Tommy Dean asks Tania Hershman to discuss her story, “My Mother is an Upright Piano”, forthcoming in NEW MICRO — EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and to talk about the craft of writing microfiction.
TD: Do metaphor/allegory help us deal with death and/or grief? Is this type of storytelling especially suited to micro length stories?
TH: I prefer not to make any grand pronouncements about anything, about something as enormous as death, or about any kinds of writing, what is suited to what, etc.. It’s my philosophy that a writer can do anything at all, there are no rules, and that guidelines, definitions and labels may be helpful for publishers, but not so much for readers or writers. If you are talking about my own story, I feel like, as the writer, I am the last person who should answer this question. This may not be helpful, we all want guidelines, rules, but the truth is, every writer has to figure out for themselves how they want to write what they want to write.
TD: I feel like I really know these characters. Did you need to abandon the normal craft it takes to create these characters? What feelings did you have while in the midst of writing this story?
TH: I wrote ‘My Mother Was an Upright Piano’ 10 years ago so I don’t remember much anymore. I believe the first draft was written quite fast, as part of a writing challenge set by one of the online writing groups I was part of, using prompt phrases. My writing processes involve the minimum of thinking – I don’t plot or plan, I try as much as possible to short-circuit my logical brain when I’m writing stories or poems, I never have any idea what I might write about, and once a piece is done I don’t always know what it is about. Thinking, for me, isn’t conducive to using my imagination, to letting go of my grasp on logic. I am very fond of thinking, so stopping myself is quite a task.
There is no “normal” for me, either in my own writing or compared to other writers. Everyone does it differently. I am pretty sure I upset myself writing this story, in the best way, because that’s what writing is about for me, telling myself stories, moving, surprising and delighting myself. I am my first reader.
TD: What gives micros their power? Language? Silence? Structure?
TH: As with any piece of great writing, this is hard to pin down, and I am an avoider of general pronouncements. I read around 1000 short and very short stories and poems, and non-fictions, every year, and I demand no less from a great piece of writing than to feel like I have been punched in the gut. Every piece that does that to me seems to do it in its own way, each writer makes it their own, which is the way it should be. I have a great love for a freshness of language, cliché turns me off, laziness of language will stop me in my tracks. Voice is what grabs me as a reader, the voice of a character or the narrator, in any piece of any length. The story itself, the plot, maybe be tiny and quiet, I never ask for enormous events to happen, there is great power in the small moments.
TD: Revision: Love it or hate?
TH: I wouldn’t believe any writer that said that a piece required no revisions at all. I wrote a chapter in the book I co-authored with Courttia Newland, ‘Writing Short Stories: A Writers and Artists Companion’, about a flash story that is in my second collection, ‘Under the Tree’, which took three years to finish, and went through at least 8 drafts, starting at 1500 words and ending up under 800. I had no idea what the story was in the first few drafts, or whose story it was. It took a long time – as it often does – to write my way into the story, to let go of myself so that my characters told me what happens.
TD: What are your writerly obsessions? Do you have themes, ideas or images that tend to emerge again and again in your work?
TH: I don’t have any. I’m interested in everything, I am incredibly curious and easily bored. Writing is my lifeline, my calmative, is how I process my thoughts about the world, is how I ask questions, not generally finding any answers, because, as a former scientist, I know that the curiosity, the questions, are the goal. Answers are rare, elusive.
TD: What’s topic or idea haven’t you written about yet? Is it because you have no interest in it or are you afraid to write about it now?
TH: I don’t know, because I don’t assume that I know what topics or ideas I have written about. The several hundred stories and poems I have written are not mine anymore when they are out in the world, and what they are about, what they mean, is up to the reader, not me. I hope I’m not afraid to write about anything, if it seizes me and demands to be written. After 20 years, I have very few inhibitions when I’m writing. It’s a lovely position to be in.
TD: Where do your most unique ideas come from? How do you know if a story idea is working?
TH: I get ideas from everywhere, every time I open a book, a magazine, turn on the tv or the radio, every time I leave the house. Writing comes from noticing, paying attention, which is something it seems fewer people are doing, so there is more scope for us writers to spot things no-one else has seen. I listen, I watch. Science is a very fertile source of inspiration for me, it always has been, and I am fond of colliding topics which seem completely unrelated and seeing where sparks emerge. I have been keeping a list of interesting occupations for several years, and sometimes would pick an occupation and collide it with another story idea from one of my notebooks. Many of the short stories in my third collection began this way. I don’t worry about an idea “working” or not, about what a reader might like or not like, I am just telling myself stories, listening to the voices in my head, trying to do them justice, to surprise and delight myself.
TD: What are you working on now?
TH: I haven’t written any short fiction for several years, it’s been mostly poetry, which allows me to add even more ambiguity, to leave even larger gaps and let go a bit of the need for “story-ness”. I may also be working on a Long Thing, which may be a hybrid collage of fictions and memoir. Maybe.
Tania Hershman’s third short story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, was published by Unthank Books in May 2017, and her debut poetry collection, Terms & Conditions, by Nine Arches Press in July. Tania is also the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open, and two short story collections, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, and The White Road and Other Stories, and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014). Tania is curator of short story hub ShortStops (www.shortstops.info), celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland, and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics. www.taniahershman.com