with forms such as yours, or those working with any of the sciences in some way for subject?

TH: I would say, read a lot. Read everything. It is only through reading upwards of 1000 short stories, and poetry and non fiction, every year that I am inspired, that I see everything a short story can be. Try not to worry about who might read your work. Anything is possible, everything is permitted. Just let your imagination roam free.

For more about Tania’s new book, see: http://taniahershman.com/mymotherbook.htm

For more about The White Road: http://www.taniahershman.com/thewhiteroad.htm

Check in at Tania Hershman’s groundbreaking online review for short fiction collections, The Short Review at www.theshortreview.com.

 

 

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