A conversation with Tara L. Masih
What books and/or authors have had the most influence on your writing?
Well, I try to work on my own voice. But there are authors who make me excited about what writing can achieve, incredibly talented writers who inspire me to try to be half as good as they are in terms of their command of prose and story. Just to name a few, classic and contemporary: Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Flannery O’Connor, Yasunari Kawabata, Rick Bass, Stuart Dybek, Michael Martone, Pamela Erens, Linda Spalding, Alice Munro, Peter Rock, Anthony Doerr. There are so many more, but those are at the top of my list. I will never reach their level, but they give me something to shoot for.
How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?
That’s a tough one. It varies. There are times when I’ve worked a long time on a story, and I know I still haven’t gotten it right. So it gets put aside. Then there are times when I write a first draft, and I can tell it’s almost final. In the end, it’s just gut instinct. Knowing you can’t change another word, knowing you got it right for yourself. If I’m at all unsure, then I show it to a trusted reader or two for feedback. But even after I send it off as “final,” sometimes there are editors who make suggestions to improve it again.
What would you consider to be a productive day of work, and do you have a writing routine?
No writing routine. I don’t have a life that’s organized enough to have one at this point. Family is still the priority. A productive day at work is when I accomplish what I wanted to accomplish that day, whether it’s looking up a new magazine to submit to, working on a new story, or doing research for one. And I think, while I could always use more time for writing, that I kind of enjoy the lack of structure. I don’t like the idea of making this a job. I know that works for many writers, but it would make writing too routine for me.
What part of your writing process do you most enjoy?
That moment when I first hear the character’s voice in my head, sometimes narrating the opening line. That’s when I know I’m ready to write the story and that it’s almost fully formed in my head.
You have worked as a book packager, copyeditor, and proofreader for Houghton Mifflin, Ballantine Books, and Harvard University Press. How has your experience in these positions shaped your writing?
Well, the production jobs I had prepared me to be able to juggle many different tasks at once and to meet deadlines. Very helpful in my unstructured environment. The editing portion of the job has definitely taught me to write better and to self-edit. Self-editing is torture for me, but as I’ve learned more and more about grammar and punctuation, writing sentences correctly on the first go around lessens the need to edit my writing on that basic level, so I can spend more time on other writing issues.
You were the editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. What element(s) of flash fiction most appeal to you, and why do you think it is becoming a more prominent form?
I was taught to write about brief, intense moments. My writing teacher, Kathy Collins, had in turn been taught by Elizabeth Graves, who asked students to write “deep wells.” Collins was a bit ahead of her time and taught us to write in the vignette form. So it comes naturally to me. Flash has become more prominent for many different reasons, but in actuality, it’s a resurgence. It was even more popular around the turn of the last century, but disappeared from mainstream publishing when the periodicals folded. The Shapard and Thomas anthologies have helped bring it back into the classroom.
In a review of your debut collection, Where the Dog Star Never Glows, Alex Myers of NewPages.com says, “Masih demonstrates that short fiction doesn’t mean small ideas.” How would you define a “big” idea, and why do you choose flash fiction as a vessel for such ideas?
Well, it all goes back to that question of my work. I’ve proofread many classics many times (Shakespeare, Conrad, O’Connor, etc.), and the masters of fiction are adept at getting so much about life into small spaces. Shakespeare’s epic plays may not be short, but when you consider they are meant to be performed in a few hours on one stage, that compression that happens in flash is still there, just on a grander level. One of the issues I’ve had to work on in my writing is to simplify the ideas, to not pack so much in. So I’m glad Myers picked up on that in the collection and didn’t say I had overdone it.
Your collection also includes supernatural or fantastical elements, such as a ghost in one story, and a crash victim in another who doesn’t know if she is alive or in purgatory. What about these mystical components fascinates you?
I love the edges of things. I’m not into black and white. Which doesn’t always satisfy my reader. I do believe there is much about our minds and our universe that we’ve only just scratched the surface of. I like playing with those borders between what we know of as reality and what might actually be reality.
What else are you working on, and where can readers go to find more of your work?
My website, taramasih.com, lists the work I’ve published online and has information on my books. Right now I’m taking care of family issues, but hope to get back to a novel I started or, possibly, start a new one. The novel is new terrain for me.
Finally, what advice would you give yourself when you first started writing?
I was given this advice early on and I think it’s helped me a lot: Develop the skin of an armadillo—you need to be vulnerable enough to feel something and be able to take in good criticism, but you also need to be tough enough to keep out the bad.