It Began with a Mouse: Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie

Zora Neale Hurston once invited her friend Marjory Kinnan Rawlings to give a lecture to her university students. For a time, they shared a publisher too. Like this month’s profiled pair, the bond between authors Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie is both personal and professional. In September’s guest blog, they tell us about the public and private faces of their friendship.

Science Museum café, London, and a mouse scoots across the floor. T and V have just met face to face for the first time, having emailed for a while. How to react? There are a few seconds of silence, then two sets of giggles. A serious meeting (on our way to an event about writing short stories with science at the Dana Centre) plus laughter. That sets the tone for a friendship that is now in its eighth year.

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(L-R) Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman at Gladfest at Gladstone’s Library

It began with generosity across continents – V, in the UK, emails to congratulate T, in Israel, for winning first prize in a flash fiction competition in which V wins second prize. It progressed to sharing the writer’s journey, ups and downs alike.

We were both at the start of our publication careers and decided to deal with it all with honesty, not hiding how many rejections our short stories were getting, even going so far as to set up a joint blog in 2007 documenting all our submissions statistics – acceptances, rejections, earnings.

This underpins our connection – honesty in sharing work, in giving feedback. Our writing styles are, of course, different, as are our approaches to teaching, but we believe in the No-Rules Rule – we apply it to each other and to everyone else we come into contact with.

We give each other permission to try anything, to take risks, to be a different kind of writer from the one we were yesterday, or last year. We are always trying something new, challenging each other – T inspires V with science, V has lured T into joining her WW1 obsessions through her annual writing group trip to The Somme.

We are both currently experimenting with poetry, sending each other poems-in-progress, wanting not just ‘Oh this is wonderful’ but ‘I think you don’t need this word/line/stanza’ too. We also share teaching techniques – and have taught workshops together.

We’d be firm friends whether or not we were writers, but writing definitely provides some great highs. We’ve both had the joy of being there when the other has received fantastic news – T’s first short story collection, V’s first novel. Each other’s successes lift us both.

We have been fortunate enough to win some prizes, get some awards and residencies, and we make sure that we allow ourselves to celebrate – which is not always easy for writers with a tendency towards introversion – but we both hate complacency and won’t go there, ever!

Eight years later, we live in the same country, though several hours apart, and we see each other more regularly. Wherever we are, the phrase that always gets uttered (mostly by V) is: ‘Shall we write?’ And we always do, not just at home, but in cafés (where cake somehow manages to make an appearance), parks, railway stations.

The Science Museum café might have altered its menu. The mouse might not be with us any more. But some things don’t change.

Tania Hershman’s latest short story collection My Mother Was an Upright Piano is published by Tangent Books.

Vanessa Gebbie’s novel The Coward’s Tale is published by Bloomsbury.

 

The Something Rhymed party

From the mad tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Great Gatsby’s  glamorous shindigs to the almost unbearable occasion to mark Blanche’s birthday in A Streetcar Named Desire, literature is full of social occasions that linger on in the minds of its audiences.

In the hands of a writer, the bringing together of a sizable cast of characters can lead to moments of revelation, conflict or panic. In Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, the whole plot builds towards the titular gathering. A devastating mistake made at a party by the timid protagonist of Rebecca signals an important shift in Daphne du Maurier’s novel. A mysterious soirée in A Murder is Announced marks the shocking point at which Agatha Christie’s village mystery truly begins.

Emma Claire and I were hoping for considerably less drama at our party – the first we’d ever organised together – and yet, we wanted it to be an occasion that would remain as a memory, in a good way, for all those who were there.

We decided to make an occasion of it with a traditional British afternoon tea.

We were inspired by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who once organised a get-together for Zora Neale Hurston, and also a feeling that we wanted to provide an opportunity for female writers we knew to make new writer friends. Owing to the size of my London flat, we were forced to keep things small-scale, so we invited just four writing women and asked each of them to bring along a female writer friend.

Our guests were Susan Barker, Emily Bullock, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie, Yen Ooi, Denise Saul and Zakia Uddin – some of whom will be known to Something Rhymed readers through their guest posts on our blog.

IMG_1153In a written story, it is often the things that go wrong at a party that cement it in the reader’s imagination. We thought we might have a situation like that on our hands when, only five minutes before our first guest turned up, I opened the freezer door to get some ice and suddenly discovered two forgotten bottles of fizz – one smashed to pieces and one that promptly exploded everywhere when Emma Claire eased out the cork.

It’s the sort of incident that, if you’re hosting on your own (or feel that sole responsibility for a party’s success lies with you), can become magnified out of all proportion. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, though the majority of family members are remarkably untroubled by the genuinely terrible news that arrives halfway through the tale, there is much concern earlier on about the feared disappearance of the little flags for the sandwiches.

But as the two of us struggled to leap out of the way of the flying foam, we found we were unable to stop laughing: a reminder that, having the right friend at your side at moments like these swiftly transforms them from catastrophe to comedy.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul and Susan Barker listening to Emily Bullock reading an extract from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight.

Zakia Uddin, Denise Saul, Susan Barker and Emily Bullock (reading from her forthcoming novel, The Longest Fight).

Amazingly, too, the sparkling wine down Em’s dress seemed to dry out in record time and had virtually disappeared by the time everyone arrived. We’d wondered earlier – completely unnecessarily as it turned out – if, with a group of people who didn’t really know each other, conversation would be initially stilted. So we’d asked each writer to bring along a sample of her work as a way of introducing herself. In between the sandwiches, cakes and replenishing of glasses, we were treated to extracts from novels and short stories, and some of Denise’s poetry.

We talked about professional issues too. Questions about book launches, ways of spreading the word about our work, and university programmes were just some of the things we discussed. If I had to sum up the occasion in a few words, I’d say it was five hours of warmth and good conversation, and lots of laughter: not the conflict of great literature perhaps, but – for Emma Claire and me, and we hope for all our guests – the stuff of a great party for writers.

The Heroism of the Hostess

In the week that Emily and I will be holding a party for female writers, our conversation has turned to the historical significance of literary gatherings. Katherine Mansfield got to know Virginia Woolf – the fellow author whom she wanted to meet above all others – through their shared connection with Lady Ottoline Morrell. Famed as a society hostess, Morrell was sometimes cruelly lampooned by the very artists she supported. But her salons were more than glittering parties; they were occasions full of creative ferment.

Lady Ottoline Morrell Creative Commons License

Lady Ottoline Morrell
Creative Commons License

Morrell is said to have influenced two of Mansfield’s and Woolf’s best loved works: The Garden Party and Mrs Dalloway. In both texts, parties and hostesses play central roles. Mansfield’s collection of stories came out in 1922, during a period when her relationship with Woolf was especially riddled with misunderstanding. Woolf, afraid that Mansfield’s book would overshadow her own latest novel, admitted to feeling pleased when her friend failed to win the Hawthornden Prize. However, Mansfield’s title story must have exerted a powerful influence on Woolf, who that same year was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway. Both Mansfield’s story and Woolf’s novel invite us into the life of a hostess on the day of her party. In each case, the gathering is interrupted by the news of a man’s death – a man who, due to class division, would never have received an invitation to the heroine’s gathering.

Emily and I spoke about the relationship between these two texts during our interview with Steve Wasserman on Read Me Something You Love. The connections seemed glaringly obvious to us, and yet we subsequently discovered that they have largely gone unnoticed. Many a tree has been felled, on the other hand, to produce the reams of pages devoted to the influence on Mrs Dalloway of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The reason for this imbalance lies, in part, in the differing status accorded to certain subjects. Woolf’s textual conversations with her male peers are most often represented in terms of the impact of war on literature, and representations of the city: both topics that have long been embraced by the literary establishment. Any discussion about the influence of ‘The Garden Party’ on Mrs Dalloway  must emphasise the role of hostess, the domestic space, and the creative act of forging connections between friends. Such feminine spheres of influence fall outside those traditionally deemed valuable by the literary gatekeepers. As Woolf put it in A Room of One’s Own: ‘This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room’.

We came up against this ingrained double standard when we realised that last month’s challenge had focused on clothing and this month’s involves throwing a party. Any reflection prompted by red dresses and Turkish cheesecakes, we worried, would inevitably be considered trivial. But following in the footsteps of our female forebears, we are encouraged to embrace our own realms of experience and proclaim them as valuable as any other.

Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings seem destined to have grown close. Both women wrote about the landscape and communities of their beloved Florida, and they each achieved fame in the 1930s when Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize. What’s more, they greatly admired each other’s work.

Photo by Alan Anderson, courtesy of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

Photo by Alan Anderson, courtesy of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

And yet, theirs was a deeply controversial relationship. Simple acts of camaraderie – sharing a meal, trading ideas, visiting each other – came up against deeply ingrained prejudices, rigid social norms, and even the full weight of the law.

Hurston (the daughter of a former slave) met Rawlings (whose husband owned a white-only hotel) at a time when the Ku Klux Klan operated in parts of Florida and the ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation laws were harshly enforced by the state.

Despite these almost insuperable barriers, when Rawlings gave a guest lecture to Hurston’s students at the all-black Florida Normal and Industrial College, she was so taken with her host that she invited Hurston to tea the next day at her husband’s white-only hotel.

Fear, prejudice, and conformity ran deep, however. Rawlings quickly regretted her invitation, telling her husband that she had ‘done something terrible’. They arranged for the bell-boy to whisk Hurston up to their private apartment to get her out of sight of their white guests. Their precautions proved unnecessary because Hurston, predicting that her presence might prove sensitive, entered through the kitchen and up the back stairs.

Remarkably, such squalid moral compromises did nothing to hinder their enjoyment of each other’s company. ‘I’ve never had so much fun,’ Rawlings told her husband, and Hurston described Rawlings as a ‘sister’.

Zora Neale Hurston Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Zora Neale Hurston
Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Although their mutual admiration was assured, the ethical dilemmas didn’t stop there. When Hurston visited Rawlings’s country residence, for instance, they talked, laughed, and got tipsy together on her porch. But, when it became clear that Hurston was in no fit state to drive, Rawlings sent her friend to sleep out in the black servants’ quarters although there were plenty of spare bedrooms in the main house.

Hurston – who grew up in an all-black town, possibly the granddaughter of a white slave owner – was adept at navigating the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, and did not seem to hold Rawlings’s racial cowardice against her.

But Rawlings subjected herself to tough questions about her behaviour and, on a second overnight visit, she insisted that this time Hurston stay with her in the house. ‘I had to hurdle an awfully wide ditch!’ she admitted. ‘I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep’.

From then on, Rawlings fought against racial segregation whereas Hurston fought to write about subjects other than race. Yet the world they inhabited was not yet ready to hear them. Rawlings’s reputation dwindled when her editor failed to recognise the quality of her later experimental stories, and Hurston died a pauper, buried in an unmarked grave.

This headstone was purchased by Alice Walker after she found Hurston's unmarked grave in an overgrown and snake infested cemetery. Walker later published an essay about it in Ms magazine, leading to something of a renaissance in Hurston's reputation. Photograph by Alan Anderson.

This headstone was purchased by Alice Walker after she found Hurston’s unmarked grave in an overgrown and snake infested cemetery. Walker later published an essay about it in Ms magazine, leading to something of a renaissance in Hurston’s reputation. Photograph by Alan Anderson.

Activity

Rawlings once threw a private party for Hurston. This month, we will host a Something Rhymed party. We’ll invite a few locally-based writers and supporters of the blog, and we’ll ask each of them to bring along one of their female writer friends. Find out how it goes when we blog about it in the coming weeks.

#SomethingRhymed

We’re keen to promote positive representations of women’s friendship, so with this in mind we’ve just launched our #SomethingRhymed hashtag on Twitter with this tweet: Women’s relationships are too often seen as bitchy & backstabbing. Tell us about a time when a female friend supported you.

We’d love to hear about your positive experiences of female friendship too. If you’re not on Twitter, but would still like to add your voice to the conversation, please do leave a message in the Comments section below.

 

Celebrating Female Friendship

When this month’s guest bloggers, Harriet Levin and Elizabeth L. Silver, let us take a look at one of their on-line chats, we felt privileged to be witnesses to a conversation that so clearly conveyed their mutual appreciation of each other’s support.

This has, of course, been a common theme in all of the guest posts this year. Like them, Rachel Connor and Antonia Honeywell, and Sarah Butler and Tessa Nicholson, have gone from living close to their writer friend to being separated by geographical distance. But they all wrote of how they’re still able to rely on their pal’s advice, even though they are physically far apart.

IMG_1146Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman, too, who live on opposite sides of the world, told us how their frequent phone conversations, about ‘writing, gossip, lipstick’ amongst other things, keep the relationship going.

Kadija ‘George’ Sesay and Dorothea Smartt spoke of the pleasures of working with each other professionally. Zakia Uddin shared a story about hearing valuable literary advice from Susan Barker on a crowded London night-bus.

Julie Sarkissian and Haley Tanner, and Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan, were keen to emphasise how much they valued having someone with whom they’ve been able to share the struggles and eventual triumphs of their books-in-progress.

We are grateful to all of this year’s guest bloggers for posting these inspiring words about the crucial role that the friendship of another woman has played in their writing lives.

Since launching Something Rhymed at the beginning of the year, we’ve often found ourselves wondering why the literary friendships of our most famous female writers are generally less well-known than those of their male counterparts.

Recently, we’ve been mulling over a number of theories, but one conclusion we’ve come to is that the all-too-common depiction of ambitious women as inevitable jealous rivals could have played a major part in this. Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf are two writers, in particular, whose reputations have suffered in this way. This month’s pair, Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, are another, historically later, example.

At Something Rhymed, we’re keen to try and promote some more positive representations of women’s friendship, so with this in mind we’ve just launched our #SomethingRhymed hashtag on Twitter with this tweet: Women’s relationships are too often seen as bitchy & backstabbing. Tell us about a time when a female friend supported you. #SomethingRhymed

We’ll be sharing our own stories (in 140 characters or less!) of helping each other out personally or professionally. Whether you’re a writer or not, we’d love to hear about your positive experiences of female friendship too. If you’re not on Twitter, but would still like to add your voice to the conversation, why not leave a message in the Comments section below?

Remember

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A Contact You Can Smell on Your Skin: Harriet Levin and Elizabeth L. Silver

Like Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, this month’s guest bloggers spend hours critiquing each others work over the phone. Separated by long distances across America and different time zones, poet Harriet Levin and novelist Elizabeth L. Silver let us take a look at one of their online chats.

Elizabeth L. Silver

Elizabeth L. Silver

ELIZABETH: I remember the first time we met. You were the big shot director of the writing program at Drexel University in Philadelphia and I was a lowly adjunct with my first post-MFA teaching job. You were an Iowa grad, had a major book of poetry published, and were a Yaddo alum. But our personal backgrounds had so many similarities that I was instantly drawn to you. Those early conversations, which centered on our writing and our relationships, cemented what has become a truly beautiful friendship in my life.

HARRIET: Thank you, Liz. I’m going to hang this on my wall, and whenever I feel down, take a look at it. Truth to tell, it was you actually who inspired me. You were working on a novel and I saw how you went about it and then I literally watched you land an agent, because you were sending out emails from the computers in the Writing Center, while I was trying to write fiction for the first time and had no idea what I was doing.

ELIZABETH: I loved how when we met, we were both conceiving our novels, talking about the work and our approaches to writing fiction. You might not know how eager I was to see you every day, that  I came to my job at the writing center at Drexel just to find out how your novel was progressing and to share my struggles. I had no idea I inspired you at all.

HARRIET: You know when you meet someone whether it’s important. Not every meeting is like that. If you have a good olfactory sense, you can smell it on your skin, because you’ve made contact. I’m the sort of person who has to move her seat in a restaurant when the person beside me wears offending perfume or hairspray, and I’m also the kind of person who moves closer. It was like that with you, Liz, this sense I had (and still have) that life is always happening around you.

Harriet Levin Millan

Harriet Levin

ELIZABETH: Now that I’m going to print out and place next to my laptop when I feel down. Is it clear that Hari is a brilliant poet?

HARRIET: And boy did you help me with my work. I’ll never forget the day when, over the phone, I told you I had reached the climax of my novel, but didn’t know how to resolve it. I was out on the deck off my kitchen, gripping a broom handle in my free hand, raising it into the corner of the porch door to swipe off a spider web. I have an idea, you said, and then you spelled out the resolution for me! It was right there but I couldn’t see it and you were able to see it so clearly. I put down the broom and went into the house and wrote the next pages.

ELIZABETH: That’s so funny because we discuss plot and story all the time, but I don’t remember that exact bit. The truth is that I wish we still lived in the same city, but our friendship has really blossomed long distance. We share work over email and spend hours critiquing it over the phone. It is these long-distance workshops that I rely on, that I treasure, and that I seek at all points in the writing process.

HARRIET: What’s more, in this past week alone, we both discovered that we had started new novels.

ELIZABETH: I could hardly believe it when you told me! As we both enter this terrifying period of novelty with our new projects, I feel a calmness knowing that I will have you along my side in the process. Thank you.

HARRIET: And knowing about the success of your first book, Liz, convinces me that you can do it again. That we both can. Thank you.

Harriet Levin’s The Christmas Show was published by Beacon Press and Girl in Cap and Gown was published by Mammoth Books.

Elizabeth L. Silver is author of the novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton published by Crown  in the US and Headline Review in the UK.

 

Same Material, Different Approaches

Red is a colour I rarely wear in hot climates, since my skin tends to flush in the sun.

I am also prone to smatterings of heat rash and mosquito bites. When I lived in Japan, other women at the school where I worked used to voice concern at my freckled complexion, and recommend I confine myself largely indoors during the warmest months.

Still, I was inspired by the clothes swapping of writer friends Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton to borrow a red dress from Emma Claire just before a week’s trip to the Spanish island of Mallorca, and so I ended up fitting the outfit carefully into the top of my suitcase just before I zipped up the bag.

IMG_1144Em had told me she’d previously worn this red dress for a successful PHD interview, but, even when I first tried it on in the cooler temperatures of my London bedroom, I knew I’d never have worn it for an important academic meeting.

When I lifted it from my bag after my arrival at our villa, I found that feeling magnified by the sun’s bright light pouring in through the windows.

Of course, I am only thinking of this as an outfit for myself here; Emma Claire will have looked thoroughly professional on the date in question. But owing to differences in our figures, I had to compensate for gaps that opened in its button-up seam with several strategically-placed safety pins that I’d have feared might show – further proof if it was needed that this was very much a holiday outfit for me, rather than something I’d wear to an interview.

IMG_2701

About to buy marmalade in Deià

Despite the skirt also soon getting all scrunched in the heat of the car, I had a wonderful time wearing Em’s dress for a day out with my partner, exploring the remoter reaches of the island.

Walking along dusty hilltop lanes, breathing in the scents of bright vine flowers, it struck me how the same material can be so vastly altered by placing it in a new context or hanging it on the frame of another person.

This is, in fact, a familiar feeling. When Emma Claire and I first sit down to write a feature article together, or plan a forthcoming joint talk, we’ll sometimes find that, though we come to the table with the same basic ideas, we each envisage the end result from quite separate angles.

This has been known to lead to heated discussions – occasions when I’m not necessarily as measured as Em might have it – but we’ve come to really value this way of working.

The process challenges each of us to stop sticking to our usual approaches, but to break out and try on our friend’s way of doing things. And it’s turned out to be incredibly helpful in developing a distinct voice and style for the pieces we write together.