I get excited about author interviews and I never imagined when I began chatting with other authors how much I would enjoy it (shout-out to you authors, yes, I love hearing from you). This month I interview Tara Lynn Masih and it turns out we are both being published by Cervena Barva Press, something I did not know when we first connected and was delighted to discover. Read on and enjoy!
Tara Lynn Masih's award-winning anthologies include The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. She founded the Intercultural Essay Prize and The Best Small Fictions series. Tara was given a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and an Inspirational Woman in Literature Award from AITL Media. My Real Name Is Hanna, her first novel, received a Gold Medal in the Florida Book Awards and Skipping Stones Honor Award.
Thank you and welcome Tara Lynn Masih.
GG: What brought you to write your new novel My Real Name is Hanna? An inspiration? An experience?
TLM: I saw a documentary, No Place on Earth, about the Stermer family who lived in Ukraine during WW II. My whole family was riveted by the film and deeply affected by the story about a group of Jews who hid underground in dark, dank caves to avoid the Nazis. I couldn't let the story go, and by morning, Hanna's voice was in my head, narrating the opening of what would become the novel.
GG: What sort of experience can readers expect from this novel? Is it dark?
TLM: Yes, it's dark. Being about the Holocaust and how evil can find its way into the smallest of communities and target the Other, it's very dark. But since this is for young readers, I stayed away from much of the horror and tried to balance it with kindness and hope. Some of the horror is there, it has to be told and alluded to, but mostly it happens from a distance. For me, this novel is about emotional and spiritual survival against all odds, more than repeating most of what we know about the violence and depravity that took place. I wanted young people to learn some coping skills from Hanna and her family (and indirectly from the Stermers). And I wanted the truth of some of what took place in Ukraine to be known and discussed and memorialized.
GG: Has anything been added or deleted from the novel so far that has surprised you?
TLM: Well, we changed the book title. My working title for years was The Witness Tree. I loved discovering how messages were used on trees by hunters and gatherers and sheepherders for centuries. And I learned that there were WW II prisoners in Poland who carved their names into trees. So, I incorporated it into the novel. I hated to let that title go, but came to believe strongly that humanizing the title as My Real Name Is Hanna was definitely the right change to make. I thank the publishers at Mandel Vilar Press for making that call.
GG: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
TLM: What a great idea! No, I've never done that. There is something that is hidden and secret in the novel that comes out at some point, but it's revealed to everyone. I do tend to use symbolism in my work that I think goes over most people's heads. My mother says I use too much, but I enjoy it when it finds its way naturally into my writing.
GG: You are known for your flash fiction writing. How do you recommend flash writers transition from brief stories to novel writing?
TLM: It's very hard for most flash writers I know to make the transition, if they started off in flash. Our brains work differently. I know mine wants to compress story all the time. So, to expand is very difficult. I'd recommend starting by writing almost a novel in flash. Make your chapters very short, make your scenes small stories. If you note, I didn't use chapters in the book. I was experimenting, as there aren't "chapters" in daily life. The novel is just sectioned into 3 parts. Within those parts, I wrote small scenes. That helped me finish my first novel.
GG: This is a YA novel, but it seems many adults are reading it. What age do you think it's appropriate for?
TLM: I've been told it's vetted for 9 years and above, though one mother bought the book who said her 8-year-old daughter was very mature. I think it's layered enough that it can be read in one way by young readers, and in another way by adults.
GG: For readers who might be experiencing "Holocaust fatigue," what would you say to them?
TLM: Ask a Holocaust survivor if there are too many Holocaust books out there. They are telling something very important to the next generation, before all survivors are gone who can corroborate facts and personal histories. I've had some people "come out" with their Holocaust family stories for the first time because of this book. I think that's a good thing, both for them and their descendants.
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I read this book and loved it, and did not find it too dark. I thought it was mostly inspirational. I also loved that the story it told was so different than that told by most books about that period, and yet was actually based on real events. This made it all the more amazing and compelling.