Saturday, December 05, 2009

Fiction and science and science fiction...

I had a great meeting on Friday with a physicist from the Uni's physics department, briefing me on an upcoming physics conference which he is hoping will inspire me to write some fiction. (This is the first step towards the start of my writer-in-residence position which I will take up at the University's Science Faculty in January. What form it will take -and who will fund it! - is still up for grabs.)

It is always a thrill for me to go into a science department! But what was interesting about this visit for me, as someone who studied physics 20 years ago and really didn't have what it took to be a physicist, is that this time I was looking at everything differently. My "eye" has changed.

For example, someone was stripping posters off the walls in preparation for a new coat of paint. Something about the remnant (see pic left) spoke to me, but not because I understood the equations. It was something more aesthetic, less about learning and knowledge than about symbols, patterns, shapes, colours.

As we walked to get coffee in the common room (is that the term?) he showed me some of the posters on the walls talking about the team's current research. Wonderful terms jumped out at me: Catastrophe Optics! Quantum carpets! And while I am most definitely fascinated by the science itself, it was another part of me, the writer part, itching to take these phrases, to twist and turn them, to make them my own.

In describing to me the Aharonov-Bohm effect, whose 50th anniversary the conference is to celebrate, he drew this on the board:

My first thought? Not - Oooh, look at those magnetic fields! But: It's an eye. I am seeing things differently, and, more than that, I am now allowed to see things differently, to see them however I want. And that is truly thrilling.

The most moving part of the meeting was when we talked about my short story, The Painter and the Physicist. It was read out at a Liars League event, and you can hear the actress read it or read the text here. Now, I thought I had made this up. I did. I made it up. I had no knowledge of anything like this, of anything that concerned the thrust of the story, in which the Painter asks the Physicist what colour he imagines electrons, protons, neutrons to be. So - imagine my astonishment when this physicist said that he and his colleagues have spent much time discussing what colour they think an electron is! Chills went down my spine.

This has happened before, me making up a story and then someone telling me that it happened to them. And it's ALWAYS freaky. And yet, in some way, gratifying. I can't really say why.

Finally, today's lovely news: there is a story I have been trying to write for YEARS. I mean this (as Vanessa and others can testify.) It is basically about a mother dealing with her son's very bizarre behaviour. I tried it in so many ways, coming at it realistically, trying to find out why the son behaved the way he did, showing it to many, many writing groups. Never hit it. Then I was inspired by reading Paddy O'Reilly's wonderful short story collection, The End of the World (my review here) to try a brand new structure, and suddenly a new language appeared, something more experimental, more visceral. Aha!

This happened after my book was finalised, so I held on to it. And now it has been accepted for publication by Electric Velocipede - a (paying) print magazine that wanted something "a little weird" and that I have been wanting to make it into for quite a while. Stories published in  Electric Velocipede and the magazine itself have won Hugo and World Fantasy Awards - THE  awards for so-called "genre" writing, (sci fi, fantasy, speculative, steampunk and other categories) which actually, I have found since setting up the Short Review, reward some of the most wonderfully-written and imaginative fiction I have had the pleasure of reading.

Reviewing the Logorrhea anthology (edited by Elec Velocipede's editor, John Klima) shattered my shameful misconceptions of "genre" fiction, and it has been a dream of mine for quite a while to cross this artifical divide myself. I liked to think I was writing "literary fiction" and aimed my stories at lit mags that fit this  - but once I released myself from these self-imposed restriction, I discovered a whole new world. I now subscribe to Interzone, the UK's leading sci fi magazine and love it. Open your mind!

Now EV's 4 issues for 2010 are full already, so my story, Under the Tree, won't be published til 2011. That's something to look forward to.


j purdie said...

Welcome to the world of Science Fiction, I'm sure you'll enjoy it. The publishers also do other genre fiction, crime and horror. I'm subscribed to Interzone and Black Static at the moment.

Rachel Fenton said...

Hey - well done for finally getting your story nailed!

And what a great endorsement to your physics story - it's wonderful when something you've created resonates with another person - connects - and gives that all important ring of truth to it.

Anonymous said...

And, I noticed, a story of yours is being aired on Radio 4 tomorrow - a repeat I think. ~Miriam

Tania Hershman said...

Hi J, I am enjoying it already!

Rachel, thank you. And yes, it really is wonderful when a story resonates like that.

Miriam - thank you! I had no idea... how did you find that out?

Miriam said...

I often listen to short stories on Radio 4. I don't usually click to see what's coming up, but this time I did. ~Miriam

SueG said...

ok. So I'm jealous of your new writer-in-residence position. There. I said it! :-) But I'm equally happy for you! And congrats on the story! xo

Elisabeth said...

What a fantastic writer in residence position for you.

All this talk of physics reminds me of Sue Woolf's novel 'Leaning towards Infinity', a novel about numbers, not something with which I'm familiar, numbers that is, but a fantastic book nevertheless.

Sue Woolf needed to research her maths, an area with which she too was not very familiar

By chance I know Paddy O'Reilly. She's studying with me at LaTrobe.

I'll mention your post to her when next I see her. She'll be pleased. She's not unlike you and me - an ordinary person who loves to write. And she loves to get feedback.

Teresa Stenson said...

Hi Tania -

I bet you've already got one, but if you haven't I've nominated you for a Kreativ Blogger award - see my latest blog post for the info... :)

Pippa Goldschmidt said...

oh yes I know that magpie-like feeling, of feeling able to see and use the science (and its environment) in a slightly different way... it's very energising!