Exploring the art of prose


Conversations Between Friends: Tara Lynn Masih, Stacy D. Flood, and Kim Chinquee

Image shows three book covers for a new interview called "Conversations Between Friends: Tara Lynn Masih, Stacy D. Flood, and Kim Chinquee."


Wheels, puzzles, the art of Zen—how do these seemingly unrelated topics pertain to the craft of condensing prose? Three authors and friends who bonded over their love of writing “short” explore how writers can fine-tune their flash or novella manuscripts and ponder how form and genre can be malleable. Novels can become novellas-in-flash, flash collections can be molded into novels, and the novella might be the perfect space in which to do “more with less.”


Tara Lynn Masih: I’ve been looking forward to starting this conversation with you, Stacy and Kim. I love that we all came to writing in brief prose formats in different ways, and you both recently created such rich and wonderful works of fiction. Perhaps we could begin by telling readers a little bit about our projects so our discussion is in context.

Stacy D. Flood: I’ve always been fascinated by the novella form; most of my favorite literary works are novellas, and I’d agree with Lindsey Drager that the novella is “a kind of constellation” that “crafts and calcifies a story world, harnessing concision and brevity to widen the scale and possibilities of our own.” My novella, entitled The Salt Fields, follows four African-American travelers during the Great Migration from the South in 1947 and how that one train ride, that one day, affects one passenger’s hopes and life decades afterward, along with the ghosts he takes with him.

Kim Chinquee: On January 1, 2020, I offered a challenge to the online writing group I host to write a flash a day, which was the original intent of the group when I started it in 2001. (This was sort of another jumpstart.) I kept up with the challenge and went through a series of life events, then COVID hit. I continued to write each day throughout the pandemic, work which became Pipette.


TLM: My current book, How We Disappear, is a collection of mostly standard-length stories, with some flash mixed in, plus a novella-in-flash. When I initially started gathering the stories together, I realized they had a connective, gauzy overlay—the theme of disappearance. I love writing in condensed prose, and the novella was originally an attempt to write a novel. But it just did not work. I eventually started playing around with it by revising it as a flash novella, and it just fell into place. I was finally able to complete it and be happy with it.

I want to commend you both on your stunning books. Kim, I recall you telling me that Pipette was originally a flash collection. Tell us how it morphed into a novel-in-flash.

KC: Yes, I originally intended Pipette to be a flash collection, but upon revision, I realized it read more like a novel. (Some readers of my previous collections—Snowdog, Wetsuit, Oh Babynoticed some overlapping themes and asked why I didn’t write them as novels.) And I realized that of all my books, Pipette seemed the most novel-like. I approached my publisher, Ravenna Press, and they were open to publishing it as a novel. So I revised the book for consistency, omitting repetitions. Ultimately, I think Pipette was meant to be a novel and I’m happy with the way it turned out.


TLM: I’m fascinated by how you moved from separate flashes to a cohesive novel. Can you tell us more about how you made it flow like one? Did you have to do any expansion? Restructuring? Did anything surprise you during this process?

KC: After I put all the pieces together, it was laborious to read through it all, and hard to revisit the material. But once I did, I didn’t have to do much restructuring, as far as timelines. And definitely no expansions. I ended up cutting the book at least in half to get rid of all of the things that didn’t add to the forward movement of the story. The biggest work for me was just making everything more consistent and avoiding repetition. The thing that surprised me most was knowing I already had a novel in place. It was kind of liberating to shed all the material that got in the way of that.


TLM: Wow, I find it hard to believe you cut so much! Whatever you did, it worked. So how do you go about cutting what you deem inessential? I think that’s often at the core of writing briefer works like flash and/or microfiction. Even poetry. Do you do this instinctively? I’d ask the same of Stacy, as I know he uses the term “intentional omission.” Perhaps you can both speak on this craft issue.

SDF: What I’ve always loved about novellas is how they do more with less, how expansive they are through few words and particular scenes. For The Salt Fields I wanted to respect the experiences of those who made similar journeys at the time, while simultaneously exploring the power in both what is said and what is left silent. There were a few scenes where I had to write quite a bit in order to get to the essence and feeling of a moment, then discard most of that work to make sure I focused on what the narrator would have found important, or wanted the reader to know. All of this was to keep the narrative—both the seen, and the unseen but felt—intact. I wanted the silences, evident so often in the stories of those who made this Great Migration, to hold as much space as the words themselves.


TLM: Love that, Stacy, how the silences in your prose are echoes of the silences, often forced upon them, in the African-American narrative. I think that is most apparent in your train scenes, the heavy thoughts that go unsaid between the different passengers. Kim, care to chime in on how you decided what was inessential in Pipette? I know some writers especially struggle with concision and I’m sure they would love to hear how you pared things down.

KC: Stacy, I’m fascinated by how you crafted the novella out of respect for the experiences of those who made that similar journey; I could totally feel that. I could really feel the silences, as well as the motion of the train, and in the characters’ voices, particularly Minister’s.

Tara, removing the inessential stuff from Pipette seemed obvious to me; some parts of the book were simply repetitive. In other areas, I found if I got bored or sensed a distraction from the forward momentum, it meant those parts needed to be cut. Kathryn Rantala, my editor at Ravenna Press, was also helpful in pointing out areas that seemed to bog down the narrative—and I agreed with all of her suggestions.

Tara, I’m also curious about your lovely novella in How We Disappear. “An Aura Surrounds That Night” is told in flash sections. How did that come about? Did you craft this with the intention of writing a novella or did this start with writing small pieces that you realized belonged together in this form?


TLM: I agree with you, Kim, on Stacy’s forward momentum, reflecting the journey and events and places that they pass by. I could say the same for your novel. I was expecting a choppy flash experience, as is the case with some of the flash novels I’ve read (that’s not a criticism, just a reaction to the form), but yours flowed forward in the same way as Stacy’s did, just not in the same mechanical vehicle.

“An Aura” was originally to be a novel. I did a ton of research on chicken farms. But it didn’t hold me. It was easy to put aside, procrastinate over, then put in a drawer (at that point in time my writing was still done on yellow legal pads). Recently I felt there was enough there that it deserved a second look. I sort of approached it as a puzzle, tore up the pages and started moving around my scenes, and somehow, it all came together. Well, not entirely. I then had a basic form, kind of like the middle of the puzzle, and I began to write more pieces that filled out the edges. I really enjoyed writing it in a way that I did not enjoy when I was putting it into novel format.

To that end, Stacy, I know you have discussed that you will only ever write prose in novella form. Tell us about that desire. You obviously love the form. Does your work in the theater train you for working in enclosed spaces?

SDF: I’m such a fan of novellas, and how expansive they can be even in their brevity, like how one can see the entire universe in an atom or piece of sea glass. I have a history in short stories as well, and my background in theater helps in both forms, actually. So much of playwriting focuses on the individual scene, and making sure each one incorporates the themes you want to express, and how your characters interact while exploring them, while simultaneously moving the narrative forward. My favorite books seem to do this effortlessly, and having the enclosed space of a stage or limited page count makes me particular about how each word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph is used. All that said, there are many absolutely brilliant novels that can incorporate a breadth of thought, vision, and insight through their pages; I’m simply drawn to the novella’s attempt to do the same.


TLM: And Kim, I would love to hear what you love about flash, as you are considered a master of the form.

KC: Tara, thanks—what a compliment. Oh, what I love about flash fiction?! I love the liberty of the form, how what’s not being said can reveal more than what’s actually being said. How the presence of white space can signify a break and/or rearrangement in time. (A lot of this is also a part of longer forms, and even in poetry, but in flash fiction, I think there’s a different expectation.) I feel, as you mentioned earlier, sometimes crafting flash fiction to me is more puzzle-like. I write every day using random prompt words. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m going to write but the prompt words help me construct a flash and they come together (when successful) like pieces of a puzzle.

Tara, I’m curious about your choices when crafting the book—your decisions when it comes to the order of stories, your thoughts on white space and the brevity of your works in this form in comparison to your longer works?


TLM: Great questions, Kim, and I love your idea of the form being liberating. I approach the ordering of stories as both an editor and a reader. As an editor, my concern is to get the reader invested early on, then keep them turning the page. As a reader, I try to place stories in a continuum that I would want to read them in, in the hopes that I could glean something more by their proximity to each other, something I would not get otherwise if I read the story on its own.

It’s a struggle for me to write long. I do think brains are wired differently and some just work naturally better in smaller spaces. I was able to write my first novel by writing in sections. There are no traditional chapters, just parts. That helped me finish my first novel.

I also use white space. I grew up with a father, Lalit K. Masih, who was a watercolorist. He used to show me, visually, how the art of watercolor starts with and works around the white spaces and forms sketched onto the paper. I recently found his art journal and discovered his notes on the different philosophies of white space (who knew they existed?). He discusses the Zen theory; the art in Chinese ink painting; the Taoist theory; and then he underlines his own conclusion, which is that empty space is “an undefined field, where the viewer can project his own thoughts and feelings, perhaps guided by the forms in the positive space.” I do think that this can be carried over into the flash form, as well as traditional poetry and prose poetry. In fact, I think you can also look at those spaces between the stories in a collection. But I used white space most in the novella and in my novel.

KC: Stacy, I have questions for you too. Mostly regarding train travel and the tragic historical elements of your novella. And your beautiful language.

SDF: And I’m so interested in the structure of Pipette, and how, even through the process you’ve mentioned above, the format feels so organic to the story you’ve crafted, sections like droplets, but everything connecting seamlessly. You’ve mentioned how you had to rework, reorder, remove, and revise sections, but I’m also curious as to whether you had to reconsider any characters or plot points through the process.

And, like you, Tara, it’s difficult for me to write long (quite often I’ll watch a television series and think to myself: Did this really need a season two?). But I absolutely love what you mentioned about white space, and how interested your father was in the differing theories and practices. I’ve found the use of that visual silence to be so helpful, invigorating, limiting, and liberating at the same time. How much do you plan for these silences when conceptualizing your work, and for both you and Kim, for whom these spaces are integral to your works’ architecture, were there any that you had to add, or reconsider, for the sake of momentum?


TLM: Ha! Yeah, I totally agree with you, Stacy. Part of it’s the editor in me, and I often read novels and think: Why did the editor not cut this part? Did it have to be so long? But that’s, admittedly, my bias.

In terms of silences, there were some major ones in my Holocaust novel. I got some criticism for not being more graphic. Outside of the fact it was mainly a YA novel, I also am sort of old school in feeling that the unsaid sometimes has more power than the detailed depiction of some event or happening. Some of my silences are organic, as I’m sure they are for both of you, learning as we go along what needs to be included and what can go. But the greater ones are planned. In my novella, the major event doesn’t really take place. I mean, it does, but it’s not narrated or described. I saw one reviewer say she thought she’d missed something, went back, but it just wasn’t there. It was, she just was unable to read that white space. So, some will get those spaces, some will not. I still prefer to have them.

I’ll let Kim answer your questions for her, but Stacy, I do want to remark that I felt the most powerful white space you included in your novella was that car ride in the dark, back through the woods, followed by taillights. I don’t want to spoil it for the reader, but oh my god, one of the most gut-wrenching scenes I’ve ever read, and you did it without saying anything. Was that intentional? And Kim, you know just what to leave out. Your sentences are like powerful yet delicate hammerings, and my copy of Pipette is full of flags that mark those sentences and acute observations.

KC: I’ll join the choir in saying I struggle to write long. Tara, I’m fascinated by your father’s influence on your work. Love how the theories of visual art can extend and also apply to literary art. And Stacy, love what you point out about the use of visual space. I find myself to be a visual writer, and often imagine those visual spaces, though not overtly—I only realize so after your mentioning. I remember a mentor in graduate school reminding me that sometimes human silences can be awkward, and I think the same can be true in fiction. Sometimes perhaps awkward silences in fiction can bring more truth to the story and give the reader a more acute awareness. Regarding the question about adding white spaces: originally I had each chapter start with its own page, but my editor suggested we just have a few lines of white space between chapters to keep the momentum going. I liked that and went without the page breaks. I did also omit a few characters who didn’t seem essential to the book, so that meant more cutting, paring down, which I think helped to streamline.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of certain books like wheels, moving in a forward momentum. I think of The Salt Fields as that kind of book, with stops along the way, as far as the train’s trajectory, but even in those stops, the plot moves forward and gets more complex. I think particularly of the stop with Divinion’s family, which is one of my favorite parts of the book. I wonder if that scene was planned, crafted to be a central part of the book. Tara, similarly, I see the momentum of the disappearing theme in How We Disappear, with each piece, in a layering sense, and how we can see disappearing in so many ways, and maybe even disappearing a kind of character in itself, and leading to other appearances/discoveries; the profound discovery of a stranger adopting a character’s father’s memorial, the mayflies appearing, then disappearing, the self-discovery. I wonder if, when crafting these books, you had the momentum/layering/stops in mind. Or if the silences came into the forefront. Perhaps I’m being repetitive here. I think this probably circles back to the silences. I used to play piano and sometimes equate stories and poems to songs—each piece has a forward momentum, with staccatos and crescendos, repetitions, and equally important are the rest notes.


TLM: I confess I happen to be watching The Wheel of Time right now, so I find your visual of the wheel, Kim, particularly resonant! I might lean on that in my next novel, as I struggle with plot. I think in Pipette your forward momentum is ingrained in the constant thrust of your main character’s legs and arms as she propels herself forward physically and emotionally while running and skiing. Then the intense power comes when she finally is at rest. And now I do see the musical influence in your work, in the same way I see the theatrical influence in Stacy’s.

Thanks for the nice words about the collection. The collection as a whole had its own life, but the novella was intentionally crafted to try to make the central conflict come out of nowhere (though there is foreshadowing) and then influence the rest of the story, which eventually circles back. Like a wheel. There you go! Support for your theory.

SDF: And I appreciate the musicality in both of your works, in both language and structure. As well, you each employ these aspects to support your momentum; the wheels keep turning. For the scene in The Salt Fields with Divinion’s family, I envisioned it to be a central moment in our understanding of who that character is, as well as what our narrator wants, which leads into the actions that follow. Although it was a stop on the characters’ journey, I wanted it to still keep the suspense for what happens next. And, as you mentioned, I tried to use that openness for the tension in the car ride scene.


TLM: I loved that whole section as well. It sort of glows in the midst of the rest of the darkness. So, I think we are ready to wrap up. This has been such a thought-provoking and enriching conversation and I thank you both for your contributions to literary fiction and for addressing complex issues in your work and discussing your craft.

I want to close with the fact that we all touch on historical episodes in our longer works—my novella is punctuated by the Kennedy tragedies, Kim’s novel with the Afghan war and COVID pandemic—but Stacy, your novella explores in more depth the history of the African-American migration north toward Buffalo and, before that, the intimate history of a family in South Carolina after slavery and war. We are, coincidentally, finishing this conversation during Black History Month, so I thought we should give you the last word. Anything you care to share on why teaching Black history through literature is important and how your novella fits into that canon?

SDF: I think it’s integral to any successful or useful education worldwide. As literature can capture and forward an experience in a unique way (both of your works are prime examples), beyond just statistics or a history book, prioritizing Black voices can give insight into diverse and underrepresented life experiences across the globe. It would be a complete honor for The Salt Fields to be included in that pantheon. The Black experience, so eloquently described by so many of its authors, is one through which human concerns, triumphs, challenges, loves, joys, and strengths are illuminated. This literature—through its beauty, artistry, courage, grace, and resolve—can truly touch and expand the scope of understanding of our existence, as well as each other.


TARA LYNN MASIH is a National Jewish Book Award finalist and winner of a Julia Ward Howe Award, an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award, and multiple Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. She is the author of the acclaimed novel My Real Name Is Hanna and editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Tara also founded The Best Small Fictions series. How We Disappear, her second story collection, won a 2022 Florida Book Award. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida. Find her on Instagram @taralynnmasih.


STACY D. FLOOD is originally from Buffalo, and currently living in Seattle. Flood’s work has been published nationally, and performed on stages nationwide as well as in the Puget Sound Area. He has been an artist-in-residence at DISQUIET in Lisbon, as well as Millay Arts in New York, and he is the recipient of a Getty Fellowship to the Community of Writers. Published by Lanternfish Press, and an editor’s choice pick for both Shelf Awareness and the Historical Novel Society, The Salt Fields is his first novella. Find him on Twitter @stacydflood.


KIM CHINQUEE is the author of seven collections and her recent novel Pipette. She’s been published in hundreds of journals and anthologies including NOON, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, StoryQuarterly, Fiction, Story, Notre Dame Review, and others. She’s the recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, a Henfield Prize, is senior editor of New World Writing Quarterly, contributing editor of Midwest Review, chief editor of Elm Leaves Journal, and associate professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State University, where she codirects its writing major. She’s a competitive triathlete, a certified USA Triathlon official, and lives with her three dogs in Tonawanda, New York. Find her on Twitter @kimchinquee.