Great expectations for queer literature

  • by Jim Van Buskirk
  • Thursday March 30, 2006
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Charles Flowers, the new Executive Director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, had just returned from one meeting and was heading to Washington, DC, for several more when I phoned him at his New York home a few weeks ago. Having recently celebrated his 40th birthday, Flowers has more passion, energy and enthusiasm for promoting queer literature than almost anyone I know.

Flowers will be in San Francisco on Thursday, April 6, to host the Lambda Literary Award Local Nominees Reading and Reception at the San Francisco Public Library's Latino Hispanic Community Meeting Room. Co-sponsored by the library's James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center, this annual event offers an opportunity for readers, writers, editors and publishers to connect. "Connections" was one word that Flowers repeated often during our hour-long conversation.

Raised in Tennessee, Flowers attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he had a double major in English and Math, a "bipolar" combination of love of literature and problem-solving that has served his career well. In the fall of 1987, at the age of 22, he moved to Manhattan to work for the prestigious publishing house Charles Scribner's Sons, where his boss was editor Ned Chase, father of actor Chevy Chase. After two years in the business world, Flowers attended the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he was mentored by Japanese American poet Garrett Hongo, and earned an MFA in poetry.

Quickly realizing he didn't like teaching, Flowers returned to his old job at Scribner's before moving to Anchor/Doubleday, where he edited such authors as Urvashi Vaid, Michelangelo Signorile, Keith Boykin, Linnea Due, and E. Lynn Harris during the "gay book boom." He also edited the 1995 anthology Out, Loud, and Laughing: A Collection of Gay & Lesbian Humor. Flowers soon burned out, working for a while as a freelance editor with E. Lynn Harris. Referring to himself as an old-fashioned editor who likes to work with authors, Flowers worked with an assortment of both gay and straight writers at various stages in the publishing process. "I was the 'with' on many projects," he jokes, citing being paired by the late agent Jed Mattes with psychotherapist Harold Kooden to co-author Golden Men: The Power of Gay Midlife .

During his stint as co-chair of the Publishing Triangle, the New York-based association of lesbians and gay men in publishing created and disseminated the lists of "100 Best Gay Novels" and "100 Best Gay Nonfiction," presented awards for fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and is currently gearing up for their 3rd annual queer book expo, Pink Ink, the weekend of June 3-5, which Flowers describes as "a version of OutWrite," the national gay and lesbian writers conference which began in San Francisco in 1991, relocated to Boston, then expired. Meanwhile, Flowers was honing his skills in the nonprofit world, working at the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2005, where he learned "how to get things done, problem-solving, whether it was an event, a publication, or fundraising."

Journal ease

Feeling he needed an exciting, new project, he started planning Bloom in fall 2002, and the first issue of the gay and lesbian literary journal appeared in January 2004. Continuing his connections from AAP, Flowers quickly learned to work with printers, designers, and editors. He appreciates that Adrienne Rich sent a poem, an early vote of confidence for the fledgling publication, and proudly announced that the spring issue (due out soon) will include two more of her poems. It was after a meeting with Don Weise, Senior Editor at Carroll and Graf, formerly at the San Francisco-based Cleis press, that Flowers sent a seven-page memo outlining what he thought needed to happen with the floundering Lambda Literary Foundation. The Board, which consisted of Weise, writer Karla Jay, local writer and editor Katherine V. Forrest, and former SF State professor Jim Duggins, was so impressed they offered him the position of the newly vacated Executive Director.

Flowers hit the ground running, working part time in October, segueing to full-time this January. After rumors that some or all of the Foundation's activities might cease, a new website was launched at, where over 700 people completed an online survey, expressing their support for the goals of the Foundation, including the publication and the awards. Flowers is currently editing the first issue of the Lambda Book Report to appear in time for this year's Lambda Literary Awards gala dinner, held in conjunction with the industry's annual BookExpo America in Washington, DC, in mid-May.

With the assistance of the hard-working board, Flowers is committed to stabilizing the organization's finances, reorganizing, and gradually growing the board's membership. Flowers is unswerving in his belief that "Lambda Literary Foundation has done and will continue to do good work" connecting readers and writers. While much of LGBT publishing is forced to use a commercial model, "the Foundation's strength is in its nonprofit status." Future plans include a writers' retreat, possibly in the Russian River area, a "gay Bread Loaf or Squaw Valley," referring to the prestigious writers' conferences, where Flowers envisions workshops lead by nationally renowned GLBT writers. The Foundation is looking to network with organizations like Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which oversees 2000 Gay-Straight Alliances nationwide, the GLBT Task Force of American Library Association, and the GLBT subgroup of the National Council of Teachers of English. Flowers is already envisioning fellowships, prizes, grant programs, including awards in the range of $1,000 to $3,000 to small presses to help promote an author's first book. Not much, he admits, but it will help.

Flowers considers as important allies, Carol Seajay and Richard Labonte, editors of the recently launched print and online publication, Books to Watch Out For, citing the example of Seajay's interview of Sarah Waters that will appear in upcoming issues of both LBR and BTWOF. Having just come from a productive meeting with new ally Amy Hoffman, editor of the resurrected Women's Review of Books, he was excited about even more collaborative possibilities.

Flowers embodies his personal theory that reading is exciting, and that promoting it as pleasurable and fun is more productive than claiming it is good for you. With his leadership abilities, energy and expertise, the future of the Lambda Literary Foundation and of GLBT literature looks bright.