I never expect anyone to enjoy any of my stories, if they enjoyed just one, then that's a wonderful thing for me. – Tania Hershman
Chamber music and short stories have much in common. Both are underappreciated art forms. Just look at the schedules for concert halls and you’ll see the disparity. And the same goes when you compare novels and short fiction. Short stories and chamber works are regarded as the kind of things students have to work their way through on the way to writing the great British/American/[insert your country here] novel and the list of great writers who started their glittering careers by publishing a collection of stories is indeed likely to be short. Ian McEwan jumps to my mind (with not one but two collections) although I imagine there will be one or two more.
The main problem these days is finding a publisher that’s at all interested in short forms. I honestly wonder how McEwan would fare if he was starting out in today’s publishing environment. I suspect that one of the company’s he might end up submitting his work to would be Salt Publishing and, Salt, always willing to take a risk, would probably snap him up.
Which brings me to Tania Hershman, one of Salt’s current stable of writers. Tania works exclusively in short forms, stories, flash, poetry. Some of her pieces are so delicate they’re over and done with in a page, two at the most. Even her long stories aren’t especially long – a dozen pages was the longest in The White Road, her début collection; most clock in at half that.
Her style here is variable. Some of the stories have your standard beginning, middle and end, one even runs backwards but most are slices of life, and some pretty thin slices at that, slides that she puts under her microscope for us to examine at our leisure. For example, the story ‘Express’ describes an ex-pat’s journey from Heathrow to Paddington. Nothing spectacular happens. There’s no breakdown, no hijacker, no bomber, just someone comparing him or herself to their fellow commuters. I was frankly puzzled by the story, written unusually in the second person, until I read Tania’s short essay describing her return to the UK after spending fifteen years in Jerusalem. Because the person is described as wearing a “cotton shirt, deliberately untucked and hanging over your loose trousers” I assumed that this was a male but after going over the story again I can see that that’s never made clear – clearly an ambiguous gender is underlining an ambiguous national identity.
This is a collection of two halves and many slices. By that I mean that there are two kinds of fiction going on here, short stories with flash pieces sandwiched in between. ‘Heart’ is the shortest story in the collection at exactly 100 words:
She drew her hands out of the chest cavity and looked at the clock.
‘Time of death,’ she said.
In the locker room, she stripped off her bloodied scrubs and put on clothes for the real world. Then she left the hospital and turned the corner, rain flattening her hair.
At Sammy’s, she sat at the bar, lit a cigarette and ordered a drink. When it came, she exhaled through her mouth, touched her fingertips to the rim of the glass, and remembered how it was to have a man’s heart beat itself out in the cup of her palms.
On Amazon I found a few reviews of her book that specifically mention her flash fiction. “Her flash fiction is palpable, trembling in the moment,” said Melissa Lee-Houghton while Elizabeth Baines wrote: “Some of the flash stories in this collection are the best and the most resonant I have ever read.” Both are fellow British short story writers and Baines has also been published by Salt. The two key words here are “palpable” and “resonant” which means what the two of them are saying is that there’s a reality to these stories that sticks with you after you’ve read them. Now I’m happy to say that I agree with that statement as far as the longer stories go – the title story in particular will haunt me for years – but personally I found this particular flash piece slight. It is what it is. I’m not saying that I haven’t followed it. The thing is, had this been a poem, which would also have taken up one page, I might have been more inclined to let her away with this. Is this because readers of poetry are used to being short-changed whereas prose readers expect to be led by the nose?
This is what Tania had to say:
In terms of whether you have different expectations reading poetry and reading prose that is something I think it's completely subjective. Perhaps some of my flash stories are actually closer to poems, perhaps they might be prose poems, although I don't know what the definition of a prose poem is. I don't know if it would change the reading experience if they were "marketed" as poetry. And a lot of it is about the marketing, I think. I very much liked what Janice Galloway said: she doesn't label her writing as anything, it is her publisher that decides that one book is, say, a memoir rather than a novel. I don't think it's a writer's place to assign labels like that. I love that readers have called my stories all sorts of things! I think there is so much room within a short story – and especially with flash fiction – for the reader to insert themselves, because so much is left unsaid, so much is between the lines, that I wouldn't in any way want to impose what I happen to think a piece of writing is.
When I read, I know that I have to pay much closer attention to a very short piece, that I can't approach a one-page story or a poem in the same way I would approach a 10-page short story, or a novel, say. I always look to see how long a story is before I start reading, so I can pace myself accordingly.
But thankfully each reader has their own likes and dislikes, otherwise this world would be quite a dreary place, and I am not at all put out if someone tells me they preferred my longer stories, or if someone liked only the flash fiction. To have someone tell me that one of my stories spoke to them in some way is such a joy for me, is not something I ever expect! What do I expect from a reader? Nothing at all, to be honest, because I don't expect there to even be a reader. I write only for myself; a potential reader is really the last thing on my mind, especially when writing very short stories, many of which are written fast, in one sitting, before my Inner Critic has a chance to work out what I'm up to! My newer short short stories are, I think, moving away from realism and perhaps becoming more abstract and less like a traditional story. Perhaps they will appeal to fewer readers. But that doesn't mean I will change my writing in any way, because I write what speaks to me, what I feel best expresses what I am trying to express in the only way I can express it.
So what can I say about ‘Heart’? In a massive orchestral work, something like Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, let’s say one of the oboists plays a G♯ instead of a G. Seriously who would notice? But in a delicate piece like Pärt’s Für Alina you would notice. You would most definitely notice. I’d have to admit that in this instance she ‘plays’ the thing perfectly, every word is carefully chosen, the pace is precise and, to use an expression I’m fond of using, it says what it has to say and gets off the page. So ten out of ten for technical achievement but it didn’t move me. I guess I’m simply not the right reader for that story. Sally Zigmond though clearly was. This is what she wrote on her blog:
‘Heart’ … is probably the shortest story in the collection but it has stayed with me the longest because I am still there with that heart in my hand and then the cold wine glass. I feel what the surgeon feels. I am her. I don't need any more. I don't want any more.
In her response to my e-mail Tania mentioned that she is finding herself moving towards a more abstract style. The best example I could come up with in this group would, I imagine, be this flash piece:
Her elbow twitches. He doesn’t know her, her father, her community. He doesn’t know that her long skirt, long sleeves, means that she doesn’t, can’t . . .
His hand floats between them.
Will you be warm, soft, cool, moist, strong? Will you take mine gently like Rivky on the way to school? Or will you be firm, squeezing, crushing? When our skins touch, will I jump, gasp out loud? Will you know that I haven’t . . . ever?
And afterwards: will you be printed into my palm, an impression in clay?
Elbow twitches, wrist jerks, and her fingers move stiffly into the air, reaching for him.
Now this is more like poetry, a certain kind of poetry anyway, one that, to use Beckett’s expression, “envaguens” things by missing out critical data allowing more room for the reader to interpret the piece. Clearly this story is related to ‘Express’ and is about the difference in cultures. So what are the missing bits? I looked up ‘Rivky’ in Google and the first thing I got was an entry for ‘Rivky Mitzvah’ so probably a Jewish name which means they live under the Law which means she would be required to dress modestly, hence the long skirt. Needless to say the owner of the hand is unlikely to be someone of the same faith or he would know how her community would view fornication. Describing herself as clay also has religious connotations since both the Bible and the Quran speak of Man as being made out of clay. So, not terribly abstract but who knows what she’s writing now?
For me this was a better story but again, clocking in at only 108 words, it was never going to be especially deep. Don’t get me wrong I don’t hate flash fiction – I subscribe to a couple of sites that post it regularly – but one or two a day is enough for me. That’s where I think this collection works because the flash pieces are interspersed between the longer stories. I have a few books that contain nothing but flash and I find them hard work en masse like that.
So what did move me? Well for me it was the title story as I’ve said. It’s not long – 7½ pages, a touch over 2000 words – but it was the perfect length for me. I recommend you read it right now. It’s online here. That way you won’t feel that I’ve ruined it for you when I talk about it.
Go on. Do it just now. I’ll wait.
Right, if you’ve not read it then be it on your own head.
The story begins, as do most of the non-flash pieces in this collection, with a quote from New Scientist:
What’s long, white, and very, very cold? The road to the South Pole is nearing completion . . . this road will stretch for more than 1600 kilometres across some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.
Basically what we have here is something that most writers will be very familiar with – a writing prompt. I’m always amazed personally how well I respond to an external push to write and I have to say if I’d read that article it would have definitely set the gears in motion. But it’s what she does with it that’s so magical. We’re all familiar with the “Last petrol for x miles” signs. What we have here is a “Last coffee for 1000 miles” situation. Question: What kind of person chooses to run an establishment like that? Well we have clues, the scientist who “looks so much like . . .” and “[s]ome things the eye shouldn’t see” but we never get to see what Mags saw, what she no longer wants to see, that she would go to such extreme lengths to not see again. Of course the pragmatist in me was quick to point out that you cannot unsee what you have already seen. The best you can hope for is to forget what you’ve seen. But here we have an Oedipal state of affairs, a metaphorical plucking out of the eyes. Oedipus, like all other blind people would ‘see’ black though, wouldn’t he? So how can Mags ‘see’ white? Clearly this is a metaphorical ‘seeing’ and the whiteness is symbolic.
‘The Incredible Exploding Victor,’ another standout story for me, tells the story of an obese boy whose mother expresses her love for her son by overfeeding him. It has a similar poignancy to ‘The White Road’ but leavened with gentle humour this time:
Victor Bloomfield was my best friend in junior school and when he told me he was going to explode I believed him.
‘It’s gonna happen, it’s in-evitable,’ said Victor, taking an enormous peanut butter sandwich out of his Superman lunchbox. He bit into it, chewed for a while, and then said, ‘It’s not so bad, I don’t think it’ll hurt.’ He shuffled around to face me. ‘Howie, probably best not to stand too close when I feel it coming. It’s going to be messy.’
Although this has a quote from New Scientist at the beginning, the connection is tenuous; expanding stars may have given Tania the idea but this is another very human story. As is ‘You’ll Know’ which is only 2½ pages long but packs a heckuva punch. The question it asks is a simple one, this time inspired by a BBC news reports: what would you be willing to sacrifice to adopt a kid? There are stories aplenty about the lengths people have been willing to go to but in this story Tania cuts to the quick. What if money wasn’t the issue? What if they wanted something . . . well, a bit more personal?
Some of the stories are about the effects of new technology on our everyday lives. I enjoyed ‘Evie and the Arfids’ in which a woman gets a job applying radio-frequency identification tags to clothing but it’s only when she befriends a girl in tracking that she realises that something dark is going here. The same goes for ‘Brewing a Storm’ in which a businessman (also called ‘Bloomfield’ for some reason) learns that the new proposed “cloud rehabilitation” procedure with its “success rate of 97 percent” is not the miracle he’s told it is. What will he do when he learns the truth though? ‘Space Fright’ is basically science fiction, about a man taking a woman for “a spin in his new XCOR 5000” – that would be a space-car. "Science to me is endlessly fascinating" Tania says. "Scientists ask themselves ‘what if?' This is the same question fiction writers ask." Is her science accurate though? Is that even important? In an interview with Clare Dudman, Tania said:
[Y]ou may run into problems with the scientific community if you do that without what they might see as “credentials”. Because of my science education, I, for example, feel quite free to make up science. I have a story in which I have done just that. I make no claims for the accuracy of the science, but I know there is great debate … about whether this is acceptable or desirable. I am a great believer in fiction being fictional!
Strangely enough for a body of work which has a common thread I didn’t find this is as unified a collection as it might have been because she goes off at a tangent all of a piece. This has more the hit and miss flavour of a mix-CD than a shop-bought album. What it does demonstrate, however, is the breadth of Tania’s ability as a writer even if it also at the same time reveals some of the limitations of her chosen form. I can only see her getting better.
The final story, ‘North Cold’, for example, has been described as magic realist in tone. I personally felt it like something Ray Bradbury might have conceived, a man who is helped to look younger by a device passed down to him by him by an elderly aunt. Defining magic realism is hard but you can read her thoughts on the subject over on Vanessa Gebbie’s blog here. One of the stories that’s cited in ‘Plaids’ in which a woman has a conversation with her knees. I wouldn’t personally say that on its own is enough to qualify the story as magic realist – it’s really no dafter than Shirley Valentine talking to her wall – but I don’t think Tania would worry too much. Let me leave you with a video of her reading that story:
I bought this book to help out Salt who, as you probably know, has been struggling to keep afloat. If you haven’t supported them by buying a book then this one would not be a bad choice. It was published in September 2008 and most of the stories, the longer ones anyway, were written in 2004 when she was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, but, remember, just like good music, good stories don’t go off. The music I’m listening to while I type this (a rather lightweight concerto for fortepiano which you can listen to here in case you’re interested) was written about 250 years ago by a composer called Domenico Cimarosa. He’s not quite up there with his contemporary Mozart but the simple fact is that he has not been forgotten. Only time will tell if Tania turns out to be a Cimarosa or a Mozart.
Tania Hershman was born in London in 1970 and in 1994 moved to Jerusalem, Israel. She now lives in Bristol. Tania is a former science journalist and her award-winning short stories combine her two loves: fiction and science. Many of Tania's stories, which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in print and online, are inspired by articles from popular science magazines. In November 2007, she founded The Short Review, a unique website dedicated to reviewing short story collections. Tania blogs at Tania Writes. She is the European Regional Winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Short Story Competition. The judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers had this to say about her first collection:
We would also like to commend Tania Hershman ...whose work stood out for its remarkable quality. We look forward to seeing more of [her] writing in the future.
 “Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am creating a human being from clay.’” (Quran 38:71). This is comparable to the biblical verse, “And The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) Later, though, Jeremiah he talks metaphorically about creation: “And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” (Jeremiah 18:4).