November 17, 2015
I first became familiar with Tara L. Masih’s work when I read The Rose Metal Press Field Guide To Writing Flash Fiction, which she edited and introduced. Each chapter had an essay about the craft of writing flash fiction followed by an exemplary text. During several weeks in 2013, I read the field guide each morning like a devotional.
As I later discovered, Masih also had written two chapbooks of flash fiction (Fragile Skins and Tall Grasses) and had edited The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays.
Guided by Guest Editor and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler, The Best Small Fictions 2015 holds 55 short-short fictions of 1,000 words or less, drawn from dozens of print and online literary journals.
The collection also includes a brief interview with Phong Nguyen, editor of Pleiades: Literature In Context, and another brief interview with Michael Martone, who has two small fictions in this inaugural edition.
I recently did my own brief interview with Masih via email.
Colin Foote Burch
I’m curious about how you became aware of flash fiction as a genre with its own essence and identity. I realize that awareness could have been an epiphany, or it could have been a process. Do you remember when you realized flash fiction was a unique literary form, perhaps unique from short fiction? When was that realization and how did it come about? Even considering all the elements that can be present within flash fiction, what was the first element or set of elements that struck you as a distinctive mark of the short-short story?
Tara L. Masih
It was more of a process. I began writing vignettes in high school in the early ’80s , under the guidance of writer Kathy Collins, who had been taught by Elizabeth Graves. Collins had us write brief scenes, scenes that had a large impact on us emotionally. Once I left high school, I didn’t personally know anyone else writing in this manner. Few journals took vignettes, and as I was at the beginner’s level, I didn’t see the scattered ones being published in, say, The New Yorker. In the late ’80s, I came across Irving Howe’s anthology of Short Shorts and was given a copy of Shapard and Thomas’s Sudden Fiction. I think those were aha! moments of recognition and excitement. What I was doing had more formal names, and there were quite a few writers out there experimenting with the form. I began to consciously shape smaller stories when I didn’t have enough material for a longer one. And instead of writing just a scene, the vignettes had more shape and structure. So the first element I began to work with was to have some sort of story structure in a small space. As I like to experiment, I can’t say all my flash has these elements. Some remain sketches or prose poems. And I think there is room in the flash world for different elements and styles.
Among those flash fiction pieces you discovered early on, what are some of the gems that remain your favorites? And what is it about those pieces that you especially like?
It’s been almost 30 years since I read those books cover to cover, but in looking at the contents, the stories I remember vividly and go back to are all very different. The Howes’ book introduced me to Sherwood Anderson. His “Paper Pills” to me is groundbreaking in its brevity and willingness to discuss sexuality. It’s a perfectly crafted mini story with memorable details and characters. In the Sudden anthology, Lydia Davis’s “The Sock” has become a contemporary classic. I love how this object story conveys in a small space the enormity of a marriage that’s unraveled, and its aftermath. I love her long, seductive, almost run-on sentences and her narrator’s ironic voice. Very different but just as memorable for me is Jayne Anne Phillips’s “Blind Girls.” Jayne’s lyricism is closer to my personal taste in prose, and her use of language and rhythm is unparalleled. It’s a sensual story and captures something special about youth and culture. I love how it circles in on itself, too. What all three have in common is the ability to capture moments with humanistic intensity and all were willing to experiment with the short-short form.
You have such a keen, holistic sense of these short-short stories; I wonder if you have a general sense of where beginning writers of flash fiction tend to get off track, at least in the context of the form. Maybe this is a better way to put it: Are there some common types of revisions for short-shorts written by beginners? Are there some familiar issues in, for example, a workshop setting? Or maybe familiar issues in an editor’s rejection letter? (And maybe those issues are the same for beginners and experts!)
Yes, this is an easy answer. Beginning writers, and as you note some more advanced writers new to flash or short-short stories, think that it’s just about writing short. They’ll take an idea, write in the usual narrative flow of a novel, and then end it abruptly. That’s not what the best brief stories are about. Compression is done in all the story moments. And in the language, characters, setting, plot, and even in the spaces of the plot. I’m not sure I can go into it more heavily here as there are different approaches and styles as those who work in the genre experiment with form and language and continually push the boundaries into hybrid fiction. So, authors are free to play around with the form, but they need to study it. Reading the best authors is a great way to start. Read Michael Martone, Stuart Dybek, Kathy Fish, to name a few contemporary authors, and go back and read Hemingway, Kawabata, and Sherwood Anderson, to name a few classic authors.
Let’s talk about The Best Small Fictions 2015, the series which is debuting October 6. As Series Editor, you probably have the best gig in flash-fiction publishing. Establishing an annual collection is, in popular understatement, kind of a big deal. With it, we also have the anticipation of a new Guest Editor each year. You could not have found a better debut Guest Editor than Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler (who wrote one of my favorite craft essays in another one of your projects, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction). How did you make the decision to choose Butler as your first guest editor? What did he contribute to the series?
I do feel like this is a dream job. It combines most of my interests: book production and design, reading, editing, and working with writers. I love having the opportunity to work with our best literary authors, and I also enjoy promoting them, especially their flash work because flash is still not widely respected in the lit community. Butler was our first choice to start the series. A combination of his international name recognition, his astute judgment of what constitutes a small fiction, and the fact that he and I had worked together on the Flash Field Guide. I knew his work ethic and that he is generous toward small presses. He brought a lot to the series in terms of sage advice on beginning one, as well as running one to best meet the needs of future Guest Editors. We are grateful for his support of this project, which he is just quoted as saying is an “extraordinarily important literary event.”
Thank you for your time and best wishes for the series.
And thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule to ask me these questions.