tania-front-cover-finalIn my twenty-fifth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Tania Hershman about her short fiction collection Some Of Us Glow More Than Others (Unthank Books)…

I’d like to start by asking quickly about the title ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’ – taken from one of the stories in the collection – and how that came to encapsulate the whole book? Was this the obvious title from the start, or a choice that came about more slowly – and what were the deciding reasons?

For me, that was the obvious title from the start – if I could I’d have had the entire story title, “We are all made of protein but some of us glow more than others”, I would have. I love long titles – but publishers don’t! I wanted, though, for it to be clear from the cover image what sort of glow I am referring to, otherwise I think it might sound quite negative. Hence the bioluminescent jellyfish! But also perhaps it does encapsulate the book, my characters are the ones who don’t think they have the glow, who want some of it in their lives.

The collection consists of seven sections, with intriguing titles and epigraphs. How did these groupings, titles and epigraphs arise – was it during the actual writing or during the compilation and ordering of the collection? And was this an organic thing that just happened or were there some stories specifically written to fit within one of the sections?

Let’s just get it out of the way from the start: very very little planning happened at all with this book! I was so astonished to have found an agent – after almost 18 years of writing short stories, and two published collections – that I put together everything I had that hadn’t already been in a book. None of the stories was written with any thought of being in a book. As a reader, I like sections, I find them quite helpful, especially when there are many stories, but I didn’t want to group by theme, or in any way tell the reader how to read the stories in each section. It’s very hard for me to put my own stories in some sort of order. My agent helped, we moved a few from one section to another, but mostly it was a gut instinct sort of thing. I was playing around. I play around a lot, and am amazed I get away with it!

Photo by Huntley Hedworth

Photo by Huntley Hedworth

You’re also a talented poet and these fictions have beautiful elements of compression, rhythm and language awareness that made me think of poetry/feel poetry within them. As a writer, how do poetry and prose interact and influence each other when you work? What defines the borderline between poetry and prose for you and do you have a clear-cut line where you know a piece is definitely going to be prose or poetry, or are there times when the final form is only revealed during the actual writing?

Thank you! Prose came first for me, many years before I ever tried to write something I might call a poem. But with flash fictions, I kept being asked by people why they weren’t actually poems. I didn’t read poetry, didn’t think I liked poetry, so that’s why they weren’t ‘poems’. Now that I do write and read and love poetry, what I understand is that poems are far less forgiving – or the poems I want to write – of the sorts of repetition I use in prose which perhaps is what gives it a ‘poetic’ feel. Poems come to me completely differently, they often tend to be more autobiographical, and I write poems out loud, so the writing process is different. That said, then there’s the prose poem, which I love and which sits right there in the middle, wanting to be both and wanting to be neither. I know when something I’ve written is a prose poem rather than a piece of flash fiction, but I prefer not to label anything, leave that to others. It’s even funny to me to separate my short story collection from the poetry collection I have coming out later this year – there are several pieces that are in both books, it’s important to me to celebrate the overlap not the borders.

There are a lot of strong and interesting characters in ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’, including many different women. I wanted to ask firstly where you get the inspiration from for your characters? Related to this and my previous question, how strong and early a role does plot play in your writing – do you know what is going to happen when you start or do you start with the character(s) and the storyline reveal itself as you write?

Inspiration comes from everywhere – for example, one story is about a woman who works as a diver for the council, and that was inspired by an article I read in the weekend Financial Times, I think. I am fascinated by interesting jobs, I keep a list. The Special Advisor came from this list, for example, as does the chess piece designer in Empty But For Darwin. There is no plotting at all, a story comes to me with a voice and a first line, it all comes from that and I follow it to see what happens. The voice might be the character, first or third person, or it might be the narrator (War Games has a very strong narrator who talked to me from the start). It’s about me telling myself a story, and feeling like I have done justice to the people in my head.

These stories are strange and moving and very gripping, making me want to read on and always delivering some element of unforced, natural, delighting surprise. Do you have any tips for other writers in terms of how you manage to create this? And, possibly related to that question, I found many of the fictions a beguiling mix of surreal, the wonder of science and the more everyday. Could you say a little about the part these elements play in your work?

Oh good, I am so glad to hear that they make you want to read on! In terms of tips, I am quite wary of writing advice (which may sound odd coming from someone who co-authored a book called ‘Writing Short Stories’) but it’s the rules and the shoulds that I don’t like. All I can say is that I write to surprise myself, and hope that if I manage to do that, I will manage to surprise a reader – but not every reader, the kinds of readers that like the sorts of stories I write, and the sorts of stories I like to read. ‘Permission’ is a big word for me, I get permission to try new things from reading widely, seeing what each new writer does with the short story to make it their own. The surreal is where my imagine likes to be, I don’t want to be constrained by the apparent reality around us – my background in physics definitely feeds into this, since quantum mechanics demonstrates the weirdness in the everyday, that nothing is actually as it seems to us on a large scale. I love science, but was never cut out to be a scientist, I don’t have that tolerance for failure, the perseverance, the focus. But I love to use science and scientific language as inspiration, to play with it. I wish more writers did this, science is a fertile source of stories and such rich language!

One of a great many things that I admire about this collection is the versatility – in length, breadth and style – almost as if each story breathes alive its own space. I’d like to ask about your writing process, how these fictions take or create their shape, if you have any particular compositional routines but also how you avoid falling into habits with regards to length or style?

These stories were written over many years, the earliest probably from 2010, so there’s no one way I write, there are many different ways. Sometimes a story comes out fast, sometimes it takes years, irregardless of the final length of the story. I tend to be able to feel how long a story will be when I start, or perhaps I pace myself. I’ve written quite a bit for Radio 4, those stories need to be around 2200 words, which is longer than my comfort zone, so those always stress me out a little! I think my ideal length is under 1500, but sometimes the story demands more. I don’t try and avoid any length or style habits, I don’t really know what my style is and don’t worry about that, but I do make sure – and am better at this now after nearly 20 years – that the story is writing, rather than me writing the story. I have to not think too much when I’m writing, otherwise I can feel it getting clunky and ‘being written’. I do this by distracting myself while I write, mostly by playing online scrabble, so that my brain, which loves to think, is occupied by figuring out the next scrabble move. I’ve been doing this for years, it works really well for me and for the kinds of stories I like writing – I need to be slightly discombobulated to write surreal stories, slightly at an angle to the world.

Which is your favourite story and why? (And can you give us a short taster extract from it, please.)

Well, this is a bit like asking someone to choose their favourite child – I do love them all equally! But I have a bit of a crush on War Games, that one started out so differently from the others, during a workshop run by my co-Arvon-tutor, Adam Marek, in 2011, where he showed us how he plots his stories. The first para of my story is the plot summary I came up with, but I can’t work like that, so I just stuck it at the beginning and carried on from there! Here’s a taster from the middle:

“I will tiptoe inside her head. She is singing. This tiny, smoking child, war all around, luring soldiers to Monopoly, is humming a lullaby to herself. Mother sang it to her, she remembers. But it didn’t work. She was never soothed, this child. Not by songs, not by silence. She screamed and screamed and screamed.”

What question haven’t I asked about ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’ that is important to you as a writer?

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is whether my stories have anything in common, a thread that’s running through them, despite the fact that they were written over years and with no thought of being in a book. And I think perhaps that my characters, like me, have some sort of sense of their own wrongness, and are looking for a way, a situation or a person, to help them feel more right inside themselves. Does this make sense? [Yes, it does – Sarah] Maybe this ties in with the title: when we feel comfortable in our own skin, that’s when others see our glow?

tania-front-cover-finalWhere can people get a copy of ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’?

You can get it directly from my publishers, Unthank Books, and from all good online booksellers. You can buy a signed copy direct from me, if you’d like! Details here: http://www.taniahershman.com/wp/books/

Thank you, Tania, for these interesting answers about the characters, influences and creative process for ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.

Anyone interested in being interviewed for In the Booklight about a new poetry project or book can email Sarah on lifeislikeacherrytreeATyahooDOTcom. Thank you.

GIVEAWAY

To mark the launch of Tania’s book this month, her publishers have offered a free copy to one lucky U.K.-based reader of this interview. Simply tell us “What is the most glowing thing in your life?” before the end of Wednesday, May 31, using the blog comments section below, and Tania will choose her favourite to receive a copy of ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’.

(Please note that comments left on this blog have to be manually approved before they are published, so do not worry if it takes a few days for your entry comment to show publicly.)