Today we’re joined on the site by the elusive Steve Berman, author and owner of Lethe Press.
Thank you, Steve, for agreeing to this interview.
Since a lot of the readers may not know very much about you, would you like to tell them briefly about Steve Berman the author and the person?
Friends have told me that “author Steve” doesn’t write enough. I have to agree. The author me likes writing with weird words and ambigious endings. He can be a bit self-indulgent. Many of his stories deal with finding love but I wouldn’t say they are romances. “Person Steve” is an elusive extrovert. He loves teasing people but feels guilty when he gibes too often and too far. He’s never had a boyfriend. He would not date any of the guys that “author Steve” has written about and they wouldn’t date him. Both author and person live in southern New Jersey, the only state in the Union that has an official devil.
You have been interviewed many times but what are some of the things we don’t know about you? 😀
A few of words that best describe me:
Circumcised. Well, this might be obvious. I am Jewish. More details about this part of my anatomy must be asked in person. Or triplicate.
Haemophobia. Originally I wanted to be a physician. Then I discovered I faint at the sight of blood.
Schepsel’s Curse. Because one of my ancestor’s was a terrible lush, I’m very susceptible to alcohol. True story.
Triskaidekaphiliac. Oh, how I love the number 13. If I ever found love, I’d want to get married on a Friday the 13th.
Venerist. I enjoy making up new terms of venery. Like a gaggle of twinks, a perpend of reviewers, or a jaunty of m/m writers. (A perpend of reviewers?)
You have been writing since you were 17. What are the parts of the writing gig that you find most challenging and how do you cope with not letting them overwhelm you?
Oh, I am overwhelmed. Most challenging would be attempting another novel. I have many first and second and even third chapters of various books that I had to abandon. I’m overly critical of myself and become frustrated when the writing does not gleam. I too often forget that a writer is allowed to be messy, even sloppy, with early drafts. Revision is meant to polish, but I want to revise immediately, and it stagnates the work. When I was seventeen, I simply wrote. I can’t say I wrote well, but I wrote, nearly every day. In my twenties, I lost day jobs because I wrote instead of worked. Now, my output has slowed to a dribble and I’m very hard on myself. Hmm, that does sound obscene.
I really like Vintage, A Ghost Story, your critically acclaimed book. This is a complex coming of age story about the love between a young man and the object of his affections, the ghost of a boy who had died decades ago. Why did it take so long for you to finish this story and have it published?
I am actually a very slow and cautious writer; for much of the time it took to complete Vintage, there were gaps when I did not write or my focus was on short fiction (I think I wrote and sold some 50 articles and stories during that 10 year span). Then, of course, were the difficulties in selling a speculative fiction young adult novel with a gay protagonist. Outside of Francesca Lia Block’s Baby Be-bop, nothing like that had been done before.
Also, I didn’t have a good grasp about what sort of story I was telling. The entire reason for writing about a goth boy began because, on a trip to Los Angeles to attend a gay pornstar award show, I hooked up with this boy covered in black clothes, tattoos, and piercings. An aspiring afternoon happened and I wanted to stay in touch, to woo him with a book. Foolish, I know. We never did see or speak again. But I was a couple chapters into the manuscript by the time I realized the error of my impassion. It took years to deduce the conflicts, the themes. Meanwhile, I did shop it around to some of the larger presses–they passed. I also tried my hand at a low fantasy novel during this time. I sent it out to one publisher, who turned it down but said kind words. All this made me terribly frustrated and depressed, so I stopped writing on a regular basis for a number of years.
Finally, I found a home for the book with Haworth Press. Just after it was nominated for the Andre Norton Award for best young adult spec fic novel by the Science Fiction Writers of America, Haworth sold to another publisher, who was uninterested in keeping gay fiction in-print. So Vintage was homeless for a brief span until I reprinted it with Lethe. I lost the Norton Award to some lady named Rowling, btw.
Gaming is or used to be a big part of your life, starting with being a fan of Dungeons and Dragons. Since you seem to be still a part of that world and very much a geek, to what extent is gaming – imagery and role playing – expressed in your writing?
True, I used to write a great many articles on D&D for gaming magazines. My last, favorite character was Hyacinth, a transgendered man who so wanted to free the woman trapped inside of him that he learned magic to cast illusions. I freaked out the other players (all of whom were straight gamer guys) by insisting that they refer to Hyacinth “in-game” with feminine pronouns. Heh. Made for some interesting game sessions as they were forced to confront prejudices.
As far as how gaming affected my writing, I actually wrote a piece about this for Strange Horizons: “Linga Rpga and the Writer”
What surprised you the most about your writing career other than perhaps your focus on short fiction?
My involvement in young adult fiction. In my late teens, I read a lot of Stephen King and Robert McCammon and wrote very cliche horror short stories. Terrible stories. Somehow I sold a couple. And then I grew frustrated with myself and my style. More queer elements started to rise to the surface in my work–not always intentionally. But the big turning point was Vintage. When I began the book I never imagined it would be aimed at teens. Then my friend Holly Black told me I was really writing a young adult novel. From there I started writing and selling short stories for gay teens — a gingerbread man-inspired piece for The Journal of Mythic Arts, a lesbian retelling of Swan Lake for The Beastly Bride (an anthology releasing this spring from Viking) and a gay vampire tale for Teeth (a 2011 anthology from HarperCollins).
Speculative fiction, especially with gay characters, seems to be a new trend in publishing and you release mainstream gay fiction as well as spec fiction. Some of the books published by Lethe that were recently reviewed on this site are: The Rest of Our Lives by Dan Stone, A Report From Winter by Wayne Cortois, Ready to Serve by James Buchanan, and The Phoenix by Ruth Sims, to name just a few. Yet your love seems to be short stories that are mainly spec fiction such as Trysts, Second Thoughts and Wilde Stories collections. Is this because you write mainly short stories?
Are you asking me which I prefer, novels or short stories? Obviously the second. But I think I’m in the minority. Lethe Press will always focus on releasing the best quality books authors have to offer, be they historical romances, such as Ruth Sim’s forthcoming Counterpoint, the sequel to R. W. Day’s first post-apocalyptic novel, or a collection of Alex Jeffer’s gay-themed fantastical stories. I do want authors who write queer speculative fiction to think of Lethe as good venue for their work if larger presses are not interested.
One of my goals, perhaps for 2011 or 2012 is for Lethe Press to establish an award (with a cash prize) for best queer spec fic short story of the prior year to be given out at Saints & Sinners literary conference. It may end up being two awards, split by the gender of the protagonist (not the gender of the author, that will not be an issue).
You write but you’re also a publisher. Which endeavour is most challenging for you? Do you ever feel that the two areas have conflicting objectives?
Writing is far tougher than publishing. As publisher, I can have a whim and propose it to someone else. As a writer, I’m supposed to breathe life into a whim, make it whole and hearty and engaging.
That said, I wish I could clone myself. No, not for anything naughty. But I find a lot of my time is taken up with developmental editing of manuscripts. Even erotica titles submitted to Lethe require a thorough read and editorial suggestions. Considering how many books we release a year (over 25 these days), I could use some help working with authors to make sure their books are the best possible work in their respective genres. Unfortunately, the Lethe team is most volunteers, so I can only make so many demands on their time. In the end, I don’t write as much because of the press.
What question have you never been asked about your writing or any other topic that you have been dying to answer? What is the answer to that question? 😀
“Would you put your [phone number/room number/digits/desires] underneath your autograph, Mr. Berman?” — Honest. Growing up a lonely and romantic gay kid, I daydreamed that the way to find love (or at least sex) would be to become a writer and sleep with fans. Hasn’t happened yet. This past fall I attended a benefit block party for a local gay bookstore. I swooned over a couple guys and embarassed myself by giving them free copies of my first short story collection, autographed with my phone number. Needless to say nothing ever transpired. Sigh. I think one was straight, which may have been a problem.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date as an author?
Hasn’t happened yet. I really, really want to win an award. A Lammy or that Norton. I’ve been the Susan Lucci of the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, but they aren’t handed out on a regular basis, so I’m resigned to my fate with them. But winning an award from peers I admire, from the spec fic community, would really be wonderful.
That said, every time I read email from someone who has been touched by my work, who has felt a little bit less alone or self-loathing for being gay or different, well, that’s a great achievement.
On another topic, recently Lambda decided that only LGBTQ persons were eligible to enter their books for the majority of its awards, This has caused a considerable amount of controversy and dissent among gay and straight writers (even though a few awards were set aside for straight writers) and is seen by female M/M writers as a slap in the face. As a writer who happens to be gay, what are your views about Lambda’s new policy? Do you see this as being a progressive step which will help other gay writers in terms of gaining recognition in mainstream publishing?
This is a very thorny issue. I understand the complaints and advocacy on both sides. There are many gay-themed books written by women that I consider wonderful, if not perfect, reads. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner is my favorite book of all time. As a publisher, I have encouraged female authors who enjoy gay-themed fiction. I think some of the hurt feelings on the part of gay male authors is that m/m industry seems very organized, with multiple review sites, fresh publishers, and a great deal of publicity. Many gay authors feel like the proverbial rug has been pulled out from under their feet and their genre “stolen.” I am curious how the entire Lambda Literary Foundation’s new policy will play out. My friend on the Board does not like to speak about how the policy came about… it’s all so political.
For me, it comes down to is this: the reader I aim to reach, both as a writer and as a publisher, does not only buy one book a year. So there is immense latitude in the field for many voices and many presses.
I have a few questions to ask you in your role as publisher of Lethe Press:
You have been in this business for some time, what are some of the changes that have taken place in the industry that you feel are important to both readers and writers?
Well, a great many small gay presses and imprints have folded or are moribund since I started Lethe in 2001. The old publishing models are no longer apt. Print-on-demand publishing is often villified by large presses and many authors and booksellers, but without it Lethe would not be here. That said, I do make sure that the vast majority of the books are returnable and deep discounted–I know many POD presses rely only on Amazon.com and don’t bother trying to get into bookstores, but Lethe authors like walking into Books, Inc. in the Castro (SF) or Outwrite in Atlanta and seeing their books. Just today I received an order for 50 copies of a book from Borders.
People are starting to refer to Lethe as a “mover and shaker” in the field and I blink at this with surprise. I guess because we don’t have a traditional office, (unless you ask Daulton, who believes my apartment is our HQ) or staff, I tend to think of the press as a hobby, but after having to do over a dozen 1099s to send to authors for their royalties, after seeing Lethe titles chosen by InsightOut Book Club, and having our books make the San Francisco Chronicle‘s best-sellers list, this has definitely grown past hobbydom.
With the challenging economic situation many of the larger print houses are cutting back on tendering new contracts to writers and on publishing in general. Since you own a small press, do you find that this new economy has forced you to make changes to your business model? If so what are some of them that you can talk about?
Actually, Lethe sales are up despite the economy. Or maybe because of it–are people choosing to stay at home with a good book rather than go out on the town?
What would you say are some of the major challenges facing small publishers today, print AND e-publishers, outside of the economy, which has certain built-in downsides?
Well, every publisher, no matter how large or small, is always concerned with bringing a book to the attention of readers. For gay publishers, this may be more problematic for a variety of issues. Gay booksellers are a dying breed–the role of the bookstore as safe community center has disappeared. A gay man visiting New York in the past could step into Oscar Wilde or A Different Light and feel at home, learn about the local watering holes, meet new friends. Now, he can do so from his iPhone. And, of course, he can purchase gay-themed books online from a variety of websites, many of which don’t care at all for the gay community but are willing to take their money.
How men learn about gay books is changing, too. Back when small gay newspapers, magazines, and zines were viable, books were reviewed on a regular basis. Now the focus is more on music and movies. While there are websites that review queer-themed work, how many of them are aimed at gay men? Or lesbians? It seems like the vast majority of the gay book talk online these days is aimed at the m/m marketplace. I applaud all that these women, such as yourself Wave, have accomplished… and yet, I cannot help but want more men to learn from your example. We need ten more blogs like Out in Print
What does Steve Berman do for fun other than gaming?
I travel a lot in the guise of both writer and publisher; I attend at least six or seven conferences a year. Of course, I love talking about books and writing, preferably over dinner or hot chocolate.
What else… Hmm, does going to Swinging Richards and having a threesome with young strippers in the backroom count?
Thank you Steve. I appreciate the time. The boyz in the hot tub would like you to come back since they did not have an opportunity this time to find out whether you really wear a thong. 😀 Sorry, was that a secret?