On March 14, Lisa Lucas will assume her role as executive director of the National Book Foundation. The 36-year-old, who was most recently publisher of Guernica magazine, will become the third executive director of the NBF. She will also be the first woman, and the first African-American to lead the organization. She explained how she plans to make the NBF more relevant to those outside the sometimes insular world of New York publishing.
The mission of the NBF is, in large part, to "enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.” In other words, to reach more readers. How do you plan to do that?
We need to keep doing the work of expanding of who we think the audience is. There are so many preconceived notions of who reads books; our job at NBF is to celebrate great work, but also to make sure that that great work gets into the hands of more people. We’ll keep building – keep thinking nationally, keep thinking digitally, and keep thinking about those who aren’t being recognized as a strong, supportive community of readers. ... [The National Book Awards] is also something that can become accessible for more than just the publishing industry and those already paying attention. It’s a great way to remind folks that books are fun, and glamorous, and something that we can all engage with.
Your being appointed to head the NBF comes at a time when the book publishing industry seems to be doing more than simply wringing its hands about its lack of diversity. What do you see as your role in addressing the issue of diversity in publishing?
A large part of why I wanted to do this job is that the work being done is so thoughtful about reaching out to and reflecting the composition of the country we live in—be it race, class, region, gender or sexuality. The NBF has done an amazing job of thinking about how to ensure that its programs are inclusive..... Broadly speaking, as an industry we need to hire more equitably and diversely, but we also need to encourage the next generation of professionals to think about behind-the-scenes jobs, especially those from marginalized or under-represented communities. Young people know what writers, filmmakers, painters, dancers, and musicians do, but they aren’t thinking about becoming publicists or editors or dramaturgs or non-profit arts administrators. I hope that my being here helps to encourage some of them to think about doing this kind of work. They'll help change things by simply doing these jobs.
You spent more than three years at Guernica, you've worked in the film industry for the Tribeca Film Institute and you served on the Brooklyn Book Festival’s planning committee. But you do not come from the inner echelons of the publishing industry. How do you think this will affect your tenure at NBF?
I do think it matters that I come from outside of the publishing industry—it gives one a completely different perspective. It's a boon to be able to learn from film, theater and publishing and to apply all these strengths to the task at hand. For instance, theater is incredible at audience development. That industry knows that you need to start audiences early and have robust education programs, if you want people sitting in seats for more than just one generation. When I started working at Tribeca, things in film were changing dramatically. As the medium became more digital, and more driven by social media, it became more accessible and affordable. We were able to think about how film education programming could reach students more broadly. I think much of that work will carry over to the NBF: how to harness the energy that changing platforms and greater accessibility provide. The film community also has a super multi-disciplinary nature and really knows how to bring writers, artists, activists and new audiences into the conversation. Partnership is crucial for expanding work and visibility and that’s definitely something I’m bringing with me.
I live in the Midwest, so I hear it all the time: complaints that the book publishing industry is too New York City-centric, too focused on what is going on with the Big Five. Do you plan on trying to challenge the perception that the industry is too preoccupied with the major houses in Manhattan?
My first job was at a regional theater company in Chicago. Regional has been fighting the good fight in the shadows of Broadway and Off-Broadway for years despite the fact that some of the most exciting, diverse, boundary-pushing work comes out of regional theater. Coming from that background, it’s hard to discount the incredible work that’s coming out of so many different parts of the country, and to cheer on new work that keeps springing up everywhere. We’re the National Book Foundation, not the New York Book Foundation. That means talking with booksellers, independent presses and audiences around the country. I’m coming from Guernica, which happens to be in New York, but is spiritually excellent at being a global literary citizen. Thinking about other parts of the country or the world is in my DNA and in the NBF’s, too. I don’t know that we can change the fabric of the publishing industry, but we can salute and celebrate work and readers from everywhere.