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The Splonk Five: Interview with Tania Hershman

Tania Hershman by Naomi Woddis

Tania Hershman‘s poetry pamphlet, How High Did She Fly, was joint winner of Live Canon’s 2019 Poetry Pamphlet Competition and was published in Nov 2019, 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 @OnThisDayShe, curator of short story hub ShortStops (www.shortstops.info) and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics.  www.taniahershman.com

Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with flash? Why it appeals and what frustrates you?

I love flash fiction. I remember when I first came upon it, around twenty years ago, in one of Robert Shapard and James Thomas’ anthologies – Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward etc… – and I couldn’t quite believe there could be a whole story in only a page or two! Because I’d been trained as a journalist to get as much into as small a space as possible, knowing that readers may not read on, it appealed to me instantly. What I love about it in terms of my own writing is “liberation through constraint”, the fact that the word limit means I am “allowed” not to put everything in, I can let so much go, I can trust the very clever short story reader to fill in gaps. I can create a whole world without explaining, land right in the middle of it for a glimpse, which may be a glimpse of a whole life or of half an hour. Its length doesn’t say anything about a flash story’s content – it can be anything and everything.

What frustrates me? Nothing, really, I am not easily frustrated!

In terms of construction/technique, how is flash fiction different, in your view, from other genres – in particular poetry (including prose poems) and the short story?

I am not a fan of genres, of labels, and also not of pronouncements. As I mentioned above, the length constraints of flash fiction don’t have any bearing on content – I was recently judging a flash fiction competition and among the stories I picked was one which only had two sentences in 500 words, and another in the shape of a recipe. I think the boundaries (if there are any) between poetry and flash fiction/short stories are extremely porous indeed, and a piece may set one foot in both, or dance from one side to another, keeping the reader on our toes. There are no rules for what flash fiction must be, as there are no rules for what makes a poem. And there are also many ways to write a flash story – some people write a longer story and pare down, some people write at that length to start with. I’m more of the second type, but I did spend 3 years cutting a story down to 800 words, so who knows! Whatever works for you.

Fundamentally, for you what makes a flash piece successful?

It’s the same for me as with short stories: voice. If the piece has a strong voice right from the beginning, either the main character or the narrator, then you can take me anywhere and I’ll follow. Voice is the opposite of cliché, it’s what makes a character real, leaping off the page, the way they talk, their own particular language. If I’m judging a comp and there’s a clichéd, lazy phrase in the opening – i.e. “The sun shone brightly” –  you’ve lost me. Make it fresh, listen to your character, let us hear them.

What flashers do you admire and why? Are there any specific pieces that you found compelling?

Oh gosh, too many to list! I will go some decades back, because there is a myth that flash fiction is a very new phenomenon, but check out Richard Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn collection from 1970, these are masterpieces. Anything by Lydia Davis, at any time; one of my favourites of hers is “Wife One in Country”, which begins:

            “Wife one calls to speak to son. Wife two answers with impatience, gives phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in voice of wife two and tells mother he thought caller was father’s sister: raging aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman.”

            Talk about a strong, unique voice. I also love Janet Frame’s Between My Father and the King, which plays with time, is deeply moving without being sentimental, and gives me something new every time I read it. (You can read it here. And I highly recommend the anthologies I mentioned at the beginning, especially Flash Fiction Forward and International Sudden Fiction.

What flash piece of your own are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

Ah now, you want me to pick one of my children! I won’t do it, that’s not how this works, I am very proud of all of my stories. Writing makes me deeply happy, and is something that I need to do for my mental wellbeing, it’s my way of processing the world. Here’s one of my most recent flash stories, quite a joyous one, it won the Writers HQ LGBT flash fiction contest, will this do? 

Thanks for having me!