The Importance of Literary Executors in Preserving a Writer’s Work
Author: Sara Gregory
June 7, 2018
Lambda Literary Review recently spoke with writers and literary executors Olga García Echeverría and David Groff on the important role literary executors have in the preservation and proliferation of a writer’s work and cultural significance.
Olga García Echeverría is the author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and acts as literary executor with Maylei Blackwell for the poet and publisher tatiana de la tierra. García Echeverría and Blackwell wrote the introduction for the 2018 Sapphic Classic reprint edition of de la tierra’s bilingual poetry collection For the Hard Ones: A Lesbian Phenomenology / Para las duras: una fenomenología lesbiana. García Echeverría was also a panelist at Split this Rock Poetry Festival 2018 for the session “Radical Traditions: the Poetry of Gloria Anzaldúa and tatiana de la tierra.”
David Groff is a New York-based poet, writer, book editor, and literary scout. Groff acts as the literary executor for the National Book Award recipient and AIDS activist Paul Monette. He also has worked on publishing projects for the passed queer writers Leonard Martelli and Robin Hardy.
Olga, can you tell me a bit about your experiences and capacity as tatiana de la tierra’s literary executor? What sort of work have you been doing?
Echeverría: Originally when tatiana asked Maylei Blackwell and myself to be her literary executors, I didn’t really know what that entailed. We were able to have a conversation [before de la tierra’s death in 2012] and ask her specifically what her vision was for a literary executor. Basically, she wanted people she trusted to be entrusted with her work. As a writer herself, and as someone who juggled so much while she was alive and writing and working, tatiana said she knew this wasn’t a full time thing, but that there would be opportunities that [Maylei and I] would see, or that would come to us. So when those moments presented themselves or we saw something that was a good fit, that we should work on her behalf. tatiana was someone that cared about her work and thought about the future in terms of would happen to her work.
Maylei did a lot of work around the UCLA archives [of de la tierra’s work], when tatiana was still alive and then afterwards, making sure the work is digitalized and when people search for tatiana, she’ll come up. There’s a process to get work like that into a library system and it took almost two years.
There’s also been submissions. We’ve submitted her work to certain places or journals, but mostly people have come to us and have told us they’re interested in tatiana’s work. We have a project now with Kórima Press and we’re working on putting all her chapbooks together as a book…We’re honoring the pace as well. The reality is that we can’t devote all our time to it. So what we do is projects, like the Sinister Wisdom reprint project that came up and now we have Kórima Press.
We want to continue to promote [de la tierra’s] work. I think there’s a younger generation that is connecting with her, has connected with her, and even in the future can connect with her. Her work is very fresh and relevant. There’s also a group of people who have known her work and who have witnesses her literary activism; she’s known in certain communities as the one who published esto no tiene nombre or conmoción or went to Feminist Encuentros conferences within Latin America. Within the lesbian community there’s people that are hungering for access to her work.
David, recently, you started a conversation on the importance of literary executors in preserving a writer’s lifework after their death. You called on writers to educate themselves, get their legal affairs in order, and find literary executors committed to their work…Can you talk about your experience with executorship and why this work is so important?
Groff: I have personal experience both in how executorship works and how it doesn’t. That extends back to my experience as an editor. I was an acquiring editor at Crown Publishers and encountered authors who were very aware of the importance of keeping their work in print, and other who did not really think beyond their own life span and immediate publication.
But even more than that, I was affected by the fact that I was a gay man, coming of age and working in the age of AIDS. I encountered, repeatedly over the decades, people who had to plan ahead, even at a young age, to take care of their literary legacies. Some died before they were able to do that and some were able to. I acquired and edited a book called When Someone You Know Has AIDS: A Practical Guide by Leonard Martelli. Martelli had AIDS and he wrote around legacy in general. When he died his estate belonged to his family and agent and I was able to offer further advice on his manuscripts. After that, I published the fiction of Paul Monette, who was a National Book Award Winner for his memoir Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story. In the early 90s, when he felt his time was getting short, he asked that I be his literary executor, along with his agent Wendy Weil. After Paul died, we worked together to keep his book in print and explore movie options…We work hard to be proactive literary executors and activists to keep Paul’s reputation alive and into a new era.
The book publishing world–both in its manifestation among legacy publishers, the traditional New York-based publishers, as well as the small press world–are incredibly in flux right now. No one knows how to best find readers and otherwise monetize our content. It’s an issue for everybody, but minority writers are the first to be affected by the volatility of publishing and the winner take all mentality because our audiences are smaller, if dedicated.
Whether you’re a living writer, and expect to be one for a while, or concerned about your legacy you want to safeguard as much as you can to keep your books in front of readers. Particularly in a world where not only publishing is changing fast, but the content of our culture work is manifesting at such a rapid rate.
David, as someone who has done so much work for writers after their deaths, what steps should living writers take to ensure the staying power of their work?
Groff: Writers need an awareness that they’re not going to live forever. And no matter how much work gets done, work will get undone [if not prepared for death]. You may not be around for the publication party but it’s still really nice to have one, to make sure readers will consider your work and be moved by it. Secondly, writers can, within their own will, have a literary executor and a backup literary executor, ideally someone not of your own generation. Thirdly, part of what a literary executor can do is cull through your manuscripts and see what’s worth it and what’s not, what might belong in an archive or published. As a living writer, think about where you want your work to go–a university or an LGBTQ archive, for example. Fourthly, one thing to really do is organize your manuscripts. The more organized you are, the more legible, and the better off your work is.
It doesn’t have to be that big of a deal, but the more [the executorship] is formalized, the more your wishes are known–both in legal documents and to trustworthy friends–the better.
Olga, can you talk about the importance of continued and modern engagement with queer writers, especially feminist writers like tatiana de la tierra?
Echeverría: We take for granted so many things. I teach Chicanx Studies and my students take for granted that that program has always been there. It hasn’t. People had to fight for it. There was a social movement where people fought for ethnic studies in colleges. We fought to have that history there and in the same way I think about queer history and the history of queer people of color. It’s easy to take for granted. With tatiana’s work, she [was] publishing in a time when–not that things are great now–it was a lot harder to be out, and especially for Latinas. The things tatiana helped promote at that particular time set the stage for creating, really being a part of a movement, opening doors and making things possible. The work that she did with esto no tiene nombre and conmoción is historical. And it’s so important for younger generations to have a historical understanding and connection and appreciation.
We just came from a panel where we were honoring the work of Gloria Anzaldúa…The time when I came across her work, all the literature that was being taught in classes from K-12 was mainly white, mainly male. I don’t think I read anything by a queer writer. There’s an invisibility that exists and when you don’t see yourself mirrored in literature, there’s this sense that you don’t exist…Which also meant, by extension, that I didn’t think I could ever write a book. Going to college, being exposed to someone like Gloria Anzaldúa was groundbreaking for me. Just the power it gave me, the way she played with language, the way she is open about being in the middle, in the borderlands… the power that that has…I can’t put it into words.
There’s still that need, that hunger. [Literature] is a reflection of reality…especially right now, under the current administration, and we see the unraveling of rights that people have fought and died for. There’s been so much overt racism, so much overt homophobia, so much overt sexism that it’s critical to have these voices, especially right now.