I'm National Book Foundation Executive Director Lisa Lucas, And This Is How I Work

Since 1950 the National Book Foundation has awarded the National Book Award to authors such as Colson Whitehead, William Faulkner, Beverly Cleary, and Jesmyn Ward. The Foundation also runs several programs for readers and writers, including the BookUp after-school reading program. In March 2016 the Foundation hired Guernica publisher Lisa Lucas as executive director. We talked to Lucas about how she runs the Foundation day to day.


Location: New York City Current Gig: Executive Director, National Book Foundation One word that best describes how you work: Intensely Current mobile device: iPhone 6 Plus Current computer: iMac, who knows what model? Not me.

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

It was kind of a wacky path here, although once I left college, I've almost always worked for nonprofits. I started at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where I worked in Development. Then I moved back to the East Coast and worked in development and marketing at a youth theatre (called TADA!) before landing at the Tribeca Film Institute, where I was the Director of Education for years.

In the end, I loved books most of all and so I ended up taking all of that fundraising, marketing, and program experience and dedicating it to the written word. Changing careers (or disciplines) at 32 was slightly daunting, and I started through volunteer work at the Brooklyn Book Festival and Guernica Magazine. Eventually, Guernica turned into a proper, paying job and I did that for 3.5 years. Its proximity to the book industry taught me so much and during that time I fell stone cold in love with it. And that landed me here.

Take us through a recent workday.

No day is the same here. Yesterday, we had an office cleaning day, because books pile up. So it was all boxes, tape, loud music, pizza and Marie Kondo around here. Otherwise, there are a lot of meetings. You'd think that with such a small staff there wouldn't be so many meetings, but we're always working together and it just ends up happening. We're also a national organisation, so many of our partners are outside of New York City and so we love a good conference call.

Small organisations get a lot done with very few people, so we all wear a lot of hats. On any given day we are discussing potential judges for the National Book Awards, paying the bills, writing/approving copy for our website or newsletter, writing grant proposals, throwing parties, prepping for board meetings, you name it. We also end up doing arts & crafts projects far more often than you might guess.

What apps, gadgets, or tools can't you live without?

My phone. My little brother calls it "Lisa's mobile command center."

What's your workspace setup like?

Pretty generic, I suppose. Computer, phone, desk, lamp, pen, mug, water bottle. My office does have a number of bookshelves, which is necessary! I also have this big old wooden table that I inherited from the director before me and I love it so much I'm going to try to sneak it out with me if I ever leave.

What's your best shortcut or life hack?

I'm very bad at shortcuts. I like longhand, paper copies of things, phone calls. I need to read this site more and learn some!

Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?

Team Book, comprised of my 6 patient and wonderful colleagues, are superheroes. Nothing would get done without them. They are the bedrock of this place. Gabrielle, my assistant, is very good at making sure that things aren't burning to flames because I've forgotten something.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

I'm a big fan of Google Calendar. At the Foundation, we keep all of our meetings and schedules on one big shared one so we all know who is where, when, since we are all moving around so much!

What's your least favourite thing to do, and how do you deal with it?

Nonprofits above a certain size have to get audited every year. It is the worst. I eat more snacks when we are doing our audit.

How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?

I walk a lot. I find that if I leave my phone at home and go for a big, long wander, eventually the work thoughts drop away and the landscape, people-watching, and general to-ing and fro-ing of city life takes over.

What's your favourite side project?

Sleeping.

What are you currently reading, or what's something you'd recommend?

I'm currently reading Wolf Hall, which is my holiday reading. (I always try to read something I've been meaning to read for years or a classic.) It's extraordinary.

[Lisa gave these answers in December, we just run with a big backlog. — Ed.]

Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.

Kevin Young.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

If you know that you can do something better, do it that way. Otherwise you have no excuse when things go wrong.

This interview has been lightly edited and some links have been added.

The How I Work series asks heroes, experts, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Nick.


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