On April 20, the Florida Book Awards recognized five authors living in St. Johns and Duval counties. That two of them hail from St. Augustine further enriches the city’s already notable literary reputation.
In the very competitive General Fiction category, Kim Bradley won the silver award and Tara Lynn Masih won the bronze. These victories are even more significant in that both writers won for short story collections, a literary form often overshadowed by a public preference for the novel.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” said Masih. “It was a very difficult year for lots of different reasons, and this just totally made all the difficult times worth it.”
“You go through so much rejection as a writer that, when I got that email, I was just over the moon,” Bradley said, laughing at her own reaction and the response by those around her. “My daughter, she was like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ The dog was bringing me toys!”
Bradley won for “Spillway” (Stephen F. Austin State University), the stories of which feature “con artists, preachers, ghosts, alligators, crop dusters and more.”
“What they have in common, which I didn’t realize until I was finished with the book, is they’re all characters who are looking for redemption of some sort,” Bradley said. “They are all kind of on the verge of collapse. Some make it, and some don’t.”
She said she’s interested in people who are in trouble, how they survive, how they get out of the messes in which they find themselves.
Masih won for “How We Disappear” (Press 53), which focuses on “those taken, those missing and those neither here nor gone” — runaways, exiles, wanderers, ghosts and one famous author.
The theme of disappearance that runs throughout the stories hadn’t actually occurred to Masih until she read over her collection, at which point it “appeared.” The theme suggested the book’s title and a final inclusion: a speculative piece on the well-known, 11-day disappearance of mystery writer Agatha Christie in 1926.
This was, in fact, the second time Masih had written about Christie’s vanishing, the first being a paper composed for a high school class.
Setting and Character
Bradley sets her stories in both North Florida and in South Alabama, the latter specifically in a fictionalized version of her hometown, Monroeville.
As a child, she was a voracious reader, and even then, she loved stories with a sense of place.
“I just loved the landscape that I grew up in,” she said.
Still, when she went to write about the place she knew best, she had to contend with an already well-established version of that same town: Monroeville was the home of, and inspiration for, Harper Lee, who in fact lived across the street from Bradley’s grandparents.
“I had a really hard time writing about Monroeville at first because of Harper Lee,” Bradley said. “Until, I just was like, my Monroeville was different than hers. Once I was able to do that, once I gave it another name, rebranded it, I was able to write about it.”
Masih’s characters, on the other hand, are from all over the world: Siberia, Puerto Rico, Holland and various places in the United States. Her eclectic selection of locales reflects her love of travel, as well as the things she has learned in divers places.
In addition, her father being from India and her mother being of mostly European descent, she developed a point of reference different from that of many people.
“I grew up with two different ways of looking at the world,” she said, “which I think opened me up to life in a way some people don’t have. I tend to see both sides of a story.”
It begins with reading
Both authors said they loved reading when they were children.
“I had a very literate grandmother,” Masih said. “She’s the one that really instilled the joy of reading in me. I couldn’t wait for any major holiday, because I’d get a big stack of books!”
In fact, it was Masih’s grandmother who directed her to a career closely associated with writing: publication.
“I remember having one conversation with my grandmother,” she said. “I know exactly where I was. I was 9 years old. I was outside. And I think she said to me, ‘You really enjoy reading, don’t you?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘You know, you can do that for a living.’”
Her grandmother suggested working as a proofreader.
“So, my goal from age 9 was to get into publishing,” Masih said.
She went on to earn a Master’s degree in writing and publishing from Emerson College and work as a production manager in the publishing industry. Eventually, she got to work with English textbooks, where she applied her skills to Shakespeare and the various classics, as well as the best short stories in print.
Finally, she quit that career to freelance and work as a proofreader and copy editor.
Bradley studied journalism at Auburn University and began working at some small newspapers but found it wasn’t for her. She went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from the University of New Orleans. Today, she is an associate professor at Flagler College, where she teaches creative writing and composition.
But through it all, Bradley and Masih held on to their goal of writing fiction.
Rejection is something a writer must endure, a reality to which both Bradley and Masih can each attest. Both labored for years before making a sale.
“It took me a long time for anybody to take my stories,” Bradley said. “But I didn’t give up. You just have to be really stubborn.”
For Masih, making time to write was always a challenge. Her role as a parent took precedence. Finishing anything was “almost impossible.”
Eventually, she found ingress to the world of the author via flash fiction, very short works that, by virtue of their extreme brevity, made them manageable for the time-pressed writer.
In 2006, she was published in the short short story anthology “Brevity & Echo” from Rose Metal Press. Three years later, she edited “The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction,” which coincidentally Bradley used in a flash fiction class she was teaching.
In 2018, Mandel Vilar Press published Masih’s novel “My Real Name is Hannah,” which went on to win a gold Florida Book Award and a gold Foreward INDIES Book of the Year Award in Historical Fiction. It was a 2019 finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and received numerous other awards and recognitions.
Bradley’s short fiction has appeared in Bayou, The Louisville Review, Natural Bridge, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Real South Magazine, The Southern Humanities Review and Southern Indiana Review.
What works best
Bradley said she writes in parts.
“I don’t always start at the very beginning,” she said. “The key thing for me is I have to let the idea simmer. I think about it and think about it until I’m absolutely ready to sit down and write.”
Inspiration is a major component in Masih’s work, as well.
“I’ve never been the kind of writer that can sit down and just say, ‘OK, I’ve got three hours to write,” and then write,” she said. “The best part about writing are those moments that almost feel divine, you know, no matter what your beliefs are, that there’s something coming from some outside source that you’re not in control of that’s now coming through you.”
She added that some of her best work has come from reading news stories, which she said “start the wheels rolling.”
Ultimately, Masih said the intention of her writing is to create tolerance for people who are different.
Similarly, Bradley said she hopes her work will help readers understand, and have empathy for, those who are not like them.
Both authors are at work on their next projects. Masih is writing a novel that takes place during World War II set in Massachusetts, Tennessee and St. Augustine. Bradley is working on a novel set on the Suwannee River.
Florida Book Awards
The Florida Book Awards annually recognizes literature written by Florida authors and books about the Sunshine State. Awards are given in 11 categories and are presented during a banquet each April in Tallahassee. Award-winning books are placed on permanent display at the library in the Governor’s Mansion and in an exhibit in Florida State University’s Strozier Library.
Winning fiction writers also appear as part of a panel at the Word of South event.
Bradley’s and Masih’s books are available for purchase at bookshop.org, amazon.com and also at the Flagler College bookstore.
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