An Interview with Libby Flores
May 31, 2018
Libby Flores is a trailblazer. She has worn many different hats in the publishing world and wherever she works she manages to create change for the good. She gained recognition throughout the industry through her work as Director of Literary Programs at PEN Center USA. Earlier this year she directed the Believer Festival in Nevada, which was hailed as a literary micro-Coachella (Publishers Weekly). Libby recently traded the West Coast for the East Coast, and almost immediately landed a position as the Director of Audience Development and Digital Production at BOMB Magazine. She’s also the NYC Director of the Freya Project, a reading series dedicated to uniting women and amplifying their voices. To top it all off, Libby is also a talented writer, whose work has been featured in many publications. In this latest Encounters in Publishing interview, Libby offers insights about the relationship between writers and their audiences, what it means to be a steward in the literary community, and the importance of validation as a writer. You can also find her at our writers’ conference this fall.
You served as Director of Literary Programs at PEN. Would you describe the kind of work that entailed? What projects did you work on? What will you miss most about that job?
I directed PEN Center USA’s programs Emerging Voices, Literary Awards, Membership, Freedom to Write, PEN In The Community and all public programs. I also oversaw the Book Club and Craft Sessions.
I loved building relationships with new and established partners and sponsors (including SLICE!) and particularly enjoyed curating and directing the Author Evening Series—a conversation series hosted at historic Hollywood Forever Masonic Lodge. I was grateful to work with fabulous guests: Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Roxane Gay, The Paris Review, Keanu Reeves, Alexander Chee, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Jonathan Lethem.
I do miss the literary community in Los Angeles and of course, the PEN staff. After several years of fostering a writing fellowship, one of the great joys was to see the evolution of an Emerging Voices Fellow. As a 2008 Emerging Fellow myself, that was a life changing experience I had firsthand. It never got old matching mentor to fellow and the growth and discovery that followed. It was meaningful working for an organization with such an empowered mission—to defend writers and free speech. I valued my time with PEN and carry with me a wealth of knowledge, not just about the literary landscape, but the endeavor to be a good steward of a community.
You’ve just completed your work with The Believer Magazine as the Director of the Believer Festival. It was described in Publisher’s Weekly as a micro-Coachella, do you think this is an accurate description of the festival?
I think an inspired micro-Coachella isn’t far off. We define The Believer Festival as a two-day roving celebration of writing, music, and visual arts. In the heart of the desert of southern Nevada, established and emerging artists, comedians, literary luminaries, and the Las Vegas arts community come together and divine a creative oasis. There is magic in bringing people to the desert and showing them the wellspring of creativity that lives there.
Was that the atmosphere you were going for?
It’s truly a roving party. There’s a wonderful convergence of different mediums, the local arts community and writers coming into Vegas for the very first time. There’s a sense of effervescence and excitement, like a bottle shaken up. None of the events, readings or performances overlap, so there’s a bond formed between the audience and the performers. It reminds me of this quote by Simone Weil, “Attention is a form of prayer.” That sentiment lives at the heart of the Believer Festival. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it. You feel a shared experience with others—and in the moment you know it is something that cannot be repeated.
What was critical to the success of a festival like this one?
Hosting a variety of artists in an unlikely place already feels surprising. To name a few: Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight), comedian AparnaNancherla (HBO’s “Crashing” and Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer”), Wajahat Ali, Jericho Brown, Thi Bui, Zinzi Clemmons, Dave Eggers, Jean Grae, John Hodgman, Mohsin Hamid, Nick Hornby, Leslie Jamison, Morgan Jerkins (a New York Times Bestseller for 2018), Tayari Jones, (An American Marriage, named an Oprah’s Book Club Selection for 2018), Rachel Kushner, Meg Wolitzer, KanchanaUgbabe and musical guest Aimee Mann.
Joshua Wolf Shenk and Vendela Vida did a supreme job of curating a group of artists that displayed an overarching diversity. That was critical. Two days of arts in different disciplines, in unlikely couplings, and from different perspectives felt essential. And of course, lots of bottled water.
You’re also the General Director of the Freya Project. This fundraising reading series donates all of its proceeds to nonprofit organizations which aim to help marginalized communities. How does your experience at PEN help you with this current role?
Curating interesting line–ups and seeking out interesting partnerships feels like a skill honed at PEN. I’m grateful, too, to be working again for an organization whose mission resonates with me. It is a joy to work for a women-run organization that was inspired by the 2016 election as a way to unify women.
How does this type of organization help writers get their voices heard?
Each month, five women share work on a topical and universal theme. Freya not only amplifies the writers and activists that read but it gives voice and attention to smaller nonprofits across the country. The Freya family of readers have empowered nonprofits across the United States to continue their work of supporting women: by amplifying women’s voices. ALL ticket proceeds and a portion of bar sales go directly to a selected nonprofit. This is what makes the FP beyond just a reading series—it’s an act of resistance and hope.
You’ve had lots of short stories published, and many accolades for them. Are you working on a novel, or a collection of short stories?
I am currently working on a book of short stories about men, tentatively titled All Good Men. The book asks: What does it mean to be a good man? I’ve been working on it for some time, and the current moment only deepens this inquiry. (I am delighted to be represented by the wonderful agent Sarah Bowlin.)
How have your fellowships at PEN and Bennington Writing Seminars helped you?
I think any form of validation is a huge moment in a writer’s life, especially when they are starting out. You have no clue if what you’re doing will be accepted or even understood by the outside world, much less the establishment. I come from an untraditional educational background: as an autodidact I spent many years just reading and studying every craft book I could. When I applied for Emerging Voices (EV) it felt like long shot. I’ll never forget getting the call from the Emerging Voices Fellowship. I was in the middle of a work–day surrounded by people and that was the only reason I didn’t scream.
For a few years (once I was running the fellowship) we had this “I Am A Writer” campaign. The idea is that the fellowship aids a writer to say those words: I am a writer. That’s a statement I was capable of making at the end of my fellowship. Bennington was another long shot. I’d looked at the faculty list for years, staring at Amy Hempel and Bret Anthony Johnston’s names, and finally took the plunge and applied. Bennington was also life changing. There are too many lessons to count. I was altered on the line level, I read widely, I met friends I will have for life, I learned how much time writing really takes and how much one must love it to commit to that time. (This reminds me of my favorite Zadie Smith quote, “Time is how you spend your love.”) I was validated again, but this time it was about longevity. I always say Emerging Voices was the engagement to writing and Bennington was the marriage.
What are the positives and negatives of taking a fellowship?
I’m hard pressed to find any negatives. There are so many fellowships out there. Do your research, apply for one that really suits you, and if it is based on needmake sure that you attest to that need.
How was it transitioning from being a fellow into being the Director of Programs at PEN?
The largest change was transitioning from being a fellow to the Program Manager. (I always joked I was like the Men’s Hair Club commercial.) It was an honor to listen to these new writers and make improvements to what was already a robust fellowship. I also learned that the challenge for any arts administrator is to make sure that you are creating your own work while aiding others on their paths.
Where do you search for inspiration?
Often it is a line that won’t leave me. Sometimes it’s a beautiful piece of music that I will put on repeat. Lately it’s been a scene. I see something, a situation, and I want to know how it will play out.
What drives you to keep writing stories?
Curiosity is crucial. Untying a knot. Basically wanting to know what’s on the other side of the mountain. Many instructors say go in with a question and I would agree with that, but there are days when the most pressing question you have is “why am I doing this??” You face yourself over and over as a writer and the trick is to get the hell out of the way. There are those great moments when you read a page, a book that changes you, a piece of art that shifts your point of view, makes your eyes water, pushes you back from the table, and you remember you are living this unsolvable question everyday and art answers this is in multitudes of ways— and it’s your job to make more of it.
Do you ever find yourself fixating on one thing for inspiration?
I believe obsession can teach a writer many great things. Whittling down what really matters, tightening your focus on a subject and a desire. Applying pressure to both can be brilliant for a story. Bret Anthony Johnston always says, “Get your character up a tree and throw rocks at them.” A short list of some past and current obsessions: female snowplow drivers, colicky babies, fatherhood, love and its affect on the brain, long-term male friendships, and failed pro-golfers. Your obsessions and fixations are there to teach you something as a writer, and if you’re lucky, teach your reader something too.
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Libby Flores is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Post Road Magazine, Tin House The Open Bar, The Guardian, The Rattling Wall, Paper Darts, Bridge Eight, FLASH: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the former Director of Literary Programs at PEN Center USA. She was the Director of the Believer Festival in 2018 and is the NYC Director of the Freya Project. She is the new Director of Audience Development and Digital Production at BOMB magazine. Libby holds an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She lives in Brooklyn, but will always be a Texan.