“It Really Is a Community Affair”: Talking to Guernica Publisher Lisa Lucas about the Brooklyn Book Festival

Photo courtesy of Lisa Lucas

Last week, Lisa Lucas, publisher of Guernica and member of the Brooklyn Literary Council, the organizing body of the Brooklyn Book Festival, sat down with Brooklyn Magazine to talk a little bit about the upcoming week.

How did you get involved with the Brooklyn Book Festival?
I think I’ve been going to the festival for all ten years. It’s one of my favorite days of the year. I actually started working on it about three years ago because of [literary scout] Erin Edminson, who was on the nonfiction committee and suggested that I might enjoy helping out with panel planning. I was working in film at the time, but I was interested in books, in event planning, in diversity and was looking for a way to expand my horizons. That first year I helped put together two nonfiction panels and l absolutely loved it. Of course I was a publishing newbie then, really just a super fan—I just had started volunteering at Guernica. When I started, I thought it was the biggest deal in the world, and the funny thing is I still do. It’s hard work but I still look forward to it every year. Now that my role at Guernica has grown, it’s incredibly rewarding to see authors that we’ve published in the magazine shine on the BKBF stage and to be able to help champion and celebrate the work of those writers in different ways.

How do you put a festival of this size on every year?
It really is a community affair. It started out as a project of Brooklyn Borough Hall when Marty Markowitz was in office and now, 10 years later, is a standalone non-profit. Johnny Temple, the publisher of Akashic, founded it with Liz Koch and Carolyn Greer. There isn’t a literary director, which is pretty cool, each committee is staffed by volunteer chairs, programmed by committee, and in the end there are so many voices that come together to create this big, broad, inclusive festival.

I’m the co-chair of the nonfiction committee with Denise Oswald, who is an editor at Dey Street Books [at HarperCollins]. When we figure out panels, we try to look as broadly as possible at everything that has come out in the last year and half. We think about who can anchor panels, who we can build around. What is the big, diverse Brooklyn (and greater New York) audience thinking and talking about? It’s not just about is this book good, is that book good. We want good books, good conversations, and to make sure that audiences are seeing something of the world they live in reflected back at them through our panels. We want panels to be interesting to a broad range of audience members. We try to be smart and surprising, but unsnobby.

What panel are you most excited for?
This year, I’m really excited for “The Long Roots of Social Change” [also a Brooklyn Magazine pick] with Alexis Coe, Kiese Laymon, Pamela Newkirk, and moderated by Saeed Jones. It’s about political progress, historical injustice. But the whole slate is really interesting. We’re addressing questions of who owns information. We’re seeing a lot of essays. People have really come to love essays!

For us, the Brooklyn Book Festival is decidedly nonexclusive. It’s about everyone who lives in Brooklyn. And it’s a festival that speaks to not just to Brooklyn but to all of New York City. The breadth is what I am most excited to be a part of. There is something for everyone. It’s really smart! The founders have done a really incredible job protecting that as the festival has grown.

What do you hope the Festival will be like in another ten years?
I hope it’s bigger and, like I wish for all nonprofits, that there are more resources. Everyone works so hard, it’s a miracle that something so big is put on by such a small core staff. It’s so wonderful that every event is free, and I imagine it will always be that way. I hope that there’s more attention. Bigger spaces. I also love the Festival as it is now—welcoming. Every writer you’ve ever heard of is wondering around outside of Brooklyn Borough Hall, not waiting in some greenroom. I suspect it will retain its absolute lack of airs. With the new Children’s Day, today’s young people will have grown up with Brooklyn Book Festival.

What makes the Brooklyn Book Festival so necessary?
We can end up feeling really removed from the books we love and the art we consume. The festival takes new authors, established writers, political writers, humor writers—everyone—and brings them into this warm, accessible venue where audiences and authors truly have a chance to connect.  And the festival also really does an amazing job of considering its audience, it isn’t just a marketplace or about trendsetting. We all read books. So this means from the outset need to think about what the audience really looks like: Russian audiences, Polish, black, white. We all like stories. How do we take from that in ways that are fun and open and inviting? I think it enriches all of the communities that participate—organizers, authors, audiences alike.

The Festival gives back to the community and receives in turn. It’s an old-school community event. That’s why we do it. It really is such a special festival. The openness is unreal.

What makes Brooklyn a special place for literary culture?
Literary culture is all about storytelling and given how many people from all walks of life there are in Brooklyn, the astonishing array of varied lives, it seems fitting that literary culture would thrive here. Back in the day at a party, when someone asked “Is Brooklyn in the house?”—Brooklyn has always been the loudest to answer. It likes to talk about itself, make itself known.  It never really mattered what kind of room you were in, Brooklyn was always there, participating and proud. Brooklyn is also eclectic, although lately the publicity about it isn’t always. The Brooklyn Book Festival reminds me of what I thought about Brooklyn circa 1992—people of all colors, from all walks of life. Not just babies and brownstones and fancy restaurants. The spirit of the festival feels like the Brooklyn than never left: This is a borough comprised of people from all over the universe. People can come and go but the Brooklyn Book Festival will always make sense here. We have a long history of being inhabited by many people and by many stories.

How do the Bookend events work?
Bookend events are taking place all over the city—the writers are not bound to Brooklyn. There’s an event in every borough this year! The Bookends make the Festival a full week, it makes it bigger, makes it more festive. There are so many people coming to town. Paul Morris [of the PEN American Center] heads up the Bookends programming and helps curate the programming after reviewing all of the applications from authors, literary organizations, bookstores . And there are events from the big opening night party to intimate readings. It’s to your taste.

What are you doing next?
Fall is a busy time for Guernica, we’re wrapping up a Kickstarter campaign which ends on September 16, producing our second print edition, planning our annual gala which is coming up on October 29th and publishing our third special issue of the year. Hopefully this will all be followed by a nap.

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