Tania Hershman takes you on a series of short imaginative adventures in The White Road. Some stories are casual, tough, or laid-back, many are poetic. There are backwards unravellings, fantastical flights, speculated inventions, surprises, cleverness, humour, and scorn. The snapshots vary in tone, and explore possibilities – scientific, technological, emotional. The book is physically bag-sized and each story can be read in a sitting, but are all worthy of full attention. Many of them are told in a feminine voice – often tough, almost hard-boiled. Hershman also shows how a ‘flash’ story should and can work – a rounded idea, rendered with punch. The closing line matters.
I agreed to host Tania on her worldwide blog tour, organised by Salt Publishing, as I (obviously) really enjoyed the experience of reading The White Road and was glad to have the opportunity to ask her a few questions about writing it. I’ve also reviewed before for Tania’s online journal The Short Review – one of the few places on the web that solely reviews short story collections and interviews short fiction authors.
Tania, why short fiction?
That’s a very interesting and ambiguous question. You might mean, why do I write short fiction? Or why do I read short fiction? Or why does short fiction exist? Well, first, I don’t like the term “short fiction”, or even “short story”, because that implies it might be “less than”, not quite “full” fiction, the reader is being short-changed somehow. Call me over-sensitive, or even paranoid, but I wish there was a term for what we write, like poetry or novels, a term that doesn’t imply relativity.
But now that I’ve got that out of the way, I write and read short stories because I love what can be done in such a small space, be it 50 words or 5000 words, a magic that can be created that does not suit any other form. Short stories, because of their nature, can be surreal, irreal, can ask the reader to suspend disbelief and because they don’t take up days, weeks or months of your time, you are willing, you let yourself go into this new world. A novel, were it to ask you to do this, might have a harder time persuading you to stay there for long periods. It would be intense and disturbing. A short story can also be those things, but to me it is like a slap in the face, a short sharp shock that should leave you reeling. This is what I am always striving to do.
Many of the stories in the collection emerge from a scientific premise. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
I studied maths and physics at university. Not the traditional preparation for a career as a fiction writer. I could have gone either way in high school, but the Brits, bless them, forced us to choose at age 16 the three subjects that would determine what we would then study at university. I couldn’t do English, Maths and Physics. Mix sciences and humanities? Unheard of! Things are different now. But I quickly realised that I was not destined for a life in the laboratory. I wanted to write. I became a science journalist, then after a few years, realised again that it was fiction and not fact that I wanted to write. But the love for science was also still there, and this is my way of combining the two: half the stories in my book are inspired by articles from the UK weekly popular science magazine New Scientist. I read it regularly and so much of what they cover, so much of scientific exploration and discovery, is so astonishing, so bizarre, it is the perfect fodder for fiction. I was delighted when they published my story, The White Road, on NewScientist.com last week, with a link to the article that inspired the story. Their readers had never come across fiction on the site, and there were some confused comments, some criticism of my inept grammar, which was in fact a misunderstanding over the nature of voice in fiction: my main character’s grammar is rather different, not mine! There was quite a discussion in the comments section which I watched from the sidelines with interest, a wonderful meeting of two worlds.
Some of the stories, such as the lovers breaking up in ‘Flora Comes Back’, are just a simple snapshot of a time of change, or poignancy, a few of a character’s memories. Do these pieces come into your head fully-formed? And what stops them from being something longer?
My new love is flash fiction, stories under 1000 words, stories of only a page or two. I have written many, many of these short shorts, as they are also called, in the last few years. They actually emerge fully-formed, as I begin to write I have in mind that the story will end soon. I have never “grown” a longer story from a flash story (although I have re-written a longer problematic story into a far more successful flash!).
I deliberately set out to write very short stories because everything I said above about what a short story can be is all the more true for flash fiction. A tiny jolt of electricity, read in an instant, but, if done well, niggling at your brain for much longer. The process of writing flash fiction is wondrous in itself, very different from the slower process of a longer story, which comes in pieces, which requires revision, editing, trial-and-error alterations. Flash fiction can be very satisfying to write, but I also enjoy the longer process, a character accompanying me for weeks and months, the gradual unfolding of a story.
Who or what inspires you as a writer?
Other writers inspire me. Great writing inspires me. Bad writing inspires me. Films, plays, television programmes, magazines, conversations, inspiration comes from every corner. My writing groups, here and online, inspire. I don’t take notes, but it all feeds into the churning of my mind. I often write from prompts, which is a wonderful way to kick-start inspiration.
My favourite story (and one of the most entertaining short stories I’ve ever read) was ‘The Incredible Exploding Victor’, where a kid thinks his best friend is going to explode or spontaneously combust from being overfed by his mother. Can you give us a bit of insight into writing this one?
I am so glad you like that story! I started writing it during a short story workshop in the US, at the New York Summer Writers Institute, several years ago. The first line just appeared, fully formed: “Victor Bloomfield was my best friend in junior school and when he told me he was going to explode I believed him.” It stuck in my head and I was intrigued. I couldn’t imagine what this story might be about. But I loved the voices of the narrator and his friend, Howie and Victor, two eleven-year-olds preoccupied with Victor’s weight issues in 1970s London, which is where I was when I was their age. I am so fond of these boys, they are so sweet, they do ridiculous things, but they care deeply and they are great friends. I didn’t know when I began what the issue was with Victor’s mother, it took a while to reach that point in the story, and I didn’t know how it would end. I tried various things, even going ten years into the future to catch up with Howie as an adult. But I didn’t want to leave the two boys as they were, I wanted to stay with them in that particular time. Maybe there will be more Howie and Victor stories, who knows?
Through all your reading, reviewing and writing of short fiction, could you name an element or two that is essential to a successful short story?
In my opinion, and this game is completely subjective, a short story cannot have anything that is not relevant to the story. Of course, what is and isn’t relevant is a matter for the writer to decide. But for me, a short story isn’t the place for passages of description, of background, which don’t serve the interests of the story. I would also say that finding your character’s voice is essential, I am drawn to stories with a strong voice rather than a compelling plot with twists and turns.
And just for fun – if you weren’t a writer and could be anything else in the world, what would you be?
Wow, a hard question. Ok dream job: Organic Chocolate Bar Designer!
Next stop on the ‘Walking The White Road Virtual Book Tour’ – Tania will be talking about magical realism on Vanessa Gebbie’s News.
Visit the previous stop at Keeper of the Snails.
Other participants of the blog tour are Thoughts From Botswana, Eric Forbe’s Book Addict’s Guide to Good Books, Kanlaon, Sue Guiney’s Me and Others, Writers in Profile, Tim Jones’ Books in the Trees, and Eco-Libris.