Disappearing and Reappearing—An interview with Tara Lynn Masih
If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading Tara Lynn Masih’s new novella and short story collection, How We Disappear, and from speaking with Masih herself, it’s that a book, like the person writing it, is so much more than the sum of its parts. In pairing the memory-exploring novella "An Aura Surrounds That Night" with stories of aching, lonely characters ranging through the natural world, and worlds they create for themselves, Masih creates a reading experience that goes beyond the potential of each work. Masih is truly a master of her craft and I’m honored to have had a chance to share words, thoughts and new ideas with her.
I’ll admit it—I’m fascinated by short story collections. I love how an author’s voice can resonate clearly through so many disparate pieces and, in a collection, find an original and powerful strength. In your new collection How We Disappear, the acts of seeing and disappearing are clear themes running through all of your stories, but they are by no means the only threads that bind the collection. What do you think is the deepest current holding How We Disappear together and driving it forward?
I think the natural world for sure connects each story. Even in the urban “What You Can’t See in the Picture,” there is an element of the wild in the theme of hunted versus hunting, and in the outlying trees and scrubland that serves as a sort of dark fairy tale woods. I’m not sure beyond that what the deepest current is. I write instinctively so don’t plan it out. I do, however, always have the intent to expose the reader to some aspect of humanity they might not be familiar with. Did you pick up on something deeper?
I don’t know if it’s any deeper, but I do think there is the theme of “secrets” in many of the stories. When dealing with others, your characters seem to hold themselves close—often harboring full or half-secrets. There is an openness, a truthfulness, though, in how those characters present themselves to, or interact with, the natural world. So maybe all three of those themes are related or play off of one another.
Sounds good to me! One of the things I love about writing collections is how people interpret the stories. Once you send them out into the world, they are sort of no longer yours. I do think you hit on something that’s reflected in the epigram for the bio on Agatha Christie, about every story being an escape story. I suppose we’re often trying to escape our own secrets or the ramifications of holding them or revealing them.
Going back to my fascination… as someone who has written short stories, but never dared to attempt a collection, I’m curious as to how someone like you—a prolific short story author—goes about making your choices. And to follow up, you include in this collection the novella “An Aura Surrounds That Night.” How did this piece become attached to the stories and become part of the book as a whole?
Well, thank you so much for calling me prolific! By my standards, and if I compare myself to other writing friends, I’m not prolific at all. My stories come slowly, as does my inspiration. It takes a lot to make we want to dive into a story. I can’t force it. Sitting at my desk does nothing.
But to answer your question, and I’m so glad you appreciate short stories as many readers don’t, I’ve never written a collection with a theme in mind. I just write stories for myself. Eventually there comes a time when you realize you’ve published or compiled enough for a collection. Then it’s sort of like putting together a crazy quilt. You take all these scraps of material that you love and that mean something to you, and you try to stitch them together to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes you have to discard a favorite story for one that fits better.
I’m thinking you might have one in mind… was there a single story that you wanted to include, that had your whole heart, but wouldn’t fit with the collection?
“Those Who Have Gone” was part of my first collection, but was dropped. It did not fit into that one, and it wasn’t ready. I’ve worked on it over the years and when I realized it fit the current theme, I put it back in, and the editor accepted it. To finish your question, when I organize a collection, I try to make it flow. Assuming the reader will read front to back. There are readers who poke around, but you can’t cater to them.
I just realized that I’m that reader. As much as I’m obsessed about structure in my own writing, it never really occurred to me that a short story collection—unless it’s a linked collection, and even then—should be read in the same linear way as a novel.
Ha! There you go. I can’t speak for all story writers, but we do discuss this, how we agonize over the order and then people don’t follow it!
Obviously a strong story has to open the collection to get people reading and invested, and it’s like waves lapping at the shoreline from there on. You try to find a rhythm that ebbs and flows to keep the reader moving along and not get bogged down in the same feeling. Then you try to end with a story that will resonate and which might encapsulate the whole collection. That’s how I do it, anyway, and that’s how I helped other authors prepare their manuscripts when I worked as a manuscript consultant.
The novella is honestly a failed novel. I started it almost twenty years ago and it just fell by the wayside. I tried multiple times to finish it and never got anywhere. When I finally gave in to the process of “giving up,” it suddenly came to me to rewrite it as a flash novella. I took it up again, and it flowed. And it fit the disappearance theme, so it was the best place to publish it.
I love that! I’ve always thought that there is no such thing as wasted writing. Once the idea is in your head, and especially once you’ve started the writing process, it’s all meant to be used in one way or another. “An Aura Surrounds That Night” is a stunning novella-in-flash and I, for one, think it turned out perfectly.
Given the many years I struggled on that farm story, your words totally make it worthwhile.
You are (obviously) a talented short story writer—including flash fiction—but you’re also a novelist as well. Your 2018 novel, My Real Name is Hanna, racked up quite a few nominations and awards, including those from the Florida Book Awards and the National Jewish Book Awards. How is your writing process different for different genres? And do you go through spells where you’re hyper-focused on one form of writing or are you fluid in your styles and genres?
I’d have to say my process is the same whether it’s a micro piece or a novel. For me, first it’s hearing the voice, then getting the first line down, then going with the flow and getting to that perfect (for me) ending.
But as I’m sure you know, the novel is a much bigger, nefarious beast to tackle. Hanna was a shortish novel, so I was able to sort of learn my way into writing that one. I’m working on a much more complex one and at times get very overwhelmed, especially since I do historical fiction and it requires a lot of research. Does that happen to you as well? My solution in this second novel is to almost write three different books (as parts) so I don’t get lost in the plot.
I am notorious for falling down research-rabbit holes. I will spend hours researching the most ridiculous things while writing. It can be very overwhelming! To find a balance, I try to limit and edit myself as I’m incorporating those research details. Even though I often learn the most fascinating things during the process, when it comes to actually writing, I always force myself to keep in mind—what is necessary to the character and, then, what is necessary for the reader. It can be tempting to include extraneous material, but I think in the end, everything must be in service to the actual story.
I admit to liking the research more than the writing. Writing can be so emotionally laborious. Research is endlessly fascinating and neutral. And for me, it drives the plot and story.
If I had to pick a favorite piece from How We Disappear—and this is hard!—I would have to name “Notes to THE WORLD,” the story of a trapper’s connection to a woman living in extreme isolation on the Siberian Taiga. The story is both emotionally compelling and structurally dazzling, but I was also wooed by its authenticity. You write about hunting and living in the farthest wilderness as though you’ve experienced it yourself. Is any of Grigori or Desya’s story familiar to you personally? Or was “Notes to THE WORLD” a labor of research-love?
I love when readers read my fiction and think it might be autobiographical in some way. I once was rejected from a lit mag when I sent in a fiction story—they returned it saying they only publish fiction! I love to get into other people’s minds and try hard to make my characters believable, make the setting feel real. That’s one of the best parts of reading, isn’t it? Losing yourself in a character or being transported to another place outside your comfort zone. “Notes” is all research based. However, haven’t we all wanted to escape at times or to find that one person who will listen to us and respect us?
Absolutely! One of the (many) reasons I immediately connected with How We Disappear is your deft use and exploration of the natural world. While so many of your characters carry secrets and, indeed, are often defined by them, you write about nature as a place of openness, where the deceits of people have no relevance. As someone who often connects more with animals and the natural world than people, the way your settings and characters worked together particularly resonates with me. Is this something that you intentionally include in your work? Or is it an extension of how you personally perceive and interact with nature?
I wish more women wrote about the natural world. I do see it happening more now, but when I started thirty years ago, there were almost none. After I got introduced to Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, I found I didn’t enjoy reading novels set in modern times unless they were based in the rural or natural world in some way. My brain just shuts off if it’s not. When I pick up a book (like your Miraculum) that begins in a rural or wilderness setting, with a powerful narrative voice, something in me wakes up and I’m invested. I grew up when kids were still outdoors all the time. Allowed to go places on their own (woods, beaches, meadows) and explore till it was too dark sometimes to see your own hand in front of you.
I grew up in a rural area of north Florida near St., Augustine, where you live now—an interesting coincidence. And now I’m back to living in the woods again, surrounded by all sorts of birds and critters, fireflies and endless trees. It took me a while to realize it, but honestly all of my work, even my crime novels, are deeply connected to a landscape and carry themes that always harken back to elements of the natural world.
Yes! You remind me of Desya, from “Notes.” Perhaps why that story is a favorite. My mother loved her garden. And gave me The Secret Garden as a child. So then I wanted my own. I had a little corner in the backyard tucked into where our chain link fence met at the corner. I recall two large tree trunks and a path of slate I put down between them, leading to stone bench my parents put in for me to read on. I grew simple things, daffodils and crocuses. I was more at home in that quiet corner than in the world beyond it. I also had a grandfather who took me fishing and boating. Many of my trips abroad have been eco trips. I’d much rather be in the countryside or rain forest than walking the city.
Oh, I love hearing this—especially about your little garden.
I admit I’m not as brave as a friend of mine who hikes and camps in deep swamps and wilderness. So I guess I write my way into it.
Don’t worry—I love nature, and the wilds, but I hate camping! I’ll spend all day and half the night outdoors, but when it comes to actually sleeping, I’m a fan of my own bed. So, to wrap things up, I want to go back to your current work-in-progress. You’re probably as secretive as me about new work, but is there anything you can share with us?
Yes, it’s one of those stories I am keeping to myself for the most part, but I can say it’s once again a World War II novel, set in the States. I never thought I’d be writing about that time again, but I became fascinated by some stories I discovered while researching another novel idea. I’ve learned to go with my instincts, so I totally changed gears and off I went!
Looking forward to it!
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