Interviews · 06/19/2018

An interview with Tara Lynn Masih

I first read Tara Masih’s work with the publication of her story collection Where the Dog Star Never Glows. I admired her language and voice and sense of structure. Next, she edited The Rose Metal Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, a volume which has helped many writers start or refine their skills in a sometimes vexing genre. She’s continued her career in the flash scene with the tireless work that’s gone into giving the world The Best Short Fictions yearly anthology, now published by Braddock Avenue Books. When I learned she was publishing a novel, I wanted to reach out and talk to her about the experience of moving from the flash form to a longer form.

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Curtis Smith: Hi Tara, and congratulations on My Real Name Is Hanna (forthcoming from Mandel Vilar Press and recently named a 2018 Skipping Stones Honor Award Book). When I think of you and your work, I think short fiction — this is your first novel, so let’s begin there. Was writing a novel always in the back of your mind or was it an urge that came along later in your career? How was the process — and how did it differ from your story writing? Did you learn any lessons along the way that will make the next novel easier?

Tara Lynn Masih: Thanks, Curtis. Yes, in some ways writing a novel has been at the back of my mind since I was very young. I was a bookworm, as we called it back then. I loved reading and escaping into other worlds. The idea that I could create my own world someday was a dream of mine. And always, the image was of a novel. I recall saying in high school that I didn’t like short stories, if you can believe it. Then we read collections by Flannery O’Connor, and I was hooked. I also had an excellent writing teacher, Kathy Collins, who taught students to write in “fragments.” So I went off in that direction. I love the process of condensing.

And I was a single parent for many years. Making a living and raising my son was the priority. The short story and flash fiction fit that survival mode well. I could always find time to write a fragment or a flash story during naps or at night. Novel ideas did percolate, but nothing held my attention long enough to keep me focused.

Then I found Hanna. I wrote her story in 3 months. I was sort of dumbfounded that I’d finally written a novel from start to finish, and so quickly. But I’m sure you know as you are also a novelist that that first draft is far from “finished.” I put it aside to work on Best Small Fictions, then did more intensive research to fill it in, then did the agent search and two guided revisions with her, then I painstakingly converted the whole novel from past tense to present. (I’ve learned my prose flows more naturally in present.) Another very intensive historical revision was done by Mandel Vilar Press. I’m very grateful to senior editor Dena Mandel for partnering with me to make this a better book. It’s been a 5-year process, in total. But writing the novel in prose fragments allowed me to cross over from story to novel, and having a topic I’m passionate about kept me focused on the finish line.

CS: The journey of first novels finding their way into print is often a story unto itself. Can you tell us about the path of your book? I see it’s being marketed as YA, but I believe the distinction between YA and literary fiction has really blurred. Did you write it with a YA slant in mind or is that how your publisher saw it?

TLM: Well, it’s been quite the journey. There were some big bumps in the road, but Kerry D’Agostino, my agent, believed in the story and I’m super grateful to her for her support. It found the right home at Mandel Vilar. As for YA, I intentionally wrote it for younger readers, as I wanted this story to be told to the next generation. However, I also knew as I was writing that it would appeal to adults. In fact, those are the main readers so far on Goodreads.

What I want to say about the novel journey is that it connected me with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. Holocaust survivors will be the first ones to tell you there is nothing special about them, that they were just lucky. But I’m in awe of them. And their families. The ones I’ve met or studied are some of the warmest people I have ever known. How does that happen? How does someone go through what they went through, and not become filled with the hatred and anger that was directed toward them? To me, that was the best part of this journey, to listen and learn from them.

CS: I’m a history buff, and this novel’s background, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, is one of the most compelling and horrifying chapters in history. What drew you to this time and place as the setting for Hanna?

TLM: I watched the documentary No Place on Earth. I had seen an ad for it on the History channel and was intrigued because I love the natural world. It was a documentary about a family who sought refuge in the underground gypsum caves of Ukraine during World War II. My own family was riveted, even my young son. It’s an incredible journey of human survival against all odds, a story that had to be told in fiction. I did not want to “steal” their story, so imagined a fictional town and family under slightly different circumstances (Hanna also flees to the forest). But the survival tactics and many of the events mirror their experiences, and those of other Jews and partisan fighters in the District of Galicia.

CS: There’s a real balancing act going on here — the love and folklore that sustains this family versus the world’s grim reality — and also balancing that, the inner world of this brave young woman. Was striking a harmony between these very different elements difficult? What about it was most challenging?

TLM: You hit on the biggest challenge for me. First, I obviously did not live through the Holocaust. I have not even lived through an experience that comes close to it. I am not Jewish (though I found out recently I have Polish roots). The biggest challenge was first shutting off that inner voice that told me I had no right to tell this story. That I wasn’t worthy. I think having a father who was a minority and a person of color gave me some confidence that I at least know what it’s like to be adversely judged for something not in your control. I tried to tap into that feeling I’ve had when I’ve been followed around in stores by shop attendants worried I might steal, or when I saw a certain look cross peoples’ faces when they met my father or made fun of our customs or name.

Despite the prejudice my father faced in this country, he taught me to look at the beauty in things. He was an accomplished watercolorist. Watercolor is the toughest medium. You need patience to work with it and the paper. Often, you have to plan the picture and the white space before you begin. You paint backward, so to speak. I think that is what I did here. There is this genocide taking place all around (and not just to Jews, but to Poles, Ukrainians, peasants, gypsies), but there are these white spaces that shine through — righteous Christians who risked their lives to save others, parents who risked their lives for their children, faith, hope, stories that connect us to our roots and sustain us, but mostly, there is the human ability to tap into some inner well of spiritual strength.

This story was not meant to be strictly about the Holocaust, I could never capture that, but to explore how we can survive emotionally.

CS: The story takes us to a time and place unfamiliar to most readers. How much research was involved in finding the right strokes to make it all seem so real?

TLM: Five years of research went into this. We (the press and I) were even researching in pages. Ukraine did not open up to public scrutiny until 1991. Much of the research early on relied on Esther Stermer’s memoir, We Fight to Survive. After that, I did tons of research to make people feel like they are there. From military research to food, nature, caves, and agriculture. We also had to verify the research itself, to make sure it was backed up by authorities or survivors. I was astounded how in five years, so much more is available now than when I began. There is a flood of research coming out of Ukraine now, thanks to the many organizations dedicated to preserving the truth of its history, which Russia kept under wraps. There are some historical details in Hanna that have not yet been written about in fiction, to our knowledge.

I also experimented with what I was able to do on my own, like walk through woods at night and suck on raw potatoes and pebbles to try to capture the essence of those moments in the book. I hope it worked.

CS: And finally, let’s talk about character. Did you have a firm grasp of Hanna when you started? Or did she grow and change as you wrote? If so, what about her did you discover along the way? In what ways did she surprise you?

TLM: I like to write to get to know my characters. However, I don’t start writing until I hear the voice of the main character. Hers came pretty quickly to me, in that state of half-waking between night and morning. I pretty much had the first line down from the start. Having that voice and that line allowed the writing to flow from there. Hanna pretty much dictated the story. She has to be strong. I know your characters are supposed to have some huge growth and face some personal obstacle or crisis. I sort of broke with that mold. I mean, she is in crisis the whole time. I felt that was enough for her. What she has to do, instead, is find a way to survive emotionally. Physically life is hard but she is being taken care of by her elders. It’s her emotional growth that I hope resonates.

I also was gifted with an important find that helped me form her character. I wanted her to treasure something. I decided it should be a book. I spent months searching for the right kind of book that would suit her personality and be appropriate to the times and the country. I found it in a biography by journalist Greg Dawson, Hiding in the Spotlight, which tells the story of his mother. Zhanna was a gifted pianist when she was forced into a death march. She hid a music sheet under her clothing. She survived, as did Chopin’s musical score. But before the march, her favorite book was Twain’s Joan of Arc. I knew that had to be the book the moment I read about it (Twain is one of my favorite writers as well). The Dawsons gave me permission to use it. I don’t think the book and Hanna would be the same without Twain’s words from Joan’s point of view that give Hanna’s dire situation a parallel, historical perspective.

CS: What’s next?

TLM: I’m working with literacy groups and hope to speak out on bullying. That was the main reason I wrote this book. If it can stop even a handful of kids from bullying someone for any reason, all the years of work and research will be worth it. If it gives one child (or even an adult) the coping skills to get through a difficult situation, it will be more than worth it.

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Tara Lynn Masih has won multiple book awards in her role as editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. She is author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories and the forthcoming novel My Real Name Is Hanna (due out from Mandel Vilar Press in September 2018). She founded The Best Small Fictions series. Awards for her work include the Lou P. Bunce Creative Writing Award, The Ledge Magazine’s Fiction Award, a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Wigleaf Top 50 recognition, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations.

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Curtis Smith’s latest books are Communion (essays, Dock Street Press), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (nonfiction, Ig Publishing), and Lovepain (novel, Braddock Avenue Books).