Zachary Doss is an MFA candidate in the Department of English at The University of Alabama and the editor for Black Warrior Review, a literary journal run by the graduate students of the MFA program. The magazine accepts work from emerging writers outside the University. In this interview, Doss reveals his challenges as an editor, a behind the scenes peek at Black Warrior Review, and insights to his own writing.
I see that Black Warrior Review was established in 1974 by a group of graduate students, but what is the story of its origin?
I don’t know if I have any particular insight into what was going on at that time. I imagine it was, as with any literary journal, founded with an eye to a particular lack in the literary scene that it hoped to fill. The goals of BWR now are to publish a mixture of established and emerging writers and to showcase innovative, groundbreaking writing of all genres. Surely that is some kind of reflection of the principles on which it was founded, but forty-something editors later, it’s hard to say.
As an editor, what attributes do you look for in submissions? What would be the perfect fiction piece? Poetry? Prose?
In 1964, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Potter Stewart said, regarding his definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” Regarding the perfect piece of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, I also know it when I see it. Often the perfect piece isn’t perfect at all. Flaws can be charming, when handled well. I have been pleasantly surprised by pieces I originally expected to dislike. Conversely, I have been disappointed by pieces that I hoped to enjoy, so I try not to go into the editorial process with preconceived notions about a piece. The best pieces succeed on their own terms. I’m really engaged when a piece is carefully constructed or takes some risks or asks something of the reader or has a strong interest in language. I appreciate an investment in craft. I also like a piece that rewards the reader because it must be read more than once. I think the replay value of good writing is important and often overlooked.
How does BWR narrow down the pieces accepted for submission?
The genre editors read all of the work that comes in—the poetry editor reads all of the poetry; the fiction editor reads all of the fiction; and the nonfiction editor reads all of the nonfiction. We get thousands of submissions, and ultimately only a handful make it past this first stage. The editors decide which pieces to bring into meetings, where each piece will be discussed by the editor, managing editor, genre editor, and assistant editors. The work that goes into the journal is selected in those meetings by a vote. We talk about a piece, its merits and faults, and ultimately it is through those discussions that we reach a consensus either way.
What genres do you write? What topics or themes do you explore in your work?
I am primarily a fiction writer. I used to be a poet, but I haven’t really written much poetry in a long time. Sometimes, I write prose poetry, and I think my fiction has a kind of poet’s sensibility. I’m pretty bad at realism, so most of my stories are magical, set slightly in the future or in the past, and things are always strange, or quickly become strange. I like writing stories that are absurd and sometimes violent. Pulling off being funny and sad at the same time in a story is the ideal for me. Lately, I’ve been interested in multiplicity, and many of my stories involve there being too many of something, or something being too big or too small. How does one handle a bad fit?
What have you been working on lately?
Since I’m graduating next year, I’m writing with an eye toward my thesis. I have a few stories that I think will be foundational to that project, which I think will be a single narrative told in a series of stories. I’m reading fairy tales, and most of the parts of my narrative, so far, evoke that fairytale sensibility. My working thesis involves daughters, giants, giant-slayers, Rusalka—water nymph imagery from Slavic culture—witches, and forests.
How has serving as the editor of BWR influenced your work?
I’m not sure it’s influenced what I write, at least not directly. I’ve read a couple of stories that made me excited to be writing and publishing in this moment—there are so many people out there right now doing work that makes me feel really excited. If anything, I think that editing the BWR has motivated me to write more, to submit my work, and to be part of this conversation that’s happening in writing right now. I suppose I can say that editing has been invigorating.
What are some of the challenges you face as the editor of BWR?
I often feel a lot of pressure. As editor, my job is to ensure that all the various parts come together and that, in the end, we make a literary journal. I’m a high-strung type anyway, so that means I spend a lot of time fretting. I also send and receive a lot of email. I think the challenge of working on something that I care about as much as I care about BWR is just that I’m so invested. When things go wrong or something doesn’t quite turn out the way I expected, it’s a heart attack every time.
How does this job challenge your writing?
For me, I think, one of the main challenges has just been keeping up with my writing while also editing. When I was fiction editor, some days I would read forty or fifty stories in a day and then I wouldn’t want to sit down and write. Reading critically in the way that I did as a fiction editor required some of the same muscles as writing and revising. I think this critical process made me a stronger reader of my own work, but it also dominated my writing time. I started writing more when I became editor, because my duties are more administrative and allow me more of the headspace I need to write.
Who does the cover art for each issue?
The design editor and I collaborate about which artist to solicit for each cover. We choose a different artist to feature in each issue, and we pick the cover from the samples they send us. Each issue also has a couple of color pages inside where we showcase more artwork from our cover artist.
As an editor, do you find yourself criticizing your own work more?
People who have been in meetings with me will tell you that I am a tough critic. I’m that way with my own writing as well. I’ve always had very high expectations for my own work, and I think being an editor has just refined my sense for what isn’t working in a story I’ve written. I look at my own writing and that editorial voice comes in to say, “These sentences aren’t doing enough,” or “This is too long,” or “I hate the ending.” When I submit stories for publication, I imagine all editors are tough readers, and I try to polish my stories as much as I can.