By Emily Oldfield

‘Going through the cemetery gate feels a bit like a retreat from daily life, from this ‘now,’” says Tania Hershman, reflecting on her experiences as Writer-In-Residence at Manchester’s Southern Cemetery. A multiple-award winning writer and self-declared ‘daydreamer’, Tania has walked amongst the graves many times, often considering the lives and stories of the people behind them, especially those of single women.

“When you walk through the Southern Cemetery, the second largest cemetery in Europe, you are bombarded by words like "beloved", "wife", husband", "mother', "reunited". Most of the graves tell of people in relation to others - their spouses, their families. I decided early on that my particular interest would be gravestones with only women's names on them, and who weren't remembered as anyone's wife, mother, grandmother. Women who might have been like me.” She adds.

Tania Hershman

In 2018 Tania became Writer-In-Residence at Southern Cemetery, often writing poetry and prose in response to the location – the municipal cemetery located just outside Chorlton which spans well over 100 acres and was first opened in 1879. Her writing has included a special celebration (as part of Manchester’s Polish Poetry Festival The Radość Pisania) of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, a Polish poet who is buried there, having died in Manchester in 1945.

Now, in writing her current book, Tania is exploring a subject which could be considered by some as even more daunting than death – Time. Having achieved a degree in Physics and Maths during her time as an undergraduate at The University of Manchester, rather than running straight into writing fiction, Tania moved to Jerusalem and worked for 13 years as a science journalist; writing for the likes of NewScientist and WIRED.

Yet despite her love for science – and her ability to combine it with writing journalistically – an ever-present passion for Tania, was also the love of fiction. Now based in the North of England, Tania has dedicated herself to writing fiction full-time for a number of years; smashing apart the stereotype that the sciences are so far removed from the arts.

“Lectures on relativity and on quantum physics were so surreal and bizarre, I think that's where the seed was planted for my fictions, they made the world seem odd and magical and uncertain and wonderfully unknowable.” She reflects.

From the immersive, intricate to the dark, and daunting, Tania’s work as a fiction writer has involved many interactions and involvements with science along the way. Her debut collection The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) includes flash fiction and stories inspired by science, whilst she has also been writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University from 2010-2011 and was Gladstone’s Library Writer-in-Residence in 2014. My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions is the title of her second story collection, composed of an enthralling 56 short pieces.

Amongst her achievements since then, Tania has co-edited (with Pippa Goldschmidt), an Einstein-inspired short story anthology, written guides to the art of the short story, published more in the form of the widely-acclaimed Some Of Us Glow More Than Others and also has had her poetry published. This includes a chapbook Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open in 2016, followed by her debut collection Terms And Conditions in 2017.

The short story is a form Tania explores in particular, as highlighted in her role as Curator at the website ShortStops – dedicated to celebrating short stories. So considering these connections with short forms and flash fiction, why now a book on one of the widest subjects out there: Time itself? HAUNT Manchester decided to speak to Tania to find out more…

Hello Tania. You have written a wonderful range of short stories and poems – so what  has prompted you to write a book… especially on a subject as potentially enormous as time?

“Firstly, I used to be a science journalist - I have a degree in Maths and Physics, an MSc in Philosophy of Science and a diploma in journalism, so in some ways everything has led up to this book, I am realising now as I write it.

“Learning about Einstein and relativity as an undergrad, here in Manchester, in fact, at the University, blew my mind. Relativity is about space and about time, two things that we had thought were objective, unchangeable. The lectures on relativity and on quantum physics were so surreal and bizarre, I think that's where the seed was planted for my fictions, they made the world seem odd and magical and uncertain and wonderfully unknowable.

“I have been thinking about this book on time for 3.5 years, ever since I came up with the idea driving back from a holiday in Cornwall with a friend. I was in the middle of my PhD at that point, a practice-based PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics, so I didn't let myself start this new project, but I did began keeping lists of ideas for the book. I have a long long list now! I finished the PhD just under two years ago, then last year, when I began as writer-in-residence in the Southern Cemetery, I thought I'd start the book on time, but my brain had other ideas and another book emerged. I wrote most of that book last year, and decided I would start the Time book on Jan 1st, which seemed apt. Actually, I got impatient and started it on Dec 31st!

“I've written 8000 words or so and I am loving it. I call it a hybrid book, it's a mix of reportage and creative explorations of what it's like to be a human living inside time, and with time inside me. So far, I have interviews set up with a philosopher of time, a watchmaker with a PhD in horology and a chronobiologist, with more in the works, and a few weeks ago got the news that the Arts Council has awarded me a grant to work in the book, which is very exciting! It's loosely structured as a diary, it will be the story of me over time, too, and I am playing, experimenting, getting curious about anything and everything time-related, from waiting, patience and boredom to busyness, sleep, cookery  - and, of course, death, our ultimate running-out-of-time.”

Many people have somewhat of a fearful relationship with time - phrases like ‘running out of time’, ‘your time will come’ spring to mind. Do you perceive a ‘darkness’ around time, and why do you think this is?

“I definitely see this in people around me, and I feel incredibly lucky not to feel this way, not to feel pressure. I have a lot of time because of the life I have chosen for myself, as a single person with no children, living alone, a freelance writer in charge of my own schedule. I am "time affluent", in the lingo. I only recently realised that I have so many more hours in a day than my friends with children, and so much more space in my head as well, because I don't have anyone else to take into account.

 “Death, as I said, is intricately bound up with the concepts of time, it is our deadline. But the notion of my own death, for me, is a stimulant, and a calmative. That's why I love hanging out in the cemetery, it really does remind me how precious it all is, and how I might not have much longer. It's a choice, to view this darkly or with acceptance and joy. Goodness, I sound a little cheesy, but this really is how I feel.

“I wrote sections of last year's book in which a woman - loosely based on me - talks to the dead in the Southern Cemetery. I'm not scared by death, or by graves or by non-existence. But then I don't feel in a rush, I am not running out of time, I've done so much more than I ever imagined I would do. I only ever dreamed of having one book, I never thought I'd have six books published, three more in the works, to get to live this life, to be a full-time writer, making things up, and, more than that, being read. By people who aren't even related to me.”

Southern Cemetery Mural

How does it feel to be approaching this subject through writing… and do you have a defined plan as to how you will approach it?

 “I approach everything through writing, it's always been how I process the world. I am not a great talker, I think a lot and I write my way through to find out what I think. I am always always open to surprises, and I know my writing is cleverer than I am - I never know how a short story will end when I begin writing it, I am telling myself the story first. And poems too, although the process is different. This is why the diary format could be fun, because if there ever is a reader, they will see me being surprised, they will learn things as I learn them, and maybe some of my thoughts on time will connect with theirs. But to be honest, I am not at all concerned about a potential reader, I am loving the writing of this so much. That's what matters.”

You are Writer in Residence at Southern Cemetery. Can you tell us a little more about how this came about and some of the projects you have been involved in as a result?

“So, this came about because I asked! This is how my writing career has always gone - 8 years ago I was writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab at Bristol University, and that wasn't a position that was advertised, I invented it. My first short story collection was inspired by articles from New Scientist, and after it came out I decided I wanted to be inspired more directly, by the scientists themselves, so I went and asked.

“When I moved to Manchester two years ago, I stumbled upon the Southern Cemetery and thought it was such a beautiful space. Being a writer in residence had worked so well with the lab, I had been looking for somewhere else to be "in residence" again. I had thought it might be with scientists in a different field, but the cemetery called to me. As with the biochemistry lab, I wanted to know what it was like to work in a cemetery on a daily basis, so when I approached the cemetery manager, I asked if I could just hang out with them. It took a while to find the right person there to talk to, and your own Helen Darby helped with that, she put me on to Emma Fox, a tour guide who runs cemetery tours, so thank you, Helen!

“The cemetery staff are wonderful, they laugh more than any group of people I've ever met! It's a different world, of gravediggers and exhumations, of funeral politics and cultural sensitivities, there is at least one funeral there every day of the year, and when they come to work in the morning they have little idea how the day might go.

“And of course it's about love and memory, remembrance, family. When you walk through the Southern Cemetery, the second largest cemetery in Europe, you are bombarded by words like ‘beloved’, ‘wife’, ‘husband’, ‘mother', ‘reunited’. Most of the graves tell of people in relation to others - their spouses, their families. I decided early on that my particular interest would be gravestones with only women's names on them, and who weren't remembered as anyone's wife, mother, grandmother. Women who might have been like me. So I have been wandering there for the past year, taking down the details of those graves as I found them, taking photos. There are quite a few, I may have found 40 graves so far. When I find them, I say their names out loud. I think that perhaps, if they didn't have children, they might like that.

“As I said, I wrote most of a book last year - also a hybrid, I call it a fictional memoir-in-collage - and this book deals with my experience being a woman in her 40s moving through the world alone, happily and by choice. This is not so common, there don't seem to be many like me, and I haven't read a book that touches on this. So I thought I'd write one. It has many voices, it has parts that seem like fictions. It's very personal, but it also has a layer which is about writing and about stories, and is about the writing of the book itself, a sort of metafictional look at the process as it's happening.

“The Radość Pisania, the Manchester Polish Poetry Festival I took part in last October, came out of the blue! I met Martin Kratz, the poet who was part of the organizing team, and when he heard I was cemetery writer-in-residence he asked if I'd like a commission to write and perform a poem in response to the work of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, a renowned Polish poet who died in Manchester in 1945 and is buried in the Southern Cemetery. She was known as the Polish Sappho, and her work is magical, dark, filled with women and witches, surreal images, enchantments and love. I really enjoyed writing my response poem, which is called The Aunts, and takes a few lines from a few of her poems as inspiration. Reading it by her grave as part of the festival was incredibly moving, I couldn't help thinking how wonderful it was that we were all stood around, talking about poetry, talking about her and her work. It was a privilege.

“The next project that came out of the blue is that I am going to be working with a radio producer at BBC Radio 4 to make a documentary about my time in the cemetery, centred around the theme of me as a single woman without children and what I might put on my own gravestone. We haven't started making that yet but I am very excited, I love radio, it's played a huge part in my writing career, but I have never done anything like this. I want there to be a lot of laughing, it won't be about the darkness, I hope. Stay tuned!”

Southern Cemetery

Considering your residency, and also the theme of time – do you think working closely with the cemetery has influenced your perception of time? How so?  

“What a great question. I have no idea how to answer that... yet. I used to think about death a lot before my residency, but I guess I never talked to the dead in cemeteries. It gives me a sense of continuity, I think, that death isn't the final end, whatever that might mean. Saying out loud the names of the women whose graves I find affects me, I feel a connection, that I am standing in the present and the past at the same time, as perhaps we always are.

“I read Virginia Woolf's Orlando a few weeks ago, what a wonderful book, and it is so much about time: "there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once". I loved this - I never feel entirely present in the present. I am, of course, a daydreamer, as many writers are. It's likely that if you see me in the street and say hello, I will be startled because I was miles away! I already feel like a combination of times, although 76 sounds like a lot. In some ways, being in the cemetery also allows me to step out of time. The walking, firstly, is very meditative - it's a huge place, you will rarely trace the same path twice. Going through the cemetery gate feels a bit like a retreat from daily life, from this ‘now’.

“Also, on my first day as writer-in-residence, I attended four funerals, which was extremely odd for me. I followed Cliff, one of the cemetery staff, so that I saw some of the ‘behind the scenes’, and the logistics involved, of getting the mourners to the right section of the cemetery, for a start. I don't know how this has affected my perception of time... I haven't been to the cemetery this year yet, not since I started the book, so I will let you know.”

Here at HAUNT Manchester, we are also very interested in the Gothic and its prevalence in creative culture. Would you say that The Gothic has touched, inspired, or emerged in any of your creative work?

“I wasn't sure how to define Gothic, so I looked it up, and found ‘a pleasing sort of terror’, is that right? Would Roald Dahl's short stories qualify? I guess that's the macabre - but he was a very early influence on me. Some people have called some of my stories "horror stories", and at an event I did at Gladstone's Library a few weeks ago the interviewer said my new collection was pretty dark, but it's hard to know, as the writer.

“I like to think of my work as tragically optimistic, or optimistically tragic - that's a bit like ‘pleasurably terrifying’ or ‘terrifyingly pleasing’, so maybe it is a little gothic! I don't set out to terrify, but you don't know what a reader will bring, so once something is out there, it's not in my control. I try not to label my own writing, I leave that to other people. I just get on with it, tell myself stories, talk to my imaginary friends.”

To find out more about Tania and her work, her website is here.

Featured image: credit to Naomi Woddis