Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tara L. Masih Answers Questions in a Flash About Where the Dog Star Never Glows

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Tara L. Masih, author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows (Press 53) answers a few questions about her work.

How long did it take you to write Where the Dog Star Never Glows and how did the book take shape?
I wrote the stories in this collection over a period of two decades. The first reprinted story appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review in 1990, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Rick Bass, and has been reprinted in a chapbook and anthology. I consider the publication of that very short story, “Turtle Hunting,” to be the beginning of my writing career. It was my first acceptance into a well-respected journal, and everything that came from that story was reinforcement for me to keep going. Over the years, I’ve written many different stories—with different plots, styles, voices, settings. I finally felt I had enough quality stories to gather into a collection, and knew I needed an objective eye to get it ready for submission. Novelist Lisa Borders helped me order the stories and pointed out some weaknesses, which I fixed. Ordering a collection is always a challenge, especially when you have such a variety as I do, but she did a great job of placing them in an order that would get the reader interested, and keep them reading to the end.

From the start of this project, I wanted to include the flash fiction pieces I had published that I felt worked well alongside the longer stories. I was starting to see a couple of other writers do this, and didn’t want to restrict myself. They are brief stories, but stories nonetheless, and I hope succeed just as much as the longer prose succeeds. My long-term hope is that if more authors who experiment with different genres and styles are allowed to mix them, it will introduce readers to new and exciting prose options.

After the book was accepted, the publisher dropped one story he felt didn’t hold up to the others, and added in its place another piece of flash. He has great instincts in the story field, and I totally agreed with his decisions. The order Lisa came up with pretty much remained, with a few adjustments for new work (I wrote one new story in the interim). I’ve been really pleased that, so far, even readers who don’t have a literary background and have never read a short short before are accepting and enjoying the interspersed flash. I think they help give the collection a novelistic arc.
How would you describe the book?
When I don’t know someone and am signing a book to them, I usually write, “I hope you enjoy the journey.” It’s very hard to describe one’s own work, except in very basic terms. I guess I see the stories in this book as small stepping stones through a journey into different cultures, eras, situations, beliefs, using nature as a backdrop. Borrowing from what others are saying, the feedback I’m most getting has to do with resonance. People say each story makes them think, and I love that. But they are also commenting on the emotive qualities. So I would say, finally, that this book, if it does its job, will make you both think and feel. It’s not an easy read in some cases, but I’m glad it’s appealing to both men and women.

What is your writing process like?
There is very little that is process-like about my writing. It’s very instinctual, hard to pin down, and I wish the muses hit more often. There are stories I’ve written in a feverish pitch, start to finish and with hardly any edits, in just a few days; and then there are stories that needed several edits over the years. Being an editor myself has definitely helped my own writing. And self-editing, which used to be excruciating—torturous, really—has become much easier. I feel a story is done when I don’t believe I can change one more comma or one more word.

What do you like about the short story form?
I got comfortable with the form in high school. I had a dedicated writing teacher, Kathy Kranidas (now Kathy Collins), who knew how to get the best out of her writing students. She made us go right for the gut of a story, and made us fearless about tackling topics and what kinds of characters we would portray. Nothing superficial came out of that class. And with my interest in sociology, it was the perfect place for me to go. She also gave me the tools to write in a way that suited my brain, and how my mind works and see things. I owe her a huge debt for making the short story fascinating to me; no other form of prose writing equals the excitement for me of meeting (and sometimes failing) the challenge of creating a larger world in a smaller space. I simply love the meteoric quality of the short story.