Monday, September 4, 2023

The 40 But 10 Interview Questions: Tania Hershman


I had decided to retire the literary Would You Rather series, but didn't want to stop interviews on the site all together. Instead, I've pulled together 40ish questions - some bookish, some silly - and have asked authors to limit themselves to answering only 10 of them. That way, it keeps the interviews fresh and connectable for all of us!

Today we are joined by Tania Hershman. Based in Manchester, Tania's second poetry collection, Still Life With Octopus, was published by Nine Arches Press in July 2022 and her debut novel, Go On, a hybrid memoir-in-collage, by Broken Sleep Books in Nov 2022. Tania is Arvon's writer-in-residence for Winter 22/23, and is publishing a multi-author anthology of prize-winning flash fictions, Fuel, to raise funds for UK fuel poverty charities. Her poetry pamphlet, How High Did She Fly, was joint winner of Live Canon's 2019 Poetry Pamphlet Competition and her hybrid particle-physics-inspired book 'and what if we were all allowed to disappear' was published by Guillemot Press in March 2020. Tania is also the author of a poetry collection, a poetry chapbook and three short story collections, and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers' & Artists' Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014). She is co-creator of the @OnThisDayShe Twitter account, co-author of the On This Day She book (John Blake, 2021), and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics.

Why do you write? 

I’ve always written, I started making up stories when I was little. So the first reason I write is to tell myself stories. I don’t plot in advance, whether that’s for short stories, a novel, or poems, so whatever I write has to surprise and delight me first! The other reason - which I came to slowly over the years as I discovered that if I don’t write for a few weeks I start feeling a little weird - is because it’s my way to engage with the world, to grapple with it. Not to find answers to anything, but to better express my questions and explore what this odd thing called life might actually mean to me.


What’s the most useless skill you possess? 

Identifying 80s songs within ten seconds or less. I really wish this was useful. It’s fun, though!


Would you and your main character(s) get along? 

Oh definitely! I’ve been writing for 25 years, I’ve written hundreds of short stories and flash fictions, and all my characters are real to me, there are ones that I really miss after finishing a story, I love spending time with them. My new novel, Go On (Broken Sleep, 2022), is what I call a “fictional-memoir-in-collage”. It weaves together quite a few threads, as well as having some standalone pieces, so there are a lot of characters – and one or two which are quite close to being autobiographical! I think I might get on better with the characters that are least like me. I’d very much like to chat to the Narrator character, and I’d love to visit the town where all the women are angry, to learn more about the beautiful and useful ways they approach rage. Also, Sarah, Mary and Marion, the dead women in the cemetery that one of my characters talks to – I think we’d all get along wonderfully! They’re in the cemetery up the road from me, I visit them often. They seem pretty excited that my book is out in the world.


What is your favorite way to waste time?  I watch a LOT of television. Although in my defense, I do believe that a lot of what I watch – the dramas etc...- are data, they’re feeding my Story Sense of how stories can be shaped. I actually think that the novel I am writing now I am writing as if it was a TV series, scene by scene. Over the pandemic I became newly obsessed by Star Trek, and this has turned into a source of inspiration in a way I wouldn’t have imagined: I have just been awarded an Arts Council Developing Your Creative Practice grant to write a hybrid pamphlet colliding non-human characters in Star Trek with observations from a neuroscience podcast I listen to every week to “examine ourselves as other”. I can’t wait!

 What are you currently reading?  

I have a pile of at least 20 books on my bedside table, many of them from the local library. I have certain things I like to read at night which don’t overtax my brain – I’m very drawn to fantasy books involving magic, often set in libraries, of which there are several series by different authors. Something I’ve recently loved is A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, which is queer magical crime, a really fun collision of genres. I’m also reading 100 Queer Poems, and the new poetry collections by Angela Readman and Tara Bergin, as well as Giselle Leeb’s wonderful debut short story collection, Humans, I Think We Are Called.

What genres won’t you read? 

None. I learned what my prejudices were around fifteen years ago when I was running The Short Review, an online journal reviewing short story collections. I had dozens of reviewers writing for me, but I also tried to review a story collection each month myself – and decided to ask for review copies in genres I never would have considered, namely science fiction, fantasy and crime. I discovered that I’d been an idiot, restricting myself like that: genre doesn’t matter, what matters is all these amazing stories out there! Genre labels are stuck on by the publishing industry, and as someone who tries to write things that aren’t easily labelled, I try and do this in my reading life too.


Do you think you’d live long in a zombie apocalypse? 

As previously mentioned, I watch and read quite a lot of science fiction and fantasy so I am going to take this question very seriously. Would I live long before being turned into a zombie? Well, I’d like to think that, given all the data I’ve amassed by now, I’d have some pretty good zombie defence strategies, so yes. I’d like to imagine I’d be one of the people banding together to fight the zombie hordes, and maybe even be part of the discovery of some cure or vaccine, something to allow the zombies to die and save humanity. I didn’t know I felt like that until I was writing that last sentence. Quite reassuring, actually.


What’s the weirdest thing you’ve given as a gift? 

I once gave a friend a year’s bacon subscription for her birthday. She received a packet of different kind of bacon every month through the post. In a dog-proof package, so it wouldn’t be chewed before she got it.

What songs would be on the soundtrack of your life? 

Me, myself and I by Joan Armatrading, that’s kind of an anythem. Tilted, by Christine and the Queens, is one of my happy songs, and I do love Galileo by the Indigo Girls, a little bit of science always thrills me.

What’s the one thing you wish you knew when you were younger? 

That it’s okay to say no. I only learned that around the age of 49 and it’s a gift, especially for women, we are often taught to be people-pleasers. It’s perfectly possible to be kind to people while also being kind to yourself, while also looking out for your own energy levels, your own wellbeing.


How to tell your story? “I want to talk,” the Author says on page 1. The Narrator who has been assigned to assist her knows that what is needed now is permission. “Go on,” says the Narrator – and a book is born.

Weaving threads and following tangents, Tania Hershman’s debut novel, a hybrid “fictional memoir-in-collage”, tells one story and many stories: how is it to be a woman moving happily alone through the world? Who are you if not in relation to others? A woman walks through the cemetery, talking to the dead. A class of schoolgirls grapples with what anger is and might be. A baby is left by scientists in a forest. Someone claims to be your grandmother.

As the Author writes her way into and through what she needs to say, the Narrator watches her develop and blossom and wonders what will happen when they reach the end. Go on.

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