In March 2016, Lisa Lucas took the reins at the National Book Foundation as its new executive director. As both the first woman and the first black person to hold this position, Lucas is vocal about inclusivity in publishing, insisting that the word transcends race to include everyone regardless of their racial, economic, or geographic background.
In many ways, her vision matches up with what the Foundation was already doing before she took over. In recent years, programing has been aimed towards a variety of communities, including those in need of more access to books and literacy programs. Under Lucas’s direction, the Foundation is poised to scale its programs to reach even more people than before.
The conversation about inclusivity in the literature world regained momentum in November 2016 at the National Book Awards. The ceremony took place one week after the presidential election, and speakers and awardees alike were not shy about voicing their opinions about the new administration. Three out of four of the awards went to writers of color. Among them was Rep. John Lewis—an iconic civil rights activist recently criticized by President Trump on Twitter—for March, his graphic novel about marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement.
In this interview, we discuss the significance of the National Book Awards, what inclusivity and diversity means in the publishing world, and why it’s more important than ever to read books during the Trump administration.
Amy Brady: Tell me a little about your background and what drew you to the National Book Foundation.
Lisa Lucas: I came most directly from Guernica, a magazine about arts and politics with an international focus, where I was a publisher. But before that, I worked for the Tribeca Film Institute, where I was an arts administrator. I ran its education programs. At some point, I decided that literature was really where my heart was. I loved the educational work that I was doing, but I wanted to work in books! I cared about writers and about great writing, and I am a huge, huge reader. When I left Tribeca, I spent time trying to figure out what I wanted to do and just by happenstance landed at Guernica. There I learned about independent presses and little magazines, and all the different ways that the publishing world can have an impact.
During that time, I was invited to the National Book Awards after party, and I thought it was just magical. The Awards were celebrating all these people who do hard work in service of literature and books in so many different ways. I looked for ways to get involved and joined the Foundation’s Junior Committee, which helped raise money for them. When the job of Executive Director opened up, I thought well, shoot, I wish I were a little older because I would like to do that. Turns out, they were interested. Now I can’t think of a better place to make an impact on the way that Americans read.
Amy Brady: A recent headline in The Atlantic read “The National Book Awards Make a Powerful Statement,” and the article argued that the 2016 awards were notable because 3 out of 4 of the awards went to writers of color. Why do you think this outcome resonated with so many people?
Lisa Lucas: It’s funny because if you look at the awards from two years back, two of our winners were African American. So it really wasn’t that big of a shift! But here’s what I think happened: over the past couple of years a much more pronounced national conversation around race has occurred, and this past year the awards reflected back what Americans are thinking about. In other words, a significant cultural celebration matched our national conversation, which I think is really wonderful. On top of this, there’s another big conversation in publishing about the importance of diversity. And then you have me: a woman and a person of color who’s in a fairly public role. So all these things together made it feel like it was a statement, when really it was sort of business as usual.
Actually, I think that the Foundation and Harold Augenbraum, the Executive Director before me, have done a really good job of being inclusive. Harold worked hard to make sure that we were equitably comprising our judging panels and that we were thinking meaningfully about what it means to be inclusive and how it goes beyond just race.
Amy Brady: Speakers and awardees at the 2016 National Book Awards weren’t shy about sharing their feelings of trepidation about the election. Why is the act of reading so important during the Trump administration?
Lisa Lucas: Look, reading is always important. Access to information changes our lives. The more we know, the more we can disagree or agree, fight or support—or understand. A couple of things are happening here. There’s an incredible amount of misinformation being distributed. So we have to ask some questions: How do we make sure that we’re armed with information when the articles we find on our social media timelines call into question so much? How do we find primary sources and engage with thinkers? All kinds of reading materials—whether it’s a magazine like Guernica, novels, or poetry—share ideas and communicate them in different ways: ideas about humanity, communities of people who are like us or who are different, love, politics, social justice, or race. In an age of confusion, arming ourselves with information is so important.
I think, secondly, we have to ask ourselves why we’re so divided. I see things on Twitter and the news that are just so fundamentally different from what I think and believe. And I don’t want to not understand my fellow Americans—I want to understand. Reading gives you an opportunity to understand someone else’s perspective, no matter how much you disagree with it. I wish that everyone had the opportunity to try to inhabit someone else’s experiences for a few hours, and literature is a great way to do that. Books are especially useful because the depth of engagement that someone has with a book allows them to really stay with it and to spend some time with that different perspective. I wish I could give all of my friends and family members I have arguments with a book and say ‘read this and tell me what you think!’ They may not end up agreeing with me, but they might understand a bit better where I’m coming from.
Amy Brady: Many of the Foundation’s programs are focused on engaging young people. Why is it important to reach out to this population?
Lisa Lucas: I like to use the example of theater. Regional, independent theater around the country lives or die depended on whether people buy tickets. If they don’t develop an interest and awareness of the work they’re doing, then they’re going to run out of people to sit in those seats. Other arts forms are the same. Music, movies—you have to make sure people know that these things exist and that they’re good.
We start listening to music and watching movies when we’re children and learn that they’re fun. Many children are exposed to books when they’re young, especially in school, but we need to remind children that books are fun and that it can be an independent activity. So while kids are not our entire focus—adults and all types of communities should have access to great literature—I think a great place to start is with our young people by letting them know that reading is joyful and that they are welcome to the literary party.
Amy Brady: I saw you using a #bookrich hashtag on Twitter. Is this a new program?
Lisa Lucas: The Book Rich Environment initiative is a multiorganization program that involves partnerships with the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Urban Libraries Council. Together they coordinate and ensure that different communities have access to books, literacy programs, and activities. At the Foundation, we thought, well, how do we make this project even bigger and provide even more books to communities. We worked with publishers to get donations and worked with libraries to create events and excitement around books. Our goal was to address “book deserts”—places where there are no bookstores and where there are little opportunities to get kids engaged with literature. Getting books into those communities is so important, and we still have a lot of work to do.
Amy Brady: Do you find that social media is useful for the kind of programs that you’re doing?
Lisa Lucas: Social media provides a huge opportunity! We are a big country, a big world, and social media connects us just like literature does. We tend to think of reading as this private activity in the privacy of our own homes, but the reality is that we want to talk about what we read and share with other people our love of books while debating and understanding further the ideas in those books. Through social media we have these powerful tools to share ideas and information and to create a larger literary community.
Amy Brady: What do you have planned for the National Book Foundation in 2017 that you’re really excited about?
Lisa Lucas: We’re in a planning moment. We just got through this first year of transition, where there’s a new leader and everything is shaken up. I spent the year listening and meeting so many people who have ideas about what the Foundation needs, what it can be, what they’re excited about, and what frustrations and hopes are shared by the staff. So now we’re going into a formal strategic planning process where we’ll take the time to really look at our mission, consider our ambition, our strengths and weaknesses, and think about a plan for three years to do the work we believe in and do it in such a way that makes sense. We will come out of this planning stage a much stronger and much more focused National Book Foundation.
Amy Brady: I know you’re an avid reader. What are some of your favorite books or authors?
Lisa Lucas: My answer changes every day because I love so many different books! One National Book Award winner that I love is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. I also loved his “My President was Black” article that he published in the Atlantic. He is such an interesting thinker, and I’m always excited to read what he’s writing. I’ve also always loved Colson Whitehead. I think I’ve read almost every book he’s written. I remember being reading The Colossus of New York when I was younger and going to the Barnes and Noble in Union Square because he was going to be reading there. I asked him to sign my book. I also love Zora Neale Hurston, Zadie Smith, James Baldwin, and Marilynne Robinson. In nonfiction, Robert Caro is someone I’ve always adored. The Power Broker remains one of my very favorite books. One of my recent favorite books that I’ve mentioned everywhere and will just say it again because is just blew my mind was C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. I loved that book. Another new favorite title that I was just blown away by was Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. This is just a sample because asking me this is like asking me who my favorite kid is—it’s impossible to answer.
Lisa Lucas is the executive director of the National Book Foundation. Prior to this role she worked for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and then at the Tribeca Film Institute. In 2012, Lucas joined Guernica as publisher.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.