Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Tara Lynn Masih, who has been around for a while — I bought The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, which she edited, back in 2009 and ended up writing some funky flash pieces afterward, and they were published! Huzzah! Let’s get to know Masih a bit better.
Grab the Lapels: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
Tara Lynn Masih: I’m one of the lucky ones. I got to fulfill my dream of both working in publishing and becoming a published author. I worked very hard early on to make it happen, and was lucky to have a family who encouraged me to follow my passion. My father was a professor but really wanted to be a painter, and didn’t get to it till later in life. He made a conscious effort to give us room to grow into what we wanted to be.
I did have to put much of my writing career on hold as a mother. Many of us do. But eventually I was able to devote more of my time to editing anthologies and writing fiction. I’ll never forget when I got the acceptance for my story collection. It’s one of the best moments of my life.
At 57, I am working faster than I used to, to get projects completed. During these pandemic times, being a historical novelist has its merits. I can stay inside and research for hours.
GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
TLM: A love of books preceded my desire to write. I recall hearing my fourth-grade teacher read Huckleberry Finn aloud every afternoon. Maybe it was to calm us and quiet us down. I don’t know. But the beauty of Twain’s prose and his story of anti-racism and adventure pulled me in to wanting to read more. And I had a grandmother and a great-aunt who supplied me with books on every occasion. I was for sure a bookworm!
I think it was a natural progression to then want to write my own books, have my own covers, see my name on them, and be able to create something and leave it behind.
GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?
TLM: I had a high school teacher who encouraged her students to write brief vignettes. That’s influenced my writing. I began mostly creating what’s now called “flash fiction,” as coined by James Thomas. Eventually my stories became longer, and then turned into novels, or a novelette, in the case of The Bitter Kind, my soon-to-be-released novel.
GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book, The Bitter Kind?
TLM: I learned a lot from this particular book, as it was my first collaboration. James Claffey and I first collaborated on a flash fiction story. We each took two characters from our published story collections and had them meet up. The story was well received, so we decided to continue and expand it into a novella. It didn’t quite make novella length, and I recently saw the newish term “novelette,” so we began to call it a “collaborative flash novelette” — flash, because we write in very brief scenes, some only a paragraph long.
What is unique is the fact that he took on the role of the female narrator, and I took on the role of the male. Doing this forced us to step out of our comfort zones. My character, Brandy, is a Chippewa orphan, raised in Montana; James created Stela, the daughter of an abusive ship captain, who lives in various places in the South.
I learned how to cooperate and create together, despite different time zones and different schedules. Most of all, I learned about the magic of creating with someone who has a similar approach (I originally invited James to collaborate because while our voices are different, our prose styles and our use of the natural world is similar). It was so much fun to get his next flash section via email and to work off of it to create the next flash section that was new but still fit the style, flow, and plot. In some ways it was like writing a reverse mystery, because the collaborative short story it was based on was the ending of the novelette. For The Bitter Kind we had to create the full backstory of how Brandy and Stela got to that ending. Sometimes we threw each other little clues (Stela likes Stetson hats, so Brandy wears a Stetson). And there was a lesson in character psychology: How do we make decisions? What in our lives happens to us to make us take one path and not another? To walk either away from or toward abuse? To make us change course? It’s such a small space that we were using, so these heavy topics could only be glanced upon, but I hope it still makes for a memorable reading experience.
GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?
TLM: Oh boy, that’s a good question. I’m not sure creative people can be 100 percent happy if their creative lives are not going well. “Going well” means different things to different writers, but for me, it means finding time. I get so frustrated when it’s all in my head and I can’t find the time to get it down, and as you get older, you start to forget those great ideas! I’m afraid I turn to chocolate when I’m in one of those down moods. And to my writing friends, who help me get through it all. And if I’m not happy with what I am actually writing, I don’t sweat it. That’s what editing is for.
GTL: Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?
TLM: For one thing, it’s short! I know some clubs have trouble reading the whole book in a month. This can be read in a day or a weekend. Second, it’s unique. There is a lot to discuss: What do you think about the female author taking on the male character, and vice versa? What was it like to read a “novelette.” Did you miss having more? What was left out? Did you enjoy reading between the spaces? Did it frustrate you? Did you learn from the history? (It begins in 1942.) It’s a love story and a bit of a ghost story, too. And has a #MeToo angle. So, lots to take in and discuss.
You can see more about Tara Lynn Masih and her work at her website and bulk up your TBR by adding her books on Goodreads. And you know all the cool kids are on Instagram, so be sure to follow Masih there, too.
Masih’s novelette, The Bitter Kind, is co-written with James Claffey and will be published by Červená Barva Press October 2, 2020. The novelette alternates between Stela, the daughter of a ship’s captain, burdened by her family secrets, and Brandy, a Chippewa orphan, haunted by ghost wolves and spirits. The authors cross genres and borders between historical and contemporary, speculative and realistic, presenting two unforgettable characters on a journey toward their inevitable, fateful destination. The Bitter Kind can be pre-ordered via all the usual places.