Flash Perspectives: Interview with Tara Masih
I’ve always thought of flash fiction as conversations where each exchange reveals or obscures, builds layers, introduces intimacy, teaches, grows curiosity. “The Bitter Kind” authors Tara Lynn Masih and James Claffey take that conversational flash level to a more expansive place in their novella-in-flash. Each individual flash connects with the next, chats with the reader through contrasting characters through time. The two main characters Stela and Brandy share their individual dreams and burdens; the flash novella format acts as a perfect setting for the seemingly improbable — a ship captain’s daughter and Chippewa orphan revealed through flashes about family secrets and ghost wolf hauntings. Through the skillful word and character creation of Masih and Claffey, readers converse with identifiable, yet unique characters. To learn more about the inspiration and process behind the novella, I interviewed Masih.
What is the significance of the title? Speak to the process of choosing it.
I’m glad you asked this, as we love the title. I pulled it out from James’s section. We don’t want to give too much away, but the bitter kind refers to a type of lemon. It fit so well with the lives of our two characters, their constant “battle” for love and the bitterness of what they face throughout their lives. I love titling books and often look to the manuscript itself for lines that resonate. I can’t recall the other choices, but this one we both loved the most.
How did you decide the length/novelette-in-flash form?
We began the project in flash form. We collaborated on a flash story (“Eighteen Crosses, One Madonna”) that combined two characters from our short story collections published by Press 53. When we decided to expand it, we knew we could come up with more material but did not want to make a commitment to a full novel. He was writing his debut novel at the time, and I was working on multiple book projects. So it made sense to write a novella. Well, it became a mighty short novella, and near the end, I stumbled on the term novelette, which fit our page count much better. We like the sound of it better, too!
What is the significance of the cover photo/design? How did you choose the artist to create it?
I’d rather the reader decide the significance of the cover photo, but we do want to recognize Ashley Inguanta, the photographer. We’re both big fans of her work. I’ve tried in the past to get her work on a cover and for one reason or another it didn’t work out, so we’re super grateful to Gloria Mindock at Cervena Barva Press for approving this image. We all just think it’s stunning. Dark and erotic and sensual and it draws you in. Makes you wonder.
There is so much encapsulated in this novelette that it feels like we get an entire novel. How did you determine the formatting? The date markers as “chapters”?
We had no idea how people would react to our little fun project. We really just followed the format we’d chosen for the flash story, which was to write alternate sections back and forth. We knew we’d use our flash skills, which often means lots of white space and big gaps in time. We had to ground the reader in the era it began in, so hence the use of dates. And we wanted to call attention to the most significant date of all, the one where they meet up, so that became Part 2.
There is something seamless as the reader moves between the two storylines. At the outset, the characters themselves seem disparate but you manage to connect them and focus on their personal stories. How did you find the balance and juxtaposition between the characters/the alternating between the two main characters?
It’s one part work and one part creative magic. We kept going on this project because we worked well together and these two characters just seemed to need more attention. And they worked well together on their own, but not completely. We each did many edits to make sure it felt authentic and that all details were accurate. As for the balancing act, it was pretty instinctive, though we both pointed out now and then when the other one had too much of a gap in the writing or when something didn’t make sense or was from the wrong time period.
A collaborator is a built-in, trusted, objective editor.
What research did you do to add authenticity to the stories?
I can only speak for myself on this one, but I did a lot of research on the Landless Indians in Montana (who I’m happy to report as of the beginning of 2020 are no longer landless) and Frontier Town, where Brandy works for a time. I have been to Montana and to the ghost town where Brandy also works, so it was easy to write about that setting. For Frontier Town, I was lucky to find an abundance of online history and images.
Ending on “for how long?” is such a poignant and yet, open-ended closure. How did you decide to end the stories at that point?
That’s a good question, as the original story actually ends differently. Again without giving away the ending, I’ll just say that sometimes as you are writing, you just know you’ve gotten to the last line, that everything that comes before that line has prepared you to write that last line. It doesn’t always happen that way, but when it does, it’s a mystical feeling. I had that when I wrote the final line. And luckily James felt it was the final line, too. He opens the book, I end it. Or, rather, Stela opens, Brandy concludes.
How long did you work on the novelette?
From beginning to end it was 8 years. We had to take breaks to attend to other projects. Hard to believe, but these kinds of books can take a long time to find a home. We tried the contest route first, which took over a year (we were lucky to place as a semifinalist in Conium Press’s chapbook contest), and as it wasn’t picked up, we began the general submission process, which again took well over a year, and we continually edited even into pages
Any other details to share?
I’d like to let fans of audiobooks know that Blackstone Audio will be coming out with an audio version, read by Siiri Scott, who does an amazing job. She knew just how to read our prose. We’re grateful Blackstone took this on as it’s an experiment for them, to publish something this short. And we are super grateful to Cervena Barva for the gorgeous paperback. And thank you to Fractured Lit for your interest. You guys are off to a great start!
Tara Lynn Masih is a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award for Young Readers for her debut novel My Real Name Is Hanna. Her anthologies include The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. Where the Dog Star Never Glows is her collection of long and very short stories, and she’s published multiple chapbooks with the Feral Press that are archived in universities such as Yale and NYU. She founded the Intercultural Essay Prize in 2006 and The Best Small Fictions series in 2015.
Masih received a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, an Inspirational Woman in Literature Award from AITL Media, and several national book awards including an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for her role as an editor.
James Claffey grew up in Dublin, Ireland, and currently lives in California. His collection of short fiction, Blood a Cold Blue, is published by Press 53. He is currently putting the finishing edits to a novel set in 1980s Dublin. His short fiction piece “Skull of a Sheep,” which first appeared in the New Orleans Review, is in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International. His flash fiction “Kingmaker,” which first appeared in Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art, also features in W.W. Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. “The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me” was published in The Best Small Fictions 2015, and he was a finalist in The Best Small Fictions 2016. His work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, and when not writing he teaches high school English in Santa Barbara.
Amy Barnes has words at a variety of sites including The New Southern Fugitives, FlashBack Fiction, Popshot Quarterly, Flash Fiction Magazine, X-Ray Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic, Museum of Americana, Penny Fiction, Re-side, The Molotov Cocktail, Lucent Dreaming, Lunate Fiction, Rejection Lit, Perhappened, Cabinet of Heed, Spartan Lit, National Flash Flood Day and others. Her work has been long-listed at Reflex Press (3rd place, Summer 2020), Bath Flash Fiction, Retreat West, and TSS Publishing. She volunteers at Fractured Lit, CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, NFFD, The MacGuffin, and Narratively. Her flash collection Mother Figures will be published in May 2021 by ELJ Editions, Ltd.
Submit Your Stories
Always free. Always open. Professional rates.