Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Charles Flowers, Director of The Lambda Literary Foundation: An Exclusive SCBWI Team Blog Interview!

Charles Flowers is the executive director of The Lambda Literary Foundation, and he’ll be the special guest at our Friday August 7th, 2009 GLBTQ Poolside Lunch Chat, taking place during the upcoming Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators’ 38th Annual Summer Conference on Writing and Illustrating for Children, in Los Angeles.

The Lunch will be a unique opportunity to meet and talk with editors, writers, illustrators, and other kid lit industry professionals about creating books with GLBTQ characters and themes.

Similar to attending a high school Gay-Straight Alliance meeting, you don’t have to be GLBTQ to attend – you just have to be cool enough to understand that Children’s Literature with Gay (GLBTQ) content is important!

Here, for your enjoyment, is our virtual (via Facebook IM/Chat) conversation!

Lee: Thanks Charles, for agreeing to this pre-lunch interview! Here we go:

How would you explain to someone who has never heard of your organization what The Lambda Literary Foundation is all about?

Charles: We've finally settled upon a succinct description: Celebrating and Serving LGBT Writers, which will debut on our totally revamped website in a few weeks. Our actual mission statement is: "The Lambda Literary Foundation seeks to elevate the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people throughout society by rewarding and promoting excellence among openly LGBT writers who use their work to explore LGBT lives.

Lee: I like them both! But the succinct one is snappier (and I can practically see the T-shirts!)

Charles: We accomplish this mission in a few ways: the Lambda Literary Awards, the Lambda Book Report, the Retreat for Emerging LGBT Writers, and our new website, which will "kick ass," is the term I would use.

Lee: Part of "celebrating" are the Awards - and you've been giving out a "Lammie" in the childrens/young adult category since 1989. 20 years! What patterns, if any, have you seen in terms of submissions?

Charles: Recently, there's been an explosion of LGBT narratives for young adults -- although I think it was the children's picture books, such as "Heather Has Two Mommies" by Leslea Newman that first drew attention to the audience. The majority of books are focused on young adult, rather than children or middle school age, so there's room to expand there. Authors and judges usually ask that we separate those two, but we don't at the moment, because there are not enough picture books or chapter books to justify a separate category.

Lee: It'll be a good day when there are so many GLBTQ themed books that you'll need the separate categories!

One of the other awards you give out is the "Pioneer Awards" and there's been some controversy in the blogosphere about Lambda Literary's choice of recipients being "elitist." What's your take on that?

Charles: I guess it depends on what folks mean by "elitist" -- Lambda Literary does recognize and honor many kinds of writing, not just fiction and poetry, but Mystery, Romance, Erotica, Sci-fi, as well as Young Adult. So it's a little bizarre to be labeled elitist. In terms of Pioneer Awards, we've recognized Ann Bannon who wrote "pulp", Marijane Meeker who wrote pulp and later young adult. I guess I would need to know more about the specific complaint, but I feel that Lambda Literary does a good job about recognizing all the kinds of writing that appeal to LGBT readers.

Lee: I think it's going to always be a challenge, when you're selecting people for those kind of "lifetime achievement awards" to make everyone happy...

While we're Speaking of Pioneers, your remembrance of E. Lynn Harris for the Advocate was really beautiful. I know we both feel his books (and his being a successful, out gay man) made a difference in our world.

Charles: Thanks for your kind words about E. Lynn -- there's a prime example of a "popular" or "commercial" writer who some people did not like, but who, nonetheless, positively affected the lives of many, many gay and bisexual men.

Lee: Where do you see books in the battle for hearts and minds vis-a-vis Gay (GLBTQ) equality?

Charles: Call me crazy, but I think books rule -- it's all about narrative -- think of "Brokeback Mountain" or "Tales of the City" -- these movies/miniseries began as stories, and their big-and small-screen adaptations made a huge difference. I think it would affect our political fight more if more Americans read, but they don't. Where we are most effective is in reaching young readers, who feel they are alone and need affirmation that it's okay to be gay. For many of us (my generation and older), books were the first place we "saw" gay people -- today's kids can see them on tv or movies, for better or for worse, but I'd rather them read Alex Sanchez or Nancy Garden or Jim Howe or Jackie Woodson, than pay attention to Perez Hilton.

Lee: Yeah, I've always thought that since reading a book is an internal experience, where you are creating the world from the words on the page, that books get deeper in towards the mythic level than other forms of storytelling. And for me, that's why books with GLBTQ characters are SO important - happy, successful, fascinating Gay lives need to be part of the myths everyone grows up with!

Charles: Exactly -- I love the novels now that have gay teens in everyday teen stories -- it's not about coming out and accepting yourself, but assuming a role in the world. How you deal with your parents, your best friend, etc. Gay people and teens are becoming less "exotic," as it were.

Lee: Yes! It's like a whole new kind of story can (and is) being told!

Now the "serving" GLBT writers - that must be the Retreat for Emerging LGBT Writers you mentioned. Tell us more about that, please.

Charles: "Serving" lgbt writers can happen in many ways, big and small -- we have the retreat, which is very intensive, and about becoming a better writer, finding a community of peers, mentoring, all of that.

Lee: When does that happen?

Charles: The retreat happened in August 2007 and August 2008 -- we decided not to hold one in 2009 because of the economy, but we're already trying to organize 2010.

We also want to serve writers in a larger sense of bringing attention to their work -- reviewing them, recognizing them as a finalist or winner in the awards -- also nuts and bolts, on our new website, we have a "Writer's Toolbox" area that includes essays about craft, calls for submissions, interviews with authors -- things that can help a writer become a better writer, as well as become published.

Lee: That sounds great! So, the new website will kiss ass, huh? Tell me more!

Charles: "kick" ass, darling, not "kiss ass" :):)

the website i mean

Lee: LOL!

whoops! The perils of fast typing!

Charles: I say "kick ass" because face it, where can folks go to get real reviews (not amazon gushes and character assassinations) about gay books, and to connect with other writers and readers -- it doesn't exist, and we're going to make it happen.

And it will very much be community-driven - the site will be as good as we, and I do mean, "we" in the collective sense, make it -- send us ideas about features, volunteer to review books, send us great new blogs or calls for submissions, send us literary events you're participating in or organizing -- really, we want this to be a "one-stop" shop for lgbt writers and readers- and it will be free! We'll have ads, sure, but no underwear ads or manhunt links (sorry, guys)!@

Lee: There seem to be enough underwear ad sites already!

Charles: Exactly.

Lee: The new website sounds great - I'll be first in line to check it out!

So, what are you most looking forward to in Friday's SCBWI conference lunchtime Poolside GLBTQ Chat?

Charles: I love meeting people who are on the frontlines of the next generation - I want to figure out how Lambda can help and support these writers

Lee: And I'm really looking forward to hosting the poolside chat on SCBWI's behalf. There's so much more to discuss!

Thank you Charles, this was wonderful. See you Friday the 7th!

Charles: Fabulous, thanks Lee!

So, if YOU’LL be at the conference (you can still register, here!) we hope you can come on by and join us Friday Aug 7th, from 12:45pm – 2pm. Bring your lunch, and look for the Gay Pride Rainbow Flag by the pool!

Hope to see you there!



Rita said...

Thank you, Lee, and thank you, Charles Flowers, for this lovely and informative interview--with some funny moments, too! The Lamda Literary Foundation sounds fantastic. I'm looking forward to the lunchtime Poolside GLBTQ discussion.

Ellen Wittlinger said...

Hmmm. The Lambda mission statement seems to be saying that the awards are not for books with GLBT characters, but books by GLBT authors, which leaves me out. I'm not saying I need to get awards--I've gotten a Lambda in the past and have been on their short list 3 times--but as someone who encourages other straight writers to include GLBT characters in their books, I have to also say that it's much harder to promote my GLBT books than it would be if I were gay myself. The strike against me is that I can't say, "I've been there." Authors who can say this are the ones marketing trots around to school visits, etc. So this feels like another shove out of the arena to me. Which makes me very sad.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Ellen, I distinctly recall Charles clarifying that the Lambda Awards are NOT about how the author identifies - it's completely based on the books having GLBTQ Content.
You are a wonderful and important author. You do your homework and write outside your own experience with confidence and respect. You make our world a better place with your books and your personal glow of wonderful energy.

Keep writing, and know how much you are cherished!


Ellen Wittlinger said...

Thanks, Lee, I appreciate that. And I'm really glad that the Lambda's won't exclude straight authors who write gay characters. We need more books with GLBT characters, not fewer. I do sometimes feel at a disadvantage when it comes to marketing and publicity, but that's just the way it is.

XO, Ellen