Flash Frontier: Congratulations on your new collection, How We Disappear! This book contains a novella and stories. What themes connect the novella and the stories?
Tara L Masih: Thank you so much! The stories are loosely related by the theme of disappearance, as reflected in the title. Originally I was waffling between two other titles, but Press 53 and I eventually settled on How We Disappear as a way to signal the main theme and to sort of point the reader toward answering the question of how we disappear – socially, economically, emotionally, physically.
FF: And, related to the previous question, let’s talk a bit more about the novella. Did you set out to write a novella and know you’d include it in a new collection, or did a smaller story expand? Tell us more about your process for writing a novella.
TLM: The opposite. A larger story got condensed. ‘An Aura Surrounds That Night’ was my first real attempt at a novel. I began it many years ago with great gusto. Then life intervened, as it always does. I had to put it aside. I tried many times to pick it up again but I’d lost the passion that I needed to finish it. Many years later I took a new look, and revised it as a flash novelette. Everything fell into place. The words flowed, the ideas flowed, and it all came together. Just in a much shorter version. Then it sat on my desk top. When I recently started gathering stories together, I realized it finally had a home.
FF: Tell us about the first flash fiction you wrote – if you can recall (and share it if you can!). Do you think your approach to storytelling has changed over the years? What common ground do you see between your current day self and your earlier self – as a writer?
TLM: My first publications were actually poems. My first ‘vignette’, as we called them back in the early eighties, was published in my college literary magazine (had to go look this up!). It was titled ‘Gray Afternoon’ and won second place in their contest that year. It’s too awful to share. Very self-conscious, trying to be something more than it should be. About a child’s view of a funeral. I sure hope my approach has changed and matured. I believe it has. I still see the seeds of what I do now in that first story. Attention to the natural world, heavy on the visual, always trying to reach below the surface for something to find more meaning. I’m still trying to figure out the world and its ways through my writing.
FF: Among other things, you were the editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, published in 2013, and founder of the Best Small Fictions series in 2015. What do you think has changed with the form over the last ten years?
TLM: I’ve seen much more experimentation and attempts to stretch the boundaries of what is flash, sudden, micro, etc. It’s taught more, and it shows. Where there were only a few masters of the form back when I began, there are now countless accomplished flash writers. It’s grown into its own healthy genre.
FF: You also published the YA novel, My Real Name Is Hanna, National Jewish Book Award Finalist and winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award for Young Readers in the US, among other awards. We’d love to hear more about this book, and how novel writing diverges or overlaps with your other writing.
TLM: The book is YA but read mostly by adults. It was inspired by a real family who hid in underground caves during the Holocaust in Ukraine. It published in 2018 but is having a resurgence as readers want to learn more about Ukraine’s history, which has gone largely unstudied in the States, at least.
Writing a novel was the hardest creative undertaking I’ve ever attempted. My gosh, if I’d known how little research was available when I started, I might never have tackled this topic. But luckily, I became friendly with a Holocaust survivor in my town. He helped me tremendously as he was from the same part of the country in which my novel was set. Then slowly over the years, research trickled in (Russia had clamped down on it) and I got enough to fill out the story factually. You helped too, if you recall, with your knowledge of that period of history, and I’m grateful to you for you catching some of my factual errors.
Structurally I followed flash format to some degree. I have no chapters, just three parts, and wrote in scenes, or more developed ‘sketches’. That helped me bridge the divide between flash and novel.
FF: Your stories – novel and short stories – are often based in real life but with careful attention to language and the line between real and imagined. Do you think that’s the whole point of writing – working our way between real and un-real? And what satisfaction comes from this, as both writer and reader?
TLM: Well, I always tell people I write fiction. Many people confuse my stories with my experience. Even with the novel, it is assumed I am of Jewish descent. I know many writers draw from their own lives but I write to travel, so to speak, into other worlds. I do love history and often draw on real people’s lives. For instance, in this collection I wrote a very abbreviated fictional biography of Agatha Christie. She is gaining new fans and interest but I’ve always read/studied her and wanted to put my stamp on her disappearance. There’s power in writing fiction. You can write what you want. It’s fiction. It allows you to sometimes soar above the mundane.
FF: One review called your work ‘daring’. Do you feel daring in the way you explore life through fiction?
TLM: I personally don’t feel daring but was so honored that a writer I much admire described my work in that way!
FF: And finally, the theme of this month’s issue is ‘wonder’ – and we’d love if you can share a small story of your own that might tie in with this theme.
TLM: Sure, I think the following flash piece fits that theme well. As discussed earlier, it’s based loosely on a real farmer doing DNA experiments. People think this is total magical realism. It isn’t. There is a basis of real science and truth behind some of the experimentation, and we as readers can choose to be frightened by it, reject it, or find wonder in it.
Her plan was to slip through Utah. She told me this, before leaving our small town in the Rockies. That she was on her way to meet up with an old boyfriend in Lake Tahoe. So she rented a car that would be as indistinguishable as possible, saying, I won’t take one of those white SUVs they are always giving me, which scream rental. She insisted on a gray sedan. Gray, the color of dusk, not a color to catch your eye, because the ex told her Utah was dicey in places, so she should be careful. She tried to stay on I-80, avoiding truck and rest stops and any bars with less than a parking lot full of drinkers. She almost made it to the Nevada border unnoticed.
She did stop to take in the Salt Flats. Miles of chalky white, she scrawled on a postcard, the residue of a long-dead body of lake water. Proof that anything can, with a small adjustment of fate and circumstance, become something entirely different from itself, yet still retain its most basic elements. She’d underlined the last three words three times.
This landscape must have been imprinted on her mind when she did finally pull up to a roadside saloon, into a parking lot jammed with dusty Ford flatbeds and rust-specked Chevys all catercornered to each other. He was examining his beer in the bar light, she said, about the man who made her change course. He took her back to his farm, her rental following behind on flat valley dirt roads, his rear lights two beacons that beckoned.
You see, she told me, this man farms the fantastical. He breeds magic and the impossible. His cows produce milk that when spun turns to miles of clear silk. His chickens lay eggs that, when broken open, reveal pearls. Picture this, her voice quickens and is breathy on the phone, us on his front porch, in the evenings, cracking open green shells to remove small luminescent orbs that glow like dozens of tiny moons in his orange Pyrex bowl. Like we used to shell peas, remember?
There is more—horses whose hooves turn to copper as they age, snakes whose venom cures cancer. All this amongst weather-beaten barn boards, tumbleweed, abandoned metal equipment, Queen Anne’s lace, whistles and warbles and yellow flashes of pasture meadowlarks.
How could I not stop for this? she asks me. She doesn’t even remember where she was going, or why, and I don’t remind her. Like those salt flats, her old life just evaporated. She lives with mystery and change every day, sleeps with a man who performs daily miracles. Lab smells mix with sex smells, and strands of DNA weave through their conversations like multicolored necklaces.
She now knows anything is possible, and nothing should be passed by, ever again.
A version of ‘Salt’ originally appeared in Blue 5th Notebook: Blue Five Notebook Special Series, Flash Editors (Issue 14.12, June 2014) and appears in How We Disappear (Press 53)
About the book
Tara Lynn Masih offers readers transporting and compelling stories of those taken, those missing, and those neither here nor gone – runaways, exiles, wanderers, ghosts, even the elusive Dame Agatha Christie. From the remote Siberian taiga to the harsh American frontier, from rural Long Island to postwar Belgium, Masih’s characters are diverse in identity and circumstance, defying the burden of erasure by disappearing into or emerging from physical and emotional landscapes. Described as ‘masterful’ and as ‘striking and resonant’ (Publishers Weekly), Masih’s fiction, crossing boundaries between historical and contemporary, sparks with awareness that nothing and no one is ever gone for good – and that the wilderness is never quite behind us.
What people are saying
How We Disappear traffics, beautifully, in the liminal spaces between past and present, imagination and memory. These stories are concise, unsparing, lyrical, always daring.
—Michael Parker, O. Henry Award–winning author of Prairie Fever
The breadth and diversity of the stories in How We Disappear illustrate the vast possibilities of human experience. A multiplicity of voices, backgrounds, regions, story lengths, points-of-view, levels of realism, and historical contexts show the extraordinary range of Masih’s vision.
—Phong Nguyen, author of Bronze Drum and Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History
The ink is never pale in How We Disappear, and neither are the memories. With each story, I became more and more amazed. Masih is a frotteur in the old sense, rubbing words together to make distant worlds surface and come alive in rich, lush, and engrossing detail. As a writer, I always learn more about writing from Tara Lynn Masih. As a reader, I’m always carried away by her stories.
—Grant Faulkner, author of Fissures and The Art of Brevity
Tara Lynn Masih is editor of the acclaimed Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and Founding Series Editor of The Best Small Fictions. She’s been anthologized in, among other collections, Brevity & Echo, Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose, Nothing Short of 100, and W.W. Norton’s New Micro. Her flash received Wigleaf Top 50 recognition. A National Jewish Book Award Finalist for her novel My Real Name Is Hanna, her second story collection, How We Disappear, was a MILLIONS Most Anticipated Book of 2022. www.TaraMasih.com