“I don’t think there’s another genre that opens up the possibility of feeling not quite so alone the way fiction does.”
I sat down (virtually) with Anna Zumbahlen, our new Managing Editor at Carve, to ask her about her path to this new post, what's in store for the magazine in the coming months, and what is the ineffable porridge that makes up the Carve aesthetic. She graciously gave a considered, thoughtful reply, shining light on nothing less than the soul of the magazine itself.
First off, congrats on the position! I know you've been a reader for Carve for awhile now. What made you take an interest in this new role?
Thank you! Carve has been a big part of my development as a reader and a writer and a person. I discovered it in 2012, read the entire archive, and joined the reading committee a couple of years later. I make most of my decisions based on gut feelings, so when Matthew announced that he was ready to bring on a new managing editor I applied right away. I’ll admit that I used the word “serendipitous” in my cover letter – a word I think I’ve used maybe one other time in my life. But being offered an editorial role with Carve was sort of like being secretly in love with someone for four years, and then one day they called and proposed.
Can you tell us about any new developments you'll be working on?
We’re working on developing the poetry component of the Premium Edition. We just brought on a poetry editor, and she is in the process of recruiting a poetry-specific reading committee. I’m excited about this because poetry has always shared its space with microfiction, and now we’re looking to develop an independent poetry aesthetic and see how it grows. We are also creating a similar space for nonfiction.
Other than that, I would like to continue in the tradition of honest fiction that Matthew and previous editors have established. Carve’s aesthetic is why I fell in love with the magazine – this is something I respect.
What was your particular literary path to becoming managing editor? [i.e., your background]
I studied poetry in Boulder and got involved with Carve while I was in the process of finishing up my undergraduate degree. I primarily write poetry but my lit mag experience has been grounded in short fiction, so my relationship with poetry has always been somewhat separate from my relationship with prose. When I graduated from college I wasn’t sure what role writing and reading would play in my career, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of the literary world.
And then I joined AmeriCorps and moved to rural Iowa. In many ways, my experience with AmeriCorps has opened my perspective and reordered my priorities, and living in Iowa has afforded me time and space to be intentional about figuring out how my literary interests can fit together and become a career. So I guess I’m saying that my particular path to becoming managing editor has been defined by poetry, Iowa, and Carve itself.
How would you characterize the distinctive voice of Carve beyond its stated mission of championing "honest fiction"? How would you define Carve-ness?
Carve stories articulate joy and grief in a way that is intimate and accessible, and that is what makes them honest. Life is navigating this dichotomy and Carve stories are all about life. Carve is also defined by exceptional writing – conveying honesty through the filter of fiction requires a mastery of language and narrative. Fiction is a measured genre with a lot of rules, but honest fiction uses its structure as a tool for emotional engagement.
Carve is also special because we interview our contributing authors and publish these conversations alongside the stories. We get to know the story, and then the story in the context of the writer. What we do is very human.
What advice would you give to those who are just embarking on their literary careers, to the folks who represent the future of literature?
It’s strange being asked this question, because I feel like I am just now embarking on my literary career. And the future of literature is a difficult thing to speculate on – there are so many perspectives and genres.
But: read a lot, and write, and make writers talk to you! What has really worked for me is expressing – to anyone who will listen, really – how much I love words and what words do in the world and why the world needs words. People are sometimes dismissive of this, but be patient! Lovely people will come into your life, and they will change the trajectory of your literary career. I’ve been lucky enough to have met several of these, and I am grateful to Matthew for being one of them. (But the patience thing is something I’m still definitely working on.)
Also: if you’re feeling stuck, move somewhere – anywhere – by yourself. Then stop and just think for a while. I chose rural Iowa because an opportunity presented itself here and I had a gut feeling about it. It was arbitrary and charmed. But the clarity that I’ve found in Iowa is a lot of the reason I was ready for this position at Carve when it became available. The most earnest advice I can give is this: allow yourself the space to figure out what you want, really want, and then go get it.
What's the most compelling aspect of a great story for you, and how do you know when you've found it? Alternatively, what's your biggest pet peeve?
I seek out stories that stick in my ribcage. I want stories that make me question my feelings, or that validate them, with masterful narrative structures and genuine emotional resonance. The specifics of the narrative structure itself are secondary – I’m open to a lot of different approaches. It just has to be impactful and cleanly executed. I also appreciate writers who break rules but are clearly aware of what the rules are. There’s a difference between challenging conventions and being oblivious.
I’m not sure I can claim one narrative element as a pet peeve. I am skeptical of certain devices, but I’m willing to be proven wrong by the right story. But typewriter font. Unless it was typed on an actual typewriter…
Which four contemporary writers would face-off in your own personal literary death match (and who would win?)?
C. A. Conrad, Maggie Nelson, Salman Rushdie, and Lorrie Moore.
All of these writers are accessing and insisting on some aspect of human nature that is difficult to name. They approach it from different perspectives and with different narrative tools, but they all do that thing – that gutpunch. They make you look at yourself and your sphere of influence and consider how you might communicate better. How your actions and words might radiate outward and remedy what is ugly about the world. Because yes, there is a lot that is ugly, but there is also so much room for redemption. Successful writers access that balance. These writers do so as though it’s a matter of life and death, and I’d love to see them share a stage. They’re such different artists and they’re all so feisty – it’s hard to say who would win.