You mentioned briefly how publishing had this big shakeup and change in the summer of 2020 and it piqued your attention. Do you see publishing continuing to change? Or do you feel like it’s returning to a status quo of sorts?
I’ve always been someone who’s held a long view. A lot of the mentors I’ve had, including the mentors who never met me but mentored me on the page, talk about holding the long view. What I’m really doing as I’m settling into this new job—as I’m building my list, meeting agents, meeting writers—is thinking about how to enliven and model my vision for this list in this industry. How do I think about equity and justice in the process of how I engage with and how I treat my authors, how we publish their books, how we collaborate with others, how we position those books, how we have conversations about those books, how we get them to new readers and audiences?
That’s always been my approach. Not knocking other approaches, but I see myself as someone who has the deep commitment and conviction to hold the vision for my authors and their work. I love my authors and I’m a devoted advocate for them and the work they’re putting out in the world, but also around the meaning and the voices that they’re trying to lift up and elevate in that work. I’m holding that long view because I want to be accountable to my own values and virtues in how I’m doing this work. But then also really thinking about, when I look back ten years from now, what it was that I did here, what books I have out in the world, whose voices I supported and helped amplify and champion—I’m hoping that will be part of a larger story of publishing that we’re envisaging into life right now as a collective community.
I know I’m speaking micro into the macro, but that’s really how I’m thinking about it. Coming from an indie into a really big place, I’m drilling down into the intricacies of this role and in viewing those values in everything I do.
That was a big part of what I learned at Feminist Press, that this is possible. Being able to bring that into this other space has been very cool. One of the reasons that I came on at the time that I did, too, is because I felt like there was something powerful about a community of people making this move at the same time. That’s another part of why I’m holding the long view on that, because when you plant a seed, the seed takes time to blossom.
What does activism look like for you in this publishing space?
I am still very passionate about feminist publishing and the power of independent publishing and why we need a diverse ecosystem of expression and art in the world.
During my time at Feminist Press I had an opportunity to be a part of that ecosystem and meet a lot of amazing people doing that work in so different ways, in global ways and mission-driven ways. I’m still interested in participating in it, just in a different way—through the values, and bringing those values into how I do the work and how I do my list, but also in supporting those organizations I care about, donating to nonprofit publishing initiatives that allow even more support for a variety of voices, for marginalized voices.
I love being a part of grassroots work. I’m still involved in several other nonprofits that aren’t publishing-related. It’s been interesting to be able to participate in new ways, too.
The other day I participated in a panel. Michele Filgate had been hosting a series, the Red Ink series, and she held a panel at this amazing brewery in Brooklyn, and it was hosted by Liber: A Feminist Review. And Lux Magazine was there, and Bridgette M. Davis, who had been one of my authors at Feminist Press, who’s published amazing books, including one, I think, with Little, Brown. We also had Debbie Stoller from Bust magazine; I grew up reading Bust and now I write for Bust. I love Bust.
Being on that panel and being able to talk with Jennifer Baumgardner, too, who I talked with you about earlier, and to be able to have a conversation about the role of feminist publishing and why it’s important, why we need to support it. After I came home from that panel, we talked about it and we talked about the ecosystem and we talked about the work and why these spaces are important, and then the communities that they cultivate, which is extremely important to me. And I just started buying subscriptions for next year because that is important to our literary citizenship, and I was feeling inspired to say, “I need to start getting my 2023 subscriptions ready early,” before the holidays, so that these folks have this income in because I know it from the other side, in the beginning of next year. It felt really amazing to think about how we all need each other and how we’re interdependent.
I devoted my birthday fundraiser this year to PEN America—they just do such an important work. I've always been a fan and wanted to participate in all ways that I could with anything PEN-related. That’s just another example, too, of how I feel like I’m still finding my way to stay involved. Also, we have some cool initiatives, at Penguin Random House, around corporate social responsibility, etcetera, and we are encouraged to be involved.
I think that that’s always going to be a part of who I am. It’s a part of how I see the world, and it’s been really interesting for me now, too, to experience it in different ways from different vantage points, still being a participant, but also making ways for other people to participate in bigger ways and to learn from the next generation. I often say to folks at the different nonprofits I’m a part of, “How can you use me to help you? How can I be of help to you? Who can I connect you with? In what way can I contribute?” I think all of that is important. It’s always going to be near to my heart.
There are so many beautiful full-circle moments for you in this space, both being at Random House and seeing your mother’s journals about it, and then seeing people who’d given you that opening or who have opened that door for you as a kid into this worldview. What is the next generation teaching you and what have you been learning from the new generation of folks?
One of the things I love to say, because it’s true, is Tavi Gevinson is one of the best bosses I’ve ever had in my life. It was such an honor to be a part of Rookie and to have learned from her leadership. She had a strong vision. She was able to have a vision, hold it, be creative, and was always about creating exclusive and expansive space. It was always about community and the collective and how our readers would feel when they were in our comments section, when they met us in person, and when they were reading us on the page. It made a deep impression on me, that discernment, that vision, that integrity, coming from a fifteen-year-old, and that strong leadership and creative leadership she had and continues to hold, and the leadership she held when she decided to say that Rookie was going to have its last day and her reasons why, to maintain that, to maintain what had been created, and its integrity.
That just made such a deep impression on me. It taught me something that my mom used to always say, that you don’t always listen to lessons the first time they come to you. She used to say to me, “Sometimes your problem is that you expect people to act their age, and age has nothing to do with maturity.” One of the things I love about the next generation is that there’s a whole lot of heart, there’s a whole lot of integrity, and there’s a lot of urgency because the planet is urgent. The conditions that this generation is having to face are heightened, heightened, from the very dire conditions of my generation, those generations before. That urgency feels right to me.
So I come from that experience of learning from the deep emotional, spiritual, visionary, creative maturity of Tavi Gevinson, and the many times in which I felt like I had things to share that people wouldn’t listen to because they came from a body that people didn’t see as a leader. And that leads me to be very curious, very interested, and very intrigued by the vision that the next generation has, and to be a supporter, to be an enthusiastic cheerleader and friend to growth and change.
I’ve had the blessing of people like that in my life. Florence Howe, former director and publisher of Feminist Press, the founder, was an amazing mentor to me. Sometimes she would say to me things like, “Oh, that’s not something I would’ve acquired, but I trust why you acquired it because you know what is needed for this moment.”
So I feel very attracted to that energy in people. I also had that from Carol Jenkins, who is a media mentor of mine, and Gloria Steinem, both of whom have always been people who had that thread, that maturity, maturity that is timeless, that is intergenerational. So that’s just something I really want to honor in others. I want to be a person and a beacon to the next generation, who people feel they can come to for that collaboration, support, and community. Because it took those people believing in me and trusting my voice to help me also see what I couldn’t yet see in myself. Not that anyone needs me to see that in them. It’s more that I just think it’s important to have that kind of affirmation, interdependence.
You wear so many hats—in the media space, in the activism space, and you are writing both children’s books and pieces for so many wonderful feminist outlets. How does that inform your work as an editor?
I have a lot of empathy for writers because I hold this need—like the need for oxygen and water and food—to write. It’s something I have always done, that I will always do. It’s very important to me. I wake up in the morning and I write pages. It’s how my brain functions best. If it’s not too much of an overshare I’ll just say there have been times where my partner will say, “Have you written today? Because somebody needs to write.”
But I have that empathy of being on the other side of it. I know what it feels like to have a deadline and that blank page staring at you, and then I think, “Now is a good time to clean my house and do every other thing than that thing because of everything that it brings up in me,” then go through the feeling of like, “Am I a writer? Why do I even write all these things,” to then come back to doing it and getting in the zone and loving it and then delivering it and wondering, “Wait, how did that even happen?” And then choosing to do that, to go through that process again. It takes a unique kind of human to want to do that to yourself, and I bow to those humans because essentially what they’re doing is saying to the world, “Here’s my brain and here’s my heart for you to make sense and meaning of and potentially critique,” and it takes a courageous soul to do that.
So for anyone who’s a writer, even if it’s not my style of writing or not my cup of tea, you have my respect because it is a very intimate, brave, impactful, courageous activity to engage in; and to make it your craft throughout a lifetime is a whole other conversation. So I just love working with writers because of who we are: people who seek meaning, who seek to make meaning, the soulfulness of the writer. Then to be able to say to someone who has just seen the pages too many times, and they just don’t see the gems that we see and the treasures we see, to be able to say to them, “But look at all these treasures!” And we’re going to have to not put this there—but these instructions right here, this is the gem, this is the heart. There’s something about it that thrills me, and I will never get over that thrill of writing the editorial note and talking about how I was moved by this person.
I used to be a dancer, growing up, and I took a lot of dance, and I was into music. I’ve always been into art. It’s almost like watching someone do a modern dance: just a pure expression of themselves, like bringing up tears. I feel that when I see writing that I just know came from a really deep place, peeling back layers that you are just amazed that anyone would give you access to. It’s so beautiful. To get to do that again and again and again and again is such a treat. I love that.
What is exciting you? What are you looking forward to?
One of the things I’m excited about is publishing a wide range of books and stories. It’s important to me to show that we, as people of color in publishing, hold, just like other editors, a wide range of interests, a wide range of imagination, a wide range of connections to things that are important and meaningful. I’m very curious and interested in a wide range of conversations and a wide range of authors from all backgrounds. I think it’s important to always keep a wide, expansive, and vast imagination about what any individual editor might be interested in.
There have been many times when people were surprised by something that I’m interested in, when they thought, “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be interested in this because you were at Feminist Press.” Yes, that is a part of who I am. I am a Black feminist, thank the Lorde with an E that I have had that theory and that way of seeing the world and that philosophy to shape who I am and how I see the world. That also means that I have been influenced by a great deal and a great diversity of thinkers from around the world of different genres, of different backgrounds, of different perspectives.
I’m open to new challenges, to being expanded, just as I hope to open and expand for audiences and readers and for people who I’m working with. I’m open to that, too. What I really wish for us, more and more, like I said, is more and more moving up, moving up into more imagination, more expansiveness.
I feel like that’s really the move there.
Thank you so much. I’m curious—because I’ve talked to other editors of color about this—I’m curious what your thoughts are about that too.
It resonates with me. I think, especially as editors of color, there are times when I feel pigeonholed by what I’m being sent because they’re like, “Oh, you’re the only Asian person here, so I’m just going to send you all the Asian books.” I’m like, “I’m happy to read all of them, but that’s a huge umbrella, and it feels like a lot of pressure to be the only gatekeeper of “Asian literature” here. I’m one person. So I think it is about expanding that. For me it is sharing that wealth and being like, more of these stories need to be told. I don’t need to be the only one who is helping with that. I have other interests both in the nonfiction and fiction space. I’m always happy to explore. Again, always excited to be challenged by something. I think that makes you a better editor when you are challenged.
I love that you’re talking about it. One of the things I’ve really loved is that I’ve been getting a lot of support from my bosses at Penguin Random House, who say, “You being you is good for your list and our list.” I have had all these different experiences, these different perspectives, and they inform the way that I look at the world, the way I look at a book. That’s why I want more [agents] to diversify what they send all of us, which is why I like having frank conversations. I’m glad we’re all starting to have meetings again, because I’ve said to people, “You can send me XYZ.” Because sometimes people think, “Oh, I thought you’d be offended if I sent you something that wasn’t this.” Everyone’s trying to figure it out, like, what’s the right balance?
I always want to hear about your list. I want to hear about what you’re working on and how I can support your books. That’s something else that’s important to me. I talk about it with other friends: the spirit of Feminist Press, supporting one another’s books even when we’re working in different houses.
Yes! I don’t believe in that scarcity mind-set. Editors of color are about building that community.
Exactly. And it’s abundant, and I really feel that. That’s why when there are auctions and I lose to an editor who I know is doing work to expand, I’m kind of like, “Great to lose to you!” You know what I mean? Like, “Thank you. And thank you for bringing even more value in this landscape to this kind of author.” It’s so important.
Vivian Lee is a writer and a senior editor at Little, Brown.