Q&A: Lena Dunham’s Lenny Imprint

Kevin Larimer
From the September/October 2017 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In 2015, Lena Dunham, along with her producing partner, Jenni Konner, created an online newsletter that would provide “a platform for young female voices to discuss feminist issues.” In its first six months Lenny Letter, also known as Lenny, attracted an impressive 400,000 subscribers. Building on that success, last year Random House, publisher of Dunham’s 2014 memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” announced that Lenny would be the basis of a new imprint, overseen by vice president and editor in chief Andy Ward. The imprint’s first title, Sour Heart, the debut story collection by poet Jenny Zhang, is out now. In the months leading up to its publication, Dunham spoke about her vision for Lenny Books.

There can never be too many platforms for new and emerging literary voices, but still: Why Lenny Books and why now?
It was essential to Jenni and me that we use the gift of our platform to give voice to a diverse group of women who need to be heard. It has never been more important that we hear from every kind of woman and understand the specificities of her experience—and that happens to be the goal of Lenny.

Will the imprint be fueled by the same ethos as the newsletter?
We want the imprint’s logo to be a symbol that lets you know you’re about to read something that plays with the feminine in a fascinating new way. We want you to see the spine and think, “Oh, thank the Lord, I know what will thrill me tonight.” We want our readers to trust that our imprint is selecting books that will enrich them and make them laugh. Books allow for a deeper, more sustained exploration that the newsletter doesn’t—and that, too, is thrilling.

You and Jenni are already successfully publishing new voices in your newsletter, so what is it about print books in general, and Random House in particular, that led you to this new project?
We are book nerds. We read to learn. We read to relax. We read to get inspired. It’s honestly selfish: We want a hand in helping produce the kinds of books we want to read, and we want to get first crack at reading fantastic authors and groundbreaking feminist works. So far, it’s been wildly fun. It’s interesting and inspiring that our partner in crime is Andy Ward, a man who understands our mission. So we aren’t for girls only, even if we are always thinking of our reader as a busy woman who needs to be able to trust that a Lenny book means her precious time is not being wasted.

What made Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart a good choice for the first title from Lenny?
Jenny is a writer of uncompromising honesty, complete originality, massive wit, and real skill. Her stories show us a part of the world, a part of the human experience, which most of us have never encountered. She’s enigmatic and compelling as a person—there is no one who more clearly represents our mission.

How will you and Jenni work together to make decisions about whose books to publish?
It’s all instinct. Along with Andy, we try to fill our slate slowly but enthusiastically with writers we admire. Ultimately, we want the Lenny list to be an exciting kind of “collect ‘em all” where our books as a whole tell a story about what it feels like to be female now.

How closely will you work with Random House? Do you have autonomy in terms of editorial decisions?
Andy was my editor on my first book, and we are currently at work on my second. He is my creative collaborator on a deep and abiding level. So we don’t just accept his thoughts, we demand them. And we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have such a special relationship with Random House. My literary agent Kim Witherspoon is also a remarkable force who has helped authors like Anthony Bourdain build their own imprints, and her business instincts are impeccable. It really takes a village, and Jenni and I are happy to admit what we don’t know.

Will you be editing the books yourself?
We know that editing is a specific and challenging job and one that people work their whole lives to get great at. So we read everything and give our notes but we really trust that editors should edit.

You’ve published poetry issues of Lenny. Any chance you and Random House have a poetry imprint in the works?
We would love to publish poetry and not relegate it to some musty back room. We just need to find the right poet who we think will spark with readers who may be new to the pleasures of poetry. Jenni and I are both liberal arts grad poetry nerds who find the form completely enthralling. We'd love to add that element to our list.

You’ve written a book, Not That Kind of Girl, so do you have any advice for writers who are working on their own?
Work. Work. Work. There’s no substitute for actually rolling up your sleeves and getting it done.

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

(Photo: Stephanie Keenan.)