A Discussion with Tony Valenzuela, Executive Director of the Lambda Literary Foundation

Interview by David De Bacco

Introduction:

The Lambda Literary Foundation (LLF) preserves LGBT literature through programs that honor excellence, promote visibility and encourage development of emerging writers. LLF is host to the annual Writers Retreat, the nation’s premier queer writers residency program, and “LGBT Writers in Schools,” where writers are given an opportunity to discuss their work openly with students in high school, colleges and universities in America. LLF also conducts three popular book clubs: LLF’s Online Book Club, the “My Story Book Club,” an online book club for LGBT youth, and the monthly in-person book club held in West Hollywood – billed as, “The gayest book club in town!”

Tony Valenzuela

Tony Valenzuela

Tony Valenzuela is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program of the California Institute of the Arts and a longtime community activist and writer in the Southern California area. His writing has focused on LGBT civil rights, sexual liberation, and gay men’s health. Previous positions include Manager of Research and Administration at GLASS (Gay & Lesbian Adolescent Social Services) in Los Angeles, and Administrative Director of the Lesbian and Gay Men’s Community Center in San Diego where he spearheaded campaigns ranging from anti-gay hate crimes awareness to the needs of LGBT youth in schools. Valenzuela has been the head of LLF since 2009, a time when the publishing industry was in the middle of dramatic change with the onset of electronic publishing, self-publishing and the Internet.

David De Bacco

David De Bacco

First time novelist, David De Bacco (The Sushi Chef), introduces Valenzuela to Rainbow Book Reviews in a discussion about such topics as the state of LGBT publishing, guidelines for many of the foundation’s programs and Valenzuela’s future vision for LLF, at a time in history when the LGBT community is becoming more visible and openly discussed in the American political agenda.

Interview:

DD: You became the executive director of LLF four years ago, when electronic formats and self-publishing started to rock the publishing world. Has this allowed LGBT works to flourish? What changes have you noticed in the publication of LGBT materials?

TV:  If annual submissions for Lambda Literary Awards consideration can be seen as one metric in the proliferation of LGBT works then, yes, electronic formats and self-publishing have vastly expanded our community’s literature available to readers. For example, the year that I became Executive Director in 2009 we had about 475 titles submitted for Lammy Awards consideration. This year we had almost 700 titles submitted for Lammy consideration. That’s a nearly 50% increase in four short years in the number of LGBT books submitted. Lammy submissions have to be published in print editions so the numbers are actually much higher if you consider books published only as e-books. As Richard Labonte has commented in the past, we’re again seeing a do-it-yourself ethos in publishing similar to the explosion of LGBT publishing we saw in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

DD: Because of this growth, you’ve been exposed to a vast amount of new LGBT materials. What genres have you noticed are excelling and have become popular with writers and readers? (i:e gay romance, fiction, non-fiction, murder/mystery, etc…)

TV:  Young adult fiction is probably the genre I’ve seen the most growth in. That said, genre fiction of all kinds is very popular: mystery, romance, speculative fiction. I think one of the trends is books that defy categorization and that are mixed genre.

DD: One thing book lovers share in common is how/when they became influenced by the power of books. Do you remember when you personally fell in love with books? Which books/authors were your early influences?

TV:  I personally fell in love with books as a kid reading Judy Blume!  I took “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret” to class in fifth grade and the girls were scandalized that a boy was reading it.

DD: Occasionally a book comes along that a reader just can’t put it down. What were some of your recent discoveries that kept you awake at night because the author took you on an amazing journey?

TV:  Justin Torres’s “We the Animals,” Justin Spring’s “Secret Historian.”  I loved Eileen Myles’s “Inferno: A Poet’s Novel” and Christopher Bram’s “Eminent Outlaws.”

DD: Me too. I adored “Eminent Outlaws.” It’s such a great source of information for all things LGBT writing. I kept a notepad next to me – writing down book titles – Ones that I forgot or just discovered. I also recently finished “The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers” by Matthew Hays. It reminded me of “Eminent Outlaws” because I also had my notepad nearby so I could add a bounty of films to my Netflix list. Obviously, “The View from Here…” covers the film industry, but one of the overlapping themes in the book was how most of the filmmakers voiced how the Hollywood film business immediately labeled them as gay… “Oh, yeah she/he makes gay films…” They were creating LGBT films and it didn’t necessarily mean that they were gay themselves.  Does this happen in the publishing world? Is an author who writes a LGBT story labeled in the same manner?

TV: The answer to this question depends on who you talk to.  Many authors have successful careers out of the closet and write books with and without LGBT content. The publishing industry is full of LGBT people and I’ve found many publishers — both independent and mainstream, open and supportive of queer authors and content. That being said, we do hear stories from authors who are discouraged to write LGBT content because of the concern that it will limit their careers to a niche audience. We hear enough of these stories that I believe there’s truth to this still to some degree. But like with film, LGBT characters are everywhere in literature now, even young adult literature, and I do believe the culture has changed from the days when writers like Capote, Vidal and Baldwin suffered for being brave enough to pioneer queer work.

DD: The publishing climate has changed. For me, I’m an out and open gay man who is a writer. I’m able to draft a story with heterosexual characters, but that’s not what I’m about. As a writer, I pull from experiences in my own life so all of my writing tends to be gay, gay, gay! I guess I’ve just labeled myself… (laughs) Okay, back to you… Naturally, many of the readers of Rainbow Book Reviews are authors and since you’re the head of the Los Angeles Lambda Lit Book Club – These writers will slap me if I don’t ask – How is a book chosen for your monthly featured read?

TV:  I choose most of the books but our book club members also make suggestions. We tend to read contemporary LGBT literature that’s already been well received in our literary community, including in our own web magazine, the Lambda Literary Review. In other words, if a book has received good buzz among readers and critics, those are the titles our members are interested in reading and discussing in our club. We welcome new members so I hope your readers in LA will join us!

DD: How many books are reviewed each year by LLF? -And the Lambda Literary Awards are the premier platform for LGBT authors — are the nominees pulled from these book reviews or are they chosen by a committee?

TV:  The Lambda Literary Review (our review publication found at www.lambdaliterary.org) reviews over 200 titles each year. But the Lambda Literary Awards process is distinct from how a book is reviewed by us. Authors or publishers submit their books for Lambda Literary Award consideration. Panels of judges in over 20 categories (mystery, fiction, poetry, young adult, etc) read, discuss and choose finalists and winners for the Lammy Awards. The Lambda Literary Review is managed by our editor, William Johnson.  To be considered for review, an author or publisher sends the book to William and he, his editors and writing staff, decide which books will get a review on the site. The awards and the reviews are, by necessity, two separate programs.

DD:   Prior to your position with LLF, you’ve been quite involved with LGBT civil rights, sexual liberation and gay men’s health.  -Especially with LGBT child welfare and abused and neglected LGBT youth. Have you ever written about these experiences?

TV:   Prior to LLF, I’d been most active in gay men’s health and HIV activism and have published many articles and essays about gay men’s complicated sex lives and choices during the HIV epidemic.

DD: The LLF is an historic organization for the LGBT community because of its beginnings in Washington, DC and how the growth and involvement of writers, publishers, readers and media have given it national visibility for our community. In the future, what direction do you see the foundation headed in order to increase this visibility?

TV: Today, LLF does a very good job shining a spotlight on our community’s literature and authors through the Lammy Awards and the Lambda Literary Review, our web magazine. Since 2007, our emerging writers retreat has been incredibly successful helping to foster a new generation of authors, writers like Justin Torres who participated in that inaugural class and recently published the New York Times bestseller, We the Animals. Since then, over 200 up-and-coming writers have gone through the Retreat and I see this program growing in the future. Our newest program which, in some ways, represents one future direction of LLF, is LGBT Writers in Schools. We work with high schools and colleges and arrange classroom visits with notable authors to discuss LGBT literature. It’s our first foray into working with young people and something I’m incredibly excited about.

DD: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and allowing me this moment to introduce you to our readers.

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