Curtis Smith: This is the second year for the Best Small Fictions. What were the anthology’s origins?
Tara L. Masih: I was preparing an introduction for The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and discovered that Robert Oberfirst had published an annual series titled Anthology of Best Short-Short Stories that ran from 1952-60. I wanted to bring that series back. However, our series is more inclusive of prose forms, as the short short has become experimental and hybridized in the literary community. And we are making a bigger effort to make the series international.
CS: Putting together a yearly anthology must be a real undertaking. Can you describe the process?
TM: It is a large undertaking, and I couldn’t do it without the help of many other editors who basically volunteer their time to read for us throughout the year and consult for us. Most of the stories are nominated by journals or presses, but we have roving editors who read anonymously and find stories that might get overlooked. We then have to narrow down the thousands of stories we read to about 100 finalists. The assistant editors and roving editors make their own cuts, I make the second cut, and the consulting editors assist in making the final cut. We now have a general advisory board who will give final input on those few stories we have trouble agreeing on. They are Michael Cocchiarale, X. J. Kennedy, Clare MacQueen, Robert Shapard, Mary Slechta, Pam Painter, Kathy Fish, and James Thomas. Once we have that final list, it goes to the guest editor, who narrows it down to the winners, for want of a better word. We strip the names from all stories so the judging is as fair as it can be.
CS: You’ve attracted some great writers as guest editors—Robert Olen Butler for 2015, Stuart Dybek for 2016, and Amy Hempel for 2017. It’s nice to see big names share their love of and enthusiasm for flash fiction. How have you been able to attract such talented guest editors?
TM: Well, I worked with both Bob Butler and Stuart Dybek while editing The Flash Field Guide. I had a good working relationship with both of them so it was easy for me to approach them. I’m super lucky they agreed, as they are both so busy and get asked to do many things. Amy Hempel was a stab in the dark. I’m just an admirer, not a colleague or friend. I chalk up her acceptance to her love of the form, and the names of the judges who preceded her. They gave us credibility, and for that I’m doubly grateful.
CS: The reviews I’ve read of last year’s edition were really good. You must have been thrilled. Why do you think the response was so positive? The 2016 installment will release this fall—how do you think it stacks up to last year’s offering?
TM: Why do I think the response was so positive? Well, first off, the stories are excellent! Whether or not they resonate with you or suit your taste, everyone can acknowledge that they are finely crafted. I think the rest of the success comes out of the fact that this was a timely project. The Oberfirst generation was gone, but a new one replaced it, thanks to the hard work of editors like the Howes and Shapard and Thomas and Hazuka. The flash world was hungry for this kind of recognition. The form still doesn’t get acknowledged in the way poetry or the long form story does, so I guess we sort of had to create our own awards show. The 2016 volume has its own feel. I’m proud of how many women are represented. It’s a bit less experimental, with more traditional flash, both a reflection of the judge’s taste and the nominations we received. I expect each volume to offer something a bit different, if we do our job right.
CS: I imagine you spend a good amount of your year scouring literary journals. What can you tell us about the current flash fiction scene? It’s a form I’ve seen grow in popularity over the years. Why do you think that is?
TM: I think it coincides with the proliferation of writing programs and the computer revolution. All those great short short anthologies were compiled by professors looking for stories they could teach in the limited classroom time that they had. So then the anthologies took off. Then computers made it easy for literary magazines to start up and run for free, which increased readership, and the need for shorter pieces to read online. Communication has also been pared down to status updates and Tweets, so even folks who normally would not turn to fiction have become interested in the form. And yes, everyone likes to say it’s due to our shortened attention span. That is true, but it’s been short since the Industrial Revolution. So I think it’s more due to the writing programs and anthologies and computers.
CS: There are lots of great outlets for flash fiction these days. What are some of your favorites?
TM: In general, I’m enjoying the amount of flash collections that are being published now. They were so few and far between even 7 years ago. Recent ones include books and chapbooks by Lauren Becker, Sherrie Flick, Grant Faulkner, Robert Scotellaro, and Rosie Forrest. Of the journals out there, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, decomP, The Foundling Review, Corium, Southeast Fiction, Flash Frontier, KYSO Flash, NOON, The Stinging Fly, and Cleaver are just a handful of some of the best journals publishing flash. I’d like to note that quite a few of our winners come from journals that aren’t in the top 50 or even 100, so I think that shows the depth of flash these days.
CS: Where do you see The Best Small Fictions series five years from now? Ten years?
TM: I just hope we are still “seeing” it on bookshelves in ten years! I hope the series has a long life, longer than the Oberfirst series. He had to self-publish the last few. I’m hoping publishers will remain interested. So far they have. I guess this is as good a time as any to mention that we are going to be published by Braddock Avenue Books in 2017. Their distribution will help increase the visibility of the series and I’m looking forward to working with them. I am grateful however to Queen’s Ferry for giving us a great start. Brian Mihok and Steve Seighman designed a beautiful debut.
CS: As a writer yourself, does this project take away time from your own work? Or do you find yourself and your writing energized by the process?
TM: Yes, it does take away from my own work. I wish I could say it energizes me to write. It doesn’t. I barely have time to do what I do, and can’t answer every email. But it does energize me in general to read great work, and like all editors, we love finding that special gem of a story. My staff and I are in a wonderful position, being able to make writers’ lives a bit more exciting. But this project has its down side, too. When some writers or editors don’t get in, they either ignore us or even get angry and abusive. I suppose that comes with the territory, but it does make you question if it’s worth it sometimes. We’ve all been rejected. But those writers and editors who take it with class and keep on trying and those who acknowledge the recognition and understand the time and care that goes into this make all the work worthwhile.
Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle (both ForeWord Books of the Year) and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows. Her flash has been anthologized in Word of Mouth, Brevity & Echo, BITE, Flash Fiction Funny, and Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose, and was featured in Fiction Writer’s Review for National Short Story Month. She is series editor of the annual Best Small Fictions anthology.