Zack Rybak is Carve's new Associate Editor, in charge of managing fiction submissions and the fiction reading committee. He also has a hand in decisions about which stories end up on our editor's desk.
Zack holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Montana. He hails from Reno and has a dog named Wes, who accompanies him everywhere. We sat down with him to learn about his perception of how genres intersect, what he likes to read, and how he defines "honest fiction."
How does your relationship with poetry impact the way you read fiction?
I think reading and writing poetry has, over time, changed how much I value risk. What I mean by that has less to do with content and more to do with following a turn or some movement into the unknown—and, when doing so, doing so with the knowledge that the entire piece might collapse and all the work you’ve done up to that point might be ruined. That risk, that instinct to follow a turn because maybe that’s what this is all really about, is now something I crave in fiction. I don’t remember looking for that so much before earning my MFA in poetry. Sebald is a writer who enacts over and over this sort of turn-following.
What draws you to fiction as a genre?
I don’t think there’s another genre that opens up the possibility of feeling not quite so alone the way fiction does. I don’t intend that to come across as hyperbolic as it sounds—to clarify, I know that all writing is relational at some level. Poetry can give you back the texture of a memory or a dream, and nonfiction can help you get perspective or bring you into contact with others intellectually. But fiction, or at least honest fiction, in a strange, subtle way can convince you, deep down, that you’re not alone. I seem to forget this if I’m away from fiction for too long. But maybe I’m being dramatic.
What do you love seeing in stories? Likewise, what are your pet peeves?
I love long-winded, syntactically dense sentences. My biggest pet peeve has to be empty phrases in the first sentence (i.e., most any “it was” construction where there’s no noun for context). That lack of attention to language and image puts me in a really bad mood.
Who is a writer you’ve read recently that you’d like to recommend?
I just read Rachel King’s “Railing” in a recent One Story. The prose was clean and the story was crushing. I’m excited to see what else she has coming down the pike.
How do you know if a story is a Carve story? What does “honest fiction” mean to you?
A Carve story works on you both body and mind, accesses and translates emotional geographies which are usually left buried beneath inattentiveness. They are gut-pulls that stay with you. Regardless of character or tone or outlook, a Carve story will articulate or re-articulate some cross-section of what it means to be human.
As for “honest fiction,” I think there’s a feeling the reader gets, something like anticipation, where they can sense that the craft itself is being used to understand or explore something essential, something that has possessed and haunted the writer and can now, perhaps, possess and haunt the reader. Woolf’s work, for example, embodies this, gives me that buzz while reading. Her novels navigate trauma and habit and language and relationships, but again and again the form this takes, what’s really at stake, is simply this lifelong longing to understand something she senses is there, knows intimately, but cannot hold, and how for her it all has something to do with figure and background, the way “the swallow dips her wings in dark pools.” In other words, you can tell when a writer fakes it.