Interview: Richard Labonté
Author: John Morgan Wilson
January 26, 2010
Richard Labonté, for more than twenty years a gay bookseller, has edited almost thirty anthologies, including the two-time Lambda Literary Award-winning Best Gay Erotica series from Cleis Press, as well as the Lambda winner First Person Queer (with Lawrence Schimel) from Arsenal Pulp Press. With Lawrence, Richard also co-edited The Future is Queer, Second Person Queer and I Like It Like That: True Tales of Gay Desire (the latter two both 2009 Lammy nominees) for Arsenal Pulp Press. Richard also writes a fortnightly book review column for Q Syndicate, reviews books in various categories for Publishers Weekly, and works as a freelance technical and manuscript editor. After college, beginning in 1971, he wrote and edited for the Citizen newspaper in Ottawa, Ontario for a decade. In 1979, he co-founded A Different Light Bookstores in Los Angeles, West Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York, and eventually managed them. Since returning to Canada in 2001, he has worked as a freelance editor and reviewer. He lives on rural Bowen Island, British Columbia with his American husband, Asa Dean Liles, who he met in San Francisco in 1992 and married in Canada in 2003. This year, Richard is coordinating the judging for the 2010 Lambda Literary Awards.
JMW: In 1980, at age 29, you became one of the first, if not the first, gay journalist in Canada to come out publicly in a mainstream publication. Tell us about that.
RL: I joined the Ottawa Citizen in 1972 as a copy boy and was night city editor by 1976, when I left the paper to spend a year living on a communal farm I’d bought with ten other college-era friends (we still own it, though now we are seven). But love, and a job offer I couldn’t refuse, lured me back. I was freelancing coverage of the first Toronto Film Festival when I met Norman Laurila, the eventual co-owner (with the late George Leigh) of A Different Light. Coincidentally, the editor of the Ottawa newspaper offered me a new position as roaming columnist, with the mandate to write “Currents,” about trends in society. Very free form. It was far easier for me to visit Norman in Toronto, and for Norman to visit me in Ottawa, given that my farm was then in the middle of nowhere. So I went back to the newspaper, where it was no secret among co-workers that I was queer. I touched on occasional gay topics in the Currents columns, which I was writing in addition to the first Canadian newspaper column about magazines, along with film and book reviews – all assessed through a queer prism. So I was already semi-open among my professional peers when I took a leave of absence in September, 1979 to move to Los Angeles with Norman to open the first branch of A Different Light. I returned ten months later in July of ’80, and settled into the entertainment department.
One night, I spotted a story list on the day city editor’s overnight spike about a series on gay life in Ottawa – the orgiastic baths, the salacious parks, the feverish sex, the nightmare of exposure…nothing positive. So I proposed a first-person piece about how good gay life could be, and had been for me, as a balance. Impact on me? Not much. I was the same able writer and capable editor, and even the blue-collar typographers treated me the same. Impact on the newspaper? Hundreds of angry cancellations and a weeks-long media fuss. Impact on the community? No death threats against me, but for a long time after teens and young adults were coming out to me on the streets and in letters sent to me at the paper. That was very moving, and lasted pretty much until I “retired” from the paper and returned in July 1982 to the U.S., where I lived for almost twenty years, working at various stretches with the ADL bookstores in L.A. and San Francisco, where I moved in 1988, while Norman managed the New York store. The New York store closed in 2001, the West Hollywood store in 2009. The only remaining store, in San Francisco, is a shadow of its former self. Eras end.
JMW: How did you get started editing erotic anthologies?
RL: In 1996, Felice Newman of Cleis Press asked me to take over as series editor of Best Gay Erotica after Michael Thomas Ford, who inaugurated the series with the first book, opted not to continue. Cleis needed the next “annual” anthology in three months, and Felice figured I knew a lot of writers whose work I could call in quickly. True – and we both enjoyed the experience, so much that I’ve been editing the series for fifteen years now.
JMW: Your gay anthologies are wide-ranging – erotica, romance, science fiction, bears, country boys, daddies, bondage, urban, muscle men, etc. How do you choose your themes?
RL: The themes choose me – I’ve been something of a utility editor for Cleis. All but two of the twenty-five and counting books for the press were proposed by the acquisitions editor, Frederique Delacoste, Cleis’s co-publisher. Muscle Men, which I just turned in, was my proposal. I’d received stories with a muscle fetish that weren’t quite right for other collections. The next book, Beautiful Boys, was also prompted by a few stories that weren’t appropriate for other collections. I’ve also edited four anthologies for Arsenal Pulp Press, all conceived by my friend and co-editor Lawrence Schimel, a remarkably inventive fellow and all-around literary whiz, as editor, writer, poet, translator, etc.
JMW: Do the romance and erotica boundaries ever blend in the collections you edit, or do you feel there is a clear-cut line between them?
RL: The line isn’t clear cut. I took over the Best Gay Romance series for Cleis a couple of years ago, and stories for that collection generally are less sexually edgy, more soft-focus, more… romantic. That said, there are many writers who have contributed to both the romance anthology and the more erotic books over the years. The one quality that unites them, I always hope, is strong writing with a literary bent.
JMW: I understand that you’re personally fond of genre writing, particularly science fiction and pulpish mysteries. Why your love of genre fiction?
RL: I grew up on science fiction – I was a member of the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club at age 10, and by the time I moved to L.A. in ’79 I had a library of more than a thousand books and of several thousand SF magazines, from pulps like Astonishing and Thrilling Wonder, and very early Amazing, to digest magazines like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, Worlds of If. Sadly, all were lost when the barn they were stored in on that farm I mentioned burned down one winter when I was in the U.S. I still read SF occasionally, but when I became a queer bookseller in ’82, my focus was on what I was selling, and there was more than enough queer fiction to keep me busy as a reader. Plus, I read queer fiction constantly as a reviewer – since 2001, I’ve written almost 1,000 short LGBT book reviews for Book Marks, syndicated by Q Syndicate, and a few hundred more for the four years Books To Watch Out For was around, as well as reviews over the years for The Advocate, Update San Diego, Feminist Bookstore News, Q San Francisco, In Touch, PlanetOut and a slew of others. So now, when it’s time to read a book I don’t have to think about, I favor mostly mysteries and thrillers. Right now I’m reading Joseph Finder’s Company Man. Last week I inhaled Stephen King’s latest, Under the Dome.
JMW: Any advice for LGBT authors of short fiction, especially as it relates to anthologies?
RL: Prepare to be edited. I work with plenty of superb writers who need little more than a nudge here and a comma there, and receiving their contributions is always a treat. But the real satisfaction comes with working with a new and often first-time contributor. I’ll cite twenty-two-year-old Rob Wolfsham as the most recent, someone who is open to editorial guidance. Also, I’ll confess to being increasingly irked over the years by submissions that aren’t the norm: double-spaced, a standard font, name and address on the cover page. But if the first page grabs me, I’ll read at least some of an eight-point single-spaced submission in Comic Sans MS, before reformatting it. I’m doubly irked by stories that have nothing to do with the anthology’s theme. In the course of a year, I probably receive 600-700 submissions for the various anthologies, and it’s obvious that perhaps twenty percent of the time the writer paid no attention to the call for submissions.
JMW: What’s coming up for you as an editor and/or writer?
RL: Whatever comes my way. Stories are arriving for Best Gay Erotica 2011 and Best Gay Romance 2011, and I’m putting together the third volume of Best of the Best Gay Erotica, selecting stories from BGE 2006 to BGE 2010. Do I have any interest in writing a book? Of course not – book reviews and the necessary anthology intros aside, I’m not a
writer. I have no plans for a book. Someone has to read them.
JMW: Tell us about your new role with the Lambda Literary Foundation.
RL: I’ve been involved with the Lambda Literary Awards from the inception, first as an attendee, then in assorted ways in selecting the nominees, the finalists, and the winners, most recently as a judge for several years in the Gay Fiction category. This year, after Charles Flowers’ departure as executive director and with no sense of how soon a permanent replacement would be found, Katherine Forrest, an old friend from my early L.A. days, asked if I’d take on the task of administering the Lammys judging process, which involves overseeing eighty judges reading material for twenty of the twenty-two categories. (Tony Valenzuela, who took over from Charles, is handling the Gay Erotica and LGBT Anthology categories, where three of my anthologies are nominated.) Why did I take on the job? Most simply, because Katherine asked me to. And because queer lit has been part of my life since I started reading it more than forty years ago (I started young) and selling it thirty years ago, and reviewing it since the early ’80s. And because the Lammys are integral to the promotion of LGBT literature — all hail Deacon McCubbin, who launched the Lammys twenty-two years ago from Lambda Rising, the legendary Washington, DC bookstore. Its recent closing after thirty-five years in business is a sad day for the queer bookselling universe.
John Morgan Wilson’s most recent short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Best Gay Stories of 2009 (Lethe Press). John is also the author of the Benjamin Justice series, which has won an Edgar from Mystery Writers of America and three Lambda Literary Awards for best gay men’s mystery. Bold Strokes Books has reissued John’s early Justice novels, including his 1996 Edgar winner, Simple Justice. Spider Season (St. Martin’s Minotaur) is the eighth and latest in the series. You can read the first chapter at johnmorganwilson.com.