4 questions for National Book Foundation director Lisa Lucas

Lisa Lucas
Lisa Lucas Beowulf Sheehan

Lisa Lucas, executive director for the National Book Foundation, hasn’t been to the Miami Book Fair before. But she’s ready for the madness.

“I’m so excited,” she says from New York. “But when I started, and they told me we take as many of the longlist writers as we can get to Miami … wow.”

The idea does sound a bit daunting. But for the past two years, the foundation has gathered a group of finalists and nominees for the National Book Awards in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young adult works for an evening that acts as a sort of literary sampler.

Lucas, 36, formerly publisher of Guernica magazine, is only the third executive director of the foundation (she took over for Harold Augenbraum earlier this year). By the time she hits the ground in Miami, we’ll know who the winners of the prestigious award are (they’ll be announced Nov. 16).

“I found my tribe: people who write things and people who read things,” she says. “Those are my people.”

What have you learned this year?

I learned you come into a job like this thinking, “I’m going to do this this way, and that that way; this is bad, this is great.” But you learn humility. You have to respect the tradition, why things are done the way they’re done. You learn to listen and be patient and understand that change doesn’t need to be fast. … I also learned where I belong. I’m in the right place and doing work I care about.

What are some of the goals you set for the National Book Foundation?

I think you have to set short-term goals and set big goals. In the short term, I wanted people to find books they love and align that love with the foundation. We’re here to celebrate books and their writers. Maybe I have tunnel vision and live in a Twitter world, but it feels like there’s been a lot of energy, and it feels exciting. People are following along on the journey. Friends I see online or run into in another city are all, “Hey, what are you reading?” The number of people who ask for a good book recommendation makes me feel like the job of getting people excited about books is starting to pay off.

What about long-term goals?

On a larger level, we’re just beginning the work. We’re going to find new audiences and bring people in. The brick-by-brick building of programs and relationships in other cities and towns and states, that takes time. I’m really encouraged by meetings we’ve had in other cities and with libraries. We’re thinking of new festivals we’ll go to. … It’s important not to say, “Oh, this didn’t happen this year,” but to allow ourselves the chance to take a step back and five years later say, ‘Look what we’ve done!’ Every day, we’re moving forward.

What’s your take on the state of reading in the U.S.?

I think we could have more readers, more books being borrowed from libraries, more library card holders, more independent bookstores, more book sales. These are indicators of the health of the industry. That people are participating is obvious, but we know there’s more ground to cover. But every six months, you see the story asking: Are books dead? Obviously, they’re not. … I think we could use a little more optimism and belief in the power of books, because we’re still standing. Every school child picks up a book. Can you imagine how happy the theater world would be if every child saw a play?

If you go

What: An Evening With the National Book Awards Winners and Finalists

When: 6 p.m. Nov. 18

Where: Chapman Auditorium, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami

Tickets: $15;