A Lifelong Lover of Books Breaks Ground Atop the Literary World

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?

LL: I have some ideas brewing, but first and foremost, I’d like to support the programs they’re already doing: Book Up, Innovations in Reading, the National Book Awards, 5 Under 35. Because the work that they are doing really is great. Harold Augenbraum, the outgoing executive director, has really believed in readers, believed in writers and believed in books. And he has believed that everyone should be a part of that conversation.


TR: You are the first African American and the first woman to lead the National Book Foundation. You were also the first black woman publisher of Guernica. What does it feel like to be a woman of firsts?

LL: I tend to charge ahead and not pay attention to that stuff. At the end of the day, you just want to do the work. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. I don’t know that I went into the interview thinking, “I’m black and I am a woman.” I went into the interview thinking, “I can do this job.” But once you announce it into the world, you realize that beyond your own desire to do the kind of work you want to do in the world, it does matter.


The response to the announcement of the job was a little overwhelming—but in a good way. It makes people feel like we are included in the conversation—that things might be changing. And I am happy about that because I believe in inclusivity. I believe we should be championing the work of women. I believe we should be championing the work of people who have been marginalized. That’s who I am. How can I not believe in that? But beyond being black or being a woman, that perspective of having to seek out opportunities—to fight a little harder—makes you more sensitive to all audiences.

TR: The National Book Foundation has been, for the most part, very diverse in terms of the people nominated for awards, which is exciting to see. But that is not the case in publishing at large. What do you make of the lack of diversity in publishing?


LL: I have always championed the concept of administrators of color. My mother worked in advertising, and growing up, I saw my mother’s community of women working behind the scenes. I had the opportunity from a young age to know that I could do this work.

I think that having diversity in people making decisions about hiring, programming, book contracts, marketing, especially publicity, how you find your audience—I think that’s hugely important to the conversation. It’s not just the content of the book. It’s how you sell it. Who you sell it to. How much it costs. What the entry point is. I think that having people who don’t come from Ivy League colleges, but who come from all different backgrounds, might change the game.


TR: Is it odd to you that in 2016, we are still breaking racial and gender barriers and still having so many “firsts”?

LL: Oh yes, it’s staggering. But lately, I have been feeling more encouraged. It feels like the conversation is present. And it feels like more people are taking part of the conversation. On some level it’s contentious, but within my community, it’s not. It’s not something that will be solved overnight, but there is a real intent to create a better world, a world that feels more equitable for everyone.


Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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