Q&A with Lambda Programme Director William Johnson

By   Jantien Abma 4 min read

We interviewed William Johnson, Programme Director of Lambda Literary, a New York based organisation committed to promoting and supporting LGBTQ lives within the literary world. He spoke to us about the importance of LGBTQ representation in literature, the value of the Lambda’s Writing Retreat and the ways in which LGBTQ people outside of London and New York can get support for their writing.



  1. As Programme Director for Lambda, what are your responsibilities? What does Lambda as an organisation stand for in the American literary scene?

Lambda Literary believes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer literature is fundamental to our culture, and that LGBTQ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published and read.

Literature is the rare forum in which unfiltered Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer lives can be presented with both artistry and authenticity. While LGBTQ representation in popular media has expanded over the last several years, literature is often the only venue where LGBTQ personhood can be expressed in all of its explicit humanity, free of large corporate mandates. Writing is one of the few creative outlets where the LGBTQ community can be properly represented and outdated ideas concerning the LGBTQ community can be righted. 

It is important for oft-disenfranchised communities to see their true selves in the art with which they engage. It shows them that their lives matters and that their genuine selves can and should be part of the cultural conversation.

That is why LGBTQ literature matters and that is why the work that Lambda Literary does is so important. Lambda Literary believes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer literature is fundamental to the preservation of culture, and that LGBTQ lives are affirmed when our stories are written, published and read.

My primary responsibilities consist of managing two of Lambda’s core programs: The Lambda Literary Review and The Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Writers.

The Lambda Literary Review is a free online journal of LGBTQ book reviews, critical essays, and author interviews at www.lambdaliterary.org. The Review is a widely popular media platform dedicated to spreading the word about LGBTQ worthy writers and books. It publishes more LGBTQ book reviews and literary features than any other publication in the world. As such, Lambda Literary Review is an invaluable resource for readers and for librarians, booksellers, and publishers who make books available to readers everywhere.

The Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices was established in 2007 and is the first of its kind ever offered to LGBTQ writers: a one-week intensive immersion in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, genre fiction and playwriting. The Retreat is an unparalleled opportunity to be mentored by the very best writers in our community, to develop one’s craft, make connections with publishing industry professionals and build a strong community of peers.

Faculty have included Dorothy Allison, Jewelle Gomez, Alex Sanchez, Randall Kenan, Eduardo Corral, Samuel Delany, Claire Carmichael, Nicola Griffith, Ellen Bass, Bernard Cooper, Elana Dykewomon, Katherine V. Forrest, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Cris Beam, Ellery Washington, Carla Trujillo, Eloise Klein Healy, Fenton Johnson, David Groff, Michael Nava, D.A. Powell, Cherrie Moraga, Justin Torres, Kazim Ali, Sara Ryan, Linda Villarosa and John Rechy, among others. The 2016 faculty include Andrew Holleran, Sarah Schulman, Robert O’Hara, Joy Ladin, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Also, I help nurture our community partnerships with other literary organizations like PEN America and the National Book Foundation.

2. You are also an essayist and editor, and run the queer literary quarterly Mary Literary. What is the most enjoyable part about being active on New York’s literary scene in this capacity? And the most challenging aspect?

 Since I started working full time at Lambda Literary, I have put Mary on bed rest. Mary was a labour of love and I now sadly don’t have the time to dedicate to publishing another issue. I am hoping Mary can make a vibrant return in the near feature.

I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of being part of the New York literary community is hanging out with like-minded souls. There really is a bedrock community of bibliophiles in New York. So, there are a lot of late night heated discussions about the books we love.

3. Can you share a little bit of what you look for in submissions to Mary Literary?

Well Mary, had this sort of elevated highly emotional camp voice, a semi-swishy, and I like to think, smart, lyrical, and ironic voice. This has been a type of writing that I have always admired. The Color of Summer by Reinaldo Arenas—a book I love so much I want to “marry” it—I think exemplifies this particular aesthetic, an aesthetic I identify as being singularly queer.

It is an aesthetic that basically says, “These intense overwrought homosexual emotions I am experiencing are silly, but they are also very real. I am feeling them, despite knowing that they are ridiculous.”

4. LAMBDA runs a literary retreat for LGBTQ writers, tell us a little about this.

The retreat really is a master class for emerging writers. It is a chance for writers to spend an intensive week workshopping their work with some of the best LGBTQ writers in our community.

It is also an opportunity for a group of writers to meet like-minded souls and to commune with other writers and craft their work without explaining away huge parts of themselves. It really is a powerful experience.

5. Do you have any advice for marginalised creatives, specifically those who live in places less culturally diverse than London and New York?

I think the internet has become a great resource in community building. The web has created cyber-global villages where writers who live in less culturally diverse communities can communicate with one another. There are Facebook pages, personal blogs, and of course the Lambda Literary website that are dedicated to building a strong LGBTQ writing community.