Lisa Lucas is a rare combination: a high-energy bookish extrovert.
“If I can convince a small fraction of people to feel the same way that I feel about reading," she said, "then I’ve done my job.”
It was only her third day as head of the National Book Foundation, the third person to lead it in three decades. And while it’s her job to keep the National Book Awards and the foundation's other programs going, she is clearly poised to bring the organization to a new level.
“People who like movies watch the Oscars,” she said. “Why don’t we celebrate books in the same way?”
Her Wall Street office was lined with nearly bare bookshelves, and the hallway outside was filled with outgoing boxes of books. In two weeks publishers would begin flooding the foundation with submissions for the 2016 National Book Awards, which have been given in various forms since 1950. The National Book Foundation was created to manage the awards and its annual November ceremony.
“For me, it has always felt like the Oscars of books,” she said. “I think that we need more people to feel like that.”
The National Book Awards, after all, gave its young adult literature prize to Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” despite sometimes controversial subject matter; it’s the prize that brought Patti Smith to tears when her memoir, “Just Kids,” won the nonfiction prize, and was met with a surge of social media delight when Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” received the nonfiction prize in 2015. Novelists William Faulkner, Bernard Malamud, John Updike and Philip Roth won the fiction prize more than once.
The nonprofit foundation also runs programs in schools with at-risk students and on college campuses with National Book Award-winners and finalists. There are celebrations of lifetime achievement and innovative reading programs, and a New York reading series that always sells out: Eat Drink and Be Literary.
As the new executive director, Lucas is tasked with expanding or building upon these programs, all while maintaining the financial health of the nonprofit, which has six full-time staffers and an annual budget of more than $1 million. Raising money was something that some candidates with the literary qualifications to do the job found entirely dissuasive.
Not Lucas. “I’ve always fund-raised,” she explained. “My first job, when I was 21, was working on the annual fund at Steppenwolf Theater Company. And I never had another job for any length of time where I didn’t fund-raise.”
That includes the Tribeca Film Institute, where grant writing was one of her responsibilities, and the literary magazine Guernica, where as publisher she raised money in smaller increments, $25 at a time. Big grants, individual donors, small donations: “When I think about all those things," she said, "they all come together in preparation for doing the kind of fundraising work that this job will entail.”
Her most important role at the foundation, though, is brand ambassador: She is the public face of the National Book Foundation. And she's ideally suited for the part.
Her appreciation of books comes from her mother — “my mom loved movies, she loved books, there were books ev-er-y-where,” Lucas said — and her outgoing personality from her father, musician Reggie Lucas.
“I feel like I have your standard issue suburban childhood: My parents divorced, I lived with my mom, went to my dad’s house every week,” she explained.
Her father, who started playing guitar with Miles Davis at 19, became a Grammy-winning songwriter and producer — Madonna recorded her debut at his New Jersey studio, but Lisa, 36, was too young to have paid attention.
“I was always all about the books,” she admitted. Already there are a few of her personal books rattling around on one office shelf: “The Turner House” by Angela Flournoy, which was both a National Book Award finalist for fiction last year and selected as one of its 5 under 35 titles; the novel “The Whites” by Harry Brandt (Richard Price's pen name); and “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond, which she planned to start next. In 2015, she was a big fan of Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” — all 720 pages of it.
“If you read for an hour every single day, you’re reading seven hours a week,” she explained. “Which is enough to bang through a decent amount of material if you do that every week for 52 weeks. And I’m reading more than that. I don’t even know if it’s speed or consistency; it’s probably a little bit of both.”
Now she is ready to take that passion and share it. “I think in publishing we spend a lot of time talking to each other. I love having that conversation personally, I have so many [book industry] friends and colleagues that I enjoy spending time with. But…. every single thing I’m doing, every single conversation I’m having, is about how to make sure that we are audience-facing, so we can bring more people in.”
This is the traditional nonprofit director, the kind who can say things like “audience facing,” “major donors” and “business infrastructure.” But Lucas is that and more, a new-generation leader who is frank, straightforward and shares easily on social media.
She’s so open that she once tweeted about putting on shapewear in an office bathroom before a fancy benefit dinner (and when that tweet was displayed on the screen over the diners, she admitted to her 7,600 Twitter followers that she was so embarrassed that she wanted to go live in a yurt — then erased the whole exchange).
As we spoke in her downtown office, water from the Hudson glittering between tall buildings behind her, she was initially cautious about saying too much about things she might do differently. But her natural enthusiasm took over when asked if she might have plans for California.
“We can do the work of producing events, or of building programs, in different places,” she said, “because we are really not the New York Book Foundation. We are not the Inside Baseball Foundation. We are actually the National Book Foundation, so we need to have a footprint all across America.”
Her predecessor, Harold Augenbraum, tried announcing the National Book Award finalists at famed literary locations around the country, including City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, but eventually found that sticking close to New York’s media center got the news more traction. Lucas, however, isn't thinking about media: She's thinking about readers.
Since it took its current form in 1989, the National Book Foundation has had only three leaders: Augenbraum, who served for 12 years; founding executive director, Neil Baldwin, who was there for 14, and now Lucas.
A friend has asked me to tell Lucas how thrilled her daughters are that a woman who looks like them holds her position. And it turned out she gets that a lot.
“On a certain level I think I exist outside of that conversation. I’m me, I wake up every day, I work, I’m excited about the professional opportunity,” she explained. “So me getting this job doesn’t inspire me. But if I could stand outside of that experience, it would make me feel like there is hope. And it’s really weird and wonderful…. And I’m deeply cynical, so I’m not always walking around with a warm fuzzy approach, but you know, it really does increasingly feel like it means something.”
Still, she doesn’t think of herself as a star, more like the below-the-line talent in the world of books.
“I’m an administrator. I am not a writer; I am not an artist," she said. "I am here to help sell books and help readers find books. I’m here to support something that I believe in, to help make sure that people feel literature is something cool and engaging and wonderful.”