A Lifelong Lover of Books Breaks Ground Atop the Literary World

The Root presents a Q&A with Lisa Lucas, the first woman and first African American to head the National Book Foundation.

Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation
Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation Beowulf Sheehan

At 36 years old, Lisa Lucas is a woman of firsts. A little less than four years ago, she was appointed the first African American and first female publisher of Guernica magazine. This month she was appointed the first African American and first woman to be executive director of the National Book Foundation. “The National Book Foundation,” Lucas says, “is the ‘Oscars’ of books,” giving out awards each year to the best fiction, poetry, nonfiction and children’s literature written in the United States. It also honors young writers and administers programs to encourage reading across all ages.

Born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, Lucas learned the value of hard work at a young age. At 15 she was an intern at Vibe magazine, where she wrote her first ad copy. At 17 she was organizing events for the KIIS-FM radio station. After a break for college at the University of Chicago, where she studied English, Lucas cut her teeth in the nonprofit world, working for the Steppenwolf Theatre Co., and then moved back East to direct the education department of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Now Lucas is excited to combine her lifelong love of reading with her career in nonprofit management. “I just love books,” Lucas says simply. “I would like to make sure that everyone everywhere loves books.” The Root sat down with Lucas to discuss arts administration, the importance of literature and her incredible work ethic.

The Root: What inspired your love of reading and the arts?

Lisa Lucas: For a long time, I worked in film and theater, but reading started when I was much younger. I was always a reader. My grandfather would come and pick me up every Tuesday night for our date night, which was the sweetest thing in the entire world. And if we got to go to the bookstore, that was the best.

My paternal grandmother was an educator who taught first-graders to read. And my grandmother on my mother’s side was also an early-literacy specialist. So they were both people who loved reading and thought reading was so important. And my mother was the No. 1 book buyer, book reader and library user. There were books everywhere in my house. Books were very present. I just loved books. I never understood reading as anything but a pleasurable activity from a very young age.

TR: Why are the arts and literature so important?

LL: There are moments where we don’t understand the world we live in—where we don’t understand our own lives, our sadness or our joy. I have always felt that books help me feel less alone in the world. They make our lives bigger—they help us to feel feelings we wouldn’t otherwise feel and to understand feelings that we don’t have a framework for. And learning from books is so empowering—whether it be from history, a novel or a poem. When you come away from reading having learned something, you yourself are bigger.

TR: For those who do not know, what is the National Book Foundation? Why is it important?

LL: The mission of the National Book Foundation is to celebrate the best American literature and help to increase the cultural value of great writing. The primary program most people will know about is the National Book Awards, the award given every year celebrating excellent fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s literature.

TR: What are some of your plans for the National Book Foundation during your tenure as executive director?