Words: writer meets publisher: Elisabeth Nonas on meeting Nancy Bereano

  • by Michele Karlsberg
  • Sunday May 26, 2024
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Author Elisabeth Nonas (photo: Robyn Wishna)
Author Elisabeth Nonas (photo: Robyn Wishna)

An author and a publisher walk into a bar...

Elisabeth Nonas is an accomplished author whose path crossed with Nancy Bereano, a noted publisher. Although Nancy Bereano did not publish Elisabeth Nonas' works, their professional connection blossomed into a significant personal relationship. Nonas and Bereano, both deeply embedded in the literary world, support each other's careers while maintaining a partnership that enriches their personal and professional lives. Their partnership stands as a testament to the possibility of a balanced, supportive relationship in a demanding industry. I asked Elisabeth to share their story with all of us.

Nancy K. Bereano (photo: Jill Posener)  

Elisabeth Nonas: The first time I saw Nancy K. Bereano I thought, I wish that she was my publisher. Okay, that wasn't the actual first time I'd seen her. I'd been to a few of the annual American Booksellers Association conventions and strolled the gay and lesbian aisle where the Firebrand Books booth was.

But it was the first time in a private setting, at a party in the Noe Valley home of Sherry Thomas and Lynn Witt. Sherry was the publisher of Spinster's Ink, and my publisher, Barbara Grier, had wangled an invitation to the event for me and my then partner.

We were all in San Francisco for the first OutWrite conference. It was 1990. We'd just arrived at the party and this attractive woman with a Leo head of curly silver hair crossed the room: Nancy K. Bereano, Ms. Brand herself. She didn't see me. We didn't even speak that night. But that image of that body in motion stayed with me. As did my spontaneous "I wish that she was my publisher."

Cut to 1995. I'm still living in Los Angeles and am newly single. After some very long, intense phone conversations (long-distance phone conversations, for those of you who recognize the term), and two cross-country visits, Nancy and I have begun seeing each other. Nancy felt it only right to call Barbara Grier to tell her she was dating one of her authors; dating, not poaching. Barbara's immediate response had been, "She's not butch enough for you."

When Nancy told me this, I sputtered and blustered but couldn't form a coherent sentence because I see-sawed between "How dare she, of course I am," and "What if I'm not?"
Barbara's prediction notwithstanding, a few months later I moved from Los Angeles to Ithaca, New York, directly into the home of Ms. Brand herself.

Despite my being a novelist and Nancy a publisher, there was never any question of our crossing that personal/professional boundary. Besides, I was more concerned with finding work than I was in what I might write next. Six months after my arrival, I was teaching screenwriting at Ithaca College.

The Firebrand offices occupied three rooms on the second floor of what was then called the Home Dairy building. That's where Nancy ran the press with one assistant plus freelancers. I'd climb the steep stairs and pop in to see if Nancy wanted to take a break and go get coffee. Nancy would first check with her assistant to see if it was okay with her.

That sense of "I'm just a worker doing my right work" masked the significance of what/who she was unleashing into the culture: books by Dorothy Allison, Alison Bechdel, Cheryl Clarke, Leslie Feinberg, Jewelle Gomez, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and other canonical lesbian authors.

Nancy worked long hours. I was adjusting to an academic calendar and trying to fit my own writing around the demands of a heavy teaching load.

And even though I was always writing something — I finished a few drafts of a novel and some screenplays — Nancy and I led very separate professional lives.

Nancy K. Bereano and Elisabeth Nonas at a recent literary conference (photo: Richard Jones/QueerForty.com)  

I was peripherally involved in the book world because I lived with the publisher of the foremost lesbian/feminist press. And that world had begun changing even before I moved to Ithaca. You can read Nancy's prescient take on the changes Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the now-defunct Borders would impose on the publishing world in her keynote address to the 1998 OutWrite Conference (Nancy K. Bereano, "Keeping Our Queer Souls," in "OutWrite: The
Speeches That Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture," ed. Julie R. Enzer and Elena Gross, Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, 2022).

This spring, as I celebrate the launch of my fourth published novel, "Grace Period," Nancy's groundbreaking work and Firebrand's legacy are being honored. The building she worked in has been designated a local landmark. The Firebrand Books Building is not only the first Ithaca landmark related to women's and LGBTQ history, but also the first landmark in Upstate New York with primary connections to LGBTQ history and the Second Wave Feminist Movement.

The current owners of the building belong to a racist, homophobic, misogynistic cult and refused to allow a commemorative plaque to be put on the building. So now, instead of what might have been a small, inconspicuous, and possibly ignored sign on the wall in an alley leading to The Commons, a central pedestrian mall in the City of Ithaca, a large plaque detailing the history of Firebrand Books and listing some of its authors will be erected in city-maintained plantings facing the building.

In case you're wondering: Nancy K. Bereano isn't a model for any of the characters in "Grace Period." She didn't even take her red pen to the manuscript until I'd finished a first draft. And despite my bluster and insecurity about whether or not I was butch enough for her, here we are, twenty-nine years later, so I guess I was. Or am. Even better, Dear Reader; I married her.

Elisabeth Nonas, the author of three published novels, has written several screenplays as well as short stories, magazine articles, and essays. She coauthored with Simon LeVay the nonfiction "City of Friends: A Portrait of the Gay and Lesbian Community in America." Originally from New York City, she lives in Ithaca, New York, with her spouse, founding publisher and editor of Firebrand Books, Nancy K. Bereano.


Michele Karlsberg Marketing and Management specializes in publicity and marketing for the LGBTQ community. This year, Karlsberg celebrates 35 years of successful campaigns. www.michelekarlsberg.com

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