For the past few months, Tania Hershman, founder and editor of the great literary website, The Short Review, has been doing a “virtual book tour,” visiting blogs around the world in conjunction with the launch of her first book, The White Road and Other Stories. Self was deeply honored that she chose Kanlaon as one of her stops. For the past day, self has been conducting an illuminating conversation with Tania (who lives in Jerusalem, so there’s a bit of a time difference there!) Below are my questions and her answers. Enjoy!
What attracts you to the short story form, and would you ever consider writing a novel?
I love the short story, for me a great story story is like a punch in the gut, it leaves you winded, reeling. It imprints itself on you not in spite of being short but because of its brevity. A novel can’t do what a short story does, and nor should it. I don’t believe in comparing short stories and novels any more than I would compare a poem and a film script. Yes, they are all made up of written words, but they are so different in form, in aspiration. I may write a novel, I may write a poem, or a screenplay. I can’t say now. It depends on the story and what the story demands.
Self-publishing is a huge industry now; Robert Frost’s first collection was self-published, as were a number of other poets and writers now in the ‘literary canon.’ Do you think this is the way a young, emerging writer should go?
To be honest, I don’t know much about self-publishing, who is doing it and where. We began a few months ago accepting self-published collections for review on The Short Review, understanding that in the current climate it is incredibly hard for a short story writer to find a publisher, but we also have several criteria, one of which is that some of the stories have been previously published. In other words, someone other than the writer has read them. I was very fortunate in finding a wonderful and dynamic independent publisher, Salt, who offered me a book deal, and there will always be the prestige associated with being paid (even a very small amount!) to publish a book rather than paying out the money yourself. I would advise a young emerging writer to send out his or her stories individually, to build up a “writing resume”, to spread their words, before they consider a collection. Whoever publishes it, a book is a lot of work!
How do you think writers will be affected by the current world-wide recession (in terms of getting emerging writers published, will there be more difficulty?)
Well, it’s never been easy. I don’t know much about economics but there are some who say that the current economic climate might make publishers more adventurous and less reliant on the whims of their sales teams, who knows?!
Has managing The Short Review helped your creativity?
Oh yes, most definitely! I read and read and read short stories, and not only that, I read them very closely when I review a book, and so I see what I love, what I don’t, and, more importantly, why. I have been introduced to so many amazing writers, and seeing what they do and how they do it gives me permission, in a sense, to try new things with my writing, to experiment outside the traditional frameworks. A flash story I wrote after reviewing one collection that inspired me went on to win a prize, so it has a direct and positive effect!
What’s the worst thing about being a short story writer?
Having people ask me whether they are for children – and then they ask when I am going to write something proper (a novel). I hate that!
Your stories are filled with emblems. They lend your stories a surreal quality. When did you first start realizing the power of the image, and what kind of freedom does it give you, to write stories clustered around images?
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about this until you mentioned it. I don’t plot my stories, I hear a voice in my head, a first line, and I just follow it and see where it goes. I don’t sit and think, well, this is my central image and I will weave a story around this. If this has happened in several of the stories, it is entirely unconscious! That said, while I am writing I will sometimes see a powerful image emerging and that will end up driving the story, such as the cake in the shape of the Sun in Self Raising or the man braiding the woman’s hair in Plaits. But it is not a conscious process.
Your sentences seem very direct but also contain a powerful mystery. How do you achieve this dichotomy? For example, here’s a sentence from a story I love, “Sunspots:” “Then he laughs a terrible laugh and my heart eats itself in fear.” Can you explain your process in writing sentences like these? Do they just come from a voice you hear in your head, or do you actively work at shaping them: for ex., editing them down, re-arranging, etc etc?
Thank you for saying that! As I said above, I just hear the voices in my head, that’s for the first draft anyway. As you know well, then comes the hard work, the revising, the tweaking, working on the rhythm of sentences, paragraphs, but those kinds of sentences, if they are not in the first draft, in the “creative” part of the process, they won’t come in, in my experience, later on. They are there, in some form, from the beginning. I don’t believe in flowery language, I am a great advocate of plain, adjective- and adverb-free prose, I think for me that makes writing stronger.
There is always a strong sense of menace in your stories: even in the funny ones. Events occur so randomly, the narrator and the reader, too, feel disoriented. Or, the narrator feels she is expected to feel a certain way. To use another example from “Sunspots”, when the narrator’s baby is born, you write: “They try to hand him to me.” There is such a dis-connect between this happy and joyous occasion and the blankness the woman feels. Does this reflect the way you think about life, its random-ness? Or are you just fascinated by rootless characters?
What interests me is the Other, in all that that means. The Not-Me. I don’t ever consciously write about me or my experiences, what thrills me as a writer is slipping inside someone else’s skin. My characters feel very real to me and I feel a strong sense of intimacy with them when I write. I feel what they feel, and when else can you every do that in “real” life, you can never truly be inside someone else’s head. I don’t know about randomness, when I start a story it always feels to me that it is heading to a certain inevitable conclusion, and so this woman’s blankess didn’t surprise me. But I never think about what effect it might have on a reader, that is not part of any considerations. I just write, I just try and tell these people’s stories as best I can. The rest is not up to me!
The conversation between Evie and Gina in the story, “Evie and the Arfids” (p. 61) is the oddest conversation between two women that I have ever read (in recent fiction). Gossipy, but detached. I feel that there is a very subversive element to your women characters. Could you talk a little about them, how you see gender exercising agency in your stories?
How interesting that you see it like that. Maybe it’s a British thing, being a Brit myself I know that we can do that gossipy-but-detached thing, we are not so good at intimate conversations, it almost has to be approached from the side and through humour. As for gender exercising agency, it was brought to my attention in a recent review of the book that most of my protagonists are women – and until I counted, I hadn’t noticed! So you might say that I don’t take into account the gender of a protagonatist, once again it is the voice that comes to me. But I can see, now, looking at the collection as a whole, at stories written over a number of years, that motherhood does come up a great deal, in different permutations, some positive, some less so. That is obviously something my subconscious thinks about.
Your stories have “blurry” backgrounds. I can’t quite place the context. Sometimes I think you are writing science fiction, at other times I think you are being hyper-realistic. You never explain exactly where your characters are. Which I think relates closely to your themes. Can you talk about why you enjoy placing characters in such an ambiguous landscape?
I really do like to be amibigious about settings, that’s true, perhaps because I don’t want to be bogged down in providing the details of a place for it to be perceived as “real”. I don’t do research, that to me is journalism, not fiction. I love to make things up, and don’t care whether it is America, Sweden or outer space. That isn’t what is important to me. If you think these stories are ambiguous, many of the newer stories I have written since the ones in the book have even less of a sense of place, and many of the characters don’t have names and they often don’t finish their sentences. I enjoy the minimalism, that is what I like reading, the bare bones without the distraction of imagining where the characters are, what they might look like, what they’re called. I have learned from some of the collections I have reviewed that it’s ok to make the reader work a little, fill in the blanks. We writers don’t have to provide everything. Of course, some readers will be turned off by this, and that’s fine, that’s their right, they can close the book. But for me, this is what works right now!
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Tania’s Next Stop:
12/26/08: Thoughts from Botswana
Tania’s Previous Stops
12/16/08: Kelly Spitzer’s Blog
12/2/08: Eric Forbes’s Book Addict’s Guide to Good Books
11/26/08: Tim Jones: Books in the Trees
11/17/08: Sue Guiney: Me and Others
11/9/08: Vanessa Gebbie’s News
11/5/08: Literary Minded
10/28/08: Keeper of the Snails